Milton Friedman remembered at 100 years from his birth (Part 4)

I ran across this very interesting article about Milton Friedman from 2002:

Friedman: Market offers poor better learningBy Tamara Henry, USA TODAY

By Doug Mills, AP
President Bush honors influential economist Milton Friedman for his 90th birthday earlier this month.
About an economist
Name:Milton FriedmanAge: 90Background: Winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for economic science; senior research fellow, Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1977; adviser to presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan; awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science in 1988.He’s in the news because an idea Friedman proposed in 1955 is the subject of a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Friedman’s idea: to give low-income parents tax money, in the form of vouchers, so they have the option of sending their children to private or religious schools.Education: B.A. in 1932, Rutgers University; M.A. in 1933, University of Chicago; Ph.D. in 1946, Columbia University.

WASHINGTON — Milton Friedman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist who rubs elbows with the rich and powerful and was recently feted on his 90th birthday by President Bush. But few people know that Friedman is also a champion of poor families who want a better education for their kids.

Friedman is considered “the father of vouchers,” the controversial idea that low-income parents should get tax-supported vouchers to send their kids to private and religious schools.

“Look, what is this all about? Who is it that suffers most from our present school system?” he asks. “It’s the low-income, particularly the blacks. There’s no doubt they’re the great victims. Here’s a program that will help them tremendously.”

Friedman proposed the idea 47 years ago and says he never imagined that the debate would become so intense that the U.S. Supreme Court would have to offer a definitive ruling on the issue. A high court decision is expected soon on the constitutionality of a program in Cleveland, where the majority of the students getting $2,250 a year in vouchers use the funds to attend religious schools. Opponents say this violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. But Friedman says most parents will have limited school choices as long as the government controls public education.

Private-school vouchers were “such a profoundly insightful idea that it stunned me with its clarity and how sensible it was, but yet how radical it was,” says William “Chip” Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm that favors vouchers. He first read about the idea while in law school and says he’s known Friedman more than 15 years and considers him “a hero.”

Friedman’s slight, 5-foot frame belies his stature. He was a member of President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory board, and even now, when his pal Alan Greenspan and the U.S. Federal Reserve Board adjust interest rates, experts look for Friedman’s reaction. His memoirs, written with his wife, Rose, in 1998, recall how in Europe in 1950, he wrote the draft for his classic essay, “The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates,” as part of his contribution to the rehabilitation of Germany after World War II.

Five years later, education hit Friedman’s radar screen.

In 1955, he wrote a paper on the role the federal government should play in various areas: monetary matters, international trade and education. A professor at the University of Chicago at the time, Friedman published a separate article questioning why government wanted to run schools. He proposed vouchers as a way to separate government financing of education from government administration of schools.

Now, nearly a half-century later, he remains just as energetic about his idea — although no program has come close to what he first proposed.

Vouchers are not just an academic interest. Friedman and his wife, a constant companion for 63 years, created the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation to fund research and support the voucher issue. “We set up the foundation because we were getting to an age in which we weren’t going to be able to do very much ourselves,” he says.

The spry nonagenarian lives in San Francisco and still works as a senior researcher at the conservative Hoover Institution, a position he has held since 1977.

Why would a wealthy economist focus so much effort on black kids from the inner city? Friedman bows his head and knits his fingers together. “What are we here for?” he asks. “We’re here to try to make the world a little better than we found it.”

He appears ill at ease with any compliment. Asked about the “father of vouchers” title, he flicks his hand and says, “Movements have lots of fathers.” He cites writings of Adam Smith and Thomas Paine in 1776 as hinting at the idea of competition and choice in education.

“Yes, it was a radical idea in its day,” Friedman says. But he frowns at today’s view of radicals as rabble-rousers who lead marches and protests. Friedman’s radicalism focuses mainly on voicing unorthodox views.

“I was not unaccustomed to having people disagree with me. To begin with, (the voucher idea) took up very rapidly. But every time people would gather strongly in favor of it, they would come up against the teachers’ unions and the educational bureaucracy, the government civil service.”

New Hampshire was the first state to express an interest in the 1970s, and five of its cities were willing to try an experiment drafted by a group at Dartmouth College, Friedman says. But he notes the teachers unions worked diligently to kill the plan before it got off the ground. A similar situation occurred in Connecticut. Milwaukee was the first city to try a voucher experiment in 1990, followed by Cleveland in 1995. Florida has the nation’s first statewide program, enacted in 1999.

Friedman says the key flaw with all the programs is that government continues to call the shots. Also, he says, voucher amounts are too low to interest entrepreneurs in opening new schools.

Friedman gives unfavorable reviews even to President Bush’s new, highly touted education law, allowing children in failing schools to receive vouchers. The problem: The bureaucracy is allowed to set the definition of a failing school.

Refundable tax credits, viewed by many as a back-door voucher, are not popular with Friedman, either. He sees them as a political game.

“Why fool around? I’d prefer to do it straightforwardly, as a voucher. We want competition. We want diversity, variety. But we want it free, not controlled or directed by any third party.”

However, Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, says Friedman’s theories counter America’s concept of public education.

“When Americans first developed the concept of public education, it was conceived as a community effort — supported by taxpayers, governed by local citizens, and involving parents and others in nurturing children.

“Milton Friedman would turn this long-standing American success story on its head, creating a system that is essentially ‘every man for himself.’ ”

Chase says the “most significant obstacle” to vouchers is “parents who have clearly said, in polls and at the ballot box, that they would prefer to see improvements in existing schools.”

Friedman, who attended public schools in Rahway, N.J., remains undaunted in his mission and only chuckles when asked why his influence in economics doesn’t extend to education. “It’s hard to sell any idea. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing that it’s hard to sell ideas. The government does enough harm as it is.”

True market-driven education will come, he says. “It will be by accident, absolutely. Somewhere everything will fit together. It will be a place where teachers unions aren’t very strong or have fallen out of favor, where both the governor and legislature are in sync.”

Will Friedman, who admits he’s a quintessential optimist, live to see the day? “I would hope so, but I don’t have that much optimism, no.”

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