Milton Friedman on Vouchers

Milton Friedman – Public Schools / Voucher System

Published on May 9, 2012 by

JANUARY 24, 2023 3:48PM
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Milton Friedman on Vouchers

Michelle: You are the grandfather of school vouchers. Do you feel victorious?

Mr. Friedman: Far from victorious, but very optimistic and hopeful. We are at the beginning of the task because as of the moment vouchers are available to only a very small amount of children. Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go. We are far from that ultimate result. If we had that, a system of free choice, we would also have a system of competition, innovation, which would change the character of education. You know our educational system is one of the most backwards things in our society in the way we teach people they did 200 years ago. There is a person in the front of the room. There are children sitting down at the bottom, and they are being talked to. Can you name any other industry in the U.S. which is as technologically backward? I can name one and only one: the legislature for the same reason. Both are monopolies. The elementary and secondary school system is the single most socialist industry in the U.S. leaving aside the military, but aside from the military it’s a major socialist industry; it is centralized and the control comes from the center and the difficulty of having a monopoly in which people cannot choose has been exacerbated by the fact that it has been largely taken over by teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and the unions. Understandably, I do not blame them, but they are interested in the welfare of their members, not the welfare of the children, and the result is they have introduced a degree of rigidity, which makes it impossible to reform the public school system from within. Reform has to come through competition from the outside and the only way you can get competition is by making it possible for parents to have the ability to choose.

Michelle: Give to me a model, an example of how it would work.

Mr. Friedman: Very simple, take the extreme the government says we are willing to finance schooling for every child. The government compels children. If you look at the role of government in education there are three different levels. There is a level of compulsory. The government says every child must go to school until such and such and age. That is the equivalent of saying if you are going to drive a car you must have a license. The second stage is funding. Not only do we require you to have an education, but the government is willing to pay for that schooling. That would be equivalent to saying the government is willing to pay for your car that you drive. The third level is running the educational industry. That would be the equivalent of the government manufacturing the automobile or, to put it in a different image, consider food stamps today. Food stamps are funds provided by the government. But if that were to be runned (sic) like the schools, they would say everybody has to use these food stamps at a government grocery and each person with food stamps is assigned to a particular government grocer. So the only way you can get your food stamps is by going to that grocer. Do you think those groceries would be very good? We know what the situation is in schooling. People say why now and not 50-75 years ago? Well, when I went to high school that was a long time ago. In the 1920s there were 150,000 school districts in the U.S and the population was half what it is now. Today, there are fewer than 15,000 school districts. So it used to be that you really did have competition cause you had small school districts and parents had a good deal of control over those school districts, but increasingly we have shifted to very large school districts, to centralized control, to a system in which the governmental officials, in which the educational professionals control it. And like every socialist industry, it produces a product that is very expensive and of very low quality. Of course it is not uniform. There are some very good schools do not misunderstand me, but there are also some very bad ones.

Michelle: I interviewed some folks who are against school vouchers and they say that if you really want to help out a school what you should do is provide high-quality early childhood education, small classes, small schools, summer school available to children who want it. Put money to those items, which they claim would work.

Mr. Friedman: They don’t, we have been doing that. The amount of money spent per child adjusted for inflation has something like doubled or tripled over the last 20 years. Twenty years ago we had this report A Nation at Risk that pointed out all of the difficulties I just referred to and which pointed out this was a first generation that was going to be less schooled than its parents. We are now in the next generation and will be even less well schooled. We have had every possible effort you could have from reform from within. It is not just in schools; it is in any area. Reform has to come from outside. It has to come from competition. Let me illustrate that from within the school system. The United States from all accounts ranks number one in higher education. People from all over the world regard the United States’ colleges and universities the best and most varied. On the other hand in every other international comparison we rank near the bottom in elementary and secondary education. Why the difference? One word: choice. The elementary and secondary education, the school picks the child; it picks its customer. In higher education, the customer picks its school, you have choice that makes all the difference in the world. It means competition forces product. Look over the rest of the economy. Is there any area in the U.S. in which progress has not required progress from the outside? Look at the telephone industry when it was broken down into the little bells and opened up the competition. It started a period of rapid innovation and development. The key word is competition and the question is how can you get competition. Only by having the customer choosing.

Michelle: There is concern that money is going to religious schools. That the majority of the students in voucher programs that exist use them to attend schools with religious affiliation?

Mr. Friedman: Why? Because the vouchers are so small in some cases. It is true that of the private schools in the U.S. the great bulk of them are religious. That is for one simple reason. Here is someone selling something for nothing. Somebody down the street is giving away chocolate and you want to get into the business of selling chocolate. That is kind of tough isn’t it? Here at schools, children can attend them. They are not free. They are paying for it in the form of taxes, but there is no specific charge for going to that school. Somebody else is going to offer it. The churches, the religious organizations have had a real advantage in that they were the only ones around who were in a position to subsidize the education and keep the fees down low. If you open it wide, the most recent case was Ohio, Cleveland case. The voucher that they had had a max value of $2,500. Now it is not easy to provide a decent education at $2,500 and make money at it. Make it pay. At the same time the state of Ohio was spending something like over $7,000 per child on schooling. If that voucher had been $7,000 instead of $2,500 I have no doubt that there would have been a whole raft of new private, non-profit, both profit and non-profit schools. That is what has happened in Milwaukee. Milwaukee has a voucher system and today the fraction of the voucher users in Milwaukee going to religious schools is less than the fraction going to religious schools was before this system started because there have been new schools developed and some of them have been religious but many of them are not. In any event, the Supreme Court has settled that issue. They have said that if it is the choice of the parent, if there are alternatives available, there are government schools, charter schools, private non-denominational schools, private denominational schools, so long as the choice is in the hands of the parent that is not a violation of the First Amendment.

Michelle: You have a friend and an ally in the White House when it comes to vouchers.

Mr. Friedman: I should say. Mr. Bush has always been in favor. He is in favor of free choice. Remember vouchers are a means not an end. The purpose of vouchers is to enable parents to have free choice, and the purpose of having free choice is to provide competition and allow the educational industry to get out of the 17th century and get into the 21st century and have more innovation and more evolvement. There is no reason why you cannot have the same kind of change in the provision of education as you have had in industries like the computer industry, the television industry and other things.

Michelle: Is it refreshing to have a president that, Bill Clinton was firmly against vouchers.

Mr. Friedman: No, it is a case of circumstances. When he was governor of Arkansas, he was not against vouchers. He was in favor, but when he became president he came out against vouchers. I should say he did not oppose vouchers as governor and he did as president and that was for political reasons. People don’t recognize how powerful politically the teachers’ unions are. Something like a quarter of all the delegates at the Democratic National Convention are from the teachers’ union. They are probably the most powerful pressure group in the U.S., very large funds, very large number of people and very active politically.

Michelle: We talk in the office about how President Bush has some very Friedmanesqe ideas.

Mr. Friedman: They are not Freidmanesqe. They are just good ideas. I hope that is true anyway. I think very highly of President Bush, and I think in these areas, don’t misunderstand me, that is not a blanket statement. There are some things he has done that I disagree with, but taken as a whole he has been moving in the right direction of trying to move toward a smaller more limited government, trying to provide more freedom and more initiative in all areas. His philosophy on Medicare is the same as his philosophy in schools.

Michelle: Is that refreshing?

Mr. Friedman: It is an interesting thing, if you look at the facts, the one area, the area in which the low-income people of this country, the blacks and the minority, are most disadvantaged is with respect with the kinds of schools they can send their children to. The people who live in Harlem or the slums or the corresponding areas in LA or San Francisco, they can go to the same stores, shop in the same stores everybody else can, they can buy the same automobiles, they can go to supermarket, but they have very limited choice of schools. Everybody agrees that the schools in those areas are the worst. They are poor. Yet, here you have a Democrat who allege their interest is to help the poor and the low-income people. Here you have to take a different point. Every poll has shown that the strongest supporters of vouchers are the low-income blacks, and yet hardly a single black leader has been willing to come out for vouchers. There were some exceptions, Paul Williams in Milwaukee who was responsible for that, and a few others.

Michelle: Why do you think that is?

Mr. Friedman: For obvious reasons, political. It has been to the self interest to the leaders. The school system, as long as it’s governmental it’s a source of power and jobs to hand around and funds to dispose of. If it is privatized that disappears. And the other aspect of it is the power of the teachers’ unions. Right now those of us that are in the upper-income classes have freedom of choice for our children in various ways. We can decide where to live and we can choose places to live that have good schools or we can afford to pay twice for schooling once by taxes and once by paying tuition at a private school. It seems to me utterly unfair that those opportunities should not be open to everybody at all levels of income. If you had a system, the kind I would like to see, the government would say we require every child to get a certain number of years of schooling and in order to make that possible we are going to provide for every parent a voucher equal to a certain number of dollars, which they can use only for schooling, can’t use it for anything else. They can add to it, but they cannot subtract from it. Those will be, those can be used in government schools. Let the government run the school, but force them to be in competition so that all government schools charge tuition, but can be paid for by that voucher. But that same voucher can also be used in private schools of all kinds and then you would have an open; the teachers’ union complained and they insist they are doing a good job. If they are doing a good job then why are they so afraid of some competition?

Copyright: MSNBC, Inc. 2003

Milton Friedman, School Choice Pioneer

As our new School Choice Timeline shows, calls for public funding to follow students to a variety of educational options date back centuries. However, Nobel Prize‐​winning economist Milton Friedman is often considered the father of the modern school choice movement.

In a 1955 essay, The Role of Government in Education, Friedman acknowledged some justifications for government mandates and funding when it comes to education. However, he said it’s difficult to justify government administration of education. He suggested governments could provide parents with vouchers worth a specified maximum sum per child per year to be spent on “approved” educational services.

Friedman would return to this idea repeatedly over the years in his writings and his popular Free to Choose television series. But he did more than just write and talk about his idea. In 1996, he and his wife Rose, who was also a noted economist, started the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Their original plan included the eventual removal of their name from the foundation, which happened in 2016; the organization is now known as EdChoice and is the go‐​to source for up‐​to‐​date information on school choice in America.

Milton Friedman had a remarkable life. He was born in Brooklyn in 1912 to parents who emigrated to the U.S. from eastern Europe. His father died during his senior year in high school, leaving his mother and older sisters to support the family. He managed to attend Rutgers University through a combination of scholarships and various jobs. After earning a degree in economics, he was awarded a scholarship to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Chicago, where he met his future wife, Rose. The Friedmans had two children, a son and a daughter.

Friedman’s list of accomplishments is astonishingly long. In addition to his 1976 Nobel Prize for Economic Science, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science in 1988. He was a Senior Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution from 1977 to 2006, a distinguished economics professor at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1976, and a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research from 1937 to 1981. He was a prolific writer of newspaper and magazine columns, essays, and books.

Milton Friedman’s focus on education choice made perfect sense in light of his other work. He had a consistent focus on preserving and expanding individual freedom. He saw parental control and the ability to choose the environment that worked best for individual children as essential to a quality education. His 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom included chapters on economic and political freedom, trade, fiscal policy, occupational licenses, and poverty, along with his earlier essay on the role of government in education.

In 1980, Milton and Rose released Free to Choose, a discussion of economics and freedom, as a book and a television series. One segment/​chapter asked, “What’s Wrong with Our Schools?” and then explained the importance of parents being able to choose what works for their individual children.

When the Friedman Foundation was launched, there were five education choice programs in the U.S. with fewer than 10,000 students participating. Today, according to EdChoice, there are 74 programs in 32 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, with 670,000 students participating.

While there is a long and deep history of individuals and organizations calling for various forms of school choice, it is clear that Milton Friedman played an enormous role in its advance in the U.S. He helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the programs in place today, and his relatable writings and videos helped explain his ideas to parents, policymakers, and thought leaders. As we celebrate National School Choice Week—and Cato’s new School Choice Timeline—it’s a great time to commemorate Milton Friedman’s important contributions to the movement.

The School Choice Revolution

It’s time to celebrate another victory for school choice.

  • In 2021, West Virginia adopted statewide school choice.
  • In 2022, Arizona adopted statewide school choice.
  • In 2023, Iowa adopted statewide school choice.

Now Utah has joined the club, with Governor Spencer Cox approving a new law that will give families greater freedom to choose the best educational options for their children.

Here are some details from Marjorie Cortez, reporting for the Deseret News.

The Utah Senate gave final passage to legislation that will provide $8,000 scholarships to qualifying families for private schools and other private education options…The bill passed by a two-thirds margin in each legislative house, which means it cannot be challenged by referendum. …The bill creates the Utah Fits All Scholarship, which can then be used for education expenses like curriculum, textbooks, education, software, tutoring services, micro-school teacher salaries and private school tuition.

As you might expect, teacher unions and their allies are very disappointed – which is a very positive sign.

…the Utah Education Association…opposed HB215… The bill was also opposed by the Utah State Board of Education, Utah PTA, school superintendents, business administrators and school boards. The Alliance for a Better Utah was pointed in its reaction… “Conservative lawmakers just robbed our neighborhood schools of $42 million. Private school vouchers have been and continue to be opposed by Utahns but these lawmakers are instead pursuing a national agenda to ‘destroy public education.’

The Wall Street Journal opined on this great development.

School choice is gaining momentum across the country, and this week Utah joined Iowa in advancing the education reform cause. …Utah’s bill, which the Senate passed Thursday, 20-8, makes ESAs of $8,000 available to every student. There’s no income cap on families who can apply, though lower-income families receive preference and the program is capped at $42 million. The funds can be used for private school tuition, home-schooling expenses, tutoring, and more.

But the best part of the editorial is the look at other states that may be poised to expand educational freedom.

About a dozen other state legislatures have introduced bills to create new ESA programs, and several want to expand the ones they have. In Florida a Republican proposal would extend the state’s already robust scholarship programs to any student in the state. The bill would remove income limits that are currently in place for families who want to apply, though lower-income applicants would receive priority. …South Carolina legislators are mulling a new ESA program for lower-income students. In Indiana, a Senate bill would make state ESAs available to more students. An Ohio bill would remove an income cap and other eligibility rules for the state’s school vouchers. Two Oklahoma Senate bills propose new ESA programs… ESA bills are in some stage of moving in Nebraska, New Hampshire, Texas and Virginia.

Let’s hope there is more progress.

School choice is a win-win for both students and taxpayers.

P.S. Here’s a must-see chart showing how more and more money for the government school monopoly has produced zero benefit.

P.P.S. There are very successful school choice systems in CanadaSwedenChile, and the Netherlands.

P.P.P.S. Getting rid of the Department of Education would be a good idea, but the battle for school choice is largely going to be won and lost on the state and local level.

The Machine: The Truth Behind Teachers Unions

Published on Sep 4, 2012 by

America’s public education system is failing. We’re spending more money on education but not getting better results for our children.

That’s because the machine that runs the K-12 education system isn’t designed to produce better schools. It’s designed to produce more money for unions and more donations for politicians.

For decades, teachers’ unions have been among our nation’s largest political donors. As Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell has noted, the National Education Association (NEA) alone spent $40 million on the 2010 election cycle (source: As the country’s largest teachers union, the NEA is only one cog in the infernal machine that robs parents of their tax dollars and students of their futures.

Students, teachers, parents, and hardworking Americans are all victims of this political machine–a system that takes money out of taxpayers’ wallets and gives it to union bosses, who put it in the pockets of politicians.

Our kids deserve better.

“The Machine” is 4:17 minutes.

Written and narrated by Evan Coyne Maloney. Produced by the Moving Picture Institute in partnership with Reason TV.

Visit to learn more.

No one did more to advance the cause of school vouchers than Milton and Rose Friedman. Friedman made it clear in his film series “Free to Choose” how sad he was that young people who live in the inner cities did not have good education opportunities available to them.

I have posted often about the voucher system and how it would solve our education problems. What we are doing now is not working. Milton Friedman’s idea of implementing school vouchers was hatched about 50 years ago.

Poor families are most affected by this lack of choice. As Friedman noted, “There is no respect in which inhabitants of a low-income neighborhood are so disadvantaged as in the kind of schooling they can get for their children.” It is a sad statement quantified by data on low levels of academic achievement and attainment. Take a look at this article below.

Lindsey Burke

September 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm

SAT scores among the nation’s test-takers are at a 40-year low.

As The Washington Post reports:

Reading scores on the SAT for the high school class of 2012 reached a four-decade low, putting a punctuation mark on a gradual decline in the ability of college-bound teens to read passages and answer questions about sentence structure, vocabulary and meaning on the college entrance exam.

The decline over the decades has been significant. The average reading (verbal) score is down 34 points since 1972. Sadly, the historically low SAT scores are only the latest marker of decline. Graduation rates have been stagnant since the 1970s, reading and math achievement has been virtually flat over the same time period, and American students still rank in the middle of the pack compared to their international peers.

On the heels of the news about the SAT score decline, President Obama filmed a segment with NBC’s Education Nation earlier today. The President notably praised the concept of charter schools and pay for performance for teachers.

But those grains of reform were dwarfed by his support of the status quo. During the course of the interview, President Obama suggested hiring 100,000 new math and science teachers and spending more money on preschool. He also stated that No Child Left Behind had good intentions but was “under-resourced.”

Efforts by the federal government to intervene in preschool, most notably through Head Start, have failed—despite a $160 billion in spending on the program since 1965. And No Child Left Behind is far from “under-resourced.” The $25 billion, 600-page law has been on the receiving end of significant new spending every decade since the original law was first passed nearly half a century ago.

President Obama was also pressed on the issue of education unions by host Savannah Guthrie:

Some people think, President Obama gets so much support from the teachers’ unions, he can’t possibly have an honest conversation about what they’re doing right or wrong. Can you really say that teachers’ unions aren’t slowing the pace of reform?

President Obama responded: “You know, I just really get frustrated when I hear teacher-bashing as evidence of reform.”

Criticizing education unions for standing in the way of reform should not be conflated with criticizing teachers, as the President does in the interview. The unions have blocked reforms such as performance pay and charter schools (which the President supports), have opposed alternative teacher certification that would help mid-career professionals enter the classroom, and have consistently fought the implementation of school choice options for children.

If we ever hope to move the needle on student achievement—or see SAT scores turn in the right direction again—we’ll need to implement many of those exact reforms, particularly school choice.

And as he has in the past, President Obama stated that his Administration wants to “use evidenced-based approaches and find out what works.” We know what works: giving families choices when it comes to finding schools that best meet their children’s needs. Instead of continuing to call for more spending and more Washington intervention in education, let’s try something new: choice and freedom.

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