Voucher Venom

Don't Buy Snake Oil From Doctor Friedman

Why does anyone listen to Milton Friedman?

To hear opponents of public education talk, you would think Friedman was some kind of economic genius. In fact, his views are far outside the mainstream and, when actually implemented 20 years ago, failed miserably.

Nevertheless, voucher advocates keep rolling Friedman out. In March, he appeared in Texas, arguing for vouchers before state lawmakers.

Friedman and his backers portray him as a mild-mannered economist and advocate of small government and free enterprise. What they don't tell Americans is that for Friedman, vouchers are just a start. If he had his druthers, he'd abolish the entire public education system.

That's right. Friedman wants to get rid of the system that educates 90 percent of America's children, a system that Americans fought hard to build and struggle today to fund adequately.

Why? Because the very concept of public education offends Friedman's inflexible, anti-government ideology. Public schools, according to Friedman, are "socialistic." In a 1992 article, he blithely asserted that public education has failed in the United States, comparing it to the effort to stop the flow of illegal drugs.

"The war on drugs is a failure because it is a socialist enterprise," Friedman wrote. "Our schooling is deteriorating because it is a socialist enterprise. Except possibly for the military, education is the largest socialist enterprise in the United States."

Public education, Friedman asserted, is "inefficient, expensive, very advantageous to a small group of people, and harmful to a lot of people."

Huh? Public education is harmful to a lot of people? Tell that to the millions of children who, over the years, have relied on public schools to lift them out of poverty and despair. Tell it to the parents who volunteer in the classroom, attend PTA meetings and work hard to support our schools. Tell it to the public schoolchildren who every year go on to colleges and universities all over America.

Let's be clear about Friedman's position: He wants to completely privatize education in America. He wants to do this not because all schools have failed many do an excellent job, after all but because he personally does not believe government should play a role in education. It's not a mainstream view. (By the way, Friedman also wants to do away with Medicare and Medicaid and privatize Social Security hardly mainstream positions.)

Has any country ever tried to implement Friedman's off-the-wall ideas? Yes Chile. In the 1980s, Chile, then ruled by the oppressive military dictator Augusto Pinochet, implemented several of the economic planks favored by Friedman and his gang of acolytes, known as the "Chicago boys." Among the ideas was a voucher plan.

So what happened in Chile? An analysis by Martin Carnoy of Stanford University notes that first, the government broke the teachers' unions. Then it offered vouchers to every student in the country but did not attempt to regulate private education or force the schools to drop exclusionary admissions policies.

Education quickly became stratified. The well-off sent their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. The poor were left with underfunded, understaffed public schools. Most private schools would not accept poor children, or children with learning disabilities or children who were difficult to educate for whatever reason. So much for the notion of "choice."

Under Friedman's theory, student achievement was supposed to rise. In reality, it fell. By 1988, test scores in language comprehension and mathematics for Chilean fourth graders had fallen by 14 percent and 6 percent respectively. Scores fell even for those low-income students who managed to get into private schools.

By 1990 a democratically elected regime came to power in Chile and started cleaning up the mess. The first thing it had to do was reassert some federal control over education. It hasn't been easy, and public education in Chile is still suffering.

A case can be made for competition in many areas. It's useful to have several firms producing cars, more than one insurance company and lots of airlines, for example.

But when voucher advocates talk about "competition" among schools, what they are usually advocating is something else: They want the public school system which is required by law to educate all children, answerable to the voters through democratically elected local boards and required to meet a host of local, state and federal regulations to "compete" with an unregulated private system that can expel or deny admission to any student for any reason and that answers to no one but its own masters. That's not competition. The playing field is uneven.

Proponents of vouchers hold to their cause for different reasons. Some parents want a private education for their children at taxpayer expense. Others hope to undermine the separation of church and state.

The most dangerous are the pure ideologues like Friedman. In his view, public education must be destroyed regardless of whether it is effective or not simply because it is a government service. Government services, he believes, are inherently evil. In Friedman's worldview, ideology subverts reason every time.

Lawmakers in Texas and elsewhere would do well to remember Friedman's entire agenda the next time he shows up peddling vouchers.