According to Atlanta Journal-Constitution education writer Maureen Downey, “The early architects of school choice maintained that getting kids out of struggling public schools into private ones would raise academic performance as measured by test scores.” She goes on to cite a study showing that students using publicly funded vouchers at District of Columbia private schools scored worse on standardized tests than their public school counterparts.
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt mentioned the same study and concluded on the basis of it and others that, “Vouchers have been disappointing. They are based on the free-market theory that parents will choose good schools over bad ones.”
I don’t know which school choice free marketeers Downey and Leonhardt have in mind. But if they’re recalling economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, generally credited with laying the theoretical foundation for school vouchers, he didn’t make his case in terms of improving student achievement.
In “The Role of Government in Education,” his 1955 article arguing for school vouchers, the goal was to show what education based on libertarian principles would look like.
Friedman’s is the most rigorously principled defense of the most expansive version of school choice I know of. It’s worth revisiting because, as a contribution to political morality rather than educational reform, it focuses on fundamental issues that are getting short shrift in what passes for debate among current school choice advocates and their traditionalist critics.
Friedman proposed replacing government-operated primary and secondary schools with privately owned and operated for-profit and non-profit schools. Families would pay the tuition with publicly funded vouchers.
As a libertarian, Friedman had a standing preference for voluntary exchanges among individuals over government edicts backed by coercive state power. So justifying the choice aspect of school choice was unproblematic for him. He speculated about the blessings of the private educational services market vouchers would call up—for example, teachers’ salaries would be subject to market discipline—but improved student performance wasn’t among them. Rather, he thought a robust free market for educational services would do what markets always do: promote the allocation of resources that best matches consumer preferences.
The harder question for Friedman was how to justify expanding school choice with taxpayer funded subsidies. After all, we don’t hand out publicly funded vouchers to subsidize the satisfaction of many other consumer preferences. No one would dream of hitting up the taxpayers to give people more choices in buying big screen television sets, trendy shoes, concert tickets, beach vacations, etc. Because access to these things is a merely private benefit, it would be perverse to turn to the taxpayers to subsidize it.
Friedman was so hardnosed about not funding private benefits with public money that he thought post-secondary education shouldn’t be publicly supported at all because the career preparation it provides is a merely private economic advantage to people who undergo it.
So Friedman thought that, as a matter of political morality, the only thing that justifies taxpayer funded vouchers at the primary and secondary school level is some undivided public good they provide that can’t trade in voluntary exchanges among individuals.
The public good involved has been at the heart of the “common schools” tradition that goes back at least as far as Thomas Jefferson, who said in a 1786 letter to George Washington, “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.”
Nearly two hundred years later, in his magisterial Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter summarized the common schools tradition this way: “The American system of common schools was meant to take a vast, heterogeneous, and mobile population, recruited from manifold sources and busy with manifold tasks, and forge it into a nation, make it literate, and give it at least the minimal civic competence necessary to the operation of republican institutions.”
Friedman aligned himself with this tradition, writing, “a stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens.” It’s the mission of primary and secondary education to impart those unifying values and that competence.
But while we all benefit from living among people committed to democratic values and having an adequate mastery of civic competence, I can’t contract with a ten-year-old for that benefit. I enjoy it as an undivided public good flowing from the actions of countless nameless fellow citizens past and present.
This central feature of Friedman’s position has an important consequence largely ignored by the current crop of school choice advocates. While some have passionately embraced the idea of taxpayer funded vouchers to create a private market in educational services, they either don’t know or don’t care that Friedman’s idea of the educational services market isn’t the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom type where private school operators are free to offer whatever they think will vacuum up voucher revenue. Nor are families free to use their vouchers at just any school.
Rather, on Friedman’s story, the fact that taxpayers are funding the vouchers demands that only schools offering what the government considers adequate support for civic competence and democratic values would be allowed to accept voucher students. So his educational services market would be government regulated and consumers’ school choices constrained: the vouchers could be used only at government approved schools.
Friedman’s faith in the power of free markets to match available resources and consumer preferences efficiently was unshakable. But so was his conviction that it offends basic political morality for government to conscript taxpayers to fund people’s pursuit, however free, of their merely private advantage.
Unless I’ve just missed it, vocal voucher proponents like U. S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have pledged no allegiance to any such principle. Until they do, the burden is on them to show that what they’re advocating amounts to more than a jerrybuilt, balkanizing vote-buying scheme. As long as they fail to meet that burden, whether voucher kids outperform their public school counterparts on standardized tests will remain a side issue.