Thursday, June 09, 2005

Free To Choose 

In an excellent editorial today in the Wall Street Journal Milton Friedman, the famous economist who created of the concept of school vouchers, provides the background on their recent popularity:

Though the article, and then "Capitalism and Freedom," [1955] generated some academic and popular attention at the time, so far as we know no attempts were made to introduce a system of educational vouchers until the Nixon administration, when the Office of Economic Opportunity took up the idea and offered to finance the actual experiments. One result of that initiative was an ambitious attempt to introduce vouchers in the large cities of New Hampshire, which appeared to be headed for success until it was aborted by the opposition of the teachers unions and the educational administrators--one of the first instances of the oppositional role they were destined to play in subsequent decades. Another result was an experiment in California's Alum Rock school system involving a choice of schools within a public system. What really led to increased interest in vouchers was the deterioration of schooling, dating in particular from 1965 when the National Education Association converted itself from a professional association to a trade union. Concern about the quality of education led to the establishment of the National Commission of Excellence in Education, whose final report, "A Nation at Risk," was published in 1983. It used the following quote from Paul Copperman to dramatize its own conclusion:

"Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents."

"A Nation at Risk" stimulated much soul-searching and a whole series of major attempts to reform the government educational system. These reforms, however extensive or bold, have, it is widely agreed, had negligible effect on the quality of the public school system. Though spending per pupil has more than doubled since 1970 after allowing for inflation, students continue to rank low in international comparisons; dropout rates are high; scores on SATs and the like have fallen and remain flat. Simple literacy, let alone functional literacy, in the United States is almost surely lower at the beginning of the 21st century than it was a century earlier. And all this is despite a major increase in real spending per student since "A Nation at Risk" was published.
But the state of education in this country really had nothing to do with Mr. Friedman raising the idea of vouchers. The entire piece is required reading.

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