Milton Friedman’s belief in the transformative power of parental control

Today marks what would have been the 111th birthday of American economist Milton Friedman, whose 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education” prompted the start of the modern school choice movement.

Given the recent explosion of educational freedom just this year alone, what a birthday present!

“Friedman would be thrilled to see that all students, regardless of class, color, or creed, are now eligible for private school choice in eight states,” write Jay Greene and Jason Bedrick for The Daily Signal.

In the past three years alone, more than 20 states have enacted new education choice policies or expanded existing ones, including eight states that are in the process of implementing Friedman’s vision of universal school choice.

Yet work remains to ensure the benefits of educational freedom are available to all, avoiding the coercion of racial preferences that Friedman warned against, continue Greene and Bedrick.

There are many advocates within the school choice movement who agree with Friedman on the benefits of expanding educational freedom but somehow ignore his message about the harms of racial preferences. They favor private school choice, but only for urban school districts with large minority populations or only when programs are targeted toward low-income families. They favor charter schools, but only those that focus on minority students with “culturally responsive” models. They believe that students learn the most from teachers who share the same skin pigmentation and they seek preferential funding, training, and hiring of black teachers to accomplish this.

Friedman had no objection to people maintaining strong racial and ethnic identities: “I believe it’s highly desirable for people to be able to pursue their own values, to have whatever ethnic values they want, provided they do it voluntarily and do not interfere with the freedom of others to do it also. We want a society of variety and diversity.”

But he would have objected vigorously to the idea that government policies, such as critical race theory in public school curriculum, matching the race of students to teachers, or racial targeting of education opportunities, were necessary to cultivate those group identities and achieve progress for members of those communities.

Additionally, Friedman’s vision of empowering parents — not the government — to control their children’s education went hand-in-hand with his desire for expanding individual freedom. In 1980, Friedman and his wife Rose published Free To Choose, noting that:

Parents generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else. Social reformers, and educational reformers in particular, often self-righteously take for granted that parents, especially those who are poor and have little education themselves, have little interest in their children’s education and no competence to choose for them. That is a gratuitous insult. Such parents have frequently had limited opportunity to choose. However, U.S. history has demonstrated that, given the opportunity, they have often been willing to sacrifice a great deal, and have done so wisely, for their children’s welfare. [p. 160]

“Putting parents back in charge of their child’s education through school choice measures was Milton Friedman’s goal,” wrote Kerry McDonald for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). “It was not his ultimate goal, as it would not fully address the funding and compulsion components of government schooling; but it was, and remains, an important first step.”

Friedman did more than just promote his ideas through his words and writings, points out Colleen Hroncich with the Cato Institute. In 1996, Mr. and Mrs. Friedman founded the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (later renamed EdChoice according to their wishes), which has dubbed 2023 as the “Year of Universal Choice.” I look forward to more states joining in, removing the financial barriers so that access to a quality education isn’t just for the wealthy, and giving families the opportunity to access the education options that work best for them.

Minnesota should be one of them. And it’s up to the Minnesotans who have voiced overwhelming support for school choice to help make it a reality.

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