Milton Friedman, Father of School Choice

Louisiana's 10,000 kids clamoring for vouchers may never know it, but they owe their school choice opportunity to a dead white guy whose birthday is this week.  So do the approximately 700,000 mostly poor and minority kids now eligible to attend schools their families choose with public funds.

Nobel laureate and economist Milton Friedman graduated from a New Jersey public high school in 1928 and considered it his life's most important work to conceptualize and promote school choice.  Friedman introduced the idea of school vouchers in 1955.

The 100th anniversary of Friedman's birth is today, July 31.  The intellectual giant battled against the fallacies of Keynesian economics and in favor of market freedom, and his influence on today's economists and policymakers remains immense.  One of his great gifts was an ability to explain complicated economic and social principles clearly and entertainingly to average folks.

At Friedman's death, approximately 106,000 children were taking advantage of private school choice programs, according to his legacy foundation, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.  School choice has increased exponentially since then.

Why?  Because Americans still love freedom and equal opportunity.  Earlier this year, 61 percent of moms and 55 percent of adults polled nationally said they favor a school voucher system that would allow tax dollars to follow children to the school of their choice, private or public.  Average folks agree with Friedman.

Friedman frequently compared public schools to monopolies like Ma Bell and the U.S. Post Office.  Monopolies vaporize freedom and opportunity.  It is easy to see how standardized public schools vanquish personal freedom: students must attend schools assigned by ZIP code, parents who want another option must usually pay twice for it (once in taxes and again in tuition), students get treated like widgets on a factory line, and because someone other than parents is paying the bills, schools don't have to respond quickly and completely to parents' concerns.

Monopolies rely on force to control customers; if they didn't have that option, they'd lose those customers.  In a competitive environment, by contrast, a school would survive only by offering something good people want, attracting rather than forcing them through the doors.

The public-school monopoly also limits individual opportunity. People don't need to see school district comparisons like the Global Report Card to know that some public schools are just better than others.  Kids attending the rotten schools, or stuck with a rotten teacher, are just out of luck.  They usually have no opportunity to choose something better, which several economists have recently demonstrated leads to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income for these students and trillions in lost economic output for the nation.

These strangled students are disproportionately poor and minority.  No wonder huge majorities of these groups love school choice.

Friedman's vision of school choice for all is the most liberating, equitable education policy available.  His 1955 flash of voucher inspiration might be best described with a 1970s slogan: "Power to the people."

A year before he died on November 16, 2006, Friedman said his proudest accomplishment would be universal school choice, if that ever came to pass.  Seven months before that, he had written, "Progress toward our objective of universal vouchers has been distressingly slow, but there has been progress."  A few years later, universal school choice is on the wing.  If Friedman sees it from up there, he's smiling.  So are those who are benefiting from his idea.

Joy Pullmann ( is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.