Brittany Wagner

For years now, many Americans have acknowledged the shortcomings of the nation’s public school system. While the 1983 "A Nation at Risk" report is often referred to as the quintessential moment in education history when Americans realized the system was failing—one man had already realized the problem, and proposed a solution, decades before.

Milton Friedman first discussed the idea of educational vouchers in the 1950s, arguing that competition between schools would improve efficiency and drive down costs. The idea became popularized during the 1980 television series Free to Choose.

In voiced-over footage of high school-age children walking through metal detectors before entering an urban school, Friedman said:

Isn’t that awful? What a way for kids to have to go to school through metal detectors and to be searched. What can they conceivably learn under such circumstances? Nobody is happy with this kind of education. The taxpayers surely aren’t. This isn’t cheap education. . . . And what about the broken windows and the torn school books and the smashed school equipment? The teachers who teach here don’t like this situation. The students don’t like to come here to go to school. And most of all the parents. They are the ones with the worst deal. They pay taxes like the rest of us. They are just as concerned about the kind of education their kids get as the rest of us are. They know their kids are getting a bad education, but they feel trapped. Most of them see no alternative but to continue sending their kids to schools like this.

So while lawmakers have looked to improve education through top down policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, Milton Friedman was the first to acknowledge that parents should be in the driver’s seat of their child’s education.

Today, a majority of Americans support educational choice. The Friedman Foundation recently released the 2015 Schooling in America Survey, which found that 63 percent of school parents support educational vouchers. When asked to rank the actions a state government should take in intervening in low-performing schools, 41 percent ranked supply vouchers/scholarships as number one. Twenty-six percent ranked convert the failing schools to charter schools as the number two solution. Clearly, Americans favor options. Still, many do not know about the man behind the idea.  

This is why the Show-Me Institute is celebrating Friedman Legacy Day on July 31 (register now). Oklahoma State Senator Jabar Shumate will discuss the effects of school choice on urban issues. Unlike Missouri’s legislature, Oklahoma’s policymakers have helped establish two private educational choice programs—a voucher program for students with disabilities and a tax-credit scholarship for low-income students.

Please register for this event now.

About the Author

Brittany Wagner
Education Policy Research Assistant

Brittany Wagner was an education policy research assistant at the Show-Me Institute.