Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once remarked: "The true test of any scholar's work is not what his contemporaries say, but what happens to his work in the next 25 or 50 years. And the thing that I will really be proud of is if some of the work I have done is still cited in the text books long after I am gone." Though he has not been gone long, Friedman's work will undoubtedly be included in the annals of academia for many decades. However, Friedman's legacy is not just in textbooks. His legacy lives on in the hearts of thousands of students who enjoy educational options they would not have if not for his revolutionary ideas.
In 1955, Friedman introduced the concept that school choice via the use of vouchers could improve the quality of education. Yet, a quality education system was not his ultimate goal. Rather, he believed individual freedom was, or should be, the ultimate goal of a society. And by giving families the freedom to choose for themselves the best educational options for their children, Friedman theorized the market would respond with an improvement in the quality of education delivered.
The current body of research supports this theory. Random assignment experiments, which are the most rigorous type of research study, tend to find positive effects for students using vouchers, and none have found negative effects for voucher students. There is even some evidence that local public schools improve, and no evidence they are worse off, when they face voucher competition. The most promising evidence of voucher success, however, may be in terms of graduation rates. Students attending voucher schools tend to graduate at much higher rates than comparable students in nearby public schools. For example, students participating in the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program were 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school if they attended a voucher school. To rephrase a line Friedman often used, "the society that puts freedom before [educational] equality will end up with a great measure of both.”
Friedman believed the idea of a public education for all children did not necessitate that government be the sole provider of that education. He believed families should be free to choose from a variety of schools operated "by private enterprises operated for profit, nonprofit institutions established by private endowment, religious bodies, and some even by governmental units." It has taken some time, but Friedman's ideas of individual freedom through school choice are taking root in the American psyche. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal dubbed 2011 "The Year of School Choice."
Though we have made progress in increasing school choice, Missouri has a long road to haul before families are able to enjoy the level of freedom that Friedman envisioned. We must continue to work until all families are free to choose the best educational options for their children. As Friedman said, "Freedom is not a natural state of mankind. It is a rare and wonderful achievement."
James V. Shuls is an education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.
The Institute is participating in Friedman Legacy for Freedom Day on July 31, an international event celebrating the late Milton Friedman.