Maine’s “Town Tuitioning” Program, Milton Friedman’s School Choice Ideal?

Read the full report | Economist Milton Friedman first described his vision for a school voucher program in a 1955 essay titled The Role of Government in Education. Arguing that government operation of schools could not be justified in what he called a “predominantly free enterprise society,” and convinced that the free market would produce a better educational product, Friedman developed the concept of school vouchers as a way that government could both fund the education of its citizens and create better schools:

“Governments could require a minimum level of education which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on ‘approved’ educational services. Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an ‘approved’ institution of their own choice…The result of these measures would be a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children… They would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available …Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others.”

With those sentences, the concept of school vouchers was born. Today, there are various school voucher programs in place around the nation, but none share all the qualities that Friedman felt were critical to the success of such a program. To his way of thinking, a successful voucher system needed to have the following characteristics:

Vouchers should be universal, not means-tested. Early voucher programs in places like Milwaukee were targeted toward low-income students only. In Friedman’s view, all children were entitled to school choice, not just some. Further, the more children that participated in a given choice program, the more new schools would open to meet the demand, and the more new choices families would have in selecting a school that best met the needs of their child.

Vouchers should be of sufficient monetary value to offer real choice and encourage entrepreneurship. As supportive as Friedman was of the voucher program in Cleveland, one of the nation’s first, he was critical of the low monetary value of that city’s vouchers. In his view, providing a school voucher that could buy little did not really provide a choice to those parents who could not afford to supplement the voucher with their own funds. Furthermore, for true educational choice to happen, entrepreneurial educators would have to be able to afford to open competing schools, and only vouchers of sufficient value would be incentive enough to foster the creation of these new school options.

Vouchers should be as free as possible from government restrictions. Simply put, school choice programs would not result in a broad marketplace of educational options if governments over-regulate them. While there is clear value in governments insisting on safety, financial accountability and so forth, too many voucher programs put limits on which schools students may attend, or force schools to adopt state standards, curriculum, and testing regimes. Friedman felt that fewer restrictions would lead to greater innovation and better schools.

In short, school voucher programs should be available to all students, should be structured and funded in such a way as to encourage entrepreneurship and choice options, and should be free enough from the meddling of government bureaucrats that schools of choice are able to be innovative and to develop new and creative ways to meet the needs of every child….