Op-Ed: Maine should examine Friedman’s idea of school choice

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By Prof. John Frary

Governor LePage’s proclamation of July 31 as “Milton Friedman Day” probably needs some explanation. Although more Mainers celebrated Whoopie Pie Day on June 26 than will ever celebrate July 31, there is a good deal more substance to the latter date.

The governor had a special purpose in inviting us to observe the hundredth anniversary of the economist’s birthday. It was Professor Friedman who first gave an impetus to the idea of school choice in a 1955 article entitled “The Role of Government in Education.” To quote the press release from the governor’s office: “Maine’s educational goals align with Friedman’s vision: all children should have the right to the highest-quality schools possible. Research suggests that providing children with multiple schooling options improves academic performance.”

Many people who support school choice as long as parents choose standardized public education dislike Milton Friedman. Some appear to hate him as an enemy of the status quo they love and as enemy of their hopes, ambitions and salaries. Leaving that aside, there is more to be said about the man and his work than his advocacy of school choice.

Our governor has not simply cherry-picked an economist who supports his belief in school choice. In 2010, when I asked the GOP primary candidates to cite the economist who had the most influence on their thinking, Paul named Friedman. When Ann LePage gave me a tour of her husband’s large accumulation of volumes, Friedman’s books were among them.

I am just now reading a book by another Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman. On page 116 of Prof. Krugman’s “The Conscience of a Liberal,” you will read that Friedman’s “work on consumer behavior, monetary forces and inflation is accepted and honored by the vast majority of economists, whatever their political persuasion. He would have won the Memorial Nobel Prize in economics whatever his politics.”

This information may serve to correct any notion that Milton Friedman is some marginal ideological crank that Governor LePage happened to stumble across in pursuit of a political goal.

When he was a young man, Friedman was to the left of Paul Krugman. The economist, prolific author, and columnist Thomas Sowell explains his conversion in a recent column:

“No one converted Milton Friedman, either in economics or in his views on social policy. His own research, analysis and experience converted him. As a professor, he did not attempt to convert students to his political views. I made no secret of the fact that I was a Marxist when I was a student in Professor Friedman’s course, but he made no effort to change my views. He once said that anybody who was easily converted was not worth converting. I was still a Marxist after taking Professor Friedman’s class. Working as an economist in the government converted me.”

Prof. Krugman gives his fellow Nobelist no credit for reasoning his way to views that contradict those of Paul Krugman. His believes that Friedman became corrupted by conservative “ideology.” Although Friedman is much admired by self-described conservatives he, like the great “Austrian” economist Friedrich Hayek, was a liberal in the traditional meaning of the word.

Friedman believed in the liberty of the individual, as free from government control and direction as social order allows. For example, he believed that the War on Drugs was a failed policy desperately in need of correction. Some conservatives have come around to that point of view on pragmatic grounds, but it is not the prevailing conservative view.

The governor’s proclamation mentions that “Friedman’s ideas have also helped lead to positive education reform in countries such as Chile and Sweden.” Mr. Odd Eiken, Sweden’s State Secretary of Schools, 1991-94, helped develop the nation’s voucher reform. He tells us, “I often get comments from American friends: ‘You’re supposed to be the socialists, not us,’ they say and ask, ‘How is it that Sweden, with its egalitarian tradition, has one of the most radical systems for market-driven choice in the world?’ Maybe that is the answer. With our egalitarian tradition, we can’t accept that the right to choose the best school for your child should be reserved just for those who have the means to pay for it.”

When the Swedish version was introduced in 1993, it was as controversial as it now is in Maine. But 19 years later it appears to have become the consensus. Even Sweden’s Social Democratic Party now supports it.

A voucher system is not a panacea. There is no single solution to the failings of our educational system, and Governor LePage has more on his educational reform agenda than this. But it would be nice if we could agree to conduct a serious empirical examination of the voucher proposal.

We will not, and the title of one of Milton Friedman’s books helps to explain why: “The Tyranny of the Status Quo.”

Professor John Frary of Farmington is a former U.S. Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. He can be reached at: jfrary8070@aol.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi!

    The government has no business in education. That is the role of the parents.

    In the original Constitution of the State of Maine there is NOT one word of the government’s role in education (Dr John Grover was one of the Founding Fathers of Maine who lived in Bethel, Maine). The Constitution of the United States doesn’t mention education either.

    Once government has control of education, then “it” could teach ONLY what it wanted in order to influence the outcome which is a great deal of control. 

    In the 1840’s the Legislature of Maine mandated that all males of a certain age must attend schools for so many hours per day. Nothing was mentioned about females attending schools.

    What this did was “take away” the power of the family to decide what their sons would do during the day. The child labor laws accomplished the same thing around 1905.

    The State of Maine was mostly an agricultural society in those days, and the family needed these children to work on the farm in order to survive and prepare for winter.

    The Legislature of Maine had no delegation of authority to mandate males of a certain age to attend school. This law was totally ouside of the realm of authority regarding the Legislature so, therefore, this law was unlawful.

  2. Vouchers are interesting, but I think full privatization is a better idea.  The educational industry will explode with activity and innovation and growth if it is privatized.  Property taxes will also be a lot lower, increasing prosperity and jobs, which helps families.  There will be expensive schools, mid-range schools, but also budget schools, and alternative schools.  And, there will be more creative forms of payment for people who cannot afford tuition at all (which will be a small number).   With the power of the internet, education costs should go way down, and I think a fully private system will go through a competitive discovery process, where a really inexpensive educational model will be found and perfected.

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