Thankful for Freedom's Greatest Teacher, Milton Friedman

The world has lost a great teacher. Milton Friedman died last week at age 94.

Dr. Friedman played many distinguished roles in his professional life. He was an advisor to presidents and other world leaders. He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. But first and foremost he was a teacher: a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and, later, a bestselling author and commentator on the national stage.

Friedman taught us many important lessons. His instruction on sound monetary policy brought about the end of the destruction of runaway inflation. He persuasively argued for an all-volunteer military, helping end the draft.

He also taught us important lessons about freedom and the proper role of government. In his bestselling books “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962) and “Free to Choose: A Personal Statement” (1980 with his wife Rose), Friedman developed and made the case for an agenda of policy solutions based on freedom and free exchange. Many of these policies have been implemented, and many others are being championed by free-market advocates today. Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, called Friedman “one of the most compelling advocates for human freedom the world has ever known.”

Of course, one of Friedman’s most groundbreaking ideas concerned education. In 1955, he published the essay, “The Role of Government in Education,” in which he laid out a groundbreaking vision for education that would transfer control from the government to parents:

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 educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds.

Providing school vouchers directly to parents would create an education marketplace driven by individual choice and consumer preferences:

Let the subsidy be made available to parents regardless where they send their children—provided only that it be to schools that satisfy specified minimum standards and a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand. Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible.

More than fifty years after Milton Friedman first proposed school vouchers, the idea is finally becoming a reality. Unfortunately, this progress has been too slow and is much more limited than what Friedman had in mind.

Today, seven states and Washington, D.C., have limited school voucher programs. Seven states now provide tax incentives for private education, a similar policy mechanism. By next year, as many as 150,000 children will attend a school of their parents’ choice through programs inspired by Friedman’s original voucher idea. So far, the evidence from these school choice programs has proven Friedman’s theory right.

Unfortunately, no state has yet embraced Friedman’s idea of universal school choice. And so we have not seen what could be possible in a true marketplace of education.

During the last years of his life, Milton Friedman dedicated himself to the effort to implement school vouchers across the nation. In 1996, he and his wife Rose created the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation to promote school choice. The past decade has brought many important victories for parental choice in education. Soon after Friedman’s passing, Robert Enlow, executive director of the Foundation, promised “the redoubling of our effort to achieve Milton Friedman’s vision.”

We should be thankful for Milton Friedman and celebrate the life of freedom’s greatest teacher. As his ideas on education continue to gain adherents, even more people—particularly students and their families—will have reason to give thanks for Milton Friedman’s bold vision of freedom and determination to implement it.