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A way to fix public schools

POSTED: July 24, 2014 4:11 p.m.

This excerpt is adapted from a speech by Ben Scafidi on July 10 at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Friedman Legacy for Freedom celebration in Macon.

I’ve been a Milton Friedman fan since I was an undergraduate and I am honored to be a Fellow at the Friedman Foundation. He has influenced me and influenced national policy so much.

The legacy Friedman chose is the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. I want to read you some quotes from Milton and Rose Friedman about school choice.

This is from 2003: “Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go. We are far from that ultimate result. If we had that — a system of free choice — we would also have a system of competition, innovation, which would change the character of education.”

If we had universal school choice, our schools would look very different from today.

“We hear a lot about the gap in economic prosperity between groups of Americans. Improved education is offering a hope of narrowing the gap between the less and more skilled workers, of fending off the prior prospect of a society divided between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ of a class society in which an educated elite provided welfare for a permanent class of unemployables.”

This quote is from 1979: “Parents generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else.”

When I was on the Charter Commission I voted to close two charter schools. One was in Clayton County. The people who founded the school were accused of stealing money; student achievement was low; they were the only charter school that had classrooms that had the cheating scandal of erasing the answers.

I got an e-mail from every single parent at that school. I read about the first 50. “Please don’t close our school because, you know what? We’re going to have to go back to Clayton County public schools.”

The conscientious state legislator who represented that district voted against the charter school amendment every time he could in the Legislature. He begged me to keep that school open. Who was I to vote to close that school?

I did vote to close that school.

Milton Friedman is saying maybe those parents knew something I didn’t know at the state level. Maybe they knew that school, with all its problems, was better than the alternative.

The evidence on school choice is very clear. We have done many modest school choice programs where we’ve allowed a little bit of choice. What we found is, generally speaking, there’s a little bit of benefit from doing that.

People who choose a private school are a little bit better off academically and in other ways. Students who don’t choose, students who remain in public schools are a little bit better off when there is a school choice program in their community. Competition works in every walk of life, and the early evidence shows it also works in regard to schools.

Why don’t we just fix public schools? Why do we talk about school choice? From 1950 to 2009 there was a 96 percent increase in public school students nationwide but the number of school personnel increased at a rate four times faster. Teachers increased two-and-a-half times the rate of students. Administrators and other non-teaching staff increased more than seven times faster than the increase in students.

You could say maybe we needed to do that. What about recent years? It’s still going on. From 1992 to 2009 we’ve increased public school personnel at a much higher rate than students, and those personnel have largely been outside the classroom. Pretty soon I’ll have data through 2013.

Let me give you a metaphor: Fixing the Veterans Administration and fixing public schools. Morally we should give veterans who sacrificed so much for our country the opportunity to get the medical care they need at the same time as we fix the VA. They were willing to lay down their life for my liberty, my freedom, my life, people I don’t even know, and they’re languishing, not getting the medical care they need. We should give them a way out while we fix the VA.

It’s the same thing with public schools. Students only go through school once. While we fix public schools we should give them a way out at the same time: Let their parents choose schools they think are better while we fix public schools.

That was Milton Friedman’s vision of universal school choice for all. Milton Friedman did not think you would get the competitive benefits of school choice unless it was open to everybody. If it was open to everybody you had a truly free market of schools that would force all schools to improve … public, private, every school.

Ben Scafidi, a professor of economics and director of the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College and State University, is a Senior Fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Excellence. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.

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