On international math, science and reading exams, the United States lags behind countries such as Canada, New Zealand, South Korea and Australia despite the fact we spend far more to educate our children than every other industrialized nation. This failure in education translates into less human capital and innovation, fewer jobs, greater debt, and a growing gap between rich and poor.
But what would happen to learning if children stopped being assigned to schools based on where they live or how much their family earns?
My contention, which is supported by evidence and common sense, is that education would dramatically improve. And that is exactly what Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman said in 1955 when he first proposed separating the government funding of education from the government management of schools.
Instead of running schools, Friedman said, government should allot parents a sum of money so their sons and daughters could apply towards any private, parochial, or public school, leaving it up to parents to choose what schools their children attended. The result, Friedman said, would be a fairer and more effective system of schools.
As the founder and chairman of Overstock.com, I understand how consumers think. They want choices. Some want the newest model. Some want a brand name. All want good value.
That is not what happens in K-12 education, which is the least innovative major industry in America today. Unless you are wealthy enough to move or can afford tuition in a private school, your children are assigned to a school based on their address and taught the same way as 150 years ago. That is, after all, the purpose of a monopoly: to sell an inferior product at high price while resisting innovation. Just because this particular monopoly happens to be owned and managed by government does not change this dynamic.
That’s why Friedman’s idea of school vouchers is so important today. The best way to transform the education monopoly is to create competition. And the only route to competition is to offer parents a choice of schools through vouchers.
When parents have more choice, kids benefit, taxpayers come out ahead, and the best teachers are freed to teach. Parents win because they can pick a school that meets their child’s needs. Taxpayers win because vouchers cost far less than government schools, leaving more capacity and funding for the children who choose to remain in government schools. And teachers win because under a voucher system, a market evolves for the hard-working and talented teachers.
The best news is that we are finally starting to see Friedman’s idea become a reality across America. The Wall Street Journal labeled 2011 the Year of School Choice. Since January, 13 states and localities have enacted 19 programs so parents can select a school that is best for their child. Eleven of these programs expand or improve existing school choice programs, and eight create brand new programs.
This includes the nation’s most expansive school voucher program in Indiana, which in less than two months has become the fastest-growing voucher program ever. More than 3,300 Indiana parents have raced to sign up their children to attend private schools. A whopping 85 percent of them are low-income, proving Friedman right again when he predicted that a universal voucher program would bring the most benefit to the poorest among us.
The simple fact is that Milton Friedman was correct in 1955 when he wrote that vouchers would create “a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children.” These opportunities are now becoming available throughout this country as parents demand – and get – more school choice.
Patrick M. Byrne is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his wife Rose. He is also Chairman and CEO of Overstock.com.