(This policy bulletin is extracted from the book Unchain the child: Abolish compulsory schooling laws published by the Free Market Foundation in 2005.)
Increasing choice in education
The celebrated American economist, Professor Milton Friedman, proposed that a voucher plan be introduced to give students and parents greater choice in schooling, including the choice of attending private schools (Friedman, 1975). Friedman was well aware that vouchers would not create a real market for schooling – they would merely improve matters somewhat by forcing schools, including government schools, to compete for students, thus presenting parents and their children with more choice. However, he put forward the voucher proposal as a possible means of overcoming what he regarded as the most serious hurdle facing schooling reform: ‘There is no doubt what the key obstacle is to the introduction of market competition into schooling: the perceived self-interest of the educational bureaucracy.’
Friedman’s first preference was in fact for a completely open market in education:
… the way to achieve real reform in schooling is to give competition and free enterprise greater scope; to make available to low- and middle-income parents, particularly those living in slums, a range of choice in schooling comparable to that which the children of upper-income parents have long enjoyed. How can the market be used to organise schooling more effectively? The most radical answer is to put schooling precisely on a par with food: eliminate compulsory schooling, government operation of schools and government financing of schools except for financial assistance to the indigent. The market would then have full rein.
More than thirty years after Milton Friedman proposed his voucher plan, a federally-funded voucher programme for low-income students is being introduced in Washington DC. Court battles have been fought in America about vouchers over a period of many years. The subject of contention in these cases has been the constitutionality of the use of public funds to support religion, there being a possibility that vouchers could be tendered for tuition at religious-based schools. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a narrow 5-4 majority that the use of vouchers was based on individual choice, and therefore did not violate the constitution. The use of taxpayer-funded vouchers to increase choice and competition between schools is now slowly gathering momentum in America, especially to improve opportunities for children from low-income homes. However, even universal use of vouchers for all children in all countries would not create the kind of competition that is necessary to transform schooling to a state that reflects consumer preferences.
Without the powers conferred on them by compulsory schooling laws, the educational bureaucracy would not have the ability to block reform of schooling. Nothing less than the total abolition of the compulsory attendance laws is therefore needed to remove the bureaucratic veto on reform and allow a true market process of discovery and competition to develop in the education field.
Source: This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.