Milton Friedman on Decentralizing Schools

Newsweek | November 18, 1968

A far better alternative to political control is to introduce competition in schooling, to give parents a real choice. Why not say to every parent, “The community is committed to spending X dollars a year on schooling your child. If you do not send your child to our public school, you relieve us of this cost. In return, the community will give you a voucher for X dollars a year per child. You can use this voucher to purchase schooling at any other approved school, public or private, but for no other purpose.”

This would enable parents to exert economic pressure individually on the school, as on the department store, without having to go through a cumbrous political mechanism. It would establish a large market that does not now exist for medium-priced private schools. Supply would rapidly develop to meet the demand. If public schools met the new competition by improving their quality, they would keep their customers; if not, they would decline.

This is the right way to decentralize schooling, to give parents more effective control over schools, and to open up opportunities for children in the slums. It is the right way to meet the growing problem of organized teachers battling political bodies to divide up the spoils. It is the right way to get a more sensible salary structure for teachers — one that pays higher salaries to good teachers and lower salaries to bad teachers — in place of a rigid civil service structure that fixes salary mainly by seniority and degrees rather than merit.

It is also the right way to stimulate variety and diversity — in the suburbs as well as the cities — and to end the present discrimination against families who send their children to parochial schools while keeping church and state separate.

This plan would harness the enormous potential of a free market to improve the quality of schooling and to broaden the range of alternatives open to our children — black and white, rich and poor, gifted and slow. As in other areas, we can all benefit by using the market: parents, students, taxpayers and teachers.

Reprinted with permission.