Milton Friedmanís school voucher plan is undoubtedly the greatest economic delusion ever foisted on the American public. What is more amazing is that practically every conservative columnist has heaped praise on this delusional scheme to solve the "crisis with todayís schools."
Friedman was never much for public education to begin with. In any conversation, or in his books, he regards public education as unnecessary and inefficient. If you are going to have children, says Friedman, you should prepare yourself to pay for the full cost of their education.
Friedman ignores the public argument that the entire society is better off it everyone has been educated to some standard. If 25% of the public were illiterate because their parents could not send them to school, that would be fine with Friedman because it would be inefficient to education them at public expense.
Of course, Friedman ignores what every society in every culture of the world has endorsed, that is, that the young people of their society need to be educated in the values of the society, be that hunting, fishing or doing advanced algebra. There is no such thing as culture, society or social needs for Friedman, only discrete consumers making decisions in a vacuum.
Friedmanís Voucher Delusion was an abstract concept he was peddling to no avail for years. Americans went on happily providing for public schools and feeling content. Then the public schools began to crash in 1965.
Prior to 1965, public schools in the big cities, especially New York City, were considered the finest in the world. Six Nobel Prize winners graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and the City College of New York considered it the poor manís Harvard University. High school students had pistol practice at the high schools and carried unloaded guns on the subways. The demographics of these high school students was overwhelmingly White with a high percentage of Jews, who were admirably scholarly and regarded academics as the chief means of advancement in American society.
In 1965, the demographics of the City of New York began to change. The Immigration Act of 1965 started the great influx of Hispanics into the city. At the same time, more African-Americans were moving into the City from the south. At the same time, due to the pressures of free trade, manufacturing employment in the city began to drop and the need for unskilled labor, especially in the garment industry, dropped. More immigrants than ever were coming in and there was fewer high skill jobs. The murder rate went up and white flight from the City to the suburbs continued in earnest.
At the same time, the Great Society programs kicked in and out-of-wedlock births rose and more children were now living with grandparents or single parents. In short, the stability of an in-tact, two parent family was missing in the lives of millions of New York City school children.
Milton Friedman ignores all this and says that all problems will be solved. According to Friedman, we donít have a failing social problem, manufacturing problem and crime problem what we have is a lack of parents being able to choose between schools. Somehow, magically the same teachers, teaching the same curriculum will magically raise the educational levels of their students.
Of course, a great deal of the decline of the inner cities can be traced to NAFTA, CAFTA and the free trade theories of Milton Friedman and his cohorts. Industry requires an abundance of cheap, accessible labor, and the cities were the place such labor could be found. When manufacturing left the cities such as New York, Bridgeport, Detroit and countless other American cities, the inner core collapsed. Poverty, high unemployment and hopeless poverty are due in part to the theories of Milton Friedman.
I met a teacher who had taught in both the Bronx High School of Science and in the Newark High School system. He told me these stories to illustrate the difference between the two school systems.
In the Bronx High School of Science, all members of his math class had marks of ninety or above on the state-wide Regents exam. When he proudly told this to the principal of the school, the principals wise remark was, "Yes, but did you help or hinder your students during the year." Of course, this meant that his students were already well-motivated and were ready to study.
In the Newark School, he recounted repeatedly calling parents because a student was failing, or needed extra help. The parents were either not home, unreachable or would not return phone calls. Often phone calls were left with a boyfriend, or the student did not live at the address.
His comment on the voucher system was that it worked because at least you had one motivated parent show up to sign for the voucher. Often existing voucher schools demand parental involvement and home work assignments. The reason for success is not simply the method of payment, but the selecting out of parents who are concerned about school success.
An additional advantage of the voucher schools is that the total student body is smaller. The smaller the school, the greater the level of parent and student involvement, the lower the absentee rate and higher school achievement. Despite these known findings, New York City schools remain huge with 1,500 to 3,000 students. In these schools, there is still only one basketball team, and unless you are future NBA material you are not going to play. This is also true for the cheerleaders and other school functions. As a consequence, marginal students often detach themselves from the school and soon leave.
Blaming the schools and the teachers in the center city schools and calling them "failing schools" is simply a denial of the reality of inner city life. Thinking the problems will be magically solved by vouchers is delusional.
In the suburbs, there is no ground swell of demand to replace community controlled school systems by voucher systems. For the most part, the voucher system is an answer to problems American schools do not have. For the big city schools, vouchers help, but they are not a panacea for the social, cultural, ethnic and economic situations faced by the students in these schools.
Milton Friedmanís vouchers are another of his delusions.
Co-director, CT Citizens for Immigration Reform
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Mr. Streitz is author of Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth I, The Great American College Tuition Rip-off and America First, Why Americans Must End Free Trade, Stop Outsourcing and Close Our Open Borders. He is also a graduate of the University of Chicago Business School with an MBA in marketing and finance, but he has since recanted his free trade, voucher and other foolish libertarian beliefs.