Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Milton Friedman's Vision

The Friedman Foundation for Choice in Education has a new name-- EdChoice.

The organization considers the change of their "brand" in the pages of its blog.  Milton and Rose Friedman are both currently dead, but they apparently left a plan for making sure the group outlived them and kept its focus on its mission, not its deceased beneficiaries.  They remain committed to choice, but

We don’t just want more choice, we want better and bigger choice. And using what we already know works, we will usher in a new era of educational choice programs built to serve every student and ensure that all families have the opportunity and access to schooling that meets their needs.

As for their organizational qualities, they are smart and dedicated. They are 100% for all-out "unencumbered" school choice. They are proud to not be "not some stuffy think tank." Beyond that they are going to be lobbying hard for those all-choice policies.

But the end of the Friedman name as a choice-promotion brand seems like a good time to look at Friedman's vision, a vision that has drive much of the charter industry for years.

In 1995, Milton Friedman contributed this op ed to the Washington Post. It now lives on the CATO website, and from the moment it spools out its title, it's clear we're seeing the big plan.

Public Schools: Make Them Private is one big spoiler alert of a title, because that's exactly what Friedman wants to do.


Friedman says that our current education system needs to be reformed. And while that is in part because of the "defects" of the system, there are more compelling reasons. Technology and globalization are at the top of the list.

A radical reconstruction of the educational system has the potential of staving off social conflict while at the same time strengthening the growth in living standards made possible by the new technology and the increasingly global market. In my view, such a radical reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system--i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools. Such a reconstruction cannot come about overnight. It inevitably must be gradual.  

He sees the solution in vouchers, but it was only 1995, and he couldn't see the chartery possibilities of setting up a vast second school system funded with public dollars. In 1995, he's still on vouchers, and idea that hasn't been fully realized yet because of those damned teacher unions.

The Deterioration of Schooling

Friedman asserts that schools are worse in 1995 than they were in 1955. He says this deterioration is "not disputable," and offers exactly zero evidence that it's true. What was so awesome about school in 1955?  The segregation? Only roughly 60% of students graduating from school? Friedman doesn't say, but he does identify the most likely culprits--  centralization and those damned teachers' unions (in fact, the unions are somewhat responsible-- in some unnamed way-- for causing districts to consolidate). Also, federal overreach.

The New Industrial Revolution

The Big Revolution is essentially globalization.

The technological revolution has made it possible for a company located anywhere in the world to use resources located anywhere in the world, to produce a product anywhere in the world, to be sold anywhere in the world. It's impossible to say, "this is an American car" or "this is a Japanese car," and the same goes for many other products. 

Of course, "resources" includes labor and capital. The reserve of cheap labor in particular is being huge-ified by globalization,

Plus, the political revolution adds more cheap labor and second, it discredits the entire idea of central planning. Local planning is best.

Wage Differentials

In poor countries. But in not-poor countries, the above changes have insured that in non-poor countries, the rich will get richer and the poor will get the shaft. Friedman calls this broadening wage gap the recipe for a recipe for social disaster, by which I gather he means the problem of angry peasants brandishing pointy sticks and storming the castle.


Friedman says that education is adding to stratification, so that's bad. There's "enormous room for improvement" says Friedman. Teachers still stand in front of rooms of students, and hardly anybody is taking advantage of computers.

The solution to this barely-stated problem? Privatize most of the schools. This will be good because

A) it will bust the unions (he wants to weaken or destroy "the power of the current educational establishment, who are the great obstacle to the radical changes that must be made")

B) competition will make schools be better because competition is magical that way

Free market magic again; Friedman says we all know how it has spurred innovative great ideas in every industry. Friedman even offers some examples of how great this works, like the way the fax machine undermined the postal service, or the way the phone industry was revolutionized by being broken into competitive units, and how UPS and FedEx revolutionized the delivery industry, and how the Japanese souped up the auto industry.

I realize that Friedman was one of the most influential financial minds of his generation and I'm a high school English teacher, but I have to call bullshit on his examples. Fax machines did not make letter writing better. The phone industry has competed by not really competing, leaving consumers to deal with the same money-grubbing customer-punting industry we had when Ma Bell was the only phone company. UPS and FedEx have revolutionized the mail delivery industry by sorting out customers and only working with those from whom, they can make money, leaving the US Postal Service to do the rest. IOW, FedEx and UPS revolutionized the business by changing the business's goal-- to only serve the customers they considered worth their while, which is a far different mission than making it possible for every single US citizen to send a letter to any other US citizen. The auto industry is an even more curious example, because we had free market competition long before the Japanese horned in; it would have been worth Friedman's while to consider why the auto industry was such a free market failure.

Friedman's vision is for universal vouchers, available to all students and good for all schools (which is far different from several of his previous examples). The chance to grab some of that voucher money will lead to more private schools entering the arena, leading to an explosion of educational awesomeness. And it will all cost the taxpayers less that the current system.

This was and is baloney. If Young Pat is going to have a choice of schools, there will need to be seats for Pat at multiple schools, and we end up with a system with way too much excess capacity. If we craft a system that doesn't have all that excess capacity, then someone will have to figure out how to manage this year's overflow-- who gets into a particular school, and who does not. Once we do that, we no longer have a choice system at all.

Friedman is also prone to throwing in odd assertions like this one: "As in all cases, the innovations in the "luxury" product will soon spread to the basic product." In all what cases? Stroll through Wal-Mart and show me where the luxury has spread. The only thing that has spread is the marketing illusion of some luxury. In other words, give the peasants something shiny and they'll stay happy and away form the pointy sticks.

Oh, and this burgeoning lucrative highly-profitable business would attract all those folks who want to go into education, but are discouraged by the terrible state of the biz.

Friedman's Crystal Ball

It's interesting to see Friedman predict TFA and other faux educator training programs role in the privatized world, as well as his not bothering to distinguish between vouchers, private schools, charters, and all the other landmarks of the education biz.

Friendman's vision certainly has guided lots of folks in the past decade-plus, but he has also been proven wrong about pretty much everything. A choice system isn't cheaper, isn't better, and hasn't provided anything except profits for many of the privatizers. But at least he was absolutely clear about the goal-- turn public education into a private business, one way or another, and let folks make a bundle doing it.

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