An Electronic Magazine for Thinkers

Unionize School Children?  

    Now in his 90s, Milton Friedman is still putting his considerable intellect to work on common economic problems that beset we the people.  He's the fellow who coined the phrase "There is no such thing as a free lunch."  

    In an interview in San Francisco in May he recalled the response of a president of the National Education Association when he was asked when the NEA was going to do something for students.  He replied that when the students became members of the union the union would take care of them.  

    This makes perfect sense, of course.  The NEA is a teachers' union with an obligation to serve its members.  The obligation to students belongs to the local taxpayers who hire teachers and provide buildings in which youth are supposedly trained in the skills required to function as self-supporting adults.  The fact that the system doesn't work as idealized can be seen in the large number of adults who come nowhere near supporting themselves but continue to rely on public handouts for sustenance.

    No one is seriously recommending that school pupils join the NEA, but a growing number of citizens are calling for a better deal for children by allowing their parents (or guardians) to have greater flexibility in choosing the schools their offspring attend.  The rich already have plenty of choice.  They often opt for private schools.  So, incidentally, do more than 50% of the teachers in Washington, D.C. public schools.  They earn their paychecks in the public school but want their children to get their training in private schools!

   Friedman was asked about the voucher system that would give lower income parents some of the power of school choice wealthier people have.  He replied;

"There are two areas in the United States that suffer from the same disease - - education is one and medical care is the other.  They both suffer from the disease that takes a system that should be bottom-up and converts it into a system that is top-down.  Education is a simple case.  It isn't the public purpose to build brick schools and have students taught there.  The public purpose is to provide education.  Think of it this way:  If you want to subsidize the production of a product there are two ways you can do it.  You can subsidize the producer or you can subsidize the consumer.  In education we subsidize the producer - the school.  If you subsidize the student instead - the consumer - you will have competition.  The student could choose the school he attends and that would force schools to improve and to meet the demands of their students."

   Is Friedman correct?  Is the public purpose to provide education?  The average high-school drop-out rate of about 30% in the nation's public schools is testimony to the failure of the present system and it is collective idiocy to continuing pouring billions of dollars into a system that produces a national literacy rate lower than that of our grandparents.  Pouring tax dollars into the pockets of the producers of public education is misdirected.  The money must go to the consumer - the pupil - who can then choose the school he or she wishes to attend.  

   Opponents to school choice say competition may work in the marketplace but not in education.  That's a socialist idea that's widely accepted but demonstrates its failure with each generation.  We can make choices about what clothes to buy, which car to own, what foods to eat, yet the choice of where to attend school is made for our children by the government - unless we're rich, in which case we have more options about training our children.  

   One big question that's rarely discussed:  What is so terrifying about giving low and medium income parents a hand in purchasing schooling for their children that approaches the level the upper classes buy for their kids?  

  July 14th, 2006

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