Orange County Register – California Focus, January 29, 2009
William E. Simon Foundation, February 11, 2009
The late economist believed in schools competing for students.
On this date two years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed Milton Friedman Day in California to honor the late Nobel Prize-winning economist and the governor’s “intellectual hero, whose ideas proved “life-changing.” Now it’s time the governor and Legislature allow Friedman’s ideas to change the lives of California parents and students.
At $40 billion, California’s annual general-fund spending on K-12 education approaches New York’s entire state general fund budget of $47 billion and beats every other state’s general fund budget hands down. The California public education system also rivals numerous Fortune 500 companies in revenue, albeit not results, outranking Intel, Walt Disney, Apple, Gap, Google, Hilton Hotels and Yahoo, to name a few.
In proclaiming Milton Friedman Day on Jan. 29, 2007, the governor said, “He was an intellectual hero of mine” whose best-selling book “Free to Choose,” which was made into a 1980 PBS documentary, proved “life-changing.” Adding those three words – free to choose – to the California Education Code would likewise change for the better the lives of millions of California schoolchildren.
“Why is it that our educational system is turning out youngsters who cannot read, write or figure,” Friedman once asked, “The answer – simple but nonetheless correct – is that our current school system is a monopoly.” The solution is to let parents pick their children’s schools, let schools compete for students, and let teachers be paid according to their performance and market demand.
California students are largely assigned to public schools based on where their parents can afford to live, which means schools do not have to work at attracting or keeping students. In contrast, 70 percent of the countries that outperformed the United States in combined math and science literacy among 15-year-olds had more schools competing for students, according to data from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Consequently, students in such countries as China, Japan, Hong Kong and Germany, as well as former Soviet-bloc countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Latvia all enjoy more education options than their U.S. peers.
OECD data also indicate that school choice benefits students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Among the top five countries with above-average performance and a below-average impact of student socioeconomic background, competition for students was the most common characteristic. On average, 80 percent of schools in Australia, Canada, Finland, Japan, and Korea faced high levels of competition for students.
Top global performers are also getting the job done in less time and at a fraction of the cost. Among the 32 countries participating in the latest OECD assessment, the United States has the most teaching hours per public-school year, 1,080, compared with the international average of 803. With 505 teaching hours per school year, Japan has the least of all OECD assessment countries.
California was once a national leader in academic achievement. Today it ranks 48th among the states in basic reading and math performance. Public school spending for a single California student through age 15 will amount to about $85,000 compared with average spending of $53,000 among the top 20 countries that outperform the United States in math.
Friedman’s ideas on freedom helped transform countries in nearly every corner of the world – but have yet to be embraced by the state he chose to call home. The governor and state lawmakers should apply the lessons of this Nobel laureate and make parental choice in education a reality for all Californians.