Lessons for Arnold from Milton Friedman

Lessons for Arnold from Milton Friedman

Sacramento Union, February 15, 2008

SACRAMENTO – Jan. 29 was Milton Friedman Day, which may have escaped Californians’ notice. I wonder: Could Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gain inspiration from the ideas of the late Nobel laureate and lauded economist?

One in three California public school students is now in a public school district that has not made adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward academic proficiency for at least three consecutive years. Those 98 districts enroll more than two million students statewide. The governor vowed last month in his State of the State Address that “California will be the first state to use its powers given to us under this No Child Left Behind Act to turn these districts around.” The official term for those powers is “corrective action.”

The corrective options at Gov. Schwarzenegger’s disposal include replacing staff, reorganizing schools, and even appointing outside experts to oversee operations. Should districts fail to make AYP again next year, some of them required to let parents choose better schools for their children. This is the option Dr. Friedman first advocated more than 50 years ago.

In a 2005 interview, Dr. Friedman explained what inspired him to write about parental choice in education, and why education dollars should follow students instead of subsidizing wasteful bureaucracies.

“I was writing a piece on the role of government in education,” he said, “and I started to think about how government intervention tends not to work very well… empowering parents would generate a competitive education market, which would lead to a burst of innovation and improvement, as competition has done in so many other areas. There’s nothing that would do so much to avoid the danger of a two-tiered society, of a class-based society. And there’s nothing that would do so much to ensure a skilled and educated work force.”

In his Milton Friedman Day proclamation statement last year, Gov. Schwarzenegger explained that Dr. Friedman’s work restored a belief in the freedom of individual to choose. “He was an intellectual hero of mine,” the governor. Yet he and other elected state officials have not taken Dr. Friedman’s advice, thus denying the basic right of California parents to choose their children’s schools.

The budgets of the 98 districts slated for corrective action under federal law average more than $200 million each, according to U.S. Department of Education records for fiscal year 2005, the most recent year comprehensive financial data are available. Total per-student revenue from federal, state, and local sources approaches and even exceeds $10,000 in many cases, including Del Paso Heights Elementary, which receives $10,300 per student. North Sacramento Elementary isn’t far behind at $9,500.

The sad truth is, students in those and other lackluster schools across the state will likely finish their K-12 years without ever being allowed to attend better schools. The reason lies in California policy makers’ history of appeasement toward special interest groups that oppose parental choice— teacher unions chief among them. It should not take an Act of Congress for California to get its schoolhouses in order. Nor should parents have to keep their children in schools that fail to improve year after year. Alternatives should be immediate and universal.

Schwarzenegger’s so-called year of education reform should begin by ending the country’s largest government school monopoly, that is, if the governor truly wants to honor his intellectual hero, Milton Friedman, the “Father of Modern School Reform.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.