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By David W. Kirkpatrick (August 21, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
The following is the conclusion of the article that started the contemporary voucher discussion in the United States.
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The Role of Government in Education," by Milton Friedman. From Economics and the Public Interest, ed. Robert A. Solo, copyright © 1955 by the Trustees of Rutgers College in New Jersey.
This re-examination of the role of government in education suggests that the growth of governmental responsibility in this area has been unbalanced. Government has appropriately financed general education for citizenship, but in the process it has been led also to administer most of the schools that provide such education. Yet, as we have seen, the administration of schools is neither required by the financing of education, nor justifiable in its own right in a predominantly free enterprise society. Government has appropriately been concerned with widening the opportunity of young men and women to get professional and technical training, but it has sought to further this objective by the inappropriate means of subsidizing such education, largely in the form of making it available free or at a low price at governmentally operated schools.
The lack of balance in governmental activity reflects primarily the failure to separate sharply the question what activities it is appropriate for government to finance from the question what activities it is appropriate for government to administer--a distinction that is important in other areas of government activity as well. Because the financing of general education by government is widely accepted, the provision of general education directly by govern mental bodies has also been accepted. But institutions that provide general education are especially well suited also to provide some kinds of vocational and professional education, so the acceptance of direct government provision of general education has led to the direct provision of vocational education. To complete the circle, the provision of vocational education has, in turn, meant that it too was financed by government, since financing has been predominantly of educational institutions not of particular kinds of educational services.
The alternative arrangements whose broad outlines are sketched in this paper distinguish sharply between the financing of education and the operation of educational institutions, and between education for citizenship or leadership and for greater economic productivity. Throughout, they center attention on the person rather than the institution. Government, preferably local governmental units, would give each child, through his parents, a specified sum to be used solely in paying for his general education; the parents would be free to spend this sum at a school of their own choice, provided it met certain minimum standards laid down by the appropriate governmental unit. Such schools would be conducted under a variety of auspices: by private enterprises operated for profit, non profit institutions established by private endowment, religious bodies, and some even by governmental units.
For vocational education, the government, this time however the central government, might likewise deal directly with the individual seeking such education. If it did so, it would make funds available to him to finance his education, not as a subsidy but as "equity" capital. In return, he would obligate himself to pay the state a specified fraction of his earnings above some minimum, the fraction and minimum being determined to make the program self-financing. Such a program would eliminate existing imperfections in the capital market and so widen the opportunity of individuals to make productive investments in themselves while at the same time assuring that the costs are borne by those who benefit most directly rather than by the population at large. An alternative, and a highly desirable one if it is feasible, is to stimulate private arrangements directed toward the same end.
The result of these measures would be a sizable reduction in the direct activities of government, yet a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children. They would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy.
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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
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Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
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