The Role of Government in Education

August 1, 2016 | Read online:

What role should the government play in educating its citizens? In this 1955 essay, economics Nobel laureate Milton Friedman argues that while there is an economic case to be made for government to subsidize the education of the young, it does not follow that government itself should be in the business of running schools. Friedman proposes a better solution: government can provide families with vouchers that families can use at schools of their choice. Government subsidy without government management will make for a more efficient and freer system of education, in which families have greater say over how their children will be raised.

Imagine what impact such a voucher program might have in the Jewish community, which is called to spend a fortune in tuition in order to educate Jewish boys and girls in private religious schools. As Jack Wertheimer described in his study on “The High Cost of Jewish Living,” the burden of Jewish continuity disproportionately falls on those with the means to afford expensive tuition payments. Here, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent economists makes the case for a different way forward, a way that stands to benefit not only Jewish Americans, but offers a wider range of choices for all American families, and provokes competition and innovation in schools across the country.

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. . . .

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.

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