In 1955, economics Nobel laureate Milton Friedman published his seminal essay “The Role of Government in Education,” presenting for the first time his proposal to replace the existing system of government-run schools with a voucher program. Friedman believed his school-choice plan represented a more efficient arrangement that would improve academic outcomes while providing families increased autonomy to decide where and how to educate their children.

Friedman did not oppose all government involvement in education. He recognized that the benefits of education flow beyond the student, and that society has an interest in ensuring its citizens have a common set of values and a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge. To Friedman, this “network effect” provides the state sufficient justification to set minimum educational standards and assume the cost of schooling its citizens.

While recognizing the economic case for government subsidy of education, Friedman saw no reason the state should be in the business of running schools. On the contrary, he argued that the prevailing practice of widespread government-controlled schools harmed educational results and impinged on parental liberty. He reasoned that the competition among schools created by a market-oriented approach would produce a more responsive and diverse education system, empowering families and leading to higher educational quality and efficiency, and better results.

Friedman’s essay continues to play a significant role in shaping the school-choice debate. It features prominently in Cara Fitzpatrick’s new book, The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America, a history of the ups and downs of the school-choice movement over the past 70 years.

The title of Fitzpatrick’s work is misleading. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), at the time Friedman published his essay, approximately 85 percent of all K–12 children in the U.S. attended public schools. In 2021, the most recent year for which the NCES provides data, this figure had risen to approximately 90 percent, around 85 percent if you classify charter schools as private. So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, Fitzpatrick’s report of the death of public education seems greatly exaggerated.

The problem with Fitzpatrick’s title is the problem with her book—she has a view she wants to convey, and she doesn’t let facts impede her presentation of that view. It’s a shame, because there is a good, though incomplete, history of the fight over school choice in the book. But she leaves out the parts of the story that are inconvenient to her worldview, includes debunked theories to support her thesis, and misinterprets many of the facts she conveys.

Early in her book, Fitzpatrick declares: “The war over school choice has been the fiercest of this country’s education battles because it is the most important: it is the struggle over the definition of public education.” Fitzpatrick thinks this is the crucial fight: whether to include in the definition of public education schools that are government-financed but run by others. She frames the debate this way because she believes the argument is about values, rather than outcomes—with most Democrats lining up behind government-run schools “and most Republicans arguing for greater ‘freedom’ for families.” (The scare quotes are in the original, though it’s unclear why.)

But that’s not exactly right, is it? Most people do care about this outcome: whether all students in the U.S. have an equal opportunity to receive a quality education in a safe environment. The battle is fierce because, on this basis, traditional public schools have been doing a poor job for quite some time and the public knows it.

According to Gallup, in 1973, confidence in U.S. public schools hovered around 60 percent for both Democrats and Republicans. In 2019, before the effects of the Covid pandemic, this percentage had dropped in half, to around 30 percent for both groups. The decline in confidence occurred even though education spending (adjusted for inflation) more than doubled over that period. Today, the United States spends around $800 billion annually on public K–12 education, averaging more than $16,000 per K–12 student, among the top five of developed nations. Despite this level of spending, the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that three out of four eighth-graders in the U.S. are not proficient in math. Over two out of three are not proficient in reading. Fourth-graders showed similar results. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the average ACT score for the Class of 2023 suffered its sixth consecutive decline, dropping to a new 30-year low.

Faced with these alarming facts, one might assume that our elected officials would insist public schools do a better job of educating our K–12 students. Or they could go the other way, as Oregon did in late October, suspending high school graduation requirements for math, reading, and writing proficiency until the 2027–28 school year. It’s hard to see how awarding diplomas for time served will either halt the slide in public confidence or improve educational outcomes.

Fitzpatrick suggests that the modern school-choice movement is contaminated by segregationist roots and, as a result, is an unacceptable alternative to government-run schools. This is also the view of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president, Randi Weingarten, who has called school-choice programs the “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” and likened parents who seek alternatives to traditional public schools to segregationists.

According to this “racist origin” view, the modern school-choice movement arose in response to the landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. In Brown, the Supreme Court unanimously outlawed mandated segregation in public schools. Attempting to skirt this ruling, a small number of Southern states shut down public schools and provided white families tuition grants to enable them to send their children to private, racially segregated schools. Proponents of this view argue that modern school-choice programs are racist because, in the words of the Center for American Progress, “the impacts of these programs in the South still reverberate today.”

There are two issues with this argument. First, the idea of school choice preceded the Brown decision by at least a century. Its intellectual antecedents can be traced to the works of Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, and John Stuart Mill. Vermont adopted a school-choice program in 1869. Maine adopted one in 1873.

Friedman, who published his article a year after Brown, said he developed his ideas with no knowledge of the segregationist interest in school choice, and that he was absolutely opposed to forced segregation. There is no reason to believe he was being insincere. Fitzpatrick acknowledges that Friedman’s views were “consistent with his own long-held principles,” rather than racially motivated.

In any event, the programs that were devised by the segregationists were not true school-choice programs. As Fitzpatrick observes, the schemes adopted to circumvent Brown were race-neutral on paper but, in practice, made available only to white families. Friedman himself proposed a universal voucher program, available to all K–12 students, regardless of race, gender, or financial circumstances. He predicted his program would result in increased integration as it freed individuals from the shackles of government-mandated segregation. According to EdChoice, Freidman’s prediction was accurate, with “nearly every empirical study on the topic [determining] school vouchers lead to more ethnic and racial integration in schools.”

Finally, the segregationist-developed schemes never took hold, dying out long before widespread adoption of modern-day school-choice programs. Vouchers did not gain prominence in the U.S. until 1990, with the implementation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. As Fitzpatrick acknowledges, school-choice pioneer Polly Williams—a black woman and Democrat—was a driving force behind this trailblazing program. As late as 1995, fewer than 1,000 students throughout the U.S. were taking advantage of school-choice programs. That number did not exceed 100,000 until 2005.

The second issue with the “racist origin” argument is that it relies on a classic fallacy—judging the value of the idea based on its supposed history rather than on its merits and the supporting evidence. It would be ludicrous to deny the causal link between smoking and cancer just because the connection was first discovered by Nazi scientists. Similarly, school-choice programs should be judged on their ability to achieve desired results, not on their historical lineage.

And on this basis, a growing body of research reveals that government-funded school-choice programs have been an overwhelming success. Contrary to Fitzpatrick’s implication that the studies are inconclusive, the data confirm that school-choice programs improve academic outcomes for both program participants and those who remain in public schools, save the public money, and reduce segregation.

According to a 2023 report, 84 percent of the 187 empirical studies reviewed by EdChoice found school-choice programs to have positive effects on a wide variety of criteria, including test scores, graduation rates, parental satisfaction, civic values, racial and ethnic integration, fiscal effects, and school safety. The most recent meta-analysis, conducted at the University of Arkansas, reported that students using school vouchers “saw large positive gains on test scores that equate roughly to 49 more days of learning in math and 28 more days of learning in reading and English.”

In the introduction to her book, Fitzpatrick contends that conservatives strategically adopted civil-rights language as a means to attack government-run public schools. As an example, she points to Betsy DeVos, former secretary of education, who called the education system “institutionally racist against blacks and other minorities [, trapping] them in failing schools and with no possibility of escape.” Fitzpatrick suggests this strategy was cynical, that conservatives merely feigned concern for civil rights, and that DeVos insincerely asserted systematic bias in pursuit of her true goal. But this suggestion is unfair.

According to the U.S. Treasury, despite the end of legal segregation seven decades ago, “many of America’s public schools remain segregated by race and ethnicity” and “substantial racial disparities in educational opportunity and attainment still exist.” These disparities take the form of significant gaps in, among other things, reading and math achievement, access to advanced placement and other college-ready courses, and high-school graduation rates. The pandemic magnified these effects, with students in high-poverty schools experiencing larger pandemic-related achievement declines, increasing the achievement gap.

This is why K–12 education equity is the civil-rights issue of our time. A decent K–12 education is the path out of poverty for the disadvantaged. Forcing students to attend poorly run public schools when a better alternative is available is cold-hearted and inhumane. Fitzpatrick appears at one point to acknowledge the validity of this claim, declaring, “Many of the arguments for school choice are compelling . . . because of long-standing inequities in public education.”

In light of this, Fitzpatrick’s observation that most Democrats put values above outcomes and oppose school choice is incomprehensible. Why would anyone deprive disadvantaged students of access to a quality education that is unavailable through their local government-run schools? It’s simply not credible to claim that public schools can be fixed when they’ve been broken for 70 years.

Fitzpatrick sprinkles clues to answer this mystery throughout her book. She identifies several leading figures on the left and bi-partisan coalitions that have supported some form of school choice, indicating that Democrats’ opposition to these programs is not nearly as monolithic as she asserts. This June, RealClear Opinion Research reported that 66 percent of Democrats polled support school choice.

More telling, Fitzpatrick observes that, in the battle over school choice, “the leadership of the Democratic Party and one of its historical allies, the teacher’s unions, often … lined up against a core constituency: Black and Latino parents.” RealClear Opinion Research confirms the observation, reporting that 73 percent of black and 71 percent of Hispanic voters support school choice.

The role of teachers’ unions is key to understanding Democrats’ historic opposition to school choice. Fitzpatrick barely covers it. Although she mentions a few instances in which teachers’ unions legally challenged or lobbied against individual school-choice programs, she overlooks the systematic efforts of the teachers’ unions to prevent or delay the adoption of school-choice plans.

It’s no surprise that teachers’ unions oppose school-choice programs. Although they argue school choice results in a reduction of funds for public schools—particularly poorly performing schools, which need the money the most—this argument seems disingenuous. The purpose of government funding is to educate children, not to prop up failing schools. Moreover, in reality, public schools benefit financially when students leave to take advantage of school-choice programs. Only a portion of the money public schools receive is based on enrollment counts. As a result, declining enrollment results in a higher dollar amount per pupil who remains.

It is much more likely unions oppose school choice because it threatens their monopoly on public education, resulting in fewer union jobs, lower union dues, and higher competition for unions and their members. And that opposition is fierce. The unions marshal enormous resources to combat school choice, funneling almost all of these resources to Democrats.

The National Education Association (NEA) and the AFT are two of the largest labor unions in the country. During 2020–21, the NEA gave approximately $180 million in direct and indirect political donations. This amounted to $2 spent on politics for every $1 spent on member services. The AFT donated an additional $55 million. The two unions regularly are at, or near, the top of the list of interest-group contributors at both the state and federal level.

Well over 95 percent of the donations from these two unions go to Democrats. In addition, members of the unions regularly are 10 percent or more of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention, making them the single largest organizational bloc of Democratic Party activists. Is it any wonder that Democratic politicians support the teachers’ unions’ agenda at the expense of some of the party’s core constituencies?

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Though Fitzpatrick’s declaration that conservatives have won the war is premature, cause for hope does exist. But Fitzpatrick has it backward. Teachers’ unions, not conservative activists, deserve most of the credit.

From very early in the pandemic, Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, was a powerful proponent of school shutdowns, both publicly and behind the scenes. She was effective, too. Well into 2021, long after the potential harms to students were known and the dangers of Covid had passed, the AFT and its allies kept many public schools closed, particularly those in left-leaning cities with strong teachers’ unions. Students stuck in these schools suffered the consequences, including severe learning loss and increased incidence of depression. The effects were magnified for low-income, black, and Latino children. Meanwhile, private schools fought to reopen, and by October 2020, 90 percent of private schools offered in-person instruction. After the fact, Weingarten tried to gaslight the public, claiming she had never championed shutdowns, but rather spent her energy trying to get schools to reopen. Her claim was laughable.

The teachers’ unions also leveraged the pandemic and conversations around reopening to push for broad progressive policy changes, including suspension of teacher-performance evaluations, a limit on student testing, cancellation of student-loan debt, Medicare for all, a wealth tax, defunding the police, and banning charter schools. Ordinary parents had difficulty seeing how any of these proposals could possibly improve their children’s education in any manner.

In the meantime, remote learning offered parents the opportunity to observe what their children were being taught. Many were unhappy with what they viewed to be ideological indoctrination, leading them to demand more say in their children’s schooling. Tone-deaf to their desires, in a September 2021 Virginia gubernatorial debate, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe declared, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Shortly thereafter, Weingarten tweeted her appreciation of a piece in the Washington Post declaring, “Parents claim they have the right to shape their kids’ school curriculum. They don’t.” Many parents did not appreciate the deep faith in statism these statements conveyed.

These developments led to a powerful backlash, which served as rocket fuel to the school-choice movement. According to EdChoice, in 2023 alone, seven states enacted new private choice programs. Ten other states expanded their existing programs. There are now 77 educational choice programs in 32 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. After the most recent expansions, approximately 36 percent of students in the U.S. are eligible for a private choice program, a 60 percent increase in access to private choice over the past two years alone.

So, it turns out, the heavy-handed tactics of the teachers’ unions during the pandemic did more to advance school choice than conservatives were able to accomplish during the almost 70 years following publication of Friedman’s essay. Irony abounds.

Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

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