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  • Writer's pictureFrank Victoria

Free To Choose

If you’re more than 50 years old, you remember the days before the breakup of the AT&T when most people waited for weekends or late evenings to make long distance calls? It was just too expensive to call someone out of town during regular business hours. Today, that’s pretty much a bad memory because rates are very affordable. You can even buy a phone card for $10 and talk to a friend a thousand miles away until your tongue swells.

That’s competition, the very foundation of our capitalist society. And it’s proven its effectiveness in every way as a boon to consumers. With competition, and the technological advances it spurs, things not only become less expensive, they improve.


Mobile phones are a good example. Think back to the “bricks,” the first cell phones that looked like World War II walkie talkies, about ten times the size of what we have today. You can hide a modern cell phone behind your big toe and not only use it to make calls but text message, take pictures and access the internet. The same thing happened when airlines were deregulated. Before that, only the wealthy and people on expense accounts could afford to fly. Now, air fares are dramatically lower.


If competition works in industry, why not try a dose of it in education? What if schools had to complete for students?  Give parents a choice of where to send their kids and the financial wherewithal via government vouchers to do it and you’ll have schools falling all over themselves to attract “customers” with the very best education.


Government operated schools have been around so long that it’s difficult to imagine the widespread use of private institutions for the general public. However, non-government schooling has a long history. In fact, large percentages of populations were literate under free educational markets centuries ago, according to Andrew J. Carlson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Education Freedom.


Coulson did a five-year study of education from ancient civilizations to modern America and concluded that “one approach has excelled all the rest: a free and competitive educational market. Conversely, government school systems have generally performed badly, with the worst-case scenario being the sort of system most industrialized countries have today: government ownership, funding and management of schools.”


As far back as ancient Athens during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., there were no government operated schools, but Athenians were better schooled and more literate than any citizens would be for a thousand years, Coulson says. Traveling scholars were the primary teachers of a wide variety of subjects and people could study under any them, choosing what to study and how long he or his parents wanted him to study.


Coulson’s research went beyond Rome and Greece. He notes that the Muslim empire during its heyday, from about the eighth to eleventh centuries, had a free educational market. “Schooling spread throughout the society, raising the Islamic world, during its golden age, to preeminence in culture, science, literacy and technology.” He adds, however, government eventually took over schools which then “became sectarian religious institutions meant to promote one branch of Islam over another, leading to intense rivalries, a decline in science instruction and a general calcification and circumscription of education.”


Although it is generally believed that literacy among the majority of a population is a product of modern state-run schools, Coulson says this just isn’t true. “Both England and American achieved near universal literacy during the 19th century before government schooling was established in either country.”


Most private schools were eventually squeezed out in the late 19th century after state run schools were introduced in 1870. But the shrinking of the private education market virtually eliminated the competitive pressure to remain responsive to families, especially poor ones.


In America, school choice and vouchers have been considered since the nation’s birth. Adam Smith, whose book “Wealth of Nations,” was embraced by Alexander Hamilton and became the cornerstone of our capitalist system, argued for school choice.


In recent history, school choice gained some attention in America the mid-50’s, when Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman explained a plan for student school vouchers to enhance and diversify K-12 education across the country. Friedman, who died in 2006, was a highly regarded proponent of free market economics and author of several books, including the best-selling Free To Choose (which I stole for the title of this chapter).


In 1995, he told the Washington Post our education system needs to be radically restructured and that this “reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system, i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools.”


The way to do this, he said, was “to enact in each state a voucher system that enables parents to choose freely the schools for their children attend. The voucher must be universal, available to all parents and large enough to cover the costs of a high quality education. No conditions should be attached to vouchers that would interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment, to explore and to innovate.”


Friedman clearly had little faith in most public schools’ willingness or abilities to restructure themselves and provide quality education without competition which put parents in charge of where, what and how their children learned. 


Such distrust is not new.  Two thousand years ago, the ancient Roman lawyer and historian Pliny the Younger argued against public schools and for school choice when he decided to pay only one-third of the cost of a secondary school he established in his hometown. His reason was: “I would promise the whole amount were I not afraid that someday my gift might be abused for someone’s selfish purpose … where teachers’ salaries are paid from public funds. There is only one remedy for this evil: if the appointment of teachers is left entirely to the parents and they are conscientious about making a wise choice…People who may be careless about another person’s money are sure to be careful about their own, and they will see that only a suitable recipient shall be found for my money if he is also to have their own… I am leaving everything open for the parents: the decision and choice are to be theirs – all I want is to make the arrangements and pay my share.”


Ah! The wisdom of the ancients. We could use that wisdom now.


What say you?


Frank Victoria is an award-winning author and screenwriter. He’s been an Amazon bestseller with his recent book,The Founders’ Plot, a political thriller for our times. He donates proceeds of his books to Tunnels to Towers and Fisher House, helping military veterans and first responders. His novella,The Ultimate Bet is available on his website and Amazon. Check out his new website:Frank M. Victoria

©2024 Frank Victoria

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