From Friedman's assessment (mostly rejected)
Milton Friedman writes of the appropriate federal role in public education in an economics-based article from 1955. His analysis begins with pointing out the huge role government has assumed in financing and administering education for a nation that believes in individual freedoms, family, and free enterprise. He gives three plausible ways to justify such heavy government involvement: creating competition where there would otherwise be a natural monopoly, “neighborhood effects” (or what I am conceptualizing as negative externalities) of which there is no coercive compensation mechanism and a strong form of paternalism over children and the vulnerable. The article then goes on to differentiate between common education and vocational education.
In common education, Friedman’s bottom-line is that government can enforce a minimum amount of education for its citizenry because it provides for and finances the availability of basic educational opportunities. In this way, higher education opportunities benefit society because it provides for citizenship and leadership. In other ways, government subsidizing costs for vocational education ensures a workforce, but not necessarily citizenship and leadership. He is careful to point out overlap in the two types of education and that outcomes can actually be a hybrid of workplace skills, economic value, and leadership. The discussion of vocational education is beyond the scope of this inquiry. (It goes on to discuss government subsidized vocational education as building an equity capital in the labor work of the individual such that the government is owed some percentage of future earnings.)
Enter Friedman’s alternatives to what he called government subsidized education—or nationalized education. Yep, he’s talking about vouchers (ouch!). Giving parents a sum (to which they could add money) to use on approved education institutions would enable, as he sees it, government to only be in the business of basically credentialing and auditing those educational offerings. Obviously I see problems here. This model implies a necessary logic that the outcome ultimately spent on educational offerings would therefore signify the parent/individual’s preference for the resulting amount of education. I don’t see it as this. Precisely because there is a terminal value to the “voucher” but an opportunity to add additional value, the system becomes not unlike the system many know today, and rather than reflect the absolute preferences a parent/individual may have for educational offerings, the resulting outcome reflects a comparative/relative preference for educational opportunity. Because it takes additional resources to add more to the voucher, the parent/individual is forced to choose whether to use those additional resources to put toward education or some other thing—setting up a competing preferential system rather than an absolute system reflective of how much education might mean to that individual. Putting blackmartkets aside, this system also relies on parents/individuals having the same access and amount of information about each educational choice, and not having transaction costs (time to pursue the voucher purchase, energy to devote to education research, distance and means to travel chosen schools). I have not seen this to be the case.
Friedman then goes on to try to debunk why the arguments that favor so much government involvement in schools should ultimately fail. (He includes arguments about parochial schools and private schools and how their teachings would not actually weaken the polity.) It seems the competing argument he gives the most credence toward is the natural monopoly argument that would justify why the government would need to administer education in a rural or less-resourced place (so that all kids don’t attend one place where no other competing ideas exist). He sweeps this under the rug though by pointing out that transportation systems and increased concentration in urban settings makes this not so much of an issue. Being from an agriculture state, however I disagree. (Admittedly, there were only two high schools in my town—and even my hometown would not be considered “small” by many people’s accounts.) It is not even difficult for me to imagine a school run by interests aligned with whatever the largest local employer in a rural place might be, and then the education/indoctrination aligning with that interest alone—to the detriment of other schools of thought (forgive the pun).
Ultimately, Friedman concludes that the government has appropriately financed education but has taken on an unbalanced position of also administering education. He sees the two as able to be easily (from a figurative, argumentative sense not from a literal sense) separable and compels that a free enterprise society would necessitate that the two not be as comingled as they are. He sees the economic role as having failed to guide the questions of what the government should finance versus what the government should administer. I appreciate the separation of the two questions, but heartily disagree with Friedman’s end picture of education—particularly on a federal scheme. I am not, however, opposed to experimenting with remnants of his ideas at a city or local level, where community participation is more direct and responsive governance is much more likely to counteract market systems gone awry.