Free Market for Education and School Choice

In the 1960s and 1970s, I participated in efforts to apply free market principles in the form of vouchers that would allow parents to choose schools for their children. Arguments for choice and competition between schools emerged from economic arguments for free markets and competition. Little did I know that my dissertation, Education and the Rise of the Corporate State (1969), would sweep me up in libertarian discussions about applying free market principles to public schools by allowing for parental choice similar to those later promoted by religious school advocates like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her husband Richard. Ivan Illich, who wrote the foreword to the 1973 published dissertation, helped circulate the manuscript, sparking the interests of the California-based libertarian Center for Independent Education.5 My dissertation and book were highly critical of business control of public schools which resulted in the sorting of students for the labor market and teaching social attitudes designed to protect corporate wealth and power. My conclusion was that to end corporate control of education required abandoning the monopoly held by public schools.

In the 1970s, the Center for Independent Education invited me to discussions of improving schools by creating competition through parental choice by instituting a California voucher system. Rather than public schools directly receiving education funds, parents would receive the education funds in the form of vouchers that they could give to the school of their choice. The focus was on applying free market principles to education, similar to DeVos’s later plans but without the emphasis on faithbased schools. The discussions also included the use of tax credits where parents would pay school tuition, claim the tuition as tax credit and then receive it back as a tax refund.

In 1972, the Center for Independent Education and the Institute for Humane Studies co-sponsored a scholarly conference on compulsory schooling in Milwaukee.6 The result was the publication of a collection of essays under the critical education title, The Ttvelve-Year Sentence.7 A recent descriptive blurb for the book emphasizes the radical nature of its attack on traditional public schools:

In the Twelve-Year Sentence, seven discerning scholars and attorneys launch a comprehensive attack upon compulsory school attendance in America, a system which, in effect, “guarantees jobs for teachers and secure positions for anonymous school administrators” while, at the same time, “mass-producing mediocre multitudes.” Still relevant, this is a book for all those who, sensing that there is something fundamentally wrong with America's public school system, have nevertheless been unable to point with precision to what the fault truly is. Until now.8

At the Milwaukee conference I met Charles Hamilton, who was starting a new publishing company called Free Life Editions. I showed him a finished manuscript, which he agreed to publish as The Primer of Libertarian Education. In the introduction, I wrote,

Libertarian theories of education are a product of the belief that any successful radical change in society partly depends upon changes in the character structure and attitudes of the population: a new society cannot be born unless a new person is born that can function within it. Radical pedagogy is concerned with new forms of socialization that will encourage non-authoritarian and revolutionary character structures. Thus, radical pedagogy encompasses not only traditional modes of learning within the school and also methods of child rearing and the organization of the family.9

These early discussions of a public school monopoly through vouchers, tax credits and charter schools emphasized free market competition between schools, leading to better schools and freer minds. However, these early discussions were taken over by religious groups upset with the Supreme Court’s school prayer and Bible reading decisions.

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