Its champion gone, ambitious plan for school choice in California fizzles
This is the latest in our series on the center-left roots of school choice, and the last part of a serial about a proposed voucher initiative in late ‘70s California. In Part III, libertarian choice supporters reject a ballot proposal pitched by Berkeley law professors, and offer their own.
The professors wanted Milton Friedman’s blessing. So did the libertarians.
Calling Friedman was the “first and natural thing to do,” Berkeley law Professor Jack Coons recalled in an interview. The two had known each other since the early 1960s, when both lived in Chicago. Coons hosted a radio show; Friedman was a frequent guest.
As luck would have it, Friedman was now based at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, in nearby Palo Alto. He and Coons and their wives occasionally met for dinner.
Initially, Friedman was excited and encouraging about the ballot initiative, Coons said. Then he wasn’t.
The regulations spooked him, Coons said. Friedman never told him directly. But he heard as much from potential donors to the initiative campaign, and it wouldn’t have been surprising. Friedman’s biggest fear about school choice was government intrusion.
According to Coons, donors told him Friedman had been in contact with them and said the plan was wrong-headed. He convinced them to hold off on contributions, and to wait for better school choice proposals down the road.
The libertarians had better luck.
Activist Jack Hickey said he sent Friedman a copy of his “performance voucher” proposal, and talked to him by phone. He said Friedman liked it enough to give it a positive review in writing. As proof, he produced a letter from Friedman on Hoover Institution letter head.
Friedman wrote that he liked how the performance voucher would curb government’s role in education, but was bothered by heavy reliance on standardized testing. He concluded, though, that “any one of the three approaches (an unrestricted voucher, your approach, or an appropriately designed tax credit) would be vastly superior to our present system.”
Both David Friedman, Milton Friedman’s son, and Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said the letter appears to be authentic.
For some, two competing choice proposals weren’t enough. In the summer of 1979, petitions began circulating for a third. Continue Reading →