Are Public Schools Worth the Effort?

It's healthy at moments such as this, when powerful forces clamor for quick and sweeping reform, to reconsider tenacious ideas, even those that the collective wisdom has deemed insane if not satanic.

So how about we Southern Californians pause for a moment in our frantic efforts to once again revolutionize the Los Angeles Unified School District (while also searching for a new superintendent and negotiating a new teachers union contract) and instead ponder this: Are public schools worth the effort?

It's that taboo question that leads me to the study of a sprawling 19th-floor San Francisco apartment.

Big windows take in a rain-soaked landscape stretching from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate and beyond. I think of all the public schools out there, brimming with poor kids, minority kids, and listen as a tiny man of 93 explains why Americans should relinquish all such schools to the free market.

Milton Friedman, one of America's most respected and reviled educational reform advocates, attended public schools himself. You'd think the fact that he went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics would mellow him on the subject. It hasn't.

"The schooling system was in much better shape 50 years ago than it is now," says Friedman, his voice as confident as reinforced concrete.

A big fan of freedom, Friedman objects to public schools on principle, arguing -- as he says most classic liberals once did -- that government involvement by nature decreases individual liberty. But it's the decline of schooling at the practical level, especially for the poor, that seems to exasperate him.

Friedman puts much of the blame on centralization.

"When I went to elementary school, a long, long time ago in the 1920s, there were about 150,000 school districts in the United States," he says. "Today there are fewer than 15,000, and the population is more than twice as large."

Centralization was caused by urbanization and in turn caused bureaucratization. For that, and much more, he blames teachers unions.

Throughout our talk, Friedman uses the phrase "your friends in the teachers union." This amuses me because, while I do have many friends who belong to teachers unions, my conversations with A.J. Duffy, the cocky president of United Teachers Los Angeles, usually end with him screaming.

Months ago, when I told Duffy I was going to visit Friedman, he smirked. "I don't think public education can work on the profit paradigm," he said. "It's ludicrous."

Friedman takes the opposite view. At heart, he remains a pure capitalist. He would like to see government get out of schooling entirely. As a pragmatist, he figures that if the government must spend money on education, it should give it to parents to spend, on private schools if they wish.

This approach is usually called a voucher system, and armies of think-tank scholars have cranked out tons of studies supporting all sides of the issue since Friedman injected it into the debate in his 1955 article "The Role of Government in Education."

None of that has clouded Friedman's clarity.

"The fundamental thing that's wrong with our present setup of elementary and secondary schooling is that it's a case in which the government is subsidizing a product," he says. "If you subsidize the producers, as we do in schooling, they have every incentive to have a status quo, and a non-progressive system, because they are a monopoly."

Friedman finds it unfair that a mother who sends her child to private school should also have to pay to educate children whose parents send them to public school -- an injustice made more egregious in his view by the fact that the private school mom probably has more money and so has already paid more in taxes. But he is just as ticked off by what he sees as the great unfairness to poor kids.

"It's very clear that the people who suffer most in our present system are people in the slums -- blacks, Hispanics, the poor, the underclass."

When I ask him about the "achievement gap" separating low-scoring black and Latino students from better-scoring whites and Asians, he blames my "friends in the union."

"They are running a system that maximizes the gap in performance.... Tell me, where is the gap between the poor and rich wider than it is in schooling? A more sensible education system, one that is based on the market, would stave off the division of this country into haves and have-nots; it would make for a more egalitarian society because you'd have more equal opportunities for education."

But how would overburdened minimum-wage workers be expected to find the time to research a slew of school options, I ask -- hearing the patronizing tone of my question as it crosses my lips.

"Who's in a better position?" Friedman asks.

As a fairly well-informed parent, I can't bring myself to say "the experts," so I move on to money.

Jonathan Kozol, author of "Savage Inequalities" and other books of education journalism, has noted that the parents who whine that "throwing money at education" doesn't solve the problem are usually those spending $15,000 or $30,000 a year to send their kids to private schools. I ask Friedman about the obvious implications of that.

"In the last 10 years, the amount spent per child on schooling has more than doubled after allowing for inflation. There's been absolutely no improvement as far as I can see in the quality of education.... The system you have is like a sponge. It will absorb the extra money. Because the incentives are wrong.

"Would you really rather have your automobile produced by a government agency? Do you really prefer the post office to FedEx? Why do people have this irrational attachment to a socialist system?"

Friedman says that Americans have benefited enormously from free market competition in virtually every other part of their lives. He thinks it's a matter of time before consumers demand the same right to choose how their children's minds will be nourished as they do in deciding what food to feed them.

Charter schools allow a measure of choice, he says, in part because they are largely unencumbered by unreasonable union requirements, but he already sees organized labor stalking teachers at those schools.

"Vouchers," he says, "should have been a Democratic proposal. I don't think the unions can continue to succeed in making it an act of faith that if you're a Democrat you're against vouchers. That's resting on a pile of straw.

"It's not going to last. It's impossible, really, literally impossible for me to conceive that you can keep on sticking to this failing system, this terrible system that does so much injustice."

Friedman's a brilliant guy, and he left me with a lot to consider about how we educate our children.

But then my friend Duffy's a bright guy too, as the deal he helped strike last month to help Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (and the teachers union) gain more control of the L.A. Unified School District makes clear.

In retrospect, I wish I'd invited Duffy to leave his posh union office and join me in my visit to Friedman's posh apartment.

I'm not sure who would have won the moral battle. But I'd love to have seen the economist and the union boss crashing about among the bookcases, trying to wrestle each other into intellectual headlocks.

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