• In the 1950s, a young Milton Friedman argued that free market principles of consumer choice and competition were needed to remedy the nonresponsive and monopolistic system that controlled and delivered public education
  • Friedman’s work provided the intellectual foundations of the modern school-choice movement
  • If Friedman were alive today and came to North Carolina, he’d see school choice flourishing

In the decades after the American Revolution, parents were the drivers of how and where their children were educated. Parents could choose from private schools, tutors, and home schools as ways to educate children. In the mid-1840s, Massachusetts became the first state to lead a push for state-controlled and -funded public education. A century later, the rise of the Progressive Era saw government gain control over how schools were financed, administered, and regulated.

Along with these changes came a weakening in the ability of parents to control their child’s education. Of course, if parents didn’t like their child’s school or didn’t think it was a good fit, they could choose a private school — if they could afford it. If not, children were forced to attend the local public school, whether parents liked it or not.

In the mid-1950s, a young economist at the University of Chicago laid out a case for the role of government in education for its citizens in an article given the unassuming title of The Role of Government in Education. In it Milton Friedman acknowledged there is a case for government subsidizing public education, but not for government administering the schools. Friedman believed increased centralization and government control of public schools had led to less freedom and efficiency in education and a decline in quality. For government not only to finance education, but also largely to deliver education services was an arrangement Friedman considered unnatural as well as unjustified.

In his article Friedman argued that free market principles of consumer choice and competition were needed to remedy the nonresponsive and monopolistic system that controlled and delivered public education.

Friedman sought nothing less than to upend how American education was financed and administered. Instead of government deciding how and where children are educated, government would provide vouchers to parents for education or educational services at approved schools.

Friedman believed giving parents the power to “vote with their feet” would force monopolistic public-school systems to be responsive to parental concerns. He also was convinced that the use of vouchers would infuse competition among schools and encourage them to innovate and be more effective, qualities conspicuously absent from most public-school systems. Moreover, Friedman also thought it critical to separate the funding of education from the delivery of education services.

Six and a half decades later, it’s not difficult to see how “The Role of Government in Education” provided the intellectual foundations of the modern school-choice movement. People don’t always hear what they need to hear, so Friedman’s article went largely unnoticed outside the policy world. Those seeds took time to grow.

In 1989, Wisconsin become the first state to put Friedman’s ideas into practice when it approved a statewide voucher program that allowed low-income students to use vouchers to pay tuition at a private school. In 2013, North Carolina approved the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a similar program that today provides over 14,000 students with scholarships of up to $4,200 to help pay tuition at a local private school.

School choice today

If Milton Friedman were alive today and came to North Carolina, he’d see school choice flourishing. Today parents can choose from a variety of public and private school-choice programs. They include public options such as charter or magnet schools as well as private options such as the Opportunity Scholarship Program or the Special Education Scholarship Grants for Children with Disabilities.

Regarding charter schools, the table below shows that the number of students enrolled in charter schools has increased dramatically from over 38,000 in 2010 to over 117,000 today. Enrollment in private schools in the Tar Heel state saw modest growth over the last 10 years, while the number of home schoolers increased by 83 percent.

Over the past decade, while the average daily membership (ADM) enrollment in traditional public schools increased by just one half of one percent, the school-choice population in North Carolina expanded by 71 percent. Today over 370,000 students attend charter, private, and home schools and have access to a better education. Ten years ago, only 13 percent of students were enrolled in choice schools. Today nearly 80 percent of students still attend traditional public schools, but the number of students enrolled in choice schools has increased to almost 21 percent, up significantly from ten years ago.

K-12 Enrollment in North Carolina, by Type of School, 2010 and 2020


Schools 2010 Enrollment 2020 Enrollment Change, 2010–20
Traditional Public Schools (ADM) 1,402,269 1,409,391 0.5%
Charter Schools 38,449 117,264 204.9%
Home Schools 81,509 149,173 83.0%
Private Schools 96,421 103,959 7.8%
Total, Choice Schools 216,379 370,396 71.2%

Schools 2010 Enrollment 2020 Enrollment Percentage Point Change
Percentage of Students in Traditional Public Schools 86.7% 79.2% –7.5
Percentage of Students in
Choice Schools
13.3% 20.8% +7.5

Source: Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget, Statistical Profile of North Carolina Public Schools, and North Carolina Office of Non-Public Education (for specific years).

Friedman’s legacy

Friedman’s ideas have helped to fuel an education revolution in North Carolina and across the country. Choice empowers parents to make educational decisions, challenges monopolies, and calls out bureaucracies. Choice expands personal freedom but also highlights that accountability comes in different forms. In so doing, choice has helped to shift the public discussion of education from a focus on how much money is spent to how well money is spent.

Let’s be clear: Milton Friedman got it right. Choice benefits students, families, schools, and our communities. Today school choice continues to thrive because it empowers parents and students and enriches our communities. That’s not to say there haven’t been mistakes and growing pains. Nevertheless, having choices in education is far preferable. Choice recognizes what too many of our public schools ignore: children are different and learn differently.

If we are really concerned that our children receive a quality education, we must allow parents and children to access appropriate educational opportunities. As more and more families are empowered to make these choices, we should thank Milton Friedman for laying the intellectual groundwork for many of the school choice programs we enjoy today.