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Friedman offers an education

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Not all Nobel laureates can cut right to the point the way Milton Friedman does, but then Friedman's strength for several decades now has been his ability to communicate brilliant and often provocative observations in ways ordinary people easily can comprehend.

On a recent snowy afternoon in downtown Salt Lake City, Friedman, the world-renowned economist, took the time to sit with me and cut through the rhetoric that often binds everyone who talks about choice in education these days. It seems to have wrapped a cord around the governor's office and many state legislators who are debating the idea of allowing tuition tax credits. Here's the gist of the conversation:

What about the idea that public education is a time-honored American tradition?

"First of all," he says, "do not call it 'public' education. It is 'government' education." Second of all, "We did not have compulsory education in this country until the late 19th century." The last state to get on board didn't do so until well into the 20th century. But the main point, he says, is that "We had better literacy in the country then than we have now."

What about the argument that private schools get to pick and choose their students, whereas public schools have no choice but to take everyone?

He scoffs at that one. "Ever looked at statistics on the number of students expelled from public schools? They get rid of people all the time." Then he adds, "In a free market, do makers of Cadillacs and Chevys reject customers who want their products?" Private schools elsewhere have taken all kinds of students.

How about the argument that, while U.S. schoolchildren are falling far behind their counterparts in Europe and other countries, those countries have government-run education systems? How are they doing so much better without school choice?

First, he offers a general observation. "We are one of the worst countries in the world at running a socialist system and one of the best at running capitalist, free-market systems." Then he gets to the heart of the fallacy. A lot of those other countries, New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden, for instance, now offer school choice.

Sweden? I have lived there. My wife has relatives there whom we visit on occasion. Sweden practically invented socialism and the idea that the government should cover everyone like an umbrella. You can't choose to paint your house a different color without government permission. So I looked it up. Sure enough, in Sweden, a parent now can choose to send his or her child to any school, private or public, with no fees attached. The result has been a boom in innovative, independent schools.

In the United States, school choice has been pushed by conservatives, which makes Utah a confusing anomaly. This is a conservative state, and yet leaders here have fought the trend toward market-driven education with almost the same zeal they use to fight gun control and pornography.

Gov. Mike Leavitt seems to want no part in the discussion. Instead, he is expected to offer a plan Monday night that would build special public high schools catering to people with aptitudes for science or engineering. He is nibbling around the edges of choice, which must mean he appreciates the basic concept. But vouchers or tuition tax credits? Don't look to the governor for leadership on those.

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research just came out with its "2001 Education Freedom Index," which ranks the 50 states in terms of educational freedom. Utah comes in 49th, just ahead of Hawaii, a state with only one school district. If you want choice in Hawaii, you have to leave the islands.

The report says Utah's ranking dropped considerably because it is difficult to home-school here and because of "the state's failure to expand charter-school options while other states were rapidly doing so." By the way, our neighbors to the south, Arizona, were ranked No. 1.

The report draws a connection between states that offer educational freedom and those whose students score high on tests. The author, Jay P. Greene, calculates that a 2-point increase on his index of freedom equals another 8 percent of students who perform well on national math tests. This, he notes, is progress that costs nothing — something to consider in a tight budget year.

Friedman is getting on in years. He no longer feels he will live to see true market-driven education on the elementary and secondary levels. He seems a bit mystified by that.

"What is the argument for government financing education but not food or housing?" he asks. "Isn't food just as essential and important?"

Of course, we all understand that the free market makes food more plentiful and inexpensive. Why can't we see that those principles apply to education, as well?

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com