Libertarians on Public ["Government"] Schools, From Milton Friedman to the Koch Brothers to UA and ASU: an Incomplete History

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The Koch Brothers are already deeply invested in Arizona politics and education. With the 2018 election season already in swing, it's certain the Brothers and their cronies will once again invest millions of dollars in Arizona races. That makes this a good time to step back and take a look at what they and other libertarians think of public education and, more specifically, public "government schools," so we understand what candidates whose campaigns are supported by the Brothers will advocate for if they're elected.

The Koch Brothers have invested in libertarian-themed outposts at University of Arizona and Arizona State University, and the state has upped the ante by adding $5 million worth of government funding for the centers in its recent budget. The UA bastion, the Freedom Center, created a high school course favoring libertarian views on economics and politics which is currently being offered in four Southern Arizona school districts and a smattering of charter schools, all government funded institutions. Yet the Koch Brothers invested at least $1.8 million in defeating a 2012 ballot measure which would have increased K-12 funding by a billion dollars. The Brothers also invested at least $1.4 million in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign of Doug Ducey, who bills himself as the "education governor" but rejects any substantive increase in school funding.

What are the Koch Brothers' views on education, and where do they come from?



The best place to start is with Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist who is much revered by libertarians. In 1955, Friedman wrote The Role of Government in Education, which put the idea of school vouchers on the map and added the term "government schools" to our political lexicon. Friedman laid out the economic justification giving parents money for their children's educations and letting them spend it where they wish. He didn't advocate for getting rid of public schools entirely, but he put them at the end of his list of schools, almost as an afterthought.
"Such schools [funded by vouchers] would be conducted under a variety of auspices: by private enterprises operated for profit, non profit institutions established by private endowment, religious bodies, and some even by governmental units."
His combination of "some" and "even" with schools run "by governmental units" shows he didn't think many of them would survive in a voucher-financed competition with the private sector.

Friedman thought vouchers should be limited to the amount it costs to provide what he calls "general education for citizenship." Though he didn't define the term exactly, he was clearly thinking about the minimum education needed to survive in our society and participate in our democracy. Parents would have to pay for anything beyond "general education."



One positive byproduct of limiting government's financing of education, according to Friedman, could be that families, especially poorer families, would have fewer children. Since parents would have to pay for everything beyond a minimal education, he reasoned, they would think twice about the financial burden of having to pay for educating too many children.

The only negative Friedman saw concerning his voucher plan was that, after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating the desegregation of schools, parents were using vouchers to pay for whites-only private schools. Though he writes, "I deplore segregation and racial prejudice," Friedman claims that, just as every private business should have the right to hang out a "Whites only" sign in its window, schools should be allowed to be segregated. Let the invisible hand of the marketplace work its magic on schools rather than allow the heavy hand of government to impose desegregation.

Skip ahead 25 years to the 1980 presidential election.

The Libertarian Party's 1980 vice presidential candidate was David Koch, who is one-half of the Koch Brothers, along with Charles. The party created a wide-ranging National Platform, including four paragraphs on education. It took a step beyond Milton Friedman's ideas, advocating for wiping out all "government schools," kindergarten through university.
"Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended."
The statement actually goes beyond eliminating "government schools." It demands the elimination of any form of government funding — "subsidy" — of education. However, as an "interim measure" during the public-to-private transitional period, it supports "tax credits for tuition and for other expenditures related to an individual's education." (The platform also calls for the "immediate repeal" of compulsory education laws.)

Jump ahead another 22 years, to 2002.

David Bast, CEO of The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank (it calls itself a "free-market think tank"), wrote a column, February 2002, The Year of School Vouchers. He called K-12 schooling "the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise," and said it needs to be moved from the government to the private sector. Once students are offered vouchers, he writes, "government schools" will eventually wither away. However, he recommends starting slow. First offer vouchers for the poor, then move on to universal vouchers. Eventually, he believes, vouchers will only be for the poor. Everyone else will pay for their own educations.
"Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will not longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization. Vouchers could remain to help the truly needy."
And now, we take a leap to the present for a look at two of our state universities, UA and ASU.

The University of Arizona's Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, generally known as the Freedom Center, received $1.8 million from the Koch Brothers and $2.6 million from Ken and Randy Kendrick, charter members of the Koch funding network. Another $16 million came in the form of donations from more than twenty anonymous donors, who may or may not be of the same political stripe. David Schmidtz, former head of the Freedom Center, told the UA's Daily Wildcat he would show the donor list to the paper, but at the time the article was published, it hadn't received the information. The Freedom Center also received $2 million in government funding from the state's most recent budget.

The Center hasn't taken an official stand on the subject public education so far as I know. Nor has UA's recently created Department of Political Economy and Moral Science, which is headed by David Schmidtz and includes the Freedom Center inside the department. However, one of the new department's first hires was Assistant Professor Jonathan Anomaly, and he published his views in an article, Public Goods and Education. Anomaly is careful to craft his ideas in a way that gives him a bit of wiggle room, allowing him to say,"I only argued the idea, I don't necessarily support it fully." He does the same thing in other articles where he discusses the value of exploring links between genetics and IQ of different racial groups, and the value of eugenics.

Despite his hedging, Anomaly's general view of public education is clear, and in keeping with the views of other libertarians. He doesn't think government should be directly involved in education, though it might supply some money in the form of private school vouchers. In a summary at the beginning or the article, Anomaly states,
"I conclude with a note of skepticism about the desirability of direct government involvement in education, even if it plays a limited role in financing it through vouchers, grants, or loans that can be redeemed at accredited schools."
At the end, Anomaly even backs off the idea of vouchers for anyone but low income children, implying that everyone else should pay for their own education.
"State subsidies for some purposes, such as vouchers for primary and secondary school, may have real benefits by increasing choice for low-income parents."
Arizona State University's version of UA's Freedom Center is the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, which received more than $3 million from the Koch Brothers to get started. It has a direct link to the libertarian anti-"government school" movement in the form of its founding director, William Boyes. In a talk he gave in 2015, Get Rid of Public Schools, Boyes made his case without equivocation. He said,
"[G]et rid of the public education, create private education as a replacement, have a market for education, then I think we really can have an impact."
Boyes considers home schooling to be a first step in the right direction, but he mainly supports for-profit, private schools. Complaining that public education has moved increasingly to the left in the past 250 years, he states,
"If we’re going to change that, we’re going to change education. You don’t just change it on the margin, we change it. We get rid of public schools and we transition them into being private, for profit schools."
The libertarian view of education hasn't changed much since Milton Friedman in 1955: Dismantle public education and replace it with private schools, giving vouchers to those who need it. Any Arizona candidate beholden to the Koch Brothers is beholden to those ideas.

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