Editorial: Making the schools progressive

When The City’s school board last week decided to kill the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, they thought their “progressive” stand had precluded further controversy. Probably a mistake. But if officials had heeded the world’s most renowned economist decades ago, no such issue would have tormented them in the first place.

That economist was Milton Friedman, who died in San Francisco last week at 94. As we noted Monday, though a Russian Hill resident for the past three decades, Friedman saw his free-market philosophy adopted everywhere around the world but here.

He wasn’t surprised by the hometown slight. After all, he once acerbically quipped that China’s Guangdong Province was more capitalistic than California. In that rhetorical spirit, we facetiously suggested The City might honor its most globally influential citizen by renaming its main drag “Free Market Street,” never mind that historic Market Street itself reminds us that The City grew from a tiny Spanish outpost to a great cosmopolitan center precisely because of its commercial nature.

In the last third of the 20th century Friedman replaced John Maynard Keynes as the most honored economist because he showed empirically that government failure was a more repeated feature of his times than market failure. Conventional wisdom had it backwards — that is, until Friedman doggedly swayed new generations of economists.

But the old conventional wisdom had a darker advantage. It fueled political ambition, from the nation’s presidential aspirants down to local rent control functionaries and school board members. Those who felt anointed to regulate otherpeople’s lives were not about to give up their agendas in the face of contrary evidence. Indeed, they seized on the dislocations caused by regulation for excuses to call for even more regulation.

Believing, as any classical liberal would, that people should be empowered to regulate themselves, Friedman called for more choices — the array of choices only a free marketplace can offer. You might say that, to Friedman, “pro-choice” actually meant pro-choice; it was not limited to those on one side of the debate over terminated pregnancies.

Which brings us back to the now-aborted JROTC program. Friedman was appalled by the horrible mind-dulling nature of the public school system, which he believed starved tender young intellects of the choices needed for growth. The compulsory schools reminded him of the top-down management of the old Soviet system, which insisted that learning take place in a one-size-fits-all atmosphere.

Since the 1960s Friedman advocated school choice, an arrangement whereby parents, given vouchers, could opt for a school that suits the needs of their children. Under school choice, parents can send budding officers to a program that teaches valor and discipline. Or they might prefer classrooms that teach peace, the political preference of the SFUSD.

What the SFUSD did last week, Milton Friedman would have told you, is deny the political freedom of the former category of parents. Not exactly “progressive,” properly understood.

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