Friedman And Donahue: Let’s Get Back To Sparking And Flickering

Jan 14 · 4 min read

By Jennifer Wagner

Four decades ago, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman sat down with talk show host Phil Donahue to discuss his bestselling book, Free to Choose. You can watch the interviews here and here.

If you don’t have time for the clips, here’s a quick summary: Friedman and Donahue clashed. A lot. Suffice it to say that Friedman, a Libertarian, had a very different take on capitalism and free markets than the left-leaning Donahue, who seemed to support more government oversight and regulation as he sparred with Friedman about what he’d written.

In perhaps their most famous exchange, Donahue pressed Friedman on the subject of greed and whether it’s a good idea. Friedman didn’t miss a beat:

“Well, first of all, tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course none of us are greedy. It’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.”

Watching them debate, it would seem impossible for the Liberal Lion of Daytime Television and the Nobel Laureate Libertarian to find common ground. And yet this is what Donahue had to say about Friedman and school choice in a tribute video after Friedman’s death:

“He really did remind me of the runaway nature of government. You know, I hadn’t thought about that. He helped me a lot. I used to be a flaming liberal. Now I’m a liberal, and I kind of flicker on this issue. I don’t flame. I just spark a little.”

Friedman founded our organization 25 years ago, and we carry forward his vision of universal school choice each day, but it’s Donahue’s quote I’m often reminded of when we talk to skeptical parents and policymakers.

Legendary television host Phil Donahue at an EdChoice event in November 2016.

We could shower them with mountains of data we’ve collected on the benefits of choice, or we could dazzle them with stories of students whose lives have been changed for the better because they were able to access a different schooling type. We could boisterously decry the systemic inequities that exist because public school boundaries have been drawn by ZIP Code for decades.

But why should they listen to us? Why should they believe us? What’s the best way to reach them?

I’ve written before about the engagement curve required to build a successful grassroots army. As much as we’d love it if someone came into a conversation thinking school choice was awful and left 15 minutes later as a full-throated champion, that’s not how persuasion works.

It takes trust, which is built slowly over time and can be lost in an instant. Eventually, though, you get the spark, the flicker, the opportunity to change minds.

That’s been hard to do these past four years because you can’t see a spark in a dumpster fire.

Whether you support the outgoing administration or not, it would be hard to say with a straight face that the waters have been calm. The ever-present chaos made it difficult to engage potential advocates. How can you have a conversation about something as deeply personal as school choice when everyone retreats to their corner calling names no matter the topic? Social media algorithms reward noise and clickbait, not open, honest dialogue. Controversy and insults fuel the dumpster fire.

Much has been written — especially after the insurrection at the Capitol — about the need for unity, empathy and grace. I would also add time to that list. We’ve been through some stuff, we’ve seen some things, and we need space to work it all out.

We know some parents want to go back to the way things were; we know others have been frustrated by their lack of schooling options during the pandemic. This isn’t the only thing they’re worried about, and we have to be cognizant of that.

While parents collect their thoughts, we can keep pushing for what we believe is the absolute best policy solution out there: education savings accounts or ESAs that empower families to spend the funds set aside for their child on any number of approved K-12 expenses. That can be private school tuition — like a voucher — but it also can include tutoring, therapy, technology, support services, online learning, microschooling or even savings for higher education. Once parents figure out what’s best for their kids post-pandemic, the ESA gives them a powerful tool to personalize their child’s K–12 learning.

ESAs didn’t exist as a policy mechanism in 1980, but Milton Friedman certainly left room for innovation in his plea for educational choice back then:

“What we need to do is to enable parents — by vouchers or other means — to have more say about the school which their child goes to — a public school or a private school, whichever meets the need of the child best.”

It’s our job to live out that vision and never lose sight of its simplicity despite the complex landscape we’re navigating.

What families need more than anything right now is consistency — the kind of consistency that reassures parents that their kids are more important than any system or institution to which they’ve been assigned.

If we put families first….

If we make sure all students’ needs are met…

If we keep up that steady drumbeat as the dumpster fire diminishes…

More sparks. More flickers. More progress.

Jennifer Wagner is a mom, a recovering political hack and the Vice President of Communications for EdChoice, a national nonprofit that supports and promotes universal school choice.


Advancing universal K-12 educational choice as the best…