Author Archive | John E. Coons

Our school deportation problem

The school district in upscale Orinda, Calif. expelled a Latina second grader for having legal residence in another district, but reconsidered after unflattering headlines.

The school district in upscale Orinda, Calif. expelled a Latina second grader for having legal residence in another district, but reconsidered after unflattering headlines.

Orinda, Calif. is a rich and prosperous suburban school district neighboring my own home in Berkeley. My family and I once lived there; we liked it and still do.

Last week, the local paper reported Orinda had just expelled a behaving, and performing, 7-year-old girl for having legal residence in another district. The girl lives in Orinda with her Latina mother who is a six-day-a-week live-in nanny for an infant child of working professional residents of the district. Upon hearing of the district’s decision, the latter hired an attorney who proceeded to embarrass the district into reconsidering the case – and in the end, to relent.

The happy outcome of this absurd conflict will not be my subject here, but the story carries a message. The case is a clear and common example of the effect of the prevailing American school system (still claiming to be “public”) that continues to corrupt the entire life experience of the poor – the child, the parent and thus, their part in the society to come. The well-off parent is invited by that society to responsibly evade such conscription by choosing to move to the suburbs, by qualifying for elite public schools in the city – or by going private. True, the new semi-private exception to the crude social division is the charter school; may it prosper along with the struggling church schools that have so long offered to both parent and child the opportunity to play a responsible role in society and, thus, to grow as individuals and engaged citizens.

Is there an educational alternative to our entrenched oddity, one that could value parent’s responsibility and nourish family life for all our people by assuring them the choice enjoyed by the well-off? Of course, there are many such options for society; they travel under the common banner of school choice. Why does it continue to be so difficult to get state legislatures to act to rescue the poor from their humiliation and their corrupting disempowerment?

Is it our teachers? No doubt, some of them prefer the system as it is; even if they don’t get their first job in Orinda, they can start in Oakland and work their way out to serenity. Knowing only this system so carefully partitioned according to wealth, perhaps one can’t blame them. My own considerable experience with teachers suggests the contrary. Continue Reading →

0

The uncritical Core

Does the Common Core implicate school choice? The answer might be important one way or another in the national effort to empower lower-income families to decide for their own children. Much of the effect of the reform could depend, first, upon disparate reactions of individual states; second, upon potentially conflicting responses to any such diversity by college admission authorities; third, upon probable effects of proposed new tests on the manner and even the objective of schooling itself.

Common Core aims to remake pedagogy indirectly by the adoption of new forms of high-stakes student testing that will strongly encourage two basic reforms in the classroom: (1) Elevation of the intellectual content of the curriculum; (2) a form of instruction—often called “critical thinking”—that requires the student to solve problems more than to memorize material.

The payoff of the new-style instruction for both child and teacher would come with new—ideally national—tests in which the typical question would require the student to engage in sequential steps of reasoning from a given set of facts to a series of logical conclusions entailed by those facts. Feats of memory are to be less valued; analytical thinking is the thing. Both teacher and student would need a bit of intellectual refitting. So I understand the scheme.

Many states have at some earlier point committed themselves to the new regimen that Common Core will entail for both teacher and student. A few have since reneged; others have said no from the beginning, and have done so despite financial carrots offered by the feds. What individual states decide could be important to the whole project and indirectly to the future of subsidized parental choice.

Consider one example of the potential effects of this discord. If one state rejects the new test while another cooperates, how will admission policies of colleges adapt to the mixed scene? How will they judge applicants with such various forms of credentials: One will have taken some test required by the individual state—but not the Common Core; another will have taken the Common Core test but never been exposed to the grooming it presupposes; still another will, for 13 years, have gotten the full dose of critical thinking, presumably giving him an advantage on the test. Should the college treat all three uniformly—and what exactly could that mean?

And what of the private school graduate? His state may or may not require private schools to administer the Common Core test as a condition of certification—and/or of their right to accept and cash state scholarships. Though I would expect most private school graduates in general to do better than average on such a test, I am less confident about those who have attended off-beat or experimental schools focused on art, music or religious content, or who were taught at home. Will their chances for admission to a favored college be diminished by lower test scores? I don’t know the answer, but I can imagine that any responsible parent would weigh that question in assessing a school where teaching style and content may not prepare specifically for the test; and, of course, the school itself might be excluded from cashing parental subsidies.

Another implication troubles me even more and explains my title. Continue Reading →

0

School choice in a nutshell

Coons

Coons

Proposals for government subsidy of the school choices of parents, in amounts tailored to family need, have attracted support across the political spectrum. This consensus is grounded on a variety of mutually consistent theses; paradoxically, the individual champion of school choice has too often treated his own favorite argument as so manifestly superior that it tends to dominate and trivialize all others. It could, therefore, be a useful mental (and political) exercise for advocates of choice to evaluate the full gallery of its claims and to consider whether a more eclectic, inclusive and harmonious intellectual sketch of the movement might be prudent for all in pursuit of this common goal.

Toward that end I here offer a brief catechism of what appear to me to be the central reasons for the economic empowerment of all parents in amounts sufficient to decide among all schools, private and public, that participate in the system. Catechisms, are, of course, also argument, but I shall keep this to a minimum. That my categories overlap in their persuasions only reinforces my sense of the mischief in allowing separation and insularity in our argumentation. I strongly urge others to draft their own litanies – pro or con—or to prune this effort of mine.

  1. Choice is the source of human responsibility, the pre-condition of maturity and goodness. We grow morally, and spiritually, only by specific consequential acts of the will. For parents of every class and every aspiration for their child, the liberty and duty of selecting the educator are the occasion of growth as a person. In turn, the child’s observation of that parental decision as an act of duty, freedom and authority sends a message of the moral dignity that is possible to all of us as adults. By contrast, America’s historical disempowerment of the ordinary parent in favor of a professional school elite is a psychological disaster for both parent and child — hence for society.
  2. The experience of personal responsibility in so serious a matter evokes the virtues of citizenship; conversely, that of displacement of the deciding individual by government is poisonous, both to the responsible self and to the society that has deposed him.
  3. School choice is a powerful medium of free expression for the parent, realized through the agency of the chosen school and its message.
  4. The sole material exception to the broad authority of the American parent is the conscription of the child of the lower-income family for education by unchosen strangers in a state school. This selective impairment of human responsibility by economic class – this gross disequalization — is a civic embarrassment and an Achilles heel for the system in court.
  5. Choice is an invitation to a cordial diversity of mind and spirit wholly congenial to the intellectual and social freedom preached by our political sages as a primary virtue of our history and culture — in particular the freedoms guaranteed in the speech and religion clauses of the 1st Amendment and parallel assurances in state constitutions.
  6. School choice is a constitutional right, cemented in our jurisprudence (Pierce vs. Society of Sisters). Its unnecessary frustration by The State for families of limited wealth will one day be challenged in our highest court.
  7. The parent’s right to choose is, at the same time, a duty to the child, hence a right of the latter. The child himself has a strong constitutional claim to his own parents’ free decision.
  8. Consumer choice could make teaching a true profession, creating a personal bond of contract between the teacher and the family that has freely chosen that school, hence that teacher.
  9. Systems of school choice, properly designed, could control the public cost of education. Private schools, on average, are more efficient and spend less for superior results with similar children.
  10. Competition would encourage either the transformation or disappearance of the typically insipid American school of education.
  11. School choice appears to raise test scores; at worst it does not lower them.
  12. Choice is strongly favored by parents of every economic class.

Criticism would be appreciated.

0

A little context for Al Shanker’s “original charter school vision”

Al ShankerAgain on Sunday, the pages of the New York Times managed to confuse the nature and history of school reform. The op-ed by Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter credits the late Albert Shanker with “The Original Charter School Vision.” Now, however one judges the weight of Shanker’s nimble ideology, charters were not his baby until late in the game. Nor do the authors appear to grasp even what the idea of charters was – and is. They see this “vision” as “freeing up teachers and integrating students”; an apparition said to have been delivered to Shanker during a 1987 visit to Germany.

Charters, of course, do “free up” teachers, but only insofar as they free up parents to choose them. They are merely an obvious (and much older) suggestion of one legal form that “voucher” schools may take. They are, first and foremost, about lower-income families and the crying need to give back to them the authority and liberty enjoyed by the best of us. Charters are a way to privatize schools that nominally remain in the public sector and – so far – are forbidden to teach religion.

Schools that are privately owned and operated in the “public” sector were part of the discourse of the 1960s. Their specific terms and structure were exemplified in a 1971 volume by Stephen Sugarman and myself, published by the Institute of Government Studies. There ensued a sad story that is worth a brief telling.

Following the passage of California’s Proposition 13, in the early summer of 1978, a Democratic congressman who had read our new volume, “Education by Choice,” invited Steve and myself to dinner to discuss the political possibilities for school vouchers. That evening we agreed to draft a family choice initiative for the 1978 California ballot; he would do the necessary political stuff and raise the money after the campaign for the November elections. We completed the drafting. Leo Ryan did get re-elected. But then he was murdered in Jonestown.

Already deeply committed, we proceeded on our own, imagining that the libertarians at least would finance the effort. To our dismay, Milton Friedman effectively opposed our effort as being overregulated and our own initiative evaporated as a political possibility.

Who should care about such a scrap of history? Continue Reading →

1

Soldiers and school choice

soldiers in prayerLong long ago I spent two years stationed at the Pentagon as a JAG officer. Early on I discovered that, daily at noon, a cadre of my fellows attended mass down the hall where a proper room had been set aside for the purpose. I was not surprised; even as a draftee in 1953 I had learned the Army provided opportunity, not only to visit the various chaplains, but for communal worship according to individual religious commitment. This was not just “released time”; the Army paid for it all. In 1985, a federal court of appeals held this to be a constitutional duty of government.

So far as I can see, little of this policy has changed in the military, though its justification today is supported as much by the free contract that constitutes enlistment; access to religious practice is a promise of the government that is a basic tool of recruitment. In my day, the military draft made this policy of the Army imperative, not only as a First Amendment responsibility but simply as a matter of justice. No Western nation would pluck a person from his home and family to serve any civic imperative without assuring that – as the requirements of his particular task allowed – he could pursue and perfect his own religious commitment through counsel, study and communal devotion.

Or would it? Consider the American system of state-imposed education and specifically the “public” school. Schooling is compulsory; the child is drafted to serve a civic imperative. It may not be full-time duty; but for the most receptive hours of the child’s days, for 12 years, the experience of being educated by unchosen strangers is intellectually and emotionally preemptive – and even dominant. Nor is there any lack of homework to conscript what remains of the day – and all of this for 12 years, a tour of duty three times that of all but a few soldiers. Schooling in this environment approaches a conscription of the mind; indeed, that is its point. Paradoxically, the experience can eventually be liberating, but within state schools it can be so only within a vision of life’s purpose narrowed by the absence of transcendence. Many Americans do not regard this as liberation.

By contrast to the Army – both that of 1953 and now — these state schools provide their intellectual draftees neither chaplains nor invitations to pray together in the manner of their parents (or even of their own). Nor do they receive instruction in the content of their own family’s beliefs. If the parents can afford it, the opportunity for a more inclusive curriculum is available in a less conscriptive private school. But for the rest of American families, there is only the daily seven hours absorbing the wisdom of the intellectual descendants of John Dewey.

The charter school, though a salutary reform, is no exception; the mind of the child is still to be carefully insulated from any suggestion that the good life implicates the transcendental or even that there is such a dimension to human existence. The school may teach that some people believe such things, but it may not prefer any such idea even in the ways so familiar to the soldier. It lacks even foxholes.

The public school draft could end its undemocratic and class separative effect with the most simple adjustment – the option for the charter school to teach religion. Continue Reading →

0

Nothing more impersonal than an education system without school choice

Coons

Coons

In the New York Times of Aug. 17, David Kirp tells us “there is no substitute for the personal element” in schooling and claims those who support school choice disagree with him. In his “Teaching Is Not a Business,” he scolds the entire parental choice movement as dominated by “marketplace mantras” that regard test scores “as the single metric of success.” He would have us understand that business competition and systematic testing exhaust the litany of arguments for choice and that these are impersonal forces.

Kirp, in my judgment, is correct to downgrade both scores and competition; they are important essentially as the instruments of the more central values thought to be served by parental autonomy. And, true, in arguing for choice, some economists have found little to say beyond hailing the market. I will suggest they have forfeited their best arguments. But, then, for Kirp to attribute their narrow vision to the mainstream of serious students and proponents of family authority is grossly misleading.

What is school choice really about? Like any other element of human freedom it is, before all else, an occasion of responsibility. It is specifically so for the parent; armed with constitutional authority, fathers and mothers must face up to the issue: where will Little Nell get her formal instruction? The parents must decide; but first they must probe and learn – they must act like responsible citizens. They will make mistakes and grow by them, because these decisions will affect their own future lives. They care about this child, not simply because she is theirs – though that is crucial – but because they have to live with the outcome.

The child observes such behavior, and that experience suggests the meaning of responsibility. Further, Nell grasps that, if the decision turns out painful for herself, she has an open mic at dinner and bedtime to plead her own case and maybe change schools. She gains confidence in the possibility of her own responsibility. There is a system; she is part of it; and it can work. She has discovered that she is a citizen.

Nell’s neighbor, Jim, for reasons of poverty, has no parent who is able to choose for him; he is conscripted for a school called “public.” He is called to learning by strangers who bear no long-term responsibility for his success. His parent and he are both helpless – for 12 years. Is this what Kirp means by “the personal element?” Does conscription serve the development of a “civic” attitude? Continue Reading →

0

Equality, ‘created equal’ & the case for school choice

created equalWhen the words fail the social critic, there always remains some “inequality” to be cursed. Our numberless differences provide the happy hunting ground for those us seeking either to praise or damn some aspect of American reality. The abstraction that is equality provides the gauge of justice for those differences we lament in the lives of Bill and Sally. Bill owns a plane; Sally, buses. Sally is robust; Bill is crippled. Bachelor Bill is a one-percenter; single mother Sally struggles. Bill is a man; Sally isn’t. Comes then The Word: Any difference in kind or degree can raise an issue of egalitarian injustice. It seldom occurs to us that, were we all to be made equally ill or impoverished, it would be difficult to claim that justice has advanced; the dead world of “On the Beach” was thoroughly equal. Equality of our objective condition is in itself, irrelevant.

Of course, early differences can, in fact, alert us to injustice, but not because we are, or should be, equal, but because some particular type and degree of difference merits that special regard that one owes his fellow human. The sceptic, of course, can doubt that one owes anything to anybody; but it is no answer to him that we are unequal. True, almost by definition, any duty to others will ordinarily involve differences of some sort; but nothing is clarified by invoking The Word. Mere difference is an empty moral vessel.

It may not in all cases seem an empty political or legal vessel. The state may act simply to reduce socioeconomic difference hoping, for example, to diminish hostility between groups. But notice that the word “thereby” signals a separate and immediate cause of the state’s concern quite distinct from inequality; the group antipathy may well have originated, not from difference, but from some irrelevant historic score. Quite the same holds in private law: A poor man recklessly injures me; our difference in wealth – and, perhaps, his jealousy – are irrelevant to the issue of his responsibility.

Equality, simply as such, has been hard for the critic to defend as a demand of justice. Seeking coherence, some philosophers would substitute “fairness” as the goal; that word may not tell us much, but at least it rejects sheer difference as our favorite object of suspicion. If we could distinctively improve the condition of the most miserable citizen by simultaneously making Bill Gates richer, even John Rawls might be satisfied.

Were the Founders, then, engaging in mere word play when they declared us “created equal.” Continue Reading →

0

Vagaries of Vergara

If the long-range outcome of Vergara were merely the death of tenure and LIFO, the servile posture of the lower-income family would be unaltered.

If the long-range outcome of Vergara were merely the death of tenure and LIFO, the servile posture of the lower-income family would be unaltered.

The recent opinion in Vergara v. California deserves the attention it has attracted – and more. It has implications – some good – beyond the weakening of public sector unions. The plaintiff child has successfully attacked both the state’s system for tenuring and de-tenuring teachers and also the LIFO (last in, first out) statute that, in case of layoffs, protects teachers by time of service. If upheld on appeal, that would be a heap of change in the structure.

The court says the tenuring process is too short to allow good administrative judgment – effectively one year and a half. Thereafter, the de-tenuring process is torturous, very long, unpredictable – and expensive – to the district (the union covers teachers’ defense costs). Both practices are held to impair the quality of instruction and to do so in a manner uneven from child to child, thus violating their “fundamental right to equality of the educational experience.” These systemic wrongs are aggravated in districts serving low-income populations, intensifying the violation of equal protection. The seniority system (LIFO) has similar effects with the same conclusion. The case involves state law only. In striking down the tenure part of the system, Judge Rolf Treu emphasized these two sections of the state constitution:

Article I, Section 7(a): “A person may not be … denied equal protection of the law.”

Article IX, section (5): ‘The legislature shall provide for a system of common schools … supported in each district.”

He used both sources again in condemning LIFO. Favoring seniority, it is said, offends rationality and, like tenure, injures children without justification – especially the poor. Taken altogether, this is not equal protection.

I will address the two holdings in order, concentrating upon the tenure problem. As for the flaws in these statutes, Judge Treu relies on precedent construing the educational right of the child and the corresponding duties of the state. The (state) constitution “is the ultimate guarantee of a meaningful educational opportunity … to the student” who also enjoys a “fundamental right to basic equality in public education.” The court thus perceives the right, first, as one of peculiar weight and significance; hence, second, one that must be satisfied by education of basically similar and proper quality for children in similar circumstances.

The history of judicial response to this two-fold claim in the courts of California is instructive. Continue Reading →

0