Author Archive | John E. Coons

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 →

0

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

Pre-K must come with school choice

Pre-school is hot – again. It has been so, off and on, since ancient Greece. Plato’s ideal state would have imposed full-time boarding school starting at day one for all newborns, keeping them permanent strangers to their parents – those natural enemies of his perfect Republic.

Does NYC Mayor de Blasio's vision of pre-K include parental school choice?

Does NYC Mayor de Blasio’s vision of pre-K include parental school choice?

The spirit of Plato has played a larger role in American public schooling than often we recognize. Still, contra Plato, our imperfect Republic still allows parents to keep their children home until age five or six, then lets those who can afford it to choose among all schools, public and private. But for the less fortunate family, it is difficult or impossible to avoid their child’s conscription for seven hours, five days a week. To that extent, Plato wins, they lose.

Many now propose extending public schooling to younger children. Would this new deal in education be undertaken in the platonic spirit? For whom, and at what age? Would lower-income families be subsidized in order to make their own choices among public, private, and religious providers? Or would pre-K school be designed as the government strong-arm long familiar to post-K families, especially those forced into public schools in the cities? Exactly what is the intention of government enthusiasts, such as the new mayor of New York City?

We just don’t know; if Mr. de Blasio wants to replicate for infants the income-based conscription of K-12, he has not yet told us. And one full-length recent article and three New York Times’ editorials on pre-K in one week never touch the issue. Does government aim to frustrate even further the exercise of responsibility by the low-income family; or to the contrary, will Mr. de Blasio respect, for these few early years, the authority of such families to exercise in practice the role that their middle-class fellow citizens take for granted? Continue Reading →

0

Fear of words unspoken

Coons

Coons

“Talk Scheduled at Catholic School in Bronx Promotes Fear of Anti-Gay Message.”

So read a headline in the New York Times back in November. The half-page article sounded an alarm that the scheduled speaker, a priest, just might give parents – and, through them, children – an understanding of good and evil that is plainly unacceptable to the Times and probably injurious to the child and society. The article was more an essay than reportage and, perhaps, a prototype of contemporary journalism on issues respecting personal behavior. The relevance of this professional bent for the promoters of school choice deserves a word.

Imagine the mind of the Times writers as they blow the cover on this looming mischief. What an exposé – Catholics are conspiring to discourage sodomy! Though this threatening message was to be delivered only to parents, the journalists know that some vulnerable gay child is sure to be injured emotionally in the fallout. Indeed, the particular priest scheduled to speak “has long been involved with the Courage organization, a spiritual support group to encourage men and women to remain celibate.” If there were concerns that this organization was pushing further, instead pursuing an unstated strategy of reprograming gay students, the writers provided no clues.

Hence, we were left to imagine this fear: A priest intended to “encourage” chastity. Such a threat; beware the Inquisition! Happily the reporters told us to take heart: “More than 200 people” signed a Facebook petition to cancel the meeting. Such a big number (and how many of them parents)? It is worth noting that the journalists failed to ask those parents they did interview just what it was they had expected when they freely chose a Catholic high school – nor, why they did not now simply transfer to P.S. 209 and save the tuition while getting the message they want.

Flagship journalism frequently feels this obligation either to diminish or dominate public (or, here, even private) discussion of certain moral issues that the editors and writers consider settled. Among these is consensual sex. What one does with his body by choice is, by definition, okay. All opinion to the contrary is irrelevant; hence the threatened expression by this would-be Bronx speaker should be treated like any public nuisance – as a threat to be exposed and denounced. He may have the legal right to speak, but to exercise First Amendment rights in this manner, seeking to discourage gay sex, is at best de trop and, at worst, dangerous to children. It should be hissed from the stage. Bless those 200 Facebookers.

The prevalence of this attitude among these bright minds is suggestive for the politics of parental choice. First, this bent is not likely to diminish soon, partly because it arises from well-intentioned ignorance and long-engrained habits. Continue Reading →

0