Author Archive | John E. Coons

Nothing more impersonal than an education system without school choice



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 →


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 →


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 →


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 →


Fear of words unspoken



“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 →


The cost of choice

school spendingForty-six years ago a plaintiff named John Serrano sued the State of California, asserting that the capacity of school districts to raise money was grossly unequal, hence unconstitutional. The quality of education in property-poor districts was said to be diminished by the resulting disparities in spending per pupil. Students had a right to a more rational and fair distribution of money.

As in most litigation the claimants had to prove some real injury. The disparities in spending were colossal, ranging, at the extremes, from a few hundred dollars per pupil in property-poor districts, to several thousand in freakishly wealthy industrial centers and top-rank suburbs. The injury seemed self-evident.

But it wasn’t. By whichever measure of outcome – graduation, test scores, reputation – there was no pattern linking spending to actual quality. In addition, surprisingly, there was little or no evidence that children from poor families were systematically getting less spent on their schools. The lawyers for Serrano et al. could not credibly assert that money was the key to quality education or indeed, that it affected the success of schools in any way – except one. It was obviously true that the richer districts could buy more stuff. They could hire more teachers, administrators and superintendents, at higher salaries, build fancier buildings and secure the most up-to-date supplies, books and equipment. The trial judge decided this was injury enough. His judgment for the plaintiffs was affirmed by the California Supreme Court. As yet, however, 40 years later, no one has succeeded in establishing a clear link between spending per-pupil and the benefit for the child.

Nevertheless, spending has skyrocketed in succeeding generations across the nation for reasons political – principally the monopoly power of public-service unions. But the apparent disconnect between spending and quality of education remains. This reality has conflicting implications for the school choice movement. It reduces the political significance of the consistent discrimination in spending against today’s charter schools; we are not at all clear that it really affects outcome. On the other hand, it is plain to anyone who knows the facts that, whatever it is that does make a school successful, it can be had without exploding the cost. In short, if school choice supporters are willing to accept and even exploit politically the cheaper regimes now in place, they have a more powerful case. Continue Reading →


Of civics and ‘sects’: debunking another school choice myth

The critic should not imagine this escapist attitude to be the specialty of the occasional occult and exclusivist faith-based school. Most of us can find it in the mirror.

The critic should not imagine this escapist attitude to be the specialty of the occasional occult and exclusivist faith-based school. Most of us can find it in the mirror.

The American Center for School Choice is committed to the empowerment of all families to choose among schools public and private, secular and religious. As in all programs of government subsidy – food stamps are an example – there will be limits on the product that can be chosen; the school preferred by the parent must meet academic standards and respect civic values. Taxpayers will not subsidize the choice of any curriculum encouraging hatred or violence.

Until the 1950’s public schools could, and did, broadly profess a religious foundation for the good society; and both history and serious contemporary research report the powerful contribution of religious private schools to civic unity. Nevertheless, skeptics of parental school choice for lower-income classes are inclined to worry: are faith-based schools perhaps separatist in their influence simply by teaching – in some transcendental sense – the superiority of believers? The critics’ principal target is an asserted practice of some religious schools to claim a favored access to eternal salvation for their own adherents.

If this allegation is an issue, it is not one for the lawyer; so long as a school teaches children to respect the civil law and their fellow citizens here on earth there could be no concern of the state. It is unimaginable under either the free exercise or establishment clauses of the 1st Amendment (plus the 14th) that government – federal or state – could undertake to censor the content of teaching simply because it includes the idea that the means of eternal salvation are accessible only to some. The State’s domain is this life only, and our governments have so far properly refrained even from asking such an inappropriate question of any school.

The content of religious teaching could become relevant to government concern – and subject to regulation – only insofar as it bore upon matters temporal. Racial distinctions by employers suggest a rough parallel; the school cannot discredit the aptitude of non-believers for strictly earthly vocations or civic participation. It may not teach that Catholics tend to make unsatisfactory mathematicians, or that Jews can’t cook. It may not warn its children to avoid personal relationships with children of non-believers. But note that such a limitation upon temporal stigma is not a restraint unique to religious schools; it is a standard curb on the teaching of the purely secular institution, whether this be Andover or P.S. 97. There is really nothing peculiar here to the faith-based school.

Thus, though the opponent of school choice is correct to worry about schools teaching the temporal inferiority of any group, he is bound in sheer logic to broaden his concern to include educators public as well as private. Just which category of school, by design or choice, most plainly radiates the earthly inferiority of particular groups would be a delicate political issue for the secular critic himself. The obvious candidate for this odious role would be the white suburban public school. Continue Reading →


School choice will revive parental responsibility

parental responsibilityTeacher union sentinels warn us that school choice will rescue only the more promising students from a rejected public school, damaging that school further by their absence. The parents most likely to exercise their new authority – say the critics – will be those more concerned and sophisticated. In any case, the private schools chosen will then cull and reject the less attractive applicants; this predicted behavior is labeled “creaming,” “cherry-picking” and the like. Empirical study of private school admission practices puts this latter rap in serious question. Further, the design of state systems of choice in years ahead seem increasingly likely to assure fair inclusion of the poor without threatening the school’s identity.

But private school behavior will not be my subject. My focus, rather, will be the likelihood of change over time in the behavior of those parents who do not participate in the first round of choice and who seem out of the game. Will these fathers and mothers in due course become aware? And, once they grasp that they have authority, will they use it? What will be the effect on child and society?

One begins by asking: How do residents of lower-income neighborhoods today learn about change in the life styles of their neighbors? The urban sociologists whom I know seem to this day to recognize the efficacy of the grapevine. Its enhancement by the Internet is hard to estimate, but surely the overall effect of the modern organs of scuttlebutt will be to increase connectivity. Together, these social twines should be sufficient to spread the word in the neighborhood that Alice’s kid has left P.S. 99 for St. Mary’s.

But the most effective messengers of this sad news will be children themselves. The departing student’s stay-behind friend will be disappointed; his or her mother will get the message at dinner. Indeed, once defection has begun, there will be no hiding the new game, even from the duller parent. In addition one must remember: once choice has at last created competition for less well-off students, it will behoove every school to advertise its special charms in the most inventive ways to all families.

It is highly improbable that the slower-motion parent, once she really knows, will forever sit on her hands. She will, instead, begin to fumble and stumble toward participation. She will make mistakes, and there will be no want of charlatans and incompetents who, on occasion, will get the advantage of her. There will, in short, be a burst of variety, good and bad; and if – in the long run – one brand proves ideal for all of us, we will be happily surprised. However, there could well be one best educational recipe for that very specific person, little George. Experimentation by his parent may work its discovery for him; and that would now be possible for every child.

But is this a good idea? Society has for very long trusted only the haves among us with their own child; yet should that trust be extended to the have-nots? Apart from test scores, what will be the social and civic consequences?

As the nation gradually faces this issue, what is often overlooked is the positive effect of empowerment upon the parent herself. She becomes the groping, striving hopeful creature that is the rest of us. She can at last seek her own child’s way like the luckier among us. And, if she is not presently their equivalent in savvy, here is her opportunity – if only gradually – to become so by steady application of the three qualities that are unique to parents: love, insight and personal responsibility. Continue Reading →