Few advocates for education reform and school choice talk about, or even remember, the Alum Rock experiment, which had its birth in the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. But the death of Sargent Shriver gives us a chance to talk about a cause that in many ways is a legacy of the War on Poverty.
Shriver was one of the principal architects of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the Office of Economic Opportunity was his creation. While the OEO had a short life – it was abolished during the Nixon administration in 1973 – many of its antipoverty programs exist today, including Head Start and Job Corps.
What tends to escape notice in the coverage of his death is that the office also embarked on the nation’s first widespread experiment in school choice, more particularly with school vouchers. OEO leaders were looking for ways to make school systems more responsive to the needs of low-income families, and a team led by social scientist Christopher Jencks in 1969 undertook a project that would work to enlist school systems in a field test of vouchers.
Only the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District near San Jose, Calif., agreed to participate (Districts in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Gary, Ind., showed initial interest before their respective school boards voted against participation). But the school district entered into the experiment cautiously, volunteering to be the educational guinea pig for the OEO but agreeing only to choice within public schools. Private and parochial schools were prohibited from the plan, and the instructional staff was guaranteed continued employment.
The Rand Corporation summed up the birth of the plan for the National Institute of Education:
Even with these compromises and modifications, only 6 of the district’s 24 schools decided to take a chance on the demonstration. With so few schools in the demonstration, all similar in curriculum and method, OEO and the district hit upon a way to provide more educational diversity, by having each voucher school offer several programs to choose from. Small groups of teachers at each school joined together to devise these new programs – or mini-schools – 22 of which emerged in the first year. The array of mini-schools was at least roughly the same at each school; diversity and competition were thus largely confined within the walls of the neighborhood school.
The experiment lasted five years, ending in 1977, and school choice advocates today largely see the story of Alum Rock as a failure. “It was so bobtailed that it demonstrated very little,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., Hoover fellow and Fordham Foundation president, writing in his 2008 book, Troublemaker. “Limited to a handful of schools, all public, it was far from a road test for vouchers as Milton Friedman pictured them.”
True. But no other federal or state effort at the time was engaging school districts at this scale and forcing school boards to consider the individual needs of low-income students. Whatever Alum Rock’s constituency was imposing on OEO at the time, the office realized it was Alum Rock or nothing.
During its lifetime, the OEO itself suffered from charges that it was a bureaucratic mess, but it was insightful enough to see that not all schools can work for all children. That’s a common refrain in the choice movement today, and more and more parents are triggering a grassroots call to make schools work better for them.
So today we raise the history of Alum Rock from the footnotes and honor the memory of Sargent Shriver, a school choice pioneer, whether he knew it or not.