What history can teach our school choice debates today

Adam Emerson

It’s hard to miss Dick Morris. The former presidential aide and Fox News contributor has raised the volume on his rhetoric during the last couple of days to promote National School Choice Week, and Education Sector’s Kevin Carey was right to note that Morris does more harm to his cause when he harangues the interests and performance of public schools so viciously. But in an otherwise enjoyable essay for The Atlantic, Carey misses an opportunity to further explore how the choice movement evolved to become, as he says, so ideologically “ghettoized.” Along the way, he succeeds in guiding us only to familiar territory.

As many do, Carey traces the movement’s roots to Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education,” but he dispatches the left turn that school choice made in the 1970s as if it was a political afterthought. In reality, the means-tested policies that facilitate public and private school choice today more closely resemble the proposals from the political left and center that surfaced between the Johnson and Reagan administrations than anything that Milton Friedman sought to test. Greater awareness of that history might not transform the debate, but it could help to lift it from isolation.

Lost to history are the rich Chicago radio debates that took place between Milton Friedman and Jack Coons, who was to champion the cause for equity in the financing of public education and emerged as one of the most stalwart liberal advocates for school choice. To Coons, the poor would show us the right way to develop a proper test for parental choice that extended to private and religious schools, under regulated conditions. He and colleague Stephen Sugarman developed their centrist theory and constitutional framework in their 1978 book, Education by Choice, which drew the attention of a Democratic congressman from California, Leo Ryan. Ryan urged Coons to draft an initiative, saying he would raise the money and organize the campaign. This all happened, of course, before Ryan left to investigate reports of human rights abuses at the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, where he was murdered. Coons and Sugarman began the campaign anyway, confident the money would somehow appear. “Both libertarians and teachers unions laid their curse, and the thing died,” Coons would later write.

Around that time, a newly elected Democratic senator named Daniel Patrick Moynihan crafted a measure with Republican Senator Bob Packwood that would have awarded up to $500 in tax credits to families paying private or parochial school tuition. At one point, 24 Democrats and 26 Republicans in the Senate ranging from Sen. George McGovern to Sen. Barry Goldwater signed on as co-sponsors. Moynihan would write that, when the bill was heard, there was a palpable strength felt in the chamber “of the views pressed upon us that this was a measure middle-class Americans felt they had coming to them.” Even soon-to-be elected President Jimmy Carter promised, in a campaign message to Catholic school administrators, that he was “committed to finding constitutionally acceptable methods of providing aid to parents whose children attend parochial schools.” That was before Carter received the first-ever endorsement from the National Education Association. After he took office, the Moynihan-Packwood measure eventually fizzled.

And this flirtation with history cannot forget the forgettable experiment at Alum Rock, California, home to the nation’s first test of school vouchers. Although the experiment took place under the auspices of the Nixon administration, the project began with a team led by the liberal Harvard social scientist Christopher Jencks. “Today’s public school has a captive clientele,” Jencks would write in Kappan. “As a result, it in turn becomes the captive of a political process designed to protect the interests of its clientele.” It was that political process that eventually doomed Alum Rock to a compromise that agreed only to choice within public schools and guaranteed employment for the instructional staff. Just six of the district’s 24 schools volunteered to be the educational guinea pig. The experiment lasted just five years.

This isn’t just a trip down memory lane. What links these initiatives is a call for equity, and that has precedence in today’s targeted voucher and tax credit scholarship laws in Milwaukee, Florida and most other states that have initiated private school options for the poor and disabled, and it has precedence in the positioning of our more innovative educational experiments in the inner city. I wish the organizers for National School Choice Week would do more to point to this Democratic heritage when they highlight the areas where we see growing bipartisan support for choice today, and I wish commentators like Kevin Carey would stop dismissing these points in history as if they had no relevance to our dialogue today. That job might be easier if people like Dick Morris stepped out of the spotlight for a moment.

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