Meet the Voucher Left

0
Despite what the story lines too often suggest, school choice in America has deep roots on the political left, in many camps spanning many decades. Mississippi Freedom Schools, pictured above (the image is from kpbs.org), are part of this broader, richer story, as historian James Forman Jr. and others have rightly noted. Next week, we’ll begin a series of occasional posts re-surfacing this overlooked history.
Despite what the story lines too often suggest, school choice in America has deep roots on the political left, in many camps spanning many decades. Mississippi Freedom Schools, pictured above (the image is from kpbs.org), are part of this broader, richer story, as historian James Forman Jr. and others have rightly noted. Next week, we’ll begin a series of occasional posts re-surfacing this overlooked history.

By critics, by media, and even by many supporters, it’s taken as fact: School choice is politically conservative.

It’s Milton Friedman and free markets, Republicans and privatization. Right wing historically. Right wing philosophically.

Critics repeat it relentlessly. Conservatives repeat it proudly. Reporters repeat it without question.

It has been repeated so long it threatens to replace the truth.

Voucher Left logo snipped

The roots of school choice in America run all along the political spectrum. And to borrow a term progressives might appreciate, the inconvenient truth is school choice has deep roots on the left. Throughout the African-American experience and the epic struggles for educational opportunity. In a bright constellation of liberal academics who pushed their vision of vouchers in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a feisty strain of educational freedom that leans libertarian and left in its distrust of public schools, and continues to thrive today.

This is not to deny the importance of the likes of Friedman in laying the intellectual foundation for the modern movement, or to ignore the leading role Republican lawmakers have played in helping school choice proliferate. But the full story of choice is more colorful and fascinating than the boilerplate lines that cycle through modern media. Black churches and Mississippi Freedom Schools are part of the picture. So is the Great Society and the Poor Children’s Bill of Rights. So is U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Congressman Leo Ryan, D-Calif., the only member of the U.S. House of Representatives to be assassinated in office.

Perception matters. Perhaps now more than ever. There is no doubt far too many people who consider themselves left/liberal/progressive and identify politically as Democrats do not pause to consider school choice on its merits because they view it as right-wing and Republican (or maybe libertarian). In these polarized times, people have never identified with ideological and party labels so completely, and, I fear, so often made snap judgements based on perceived alignments.

School choice isn’t the only policy realm to suffer from false advertising, but in the case of vouchers, tax credit scholarships and related options, the myths and misperceptions appear particularly egregious. (Note: I work for Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, the largest private school choice program in the nation.) The forgotten history means newcomers to the debate get a fractured glimpse of the principles that have long fueled the movement. And it means critics can more easily cast contemporary supporters on the left as phonies or sellouts, as opposed to what they really are: heirs to a long-standing, progressive tradition.

We at redefinED would like to redouble our efforts to change that. So, beginning today, we’re going to offer a series of occasional posts about the historical roots and present-day fruits of school choice that are decidedly not conservative.

We’re calling it “Voucher Left.”

We hope to offer entries big and small, some by redefinED regulars, some by guests. We may rescue a historical document from the dust bin. We may serve up a profile or podcast. Maybe we’ll reconstruct some fascinating but forgotten moments in the rich history of choice, like what happened in California in the late 1970s when a couple of Berkeley law professors tried to get a revolutionary voucher proposal on the statewide ballot. (Here’s a bit of tragic foreshadowing: But for Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, vouchers today might be considered a liberal conspiracy.)

There is no set schedule for the series. We’ll roll out posts as often as time permits, and as often as we can keep digging up good stuff. Look for the first two right after Labor Day.

In the meantime, a few caveats:

We didn’t coin the term “voucher left.” As far as we can tell, all credit goes to writer (and former fellow at the Center for American Progress) Matthew Miller. In a 1999 piece for The Atlantic, Miller used the term to describe the ‘60s era choice camp that included John E. Coons and Stephen Sugarman, Berkeley law professors who co-founded the American Center for School Choice, which helped put this blog on the map. We thought the term perfect – and just as fitting an umbrella for choice’s other progressive pillars.

This isn’t just about vouchers. “Voucher Left” is catchy, but our intent is to write about choice in all of its manifestations. Charter schools and homeschooling also have rich histories that defy political labels and public perception. Milton Friedman isn’t the only choice pioneer who thought about dividing a voucher among multiple providers, a la education savings accounts. Sometimes, choice isn’t about different types of schools, but about who has power and control over existing ones. If it involves the left and educational freedom, we’d like to spotlight it.

This isn’t an endorsement. I’m sure many in the school choice universe understand and sympathize with the Voucher Left emphasis on equal opportunity and social justice. But there’s plenty of disagreement, then and now, on specifics. The point isn’t to say the center-left vision is better. It’s to make clear there is one – and that many on the left, for many decades, have found the idea of expanding educational options, particularly to disadvantaged families, and including the use of vouchers, to be completely in step with their progressive worldviews.

I am not a historian. There’s so much I don’t know, and I hope my posts are written with a humility that reflects my limitations. I don’t know enough to authoritatively say, for example, that when it comes to school vouchers, progressives got there first (although I am persuaded by one historian who does make that claim). I do know enough, though, to say center-left support for choice has been real, distinct, principled, persistent and organic, spanning multiple camps over many years.

I recoil at labels. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I covered education in Florida as a reporter for eight years and the experience left me utterly confused about what’s “conservative” and “liberal.” I hate cramming people into boxes. Equal opportunity is a term more identified with liberals, but in the choice realm I hear a lot of conservatives talking sincerely about expanding opportunity. Conservatives are more likely to stress the power of markets, but there are certainly liberals who appreciate how markets (sometimes with regs that some conservatives find inappropriate) can benefit disadvantaged kids.

As for me? My heart is Voucher Left. My brain is independent. As a reporter, I grew outraged watching school districts, news media and other powerful institutions shrug at the unconscionable failure rates for low-income students, particularly black students. I became convinced that more power for parents, particularly low-income parents, is part of the solution. But I’m not wedded to anybody’s vision for poor kids. I’m for whatever works. I’m glad more and more choice programs are revving up, so we’ll have more opportunities to see what does and doesn’t get disadvantaged kids to the finish line.

Obviously, as we air these posts, we’d love to get your reactions, recollections, ideas for other posts and criticisms.

You can reach me at rmatus@sufs.org or on Twitter at @RonMatus1.