In disco-era California, Berkeley professors were the insurgents behind a school choice plan so big and brazen, it rattled the state’s education establishment for a year.
John E. “Jack” Coons and Stephen Sugarman championed choice as a means of liberating low-income families. They viewed the public school system as demeaning and elitist, and in 1978, they unexpectedly found an influential ally: U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan.
In as much time as it took for “Le Freak” to rocket up the Billboard charts, their voucher vision went from academic template, to proposal for a statewide ballot initiative, to dead-serious pitch that compelled everyone from Al Shanker to Milton Friedman to pay attention.
On the educational Richter scale, this was, potentially, The Big One.
The California story would be worth telling for those nuggets alone. But it’s also a head-spinning footnote in a better-known story. How incredible that Coons and Friedman, titans and rivals in the school choice universe, would both be in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1970s. How unbelievable that a planet-shaking story that metastasized in that same time and space would careen into the education realm. How surreal that maybe just maybe, it would change a movement’s trajectory.
Sixty years after Friedman crystallized the idea of private school vouchers, school choice is easing into the mainstream. Forty-three
states now have charter schools. Another 25 have vouchers and/or tax credit scholarships and/or education savings accounts. But the total number of K-12 students served by those options is still a tiny fraction of the whole. Meanwhile, creation of new options continues to be dogged by common misperceptions that school choice is almost exclusively right-wing.
What if, 35 years ago, voters in the biggest state in America had said yes to a school choice plan that was far bigger than anything around today? What if the first state to adopt a statewide voucher plan had been California in 1980 rather than Florida in 1999? What if the revolutionaries had been Left Coast liberals and a Democratic congressman, rather than a Republican governor in the South?
Next week, for the latest in our Voucher Left series, we’ll kick off a series within a series. Please join us for a little California Dreamin’ …