On parental choice and pluralism

In 1968, Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, then a leading light of the Voucher Left, argued for universal school vouchers, primarily to benefit black students: " ... for those who value a pluralistic society, the fact that such a solution would, for the first time, give large numbers of non-Catholics a choice about where they send their children, ought, I think, to outweigh all other objections."

In 1968, Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, then a leading light of the Voucher Left, argued for universal school vouchers, primarily to benefit black students: ” … for those who value a pluralistic society, the fact that such a solution would, for the first time, give large numbers of non-Catholics a choice about where they send their children, ought, I think, to outweigh all other objections.” (Image from www.hks.harvard.edu)

This is the latest installment in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

School vouchers won’t drain money from public schools, won’t violate the Constitution, and won’t fray the social fabric. Ultimately, they should be supported by “those who value a pluralistic society.” So wrote liberal Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, once a leading light on the Voucher Left, in a lengthy 1968 essay in the New York Times Magazine.Voucher Left logo snipped

Oh, how times have changed.

Too many of today’s progressives boo and hiss at school vouchers, thinking they’re a Koch brothers weapon to kill public education. They should be reminded, as often as possible, that some of their left-of-center brethren (like him, him and him) see vouchers through a radically different lens and that, in fact, this progressive view goes back decades.

Jencks’s 1968 essay, “Private Schools for Black Children,” is yet more evidence. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Jencks led the team that tried, as part of a federal experiment, to field-test school vouchers in a California school district. He concludes in his NYT piece that vouchers are necessary for political reasons, even if he doubts it will move the ball academically for black students.

Today’s school choice supporters would respectfully disagree on the academic piece, and they have the benefit of evidence (like this, this and this) that wasn’t there 50 years ago. Also and obviously, there are plenty of other good reasons to restore parental power over education, like those thoughtfully laid out by Berkeley Law Professor Jack Coons.

Conclusion aside, what’s striking about Jencks’s essay is how he brushes aside so many anti-choice arguments that so many modern progressives embrace.

Don’t school vouchers defy constitutional restrictions separating church and state? No, Jencks says. At the time of his essay, the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t ruled on that question. (It would, in favor of vouchers, in 2002). But, writes Jencks, it’s reasonable to think there wouldn’t be constitutional objections as long as the vouchers are “earmarked to achieve specific public purposes … “ Public money flows to Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities, he notes. Why not Catholic K-12 schools? The selectivity question continues to dodge scrutiny.

Don’t vouchers drain money from public schools? No, Jencks says. At least not with the design he envisions, which (like all of today’s K-12 voucher programs) would offer less per voucher than per-pupil spending in public schools. In fact, Jencks argues vouchers for black students will save taxpayer money, which will then make white communities more to apt to support them. Here again, today’s choice supporters have the benefit of evidence unavailable to Jencks – for instance, the pile of fiscal impact studies showing savings from the nation’s biggest private school choice program, Florida’s tax credit scholarship.*

Won’t vouchers lead to extremism and separatism? No, Jencks says. People once hyped those fears about Catholic schools, he write, but studies show Catholic school students are more tolerant than their public school peers. (A slew of more recent studies echoes those findings, suggesting schools of choice are more likely to enhance civil values.) Whites worried about black-led schools becoming bastions of black nationalism and race hatred, he concludes, have a “reasonable” but “somewhat exaggerated” fear.

Jencks’s essay also points to one other big contrast between then and now.

Virtually all of the Voucher Left camps were, and are, highly skeptical of bureaucracy. Jencks notes that liberals in the ‘60s were no longer keen on big school districts. Instead, he writes, they’ve “joined conservatives in attacking bigness, bureaucracy and the claims of enterprise. Most people on the left are now calling for more participation, more responsiveness, more decentralization, and less ‘alienation.’ “

On parental choice in education, many of today’s progressives have veered from this view. We all have our theories why, but it’d be nice if progressives could be persuaded to pause and mull it for themselves.

*The Florida tax credit scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and pays my salary.

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