What drives a school choice stalwart

Ron Matus


Before he became one of the most prolific and thoughtful school choice advocates in America, Jack Coons was a law professor who did what he could to promote civil rights in the 1960s.

His work on potential legal snags with boycotts led to a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His conscience led him to Selma. He participated in demonstrations in Chicago after violence erupted over calls for fair housing.

Those experiences helped fuel the sustained push for school choice that Coons and fellow Berkeley law professor Stephen Sugarman began in the late 1960s and continue to this day. Much of it is detailed for the first time in a fresh set of recorded interviews for Berkeley’s Oral History Center.

The civil rights movement “certainly enhanced my spirit for the job,” Coons told interviewer Martin Meeker, the center’s associate director, for a 165-page transcript. “The work that Steve Sugarman and I have done over the years has been very much animated, I think, by our feeling about its application to families who just haven’t got any authority over their children, because they don’t have any money. They have to send them to some kind of school, that’s required, and so they have to send them to the local public school, which is a junk pile, intellectually and socially. Forgive me for all the good schools in the country that just got defamed, but it’s very much driven our interests.”

Readers of redefinED know Jack Coons. Now 86, he has written dozens of posts, echoing themes he sowed and cultivated over a half-century. Nobody emphasizes parental empowerment as a primary impulse for choice in education more than Coons. Nobody’s better at highlighting the implications for schooling and everything else.

Berkeley’s Oral History Center interviews folks who have made history or been witnesses to key events in California, the West and across America. It’s an honor for Coons to have been selected.Voucher Left logo snipped

Sugarman is honored, too, with an interview that also sheds light on an earlier era in the choice movement – and how curiously at odds it is with current, common perception.

Critics and the press often suggest school choice is solely a Milton Friedman-inspired impulse from the “right.” Those on the “left” who give the Coons and Sugarman interviews a read will find worldviews not too different from their own.

Before choice became his life’s mission, Coons was, at one point, an ACLU guy. He was a student of John Paul Stevens, the liberal Supreme Court justice. In his Chicago suburb, he chaired the local Citizens for Kennedy. For a while, the teacher unions loved him, because he and Sugarman were key players in a monumental California court case, Serrano v. Priest, that led to more equitable funding between wealthy and not-so-wealthy school districts.

“They thought it would raise the total amount of spending and it probably would have. And until they discovered that we were a couple of voucherniks, why we were their heroes,” Coons told Meeker. “But then they stopped inviting us. And indeed the Urban League invited me and then they disinvited me to give a speech. Can you imagine? They called up and said, ‘Something has come up. This probably isn’t going to work.’ Somebody had read something.” [laughter]

Sugarman, too, was spurred by the civil rights movement.

In his interview, he recalls doing his senior thesis on segregated schools in the South and hearing a talk by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, whose Birmingham church had been bombed. As a law student, he started a program to provide legal aid to residents of Chicago housing projects. As a young lawyer, he was recruited and mentored by Warren Christopher, who later served as Secretary of State under President Clinton.

Helping low-income families, Sugarman said, was always what motivated he and Coons.

“There was a lot of people in those days who were very unhappy about how many inner city families, low-income families, had their kids trapped in very poor schools,” he said. “We saw (school choice) as a way for families to have a chance. And we weren’t the only ones. There were a few other people on what I call the left who also saw school choice as a way in which poor families could be empowered to do more.”

Beyond their contributions as public intellectuals, Coons and Sugarman took a stab at electoral activism. With the backing of popular Democratic Congressman Leo Ryan, they sought to bring universal school choice to California, pushing a voucher ballot measure modeled after a template in their 1978 book, “Education by Choice.” Alas, Ryan was murdered in Jonestown, Guyana, and the effort sputtered.

Coons and Sugarman, though, have never stopped pushing, motivated by what Coons calls a bigger question about public education in America.

“Does it rob individuals and parents, ordinary people, of a chunk of their human being, of their existence as responsible human beings, and I’m afraid it does,” he said in the oral history interview. “The idea that just because you’re not well off, that you are not fit to decide where your child goes to school or fit to send them to a private religious school and so forth … that’s a very dehumanizing principle, but that is our principle for poor people.”

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