When progressives went big for school choice

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

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the American left cheered Freedom Schools and free schools, condemned education bureaucracies, and raised a clenched fist for community control of public education. It didn’t hesitate to think big on school choice, either.

A few decades ago, some on the American left viewed school choice as a potential tool for expanding opportunity and promoting equity. An all-star academic team led by Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks pitched one such proposal with funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was formed to fight President Johnson’s War on Poverty and led by Sargent Shriver (pictured at center, above). Image from sargentshriver.org

Adjusting for inflation, Ted Sizer’s 1968 proposal for a $15 billion federal voucher program for low-income kids would ring up $105 billion today – making President Trump’s still-fuzzy $20 billion idea pale in comparison. A decade later, Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman fell short in their bid to bring universal school choice to California, but their gutsy campaign still punctuates a historical truth: school choice in America has deep, rich roots on the left.

Some of today’s progressives are enraged about the suddenly serious possibility of school choice from coast to coast. True, Trump’s touch makes progressive support unlikely. True, many conservative and libertarian choice supporters raise their own, more thoughtful concerns. But it’s still stunning to see how much progressive views on school choice have shifted over the course of a few decades.

For skeptical but curious progressives, this 1970 proposal for school vouchers is a worthy read. It was produced by an all-star academic team led by liberal Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, and funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. That was the office, the brainchild of Great Society architect Sargent Shriver, that helped lead the charge in America’s War on Poverty.

Back then, vouchers weren’t maligned as a conspiracy to privatize public schools. Proponents, especially on the left, viewed them as a way to expand opportunity, promote equity, honor diversity, empower parents and teachers – and yes, improve academic outcomes.

The 348-page plan from the Jencks team is written in the language of social justice: Why, it asks, do we continue to call some colleges “public” when many people can’t afford them? Why do we call exclusive high schools “public” when only a few students can access them? Why are affluent parents considered competent enough to exercise school choice while low-income parents are denied?

The report brims with views like this: “ … [I]f the upheavals of the 1960s have taught us anything, it should be that merely increasing the Gross National Product, the absolute level of government spending, and the mean level of educational attainment will not solve our basic economic, social, and political problems. These problems do not arise because the nation as a whole is poor or ignorant. They arise because the benefits of wealth, power, and knowledge have been unequally distributed and because many Americans believe that these inequalities are unjust. A program which seeks to improve education must therefore focus on inequality, attempting to close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged.”

The authors sorted through a wide array of potential variations on voucher design, and proposed a multi-year “voucher experiment” that would eventually be tried, sort of, in Alum Rock, Calif. Ultimately, the experiment proved a big disappointment; no district agreed to a plan that included private schools. Still, the report suggests the authors wanted a blueprint that could guide many communities, perhaps as part of a federal initiative.

Much about the plan would give today’s choice supporters heartburn, particularly those in conservative and libertarian camps. It is heavy, if not smothering, on regulations for private schools. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that many private schools would participate in a program that required them to set aside up to half of their seats to be filled by lottery.

The point, though, isn’t to quibble about the details of a big, progressive plan for school choice. It’s to show, again, that progressives seriously pushed such a plan. Reading the report is like stepping in and out of “The Matrix.” There’s the endlessly repeated narrative about privatization plots and racist roots, sealing the alternate reality in which policy is debated. Then there’s the real world beyond the distortion.

The 1970 report floats Title I portability, and even portability of federal special education funds (IDEA had not yet been created). Today’s progressives think the idea originated on the right, yet long before it became a conservative cause, it piqued the interest of War on Poverty liberals. The report also discusses choice as a tool for empowering teachers, and the possibility of a new type of school we now call charters.

It’s also important to note, given the specter of racial re-segregation promoted by some choice opponents, that the report’s authors acknowledged the concern – and still said “forward.” The report was written while federal courts were knocking down attempts by Southern segregationists to use vouchers to bypass Brown v. Board of Education. (The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in here and here.) The authors saw good reason to remain vigilant, but also saw good reason to expand options for disadvantaged students:

“ … [W]e can ensure integration and equitable resource allocation in education without having the state operate 90 percent of the nation’s schools. It would be perfectly possible to create a competitive market and then regulate it in such a way as to prevent segregation, ensure an equitable allocation of resources, and give every family a truly equal chance of getting what it wants from the system.”

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