The ode to ‘government schools’

Editor’s note: A series of attacks tying school choice to segregation has prompted rebuttals from conservative and libertarian writers. Here, Professor John E. Coons, who occasionally sparred with Milton Friedman in the early years of the school choice movement, responds from a different perspective.

Recently, the New York Times featured a guest column and cartoon demonizing the empowerment of low-income families to choose private schools. Written by one Katherine Stewart, it features recall of tidbits from and about racial segregationists of the 19th century and of the 1950s following Brown v. Board. The author makes plain, in almost Trump-like prose, that, to her, the whole effort to liberate the poor from compulsory assignment to a “government school” resonates with racism. I am surprised by the Times‘ featuring such a screed; to be sure, the paper has consistently opposed choice for the poor, but one would have expected comment at a superior level.

The editorial prefers the label “public” for those schools operated by the state. (My own favorite tag: “state schools.”) The term “public” is, of course, interesting and ambiguous. Our sidewalks are “public” – anyone can walk or stand (or recline?) on them. The park is public. It welcomes all, standing or sitting. (Though some charge a fee. Relevant?) Our courts are ordinarily public, and I suppose one can visit police stations, though briefly. Are they public? Our legislator’s office, the public library, the fire department, the Army post, the skating rink — you name it. What makes for “public?”

And, of course, consider the “public” school, so open to all — at least all in the neighborhood.

But first: Is there something about school itself that is profoundly different from all other examples? After all, one is not required by law to visit the park, the library, the courthouse, the legislator. Are these other examples perhaps different because citizens may, at their pleasure, choose to visit or not to visit? Does compulsion disqualify a prison as a public institution, at least so far as the prisoner is concerned? Would it be different if he could choose among the available bridewells?

School, too, is compulsory. Still, in a sense, it is democratic — indeed, maybe our most democratic institution. Unlike the old Army with its exemptions, every six-year-old gets drafted. There is no choice about it — or, all too often, about which school — except the constitutionally protected palliation of the right of the parent to pay tuition at any qualifying school in the “private” sector.

Or is that right?

For half of us, of course, there is a different form of choice. We can decide to live near the Malcolm X school (as my family did) and thus qualify by our address for the sort of education which we had supposed Malcolm X to provide (though ultimately, we found, it didn’t). Or we can decide to pay tuition at Saint-So-and-So Catholic School (as we ultimately did). Either sort of choice is purely private in nature and is ours simply because we can afford it.

The movement for empowerment of lower-income families to choose — whether by vouchers or some other device — is merely the very public impulse to keep us all in the American game.

The late-nineteenth century structure for compulsory education was designed to keep the common man common. His children were to learn what the more cultivated Protestant majority thought best. In the natural course of history, that system for schooling mutated into a device to separate the social classes in more than their schools. Geographic separation by economic class, and thus, largely, by race, has been in considerable part engineered by “government” — i.e. by state, and yes, by public — school systems.

In the 1980s, in Kansas City, Mo., the grossly and illegally segregated public schools, bolstered by the ACLU, refused to accept help from nearly 100 private schools offering racially integrated education. Kansas City is but one example of the failure of compulsory publicness — this one drawn from the author’s personal experience.

It is quite true that Milton Friedman’s allergy to government rules, even those meant to avoid benevolent outcomes such as racial and income integration, has become gospel for all of the most well-funded organizations lobbying for various forms of choice. They simply want full contractual liberty for both parent and school. Doubtless, unregulated private schools can, on the whole, contribute to bringing diverse racial and income groups together, but their spotty and mostly religious experience is not conclusive in designing a system for all sorts of schools — an ideal structure for education in general.

In any case, Stewart’s recollection of phony “choice” schemes of the 1950s South is largely irrelevant, and worse. Choice, properly governed, is America’s most promising vehicle for integration both of race and class.

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