Author Archive | John E. Coons

School: Such a Trip!

Expanding school choice could lead to innovative options for the children of farmworkers - perhaps mobile classrooms that allow the students to learn as they travel. (Image by An Errant Knight, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Expanding school choice could lead to innovative options for the children of farmworkers – perhaps mobile classrooms that allow the students to learn as they travel. (Image by An Errant Knight, from Wikimedia Commons.)

I’ve written before of an afternoon with Cesar Chavez at UFW headquarters on the edge of the California desert. The year was 1981, and there was strong hope of putting a school choice initiative on the ballot.

Chavez, his nephew and I spoke of empowering farm workers with an educational option. On the one hand, if they wished, they could continue to educate their children in a string of disconnected public schools located in diverse districts along the seasonal harvest path north. On the other, they could choose among public and private schools travelling in buses, either parked in coordination with the parents’ location, and/or actually operating in moving buses variously designed for the purpose of schooling.

Chavez was warm, receptive – and frustrated. His impediment was the annual $200,000 he received from Albert Shanker and the AFT. So he said, and I believed him. I suppose the AFT still protects its monopolies in similar ways. I see no legal impediment except, possibly, the anti-trust laws.

Peripatetic schools in buses? I think so.

Most of the mobile schoolhouses would teach only when parked in a location convenient to the parents’ current worksite. Whether the bus was equipped actually to provide education en route could be one element of choice for the parents. What would, I think, be the central advantages of either style are two: the convenience of location near the parent and continuity of atmosphere and substance – the same room, books, teachers – everything about the school itself – plus the settling confidence of the child in the parents’ proximity.

To this I would add in the reduction in systemic public costs made possible by liberating school districts from the expense and complexities of providing space and whatever other necessities – a teacher, or several – for a new gang each week or 10 days. It could be a relief to all concerned to be able to offer parents a school appropriate to their child’s age, and consistent in its milieu and message.

School reformers could seriously consider – as a potential reform to both policy and politics – the convening of well-publicized conferences to consider the question of the most promising forms of itinerant schools for farm workers’ children. So far as I know, they have yet to model and critique the potential variety of such novelties as tools of wise educational policy. Continue Reading →

Left of what?

From another place I take my name.

— Edmund Spenser

The movement for school choice is principally a work of three quite distinct ideological camps:

(1) Those who would limit parental choice to public schools, typically through open enrollment and charters. Democrats for Education Reform is a leading promoter of this sort of reform that is limited to the government sector.

(2) Those who would subsidize choice among all schools — private and public, religious or secular. Parents would be financially empowered, and participating schools would seek a degree of economic class variety in admissions. This is the oldest of these types, dating to 1978; these activists label their vision “Centrist.” The American Center for School Choice was a signal example.

(3) Activists favoring parental empowerment for tuition at all schools but typically leaving participating schools completely in control of admissions and recruiting policy and free to charge add-on tuition. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is an example of those favoring such a seller-controlled market. Many among them prefer the title “libertarian.”

The media have at times dubbed the Centrists the “voucher left”; doubtless, if such a figure of speech is allowed, they third group in turn could be the “voucher right.”

The left-right cartoon amuses, and this blog has occasionally featured it; but it also diverts us from the nature of the significant differences among the three camps favoring some form of choice. I conclude that — barring the case of circles — “centers” do tend to be left of right; but anyone seeking clarity will object to the confusion that “left” causes in the present case considering that Democrats for Education Reform is to the “left” of the American Center. The only valid question is left of what, how far, and in what respects. The Center, so appraised, is left of the Friedman as Bernie is left of Hillary and she of Cruz on the right; which makes her what – a leftist? Think about it. Continue Reading →

The complex simplicity of choice

The apparent simplicity of Milton Friedman’s free market model of parental choice is truly appealing. Let the parent decide. Here’s the money. Go choose. This is efficient liberty in its purest form – and so simple.

Or is it?

Is subsidized parental choice analogous to my easy liberty to choose Butter Brickel at Safeway, or a Honda at the car dealer? I fear not. It is, rather, the decisions, not even of the intended consumer, but of an adult authority who imposes a thirteen-year, profoundly formative experience upon another human being, who happens to be his or her own child.

The parent issues the command; the child obeys, as does the school, which is bound by contract to harbor the child and to deliver the chosen brand of education. The arrangement is, thus, a choice of the parent and a form of obedience by the child. This, I suggest, is an odd example of free enterprise; it more resembles the choice of diet for the prisoners by the warden.

Does this observation imply that the market conception of parental choice is irrelevant to the debate? Of course not.

Continue Reading →

Home, sweet school

Jeanne is a young but retired teacher of reading and writing in public schools; she has a working husband, boys, 4 and 7, and a girl, 10. The older two kids are enrolled in the school where Jeanne taught. She does not admire the school, and has been imagining a happier and more effective alternative for her children.

Next door to Jeanne and family is an older widower, John, who has, for twenty years, taught Spanish to neighborhood kids in after-school sessions at his own house.

Liz lives down the block. She used to teach math in a private school and has kids roughly in the age range of Jeanne’s.

Fred, a lovable elderly fellow lives two blocks up the hill. He is an emeritus history professor at the university. His children are grown.

Candy – two kids – used to teach science and lives a few blocks from Jeanne.

These five people know and like one another and, now, conspire to create a sort of peripatetic home school for these children. They live in a state that has several forms of tuition aid for unmonied parents to make these choices –charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, etc. Jeanne and company want to be the teachers in a school consisting of these three parents, plus Fred and Steve, all teaching these ten children in succession, and often together at the five homes in this neighborhood.

The school will be inexpensive to the state. Only Fred will be paid — and he modestly. The five private homes come to the state as free as do the four teachers. Continue Reading →

On teaching human equality


All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

– George Orwell, Animal Farm

All men are created equal.

–Declaration of Independence

Teachers in American public schools are expected to affirm the “equality” of all humans. The Founding Fathers saw it as a truth “self-evident”. But if human equality were to be considered thus, as something real – a fact not fabrication – what sort of reality would it be? I confess that I have never found the metaphorical identity of equality to be “self-evident”. Nonetheless, I do believe in it and will try here to make it a bit more evident for the hapless teacher. Continue Reading →

The state of the unions of the state

Seattle teachers went on strike last month. (Photo from Seattle Education Association facebook page.)

Seattle teachers went on strike last month. (Photo from Seattle Education Association facebook page.)

The annual swarm of strikes (and threatened strikes) called by public school unions arrived on schedule across the nation this fall, just as parents and children arrived at the schoolhouse to honor their civic obligation. With the teachers themselves truant, attendance was not an option for the families. Happily for the better-off parents there were familiar fallbacks; one can work at home, hire childkeepers or switch to the private sector and pay tuition.

For the rest of the nation’s families – call them “ordinary” – school strikes were a serious aggravation. As a rough analogy to their plight, imagine a military conscript who reports for duty as ordered – but finds the base empty. He knows he has to do something, but what? Of course this bewildered recruit would be the only person who suffers from that sort of foul-up. By contrast, when the teacher union decides to strike, the family itself becomes in effect a full squad of perplexed draftees – mothers, fathers, etc. – all bound both by government and by the very nature of the family. There is no substitute available for them to choose. They are legally and morally responsible for their child’s welfare – even when both parents must hold jobs to sustain the family. Eventually, of course, the strike gets settled and the mother returns to her job – if she still has one. In the meantime, however, what to do?

The state drafts the ordinary family for its own schools – there to learn only those ideas allowed to the mind of government; this the child hears five days a week, seven hours a day. What conception of human dignity could account for this deliberate humiliation? And when the state next allowed its own employees to abandon their charges without provision for the dilemmas presented thereby to the ordinary parent, just how was this good for anyone but the teacher unions and their elite? Yet again I would recall the words of my departed friend, Albert Shanker: “I’ll represent children’s interest when they start paying union dues.” With all due respect Albert, children in fact pay union dues simply by being enrolled and thereby providing jobs for union members. Continue Reading →

School choice and sheer bad luck

Between 1978 and 1990, bad luck derailed three efforts to put a center-left vision for school vouchers on the statewide ballot in California.

Between the late 1970s and late 1980s, bad luck derailed three efforts to put a center-left vision for school vouchers on the statewide ballot in California.

This is the fourth post in our series on the Voucher Left

The hope to secure school choice for lower-income parents has invoked many justifications beside free market theory. These broader conceptions of choice, however, have failed to secure serious consideration in political discourse about choice.Voucher Left logo snipped

Devout marketeers often forego, or even oppose, reliance upon these would-be friendly pictures of the effects of choice. They are seen as obscuring, even corrupting, free-market dogma: let individual taste determine what is the good. Personal preference itself becomes the goal: the market is the end instead of the instrument. Those who would argue in the name of more particular outcomes are “voucher left.”

I will pursue this hurtful confusion about goals, but I will also recall that its mischief has been aggravated by sheer bad luck — surprises that have undermined and long delayed what was in the 1970’s a promising political career for choice for all families. I will describe some of these odd events and their part in the long frustration of that cause. Note that I am myself a veteran centrist (“left”?) in this cause and critics on either side are welcome to correct my description of the philosophical clashes. My personal recollections of bad luck, however, seem beyond such attack (except as whining, which of course they are).

Subsidized parental school choice, a concept from the 18th and 19th centuries, was revived in the 1950s as what seemed to Milton Friedman an obvious instance of economic libertarianism. A full school market with vouchers for all would be an extension of freedom for both provider and consumer, allowing the parent an instrument with which to define the good life. That freedom should be virtually plenary; this is simply good economics, hence public policy. To say more in its justification (test scores perhaps excepted) would stray from school choice’s image as itself determining the good. Do I exaggerate? Not much in respect of the hard-core “voucher right;” choice justifies itself. To say much more risks government defining its limits for you. So, at least, was the libertarian mood music that gained volume beginning in the ‘70s. Marketeers had yet to appreciate that full freedom for the school provider might not be the same liberating experience for the consumer.

Friedman and company added to the ideological confusion, seeming never to note that subsidized school choice is quite unlike other markets in respect to the value of freedom itself.  Indeed, it could be deemed freedom’s opposite. For the assignment of the child to the school — if an act of freedom in any sense — is the “freedom” of the adult authority, whether parent or state. It is the freedom of one person holding office to tell another person what he will or will not do. Thus, would-be champions of “choice” are, more accurately, champions of a particular locus of power. We begin to see that, while there are many justifications for parental authority — and market talk helps to a point — this is not a pure case of liberty. The debate rather is about which of two masters will pick Mary’s teacher to act both in her “best interest” and that of society. And, all claims about who is the best decider must face up to both aspects of parental choice — freedom and power.

A second sort of bogeyman began gradually to make his appearance. Continue Reading →

On choosing and not choosing

“I can; can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.” – G.M. Hopkins, “Carrion Comfort”

School choice student

If students and their families actively choose their schools, could that have implications beyond the classroom?

The Duke Law Review of 2014 includes an essay by Harvard professor Cass Sunstein entitled “Choosing Not to Choose.” By example and analysis its author spells out the importance — for good or ill — of systems providing individual choice of various goods.

Among such systems are options for the chooser to forego making any specific choice thus, either keeping the status quo, assigning the decision to someone else or triggering some pre-fixed default outcome.

The essay is rich in hypotheticals of such devices. Sunstein, for example, analyzes the choice to let a bookseller who knows your tastes to send, and bill you each month, for a book of his selection (with and/or without the options to return the book and/or to bail out); he notes too the Affordable Care Act with its imposition of economic penalties upon those failing to choose among approved outcomes. He strives throughout to unsettle the apparent “opposition between paternalism and active choosing.” This supposed antinomy does not, for him, account for all the authentic stakes, economic and personal, in a variety of settings involving choice.

What Sunstein never touches in this tour of freedoms to choose or not is their role in the 50 American systems of public education — not even a footnote. This intellectual snub itself moves me to recommend this essay to all committed to universal parental empowerment in education.

Sunstein’s very avoidance  of school choice as a subject invites us to ask: Just how would this taxonomy from so resourceful a mind help us to parse and predict the effects of empowering lower-income parents to choose or not to choose their child’s educators?

That liberation is plausibly within reach of the next generation.Schooling will remain compulsory, as it should. The well-off will continue to have their choice, as they should. The new choice offered to lower-income parents by charter schools will very probably grow — as surely it should. And the subsidy of the ordinary family to choose private school has already crept on stage in D.C. and a number of states for our common consideration.

Continue Reading →