Author Archive | John E. Coons

The Union of the State

I approve the concept of the labor union. In the private sector long ago, I spent my off-school time manning a wrecking crew, loading and driving trucks (age 15!), cleaning toilets, serving in food lines and carrying trays to patients. Most boys below draft age had full-time summer and part-time school-year jobs; there weren’t enough males yet returning from war to take their place until late 1946 and even after. Was I ever a union member? I’m not sure now, but I experienced and accepted the idea as an ordinary and useful economic aspect of our society. The worker needs a competitive economic status, thus he organizes to offset the power of the employers. The union allows him to share in the success of the latter’s enterprise which in turn depends upon the employee’s skill and diligence.

The union is thus a perfectly plausible part of the free enterprise system, taking its bargained share of the surplus generated by the business. If the workers take too much, there well soon be no jobs; all depends on the continued existence of the employer. In my home town (Duluth) the post-war strikes in the then prosperous steel mills became so cumbersome for the owners that many simply ceased business or moved down the Great Lakes to more viable locations. Does that suggest unions are bad? Not at all; they are merely fallible like the rest of us, and in my town they accidentally killed the goose for thousands of their members. Perhaps the experience taught their leaders prudence; maybe not. In any case what they had demonstrated was an elementary lesson in free enterprise. Continue Reading →


Taking the initiative on school choice in California

California is partisan Democratic by a substantial margin. In October Berkley’s Institute of Government Studies released the results of a cross-partisan poll of 1200 registered voters probing attitudes toward K-12 schools. Substantial parts of the poll focused on the potential support for subsidized parental choice, using the term “vouchers”. Fifty-Five percent of registered Democratic responders favored vouchers for low-income parents to choose a private or religious school. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans agreed. By contrast, the prospect of vouchers to all parents regardless of income dropped approval to 43 percent of Democrats and raised Republicans approval only two points.  Continue Reading →

Testing, testing

For this observer, the most puzzling aspect of the school choice debate has been the constant focus of my old friends, the “voucher right,” on comparative test score as the principal criterion of education policy. These descendants of Milton Friedman are, of course, quite correct (contra The New York Times) that those schools freely chosen by parents have, in nearly all serious studies, produced scores a bit superior to those recorded in the assigned schools that these children left behind. The differences are fairly small, but relatively constant in statistical terms – even after adding some recent findings into the mix.

The teachers unions and their allies sometimes respond that the emigres from the public sector are generally the more gifted children, hence better test-takers. The empirical evidence on this issue does not settle the matter one way or the other. My own experience and judgment suggest that the worried parents of low performers who are stuck in their “public” schools are common seekers of change. In any case, if there is a difference here in mobility twixt the bright and the dull, it is relatively small either way. The kids who transfer appear pretty much a duke’s mixture of testing talent; this empirical question will and should remain an issue, but, even if the unions prove correct, this might suggest only that parents of struggling children need a bit more information and inspiration toward free choice.

The free-market folks have, from the beginning, made test scores their spear point – their best case for choice. Paradoxically, the unions have done the same in their opposition. If the political debate were to be reduced to relative performance on tests, the union position might prove the more politically prudent. The magnitude of differences in scores might be insufficient to make basic reform appear truly exigent. In that event, we would, of course, remain grateful to the market-centered folk for having established this one advantage peculiar to parental choice, however small. At very least, it makes clear that, given a legal structure ensuring free access for the poor, no harm to learning itself is likely, and at least some gains seem probable. Continue Reading →

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?” Continue Reading →

The Compulsory Government Union

The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and local allies such as the California Teachers Association are unions that teachers are required to join and support with dues in order to accept a job offer.

These are, in effect, government unions. That is, the teachers are employed by public school districts and soon protected by tenure from discharge.

The individual teachers may hate the union and all its works, but his or her paycheck is nicked each month in its support. The only exception is the cost of the union’s political activities, which is calculated and deducted for those who prefer. This exception was established by a decision of the Supreme Court four decades ago. It was deemed necessary to protect individual teachers’ speech rights under the First Amendment.

The accounting necessary is not so easy. The AFT used to give $200,000 each year to the United Farm Workers. In 1981, Cesar Chavez told me it kept him from supporting school vouchers. I wonder if Albert Shanker deducted this amount from the dues of resistant teachers. Continue Reading →

Testing Choice

I get The New York Times. Each morning, it identifies the world’s battlegrounds — military and ideological, political and economic. I discount and forgive its plainly “liberal” bent. If I owned a paper, it would have a tone of sorts.

But there are limits. One, I suggest, is the duty of all media, at an ethical minimum, to recognize, if only to dismiss, plausible arguments on all sides of any public issue. Readers deserve to know the writer’s pre-judgments.

The Times is a collection of heady folk; one expects the best from them. Sadly, along with most of their profession, they have remained silent on the strongest argument for extending to the lower-income parent the same power of choice among all educators that is available, and so precious, to our middle- and upper-income classes.

In April, the Times offered its view on the efficacy of one form of empowerment for the non-rich under the headline: “Vouchers Found to Lower Test Scores in Washington Schools.” The article discussed a study originating from the anti-voucher Obama Department of Education; it found that vouchers for choice of private schools by poor families in D.C. were followed by slightly lower scores on required tests. The Times cited a few concurring studies but strangely failed to note that these reports contradict two dozen other professional analyses.

But that particular form of selective reportage is not the only concern here. Much more troubling is the Times writer’s assumption that test scores are the litmus test for success in school, and that, if scores slightly declined, there would be no justification for letting poor parents make those choices so dear to the rest of us.

The test score infatuation is still widely shared by the media. Historically, it stems in considerable part from the purely economic argument for choice so welcome to the utilitarian minds of the ’60s and even today. Continue Reading →

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 →