Author Archive | John E. Coons

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 →


A tale of two Turkeys

President Erdogan of Turkey

President Erdogan of Turkey

The media report that strong-man President Erdogan of Turkey has decided that children whose parents cannot afford private school will soon be sent to state schools, there to be educated in Erdogan’s own new ideal curriculum. They will be conscripted for his vision of what every young Turk ought to believe, including the government’s version of God and proper worship. The parents’ preference apparently will be irrelevant.

This sounds familiar; henceforth, the primary difference between the public schools in Istanbul and Kansas City will be found in the ideological curriculum that gets served to the poor. In America children get drafted for a school day that is stripped of every reference to God; their Turkish counterparts — irrespective of the parents’ wishes — will have God thrust upon them.  No God versus pro-God, but in any case no choice for the poor.

No doubt Mr. Erdogan’s own religious beliefs are intensely important to him. So long as he respects others, he should be entitled to them. I only wonder how, as a complete stranger to the child and family, he feels entitled — driven — to decide for his unmonied constituents exactly what shall be taught to their children about God. Has the deity bestowed upon him the insight — hence the duty — to disempower the ordinary family, imposing upon little Muhammad the ideas provided by government strangers who happen to be in a position to enlist him for their own ideological enterprises?

How does a mind like Erdogan’s get returned to office in what seems at least a proto-democracy? I have no clue. But the spectacle of Turkey invites a similar query about America and its many Kansas Cities. Why haven’t millions of parents come to the rescue of their children by insisting politically upon relocating power in the family through some system of financial reform? Yes, it is difficult to organize parents of diverse experience, education and hopes. But there is the ballot box. Why haven’t more educated parents, especially suburban, insisted upon choice for all? After all, their own choice of residence was at least partly driven by access to a school they supposed would transmit their own culture.

I wonder whether we have our own share of Erdogans, either somehow benefitting personally from the continued servility of the poor or/and confident that whatever public school is teaching is the best ideological message for our less lucky citizens who, left to their own, might not choose it. Continue Reading →


Our school deportation problem

The school district in upscale Orinda, Calif. expelled a Latina second grader for having legal residence in another district, but reconsidered after unflattering headlines.

The school district in upscale Orinda, Calif. expelled a Latina second grader for having legal residence in another district, but reconsidered after unflattering headlines.

Orinda, Calif. is a rich and prosperous suburban school district neighboring my own home in Berkeley. My family and I once lived there; we liked it and still do.

Last week, the local paper reported Orinda had just expelled a behaving, and performing, 7-year-old girl for having legal residence in another district. The girl lives in Orinda with her Latina mother who is a six-day-a-week live-in nanny for an infant child of working professional residents of the district. Upon hearing of the district’s decision, the latter hired an attorney who proceeded to embarrass the district into reconsidering the case – and in the end, to relent.

The happy outcome of this absurd conflict will not be my subject here, but the story carries a message. The case is a clear and common example of the effect of the prevailing American school system (still claiming to be “public”) that continues to corrupt the entire life experience of the poor – the child, the parent and thus, their part in the society to come. The well-off parent is invited by that society to responsibly evade such conscription by choosing to move to the suburbs, by qualifying for elite public schools in the city – or by going private. True, the new semi-private exception to the crude social division is the charter school; may it prosper along with the struggling church schools that have so long offered to both parent and child the opportunity to play a responsible role in society and, thus, to grow as individuals and engaged citizens.

Is there an educational alternative to our entrenched oddity, one that could value parent’s responsibility and nourish family life for all our people by assuring them the choice enjoyed by the well-off? Of course, there are many such options for society; they travel under the common banner of school choice. Why does it continue to be so difficult to get state legislatures to act to rescue the poor from their humiliation and their corrupting disempowerment?

Is it our teachers? No doubt, some of them prefer the system as it is; even if they don’t get their first job in Orinda, they can start in Oakland and work their way out to serenity. Knowing only this system so carefully partitioned according to wealth, perhaps one can’t blame them. My own considerable experience with teachers suggests the contrary. Continue Reading →


The uncritical Core

Does the Common Core implicate school choice? The answer might be important one way or another in the national effort to empower lower-income families to decide for their own children. Much of the effect of the reform could depend, first, upon disparate reactions of individual states; second, upon potentially conflicting responses to any such diversity by college admission authorities; third, upon probable effects of proposed new tests on the manner and even the objective of schooling itself.

Common Core aims to remake pedagogy indirectly by the adoption of new forms of high-stakes student testing that will strongly encourage two basic reforms in the classroom: (1) Elevation of the intellectual content of the curriculum; (2) a form of instruction—often called “critical thinking”—that requires the student to solve problems more than to memorize material.

The payoff of the new-style instruction for both child and teacher would come with new—ideally national—tests in which the typical question would require the student to engage in sequential steps of reasoning from a given set of facts to a series of logical conclusions entailed by those facts. Feats of memory are to be less valued; analytical thinking is the thing. Both teacher and student would need a bit of intellectual refitting. So I understand the scheme.

Many states have at some earlier point committed themselves to the new regimen that Common Core will entail for both teacher and student. A few have since reneged; others have said no from the beginning, and have done so despite financial carrots offered by the feds. What individual states decide could be important to the whole project and indirectly to the future of subsidized parental choice.

Consider one example of the potential effects of this discord. If one state rejects the new test while another cooperates, how will admission policies of colleges adapt to the mixed scene? How will they judge applicants with such various forms of credentials: One will have taken some test required by the individual state—but not the Common Core; another will have taken the Common Core test but never been exposed to the grooming it presupposes; still another will, for 13 years, have gotten the full dose of critical thinking, presumably giving him an advantage on the test. Should the college treat all three uniformly—and what exactly could that mean?

And what of the private school graduate? His state may or may not require private schools to administer the Common Core test as a condition of certification—and/or of their right to accept and cash state scholarships. Though I would expect most private school graduates in general to do better than average on such a test, I am less confident about those who have attended off-beat or experimental schools focused on art, music or religious content, or who were taught at home. Will their chances for admission to a favored college be diminished by lower test scores? I don’t know the answer, but I can imagine that any responsible parent would weigh that question in assessing a school where teaching style and content may not prepare specifically for the test; and, of course, the school itself might be excluded from cashing parental subsidies.

Another implication troubles me even more and explains my title. Continue Reading →

School choice in a nutshell



Proposals for government subsidy of the school choices of parents, in amounts tailored to family need, have attracted support across the political spectrum. This consensus is grounded on a variety of mutually consistent theses; paradoxically, the individual champion of school choice has too often treated his own favorite argument as so manifestly superior that it tends to dominate and trivialize all others. It could, therefore, be a useful mental (and political) exercise for advocates of choice to evaluate the full gallery of its claims and to consider whether a more eclectic, inclusive and harmonious intellectual sketch of the movement might be prudent for all in pursuit of this common goal.

Toward that end I here offer a brief catechism of what appear to me to be the central reasons for the economic empowerment of all parents in amounts sufficient to decide among all schools, private and public, that participate in the system. Catechisms, are, of course, also argument, but I shall keep this to a minimum. That my categories overlap in their persuasions only reinforces my sense of the mischief in allowing separation and insularity in our argumentation. I strongly urge others to draft their own litanies – pro or con—or to prune this effort of mine.

  1. Choice is the source of human responsibility, the pre-condition of maturity and goodness. We grow morally, and spiritually, only by specific consequential acts of the will. For parents of every class and every aspiration for their child, the liberty and duty of selecting the educator are the occasion of growth as a person. In turn, the child’s observation of that parental decision as an act of duty, freedom and authority sends a message of the moral dignity that is possible to all of us as adults. By contrast, America’s historical disempowerment of the ordinary parent in favor of a professional school elite is a psychological disaster for both parent and child — hence for society.
  2. The experience of personal responsibility in so serious a matter evokes the virtues of citizenship; conversely, that of displacement of the deciding individual by government is poisonous, both to the responsible self and to the society that has deposed him.
  3. School choice is a powerful medium of free expression for the parent, realized through the agency of the chosen school and its message.
  4. The sole material exception to the broad authority of the American parent is the conscription of the child of the lower-income family for education by unchosen strangers in a state school. This selective impairment of human responsibility by economic class – this gross disequalization — is a civic embarrassment and an Achilles heel for the system in court.
  5. Choice is an invitation to a cordial diversity of mind and spirit wholly congenial to the intellectual and social freedom preached by our political sages as a primary virtue of our history and culture — in particular the freedoms guaranteed in the speech and religion clauses of the 1st Amendment and parallel assurances in state constitutions.
  6. School choice is a constitutional right, cemented in our jurisprudence (Pierce vs. Society of Sisters). Its unnecessary frustration by The State for families of limited wealth will one day be challenged in our highest court.
  7. The parent’s right to choose is, at the same time, a duty to the child, hence a right of the latter. The child himself has a strong constitutional claim to his own parents’ free decision.
  8. Consumer choice could make teaching a true profession, creating a personal bond of contract between the teacher and the family that has freely chosen that school, hence that teacher.
  9. Systems of school choice, properly designed, could control the public cost of education. Private schools, on average, are more efficient and spend less for superior results with similar children.
  10. Competition would encourage either the transformation or disappearance of the typically insipid American school of education.
  11. School choice appears to raise test scores; at worst it does not lower them.
  12. Choice is strongly favored by parents of every economic class.

Criticism would be appreciated.

A little context for Al Shanker’s “original charter school vision”

Al ShankerAgain on Sunday, the pages of the New York Times managed to confuse the nature and history of school reform. The op-ed by Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter credits the late Albert Shanker with “The Original Charter School Vision.” Now, however one judges the weight of Shanker’s nimble ideology, charters were not his baby until late in the game. Nor do the authors appear to grasp even what the idea of charters was – and is. They see this “vision” as “freeing up teachers and integrating students”; an apparition said to have been delivered to Shanker during a 1987 visit to Germany.

Charters, of course, do “free up” teachers, but only insofar as they free up parents to choose them. They are merely an obvious (and much older) suggestion of one legal form that “voucher” schools may take. They are, first and foremost, about lower-income families and the crying need to give back to them the authority and liberty enjoyed by the best of us. Charters are a way to privatize schools that nominally remain in the public sector and – so far – are forbidden to teach religion.

Schools that are privately owned and operated in the “public” sector were part of the discourse of the 1960s. Their specific terms and structure were exemplified in a 1971 volume by Stephen Sugarman and myself, published by the Institute of Government Studies. There ensued a sad story that is worth a brief telling.

Following the passage of California’s Proposition 13, in the early summer of 1978, a Democratic congressman who had read our new volume, “Education by Choice,” invited Steve and myself to dinner to discuss the political possibilities for school vouchers. That evening we agreed to draft a family choice initiative for the 1978 California ballot; he would do the necessary political stuff and raise the money after the campaign for the November elections. We completed the drafting. Leo Ryan did get re-elected. But then he was murdered in Jonestown.

Already deeply committed, we proceeded on our own, imagining that the libertarians at least would finance the effort. To our dismay, Milton Friedman effectively opposed our effort as being overregulated and our own initiative evaporated as a political possibility.

Who should care about such a scrap of history? Continue Reading →