Author Archive | Ron Matus

Game over

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Its champion gone, ambitious plan for school choice in California fizzles

This is the latest in our series on the center-left roots of school choice, and the last part of a serial about a proposed voucher initiative in late ‘70s California. In Part III, libertarian choice supporters reject a ballot proposal pitched by Berkeley law professors, and offer their own.

The professors wanted Milton Friedman’s blessing. So did the libertarians.

Calling Friedman was the “first and natural thing to do,” Berkeley law Professor Jack Coons recalled in an interview. The two had known each other since the early 1960s, when both lived in Chicago. Coons hosted a radio show; Friedman was a frequent guest.VL Cali dreaming logo

As luck would have it, Friedman was now based at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, in nearby Palo Alto. He and Coons and their wives occasionally met for dinner.

Initially, Friedman was excited and encouraging about the ballot initiative, Coons said.  Then he wasn’t.

The regulations spooked him, Coons said. Friedman never told him directly. But he heard as much from potential donors to the initiative campaign, and it wouldn’t have been surprising. Friedman’s biggest fear about school choice was government intrusion.

According to Coons, donors told him Friedman had been in contact with them and said the plan was wrong-headed. He convinced them to hold off on contributions, and to wait for better school choice proposals down the road.


The libertarians had better luck.

Activist Jack Hickey said he sent Friedman a copy of his “performance voucher” proposal, and talked to him by phone. He said Friedman liked it enough to give it a positive review in writing. As proof, he produced a letter from Friedman on Hoover Institution letter head.

Friedman wrote that he liked how the performance voucher would curb government’s role in education, but was bothered by heavy reliance on standardized testing. He concluded, though, that “any one of the three approaches (an unrestricted voucher, your approach, or an appropriately designed tax credit) would be vastly superior to our present system.”

Both David Friedman, Milton Friedman’s son, and Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said the letter appears to be authentic.


For some, two competing choice proposals weren’t enough. In the summer of 1979, petitions began circulating for a third. Continue Reading →


Yin v. Yang

Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman

Cali libertarians counter school choice plan with pitch of their own

This is the latest installment in our series on the center-left roots of school choice, and Part III of a serial about school choice efforts in late ‘70s California. Part II included a closer look at U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan and the game-changing voucher plan he wants to push, while school boards and teachers unions  came out swinging.

South of San Francisco, an electronics engineer and inventor in Redwood City read about the liberal-led California Initiative for Family Choice and thought: Disaster.

Not because it would kill the public school system. Because it would perpetuate it.VL Cali dreaming logo

Jack Hickey saw too many regs, too little freedom, too much potential to “contaminate” private schools. He was certain the massive school choice plan engineered by Berkeley professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman would curtail choice, not expand it.

“I looked at that and said, ‘That’s bad, that’s really bad,’ “ Hickey said in an interview.

Hickey wasn’t content to grump. The libertarian activist would eventually run for office 18 times, including for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. In this case, he nimbly sketched out a counter-proposal, something he called a “performance voucher.”

Then he and Roger Canfield, a police consultant in nearby San Mateo, began their own sprint to the ballot.


At the time of his meeting with Congressman Leo Ryan, Jack Coons was best known as one of the attorneys who changed how public schools are funded in California.

He and Stephen Sugarman were key players in a legal effort that began in 1968 with a widely publicized case, Serrano v. Priest. It charged that the way California financed public schools – by relying heavily on local property taxes, resulting in huge disparities between rich and poor districts – violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Over the course of a decade, Serrano led to three California Supreme Court rulings that spurred the state legislature to mitigate funding disparities between districts. It’s also credited with sparking school finance reform in other states, even though a ruling from a similar case in Texas was struck down in a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Coons’s embrace of school choice flowed, initially, from the funding inequities he saw. Ultimately, he and Sugarman, his protégé and intellectual partner, came to this conclusion: Giving poor parents more power to choose schools for their children best allowed them to rise above an entrenched education system blatantly rigged against them.

The professors first fleshed out their voucher idea in 1971, in a 118-page treatise for the California Law Journal. In the foreword, another Berkeley professor channeled a view about public schools that wasn’t uncommon for progressive thinkers of the era:

If a set of families enters a state park to go hiking, that group would be shocked indeed to discover that the scenic trails were reserved for its richer members and that only barren and rocky paths were held open for the poor. Nevertheless, our public schools operate in such a discriminatory way.

Not all choice enthusiasts looked primarily through that lens.


Like Coons and Sugarman, the libertarians wanted to end the old regime, not modify it.

Libertarian Jack Hickey didn't like the Coons-Sugarman school proposal, and crafted a competing proposal for "performance vouchers."

Libertarian Jack Hickey didn’t like the Coons-Sugarman school choice proposal, and crafted a competing proposal for “performance vouchers.”

Jack Hickey and Roger Canfield’s proposal would abolish government-run schools, end compulsory education and stop measuring academic progress merely by number of instructional days (wonks call that “seat time.”) Every parent would be given a voucher of equal value, $2,000 per year. (Per-pupil spending in California at the time was about $3,000 per year.) Through a contract with the state, the parents could spend the money on a school, on a teacher or teachers, on educational materials, or on any number of other things and combinations.

The performance voucher had, in the words of Hickey and Canfield, “divisibility.” In that respect, they, like Coons and Sugarman, foreshadowed today’s latest spin on vouchers – education savings accounts – years before think tanks fleshed them out.

But the performance voucher also had another irregular feature that made it distinct: It couldn’t be redeemed until the student showed progress, as determined by a standardized test.

No progress. No payment. Continue Reading →


Bill Clinton, voucher guy?

Before he became president, Bill Clinton wrote Wisconsin state Rep. Polly Williams, calling her a "visionary" for leading the charge on Milwaukee's school voucher program.

Before he became president, Bill Clinton wrote Wisconsin state Rep. Polly Williams, calling her a “visionary” for leading the charge on Milwaukee’s school voucher program.

Not long before he ran for president, Bill Clinton saluted a school choice pioneer.

In 1990, as the governor of Arkansas, he wrote a letter to Wisconsin Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams, the African-American lawmaker who authored the bill that created America’s first major, modern school voucher program. (Thanks to the Center for Education Reform for the link.) He told Williams he was “fascinated” by the voucher plan in Milwaukee and “concerned that the traditional Democratic Party establishment has not given you more encouragement.”

Voucher Left logo snipped“The visionary is rarely embraced by status quo,” Clinton continued.

Polly Williams, the “mother of school choice,” died a year ago today. Her voucher story is well known. Bill Clinton’s, though, remains overlooked. Given how much school choice continues to divide the Democratic Party, that’s a bit odd, and a resurfacing now would seem to be timely. Who knows? Maybe Bill Clinton’s twists and turns on choice could shed a little more light on the education policy positions of Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton.

Not long after Gov. Clinton wrote the letter, candidate Clinton became a voucher opponent. He told the National Education Association vouchers would undermine public schools, and ran on a Democratic Party platform that was, after years of being pro-school choice, suddenly and stridently anti-voucher.  President Clinton continued opposition: He vetoed creation of the federal voucher program in Washington D.C. (eventually signed into law by President Bush); publicly opposed the voucher ballot initiative in California in 1993; and suggested vouchers undermined school accountability.

But Clinton’s opposition includes a number of caveats, and even a surficial look suggests the Democratic Party’s internal tensions at play.

For example, President Clinton also praised the Children’s Scholarship Fund, the amazing organization that raises private funds for private school scholarships for low-income students. And he did by so by echoing a common refrain from choice supporters on the left, saying CSF was helping to “widen the circle of educational opportunity.” (Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, has its roots in the CSF. And Clinton’s former press secretary, Mike McCurry, now chairs the CSF board and is among the most articulate advocates for building a centrist school choice coalition.)

As president, Clinton also supported privately operated charter schools (though not always as strongly as he could have), and has been a bigger fan since. In 2012, he told a KIPP gathering in Orlando he wished there were 30,000 charter schools instead of 6,000. Continue Reading →


X Factor

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan (from Wikipedia)

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan (from Wikipedia)

On the California school choice front, an unexpected champion

This is the latest in our series on the center-left roots of school choice, and Part II of a serial about a voucher ballot initiative in late ‘70s California. In Part I, law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman find a surprise supporter in U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan.

The Berkeley professors had found a powerful ally.

Congressman Leo Ryan was popular and fearless, a liberal with a maverick streak, a square peg with a common touch. It’s a safe bet he was the only member of Congress with a master’s in Elizabethan literature. And importantly for a ballot initiative that sought to make school choice the law of the land, he had been a teacher in California public schools.VL Cali dreaming logo

Ryan also had a knack for making headlines.

Before election to Congress in 1972, he served nine years in the state assembly, where he became famous for exploring the nitty gritty behind the news. One newspaper called it “investigative politics.”

After riots in Los Angeles, Ryan worked as a substitute teacher in the Watts neighborhood. A few years later, he went undercover to experience death row at Folsom Prison. As a congressman, he visited Newfoundland to investigate the slaughter of baby seals, at one point laying down on the ice between a hunter and a seal pup.

As fate would have it, Ryan was also a voucher guy.

Years later, Jackie Speier, his former aide, would point to his support for school choice as a prime example of his political independence. Ryan “seemed unlike other politicians,” Speier said. “He was provocative; he didn’t mince words or beat round the bush; he told you what was on his mind whether you wanted to hear it or not; and he took pride in not being able to be pigeonholed into any one ideology.”

Ryan may have been willing to buck his party on vouchers. But it’s also true it wasn’t as odd for Democrats in the 1970s to back public support for private schools.

In 1977, Democratic U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced a bill for tuition tax credits that drew 50 co-sponsors – 26 of them Republicans and 24 of them Democrats. At that time, the previous three Democratic candidates for president, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McGovern and Jimmy Carter, had backed similar proposals on the campaign trail.

According to Coons, Ryan was all in on the voucher initiative.

After their last meeting, he said Ryan told him: “You guys are going to polish this up as best you can, and we’ll get ready to announce it and start pushing it through the process just as soon as I get back.”

The congressman was headed to South America.


As word spread, panic mushroomed.

The Los Angeles Times predicted the voucher initiative would be “the biggest and most bitter fight over schools in many years.” State Superintendent Wilson Riles predicted “chaos.” The executive secretary of the powerful California Teachers Association, Ralph Flynn, said his group would defeat the proposal “whatever the cost.”

Even Al Shanker, the legendary leader of the American Federation of Teachers, weighed in, saying the California proposal could produce “the fight of the century.”

By early 1979, Riles was urgently contacting supporters, mobilizing for a statewide campaign.

If this thing gets on the ballot, he told the San Jose Mercury News, “who knows what might happen.”

Game on.


Coons and Sugarman didn’t dream up their plan on a whim. They had been refining it for a decade.

The motivation was simple – to give parents, particularly poor parents, real power to determine the best education for their children. But the details were complex. Unless the new system was well designed and regulated, they believed, low-income children would continue to be denied a fair shake.

The professors envisioned three types of K-12 schools under a new banner of public education, all to be called “common schools.” There’d be: Continue Reading →


NAEP: Florida’s low-income students among national leaders in math, reading

Low-income students in Florida continue to outpace their peers in most other states, with particularly strong, relative outcomes in some of Florida’s biggest urban districts, according to national test results released this morning.

The overall results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were not flattering for Florida or the nation. Often called “the nation’s report card,” the NAEP math and reading tests are given every other year to representative samples of fourth- and eighth-graders in all 50 states.

The 2015 results showed national averages falling in three of four tested areas and stalling in one. In Florida, they stalled in three and fell sharply in one: eighth-grade math.

But on the bright side, low-income students in Florida, which has among the highest rates of low-income students in the nation, now rank in the Top 10 in three of the four tested areas, including No. 1 in fourth-grade reading.

Next to their peers in 18 other urban districts, low-income students from the Duval, Hillsborough and Miami-Dade districts in Florida also shined. The latter were particularly impressive, finishing No. 1 in three of four categories and showing statistically significant gains in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading.

The latest NAEP results come as high-stakes testing and other regulatory accountability policies continue to draw fire around the country, and as many states begin phasing in academic standards spurred by Common Core. Florida fully implemented new standards in the 2014-15 school year.

The Sunshine State’s NAEP scores rose rapidly between 1998 and 2007, but have been mostly flat in three of four testing cycles since. This year, its eighth-grade math scores tumbled, with 64 percent of eighth-graders scoring at basic or above, down from 70 percent in 2013.

At the same time, the overall numbers tend to mask the performance of Florida’s low-income students, who are now a solid majority of the state’s K-12 enrollment. According to the most recent federal figures, 57.6 percent of Florida students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, putting the state at No. 44 nationally (from least to most).

In the late 1990s, Florida’s low-income students were in NAEP’s bottom tier when compared to low-income students elsewhere. But now they’re tied for No. 1 in fourth-grade reading, tied for No. 5 in fourth-grade math, and tied for No. 9 in eighth-grade reading.

After this year’s big drop, though, they’re also tied for No. 34 in eighth-grade math, falling from No. 21 two years ago. Continue Reading →


Voucher Quake

Illustration by Teresanne Cossetta Russell

Illustration by Teresanne Cossetta Russell

From the Left Coast, an improbable push for school choice revolution

This is the latest installment in our series on the center-left roots of school choice, and Part I of a series within a series about school choice efforts in late ‘70s California.

The woman stopped the professor as they were leaving church near campus.

It was the fall of 1978 in northern California, and Jack Coons was a local celebrity. Or at least as much a celebrity as you can be if you’re a legal scholar who specializes in education finance.VL Cali dreaming logo

He and Stephen Sugarman, a fellow law professor at the University of California Berkeley, had been central figures in a series of court decisions in the 1970s that would dictate a more equitable approach to how California funds its public schools.

They had also just written a provocative book.

It called for scrapping the existing system of public education, and replacing it with one that gave parents the power to choose schools – even private schools. This stuff about “vouchers” was out there, but intriguing enough to generate some buzz. Newsweek gave it a plug.

My cousin is Congressman Leo Ryan, the woman told Coons. He’s interested in education.

Why don’t you and your wife join us for dinner?


It sounds crazy, but that chance encounter could have changed the face of public education in America. For one wild year in late ‘70s California, liberal activists set the stage for the most dramatic expansion of school choice in U.S. history.

Today’s education partisans have no clue it almost happened. But it almost did. And if not for some remarkable twists of fate, it might have.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, school choice was capturing the imagination of progressives who thought poor kids were being savaged by elitist public schools. Liberal intellectuals in places like Harvard and Berkeley were happy to tinker with the notion of school vouchers encapsulated by conservative economist Milton Friedman in 1955. They tried to cultivate varieties that included controls they believed necessary to ensure fairness for low-income families.

John E. “Jack” Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman were among them. And in 1978, they unexpectedly got an opening to put their vision of school choice on the ballot in the biggest state in America.

It started with the dinner invitation. Continue Reading →


Coming up: The Voucher Left gets a shot

In disco-era California, Berkeley professors were the insurgents behind a school choice plan so big and brazen, it rattled the state’s education establishment for a year.

The effort led by Berkeley professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman to put school choice on the 1980 ballot in California drew widespread publicity, including stories like this one in the Los Angeles Times.

The effort led by Berkeley professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman to put school choice on the 1980 ballot in California drew widespread publicity, including stories like this one in the Los Angeles Times.

John E. “Jack” Coons and Stephen Sugarman championed choice as a means of liberating low-income families. They viewed the public school system as demeaning and elitist, and in 1978, they unexpectedly found an influential ally: U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan.

In as much time as it took for “Le Freak” to rocket up the Billboard charts, their voucher vision went from academic template, to proposal for a statewide ballot initiative, to dead-serious pitch that compelled everyone from Al Shanker to Milton Friedman to pay attention.

On the educational Richter scale, this was, potentially, The Big One.

The California story would be worth telling for those nuggets alone. But it’s also a head-spinning footnote in a better-known story. How incredible that Coons and Friedman, titans and rivals in the school choice universe, would both be in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1970s. How unbelievable that a planet-shaking story that metastasized in that same time and space would careen into the education realm. How surreal that maybe just maybe, it would change a movement’s trajectory.

Sixty years after Friedman crystallized the idea of private school VL Cali dreaming logovouchers, school choice is easing into the mainstream. Forty-three
states now have charter schools. Another 25 have vouchers and/or tax credit scholarships and/or education savings accounts. But the total number of K-12 students served by those options is still a tiny fraction of the whole. Meanwhile, creation of new options continues to be dogged by common misperceptions that school choice is almost exclusively right-wing.

What if, 35 years ago, voters in the biggest state in America had said yes to a school choice plan that was far bigger than anything around today? What if the first state to adopt a statewide voucher plan had been California in 1980 rather than Florida in 1999? What if the revolutionaries had been Left Coast liberals and a Democratic congressman, rather than a Republican governor in the South?

Next week, for the latest in our Voucher Left series, we’ll kick off a series within a series. Please join us for a little California Dreamin’ …


‘Diversity. Pluralism. Variety.’


This is the latest post in our series on the voucher left.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democratic icon, was an unabashed supporter of school choice, as we’ve been happy to note.

For years, he led an effort to establish tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools – an effort that never became law but did, at one remarkable moment in 1977, draw 50 co-sponsors, 26 of them Republicans and 24 of them Democrats. Except for a massive expansion of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program in 2010, which won backing from more than 40 percent of the state’s Democratic lawmakers, no major piece of private school choice legislation that we can think of has drawn that level of bipartisan support.Voucher Left logo snipped

But while we’ve noted Moynihan’s passion for choice, it’s worth taking a closer look at his rationale. Nowhere does he lay out his case more clearly than in this April 1978 essay in Harper’s.

For Moynihan, public support for private schools was a matter of historical fact and constitutional authority, and of being clear-eyed about the well-intentioned but still-smothering effects of government bureaucracy.

It was also about staying true to one of America’s most enduring principles:

I take pluralism to be a valuable characteristic of education, as of much else in this society. We are many peoples, and our social arrangements reflect this disinclination to submerge our inherited distinctiveness in a homogenous whole.

Our private schools and colleges embody these values. They provide diversity to the society, choices to students and their parents, and a rich array of distinctive educational offerings that even the finest of public institutions may find difficult to supply, not least because they are public and must embody generalized values.

Diversity. Pluralism. Variety. These are values, too, and perhaps nowhere more valuable than in the experiences that our children have in their early years, when their values and attitudes are formed, their minds awakened, and their friendships formed. We cherish these values, and I do not believe it excessive to ask that that they be embodied in our national policies for American education.

Moynihan, of course, isn’t the only choice supporter who stressed diversity. Those arguments come from all points on the political spectrum. The Cato Institute makes them frequently and convincingly. So do some academics (see here and here). So does this rising political star, and fellow Democrat, from Moynihan’s home state:

“In every state in this country, we talk about diversity,” New York Assemblyman Marcos Crespo said at a gathering of Hispanic school choice supporters in Florida last year. “We talk about the strength of our diverse communities, we talk about the diversity of faith, of cultures and languages that make the United States what it is, certainly New York what it is. But then we don’t translate that very concept into the way in which we provide opportunities. Ladies and gentlemen, one size doesn’t fit all.”

While Moynihan could be quite the maverick (and an inspiration for decades-long debates), he wasn’t a lone wolf when it came to school choice and the Democrats of his era. Continue Reading →