Author Archive | Ron Matus

Steve Jobs, school choice lefty

Steve Jobs (photo by Matthew Yohe, accessed from Wikimedia Commons)

Steve Jobs (photo by Matthew Yohe, accessed from Wikimedia Commons)

This is the latest in our series on the Voucher Left.

Five years after his death, we’re still talking about Steve Jobs. The 2015 movie about him just won two Golden Globes, including one for Aaron Sorkin’s script. His quotes still spur stories. His connection to the San Francisco 49ers somehow inspired an angle for Super Bowl 50.Voucher Left logo snipped

So now seems as good a time as any to highlight (as other folks rightly did after his death) that Jobs, the Apple visionary, was a passionate supporter for school vouchers, and to add what hasn’t been explicitly noted, which is that he was, by conventional perceptions, an especially liberal one.

Skeptical? Jobs, the adopted son of a repo man, took a deep, lifelong dive into Eastern religions. He cultivated an organic garden. He was pretty much vegan (and at one point, a fruitarian). In his younger days, he dropped a lot of acid, dropped out of college and went to work barefoot. For years, he avoided deodorant. His company was all in for gay rights. He couldn’t get enough of Bob Dylan. And the kicker to his most famous speech, his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, was a quote from the crunchy-granola “Whole Earth Catalog.”

To be clear, I don’t care if Jobs was “conservative” or “liberal.” But tribal politics being what they are, I know many people do put stock in labels, including folks on the left who have somehow come to believe that expanding opportunity through school choice is out of synch with their “progressive” values. So, for them, it’s worth noting what Jobs, this counterculture kind of guy, had to say about school choice:

I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for $4,400 dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students.

Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting. I’ve suggested as an example, if you go to Stanford Business School, they have a public policy track; they could start a school administrator track. You could get a bunch of people coming out of college tying up with someone out of the business school, they could be starting their own school. You could have 25-year-old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they’d start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you’d see is I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise. Some of the schools would go broke. A lot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it.

It would be rather painful for the first several years, but far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now. The biggest complaint of course is that schools would pick off all the good kids and all the bad kids would be left to wallow together in either a private school or remnants of a public school system. To me that’s like saying “Well, all the car manufacturers are going to make BMWs and Mercedes and nobody’s going to make a $10,000 car.” I think the most hotly competitive market right now is the $10,000 car area.

It’s worth reading Jobs’ remarks about public education in full (thanks to the Heartland Institute for culling them), because he also says interesting things about unions, monopolies, parents and consumers. For now, a few things worth noting …

First, as Jay P. Greene pointed out after Jobs died in October 2011, the Apple CEO made similar comments as late as 2007. So these snippets above, from a 1995 interview with the Smithsonian Institution, aren’t an anomaly.

Second, Jobs came of age in an era where parental choice wasn’t saddled as it is now with the “right wing” label slapped on by critics and sealed by the press. In fact, he and Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple would have been right there, at the epicenter of a voucher quake, when liberal Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman led a late ‘70s effort to make school choice the law of the land in California. Continue Reading →


School choice and black history

BAEO report coverIf you want to know why black support is so strong for school choice, talk to black parents and listen to Howard Fuller. In the meantime, read “The State of Education in Black America,” a new report from the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

As we’ve written before, the struggle for educational freedom runs deep in African-American history. But nobody knows and speaks to that better than BAEO, a leader in the  fight for 15 years. Its report, released last week, highlights the outrageous academic statistics that backdrop the legions of African-American parents who seek educational options for their children. It also offers plenty of historical nuggets, including a primer beginning on page 31, for anyone who somehow thinks this search is new, or alien, or some kind of ploy:

Black parental choice in America did not begin with the creation of charter schools or publicly funded voucher and tax-credit programs in the 1990s. Black parents’ demand for a quality public education in a non-segregated school did not begin with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Black adults’ aspirations for higher education did not wait for congressional enactment of the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944, nor did Black parents wait for systemic school reform with the creation of the federal Department of Education in 1867.

I wish choice critics would consider this history. Would they be so quick to condemn “vouchers” if their frame of reference included Southern slave codes, which made it a crime to teach slaves how to read and write? Would they still insist black choice supporters are being conned if they knew about the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles or the Piney Woods boarding school in Mississippi? Would they still see nefarious ties between schools and faith if they knew black churches have always been central to establishing quality schools for African Americans?

The BAEO report includes data on black student performance in charter schools, and in private schools accessed through vouchers and tax credit scholarships. It notes recent stories and research about the rise in black homeschoolers. And it offers advice for those who want to educate others about the need for options for black students: share the report with as many people as possible.

For those with an open mind, it’s there. For everybody else, we’ll press on.


Shifting politics of school choice

Two events of national import on the school choice front in Florida deserve more celebration. Both of them – the 10,000-strong school choice rally with Martin Luther King III, and the signing of the bill expanding Florida’s education savings account program – suggest the choice debate continues to move to a less political place, or at least a more bipartisan one. Who doesn’t say hooray to that?

If expanding educational options for students with special needs is worthy of a collective cheer, is there good reason not to do the same for students disadvantaged by poverty? (Photo courtesy of Silver Media)

If expanding educational options for students with special needs is worthy of a collective cheer, is there good reason not to do the same for students disadvantaged by poverty? (Photo courtesy of Silver Media)

The Jan. 19 rally generated a flood of headlines in large part because of King. Many in the school choice realm know choice has roots on the left, but that’s not common knowledge among choice critics or reporters. So when the son of Dr. King joined thousands of low-income parents chanting “Drop The Suit!” (referring to the lawsuit the teachers union filed to kill the state’s tax credit scholarship program), fresh ink flowed by the barrel over stale narratives about right-wing plots.

The choice rally was also upbeat and nearly apolitical, unlike a teacher union rally the week prior. The choice crowd sang “We Are Family”; the union rally played “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Nobody at the former talked about kicking politicians out of office. King expressed faith in the courts: “Ultimately, if the courts have to decide, the courts will be on the side of justice,” he told the crowd. “Because this is about justice. This is about righteousness. This is about truth. This is about freedom – the freedom to choose what’s best for your family, and your child most importantly.”

The bill signing two days later didn’t get as much publicity, but it was just as meaningful. Gov. Rick Scott okayed expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship after the bill sailed through the Legislature with overwhelming, bipartisan support. Formerly called the Personal Learning Scholarship Account, the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs is now the nation’s biggest education savings account program. It’s a sign of where things are headed as school choice becomes educational choice, and as the forces for customizing education rise to the fore.

It’s also a sign of political progress. For those familiar with Florida’s long-running “voucher wars,” seeing Democrats and Republicans alike go all in for the scholarship was incredible. The union savaged the PLSA before it became law in 2014, and even tried to kill the bill that created it. Less than two years later, every Democratic lawmaker is on board?! The support is even more stunning given how partisan school choice remains in virtually every state. What quietly happened in Florida with the Gardiner Scholarship is a sign of how things can and should be everywhere, and, slowly but surely, will be. Continue Reading →


Education Week rankings underscore Florida’s academic progress, again

Florida student achievement graph

Student achievement is more equitable, and improving more quickly, than the national average, but still trails the rest of the country in absolute terms. Source: Education Week, 2016 Quality Counts

It might have been a rocky year for education policy in Florida. But the latest rankings from Education Week show when it comes to student achievement, things remain fairly steady.

EWQC 2016 coverThe 2016 “Quality Counts” report, released this morning, shows Florida continues to rank average to poor on many key academic indicators, but – with one notable exception – high in making progress and closing achievement gaps.

Overall, the state ranked No. 29 among 50 states (No. 30 with Washington D.C. in the mix), down from No. 28 last year. Gradewise, that’s a C-, compared to a C for the nation.

In K-12 achievement, Florida slipped from No. 7 to No. 11. It again posted a C. The nation again posted a C-. The top-ranked state, Massachusetts, earned the only B.

It wouldn’t be surprising if critics of Florida’s ed reform track point to the rankings as evidence of a slide, but so far the numbers don’t support the claim.

Between 2009 and 2013, Florida landed in or near the Top 10 every year in overall ranking. But after not giving grades in 2014, Education Week switched to a new matrix last year that cut the grading categories from six to three. The new formula nixed categories where Florida historically fared well, such as standards and accountability, and left two where it hasn’t: education spending and an EdWeek creation called the Chance-for-Success Index.

(For what it’s worth, I find some of the sub-categories in the Chance-for-Success Index odd. Florida gets dinged, for example, because it has a lot of working-class folks who aren’t college educated, or who don’t speak English well. Yet evidence is strong that Florida’s education system overcomes challenging demographics better than the vast majority of states.)

In the category that matters most, Florida has been on a roll.

Since 2009, it’s finished at No. 7, No. 7, No. 6, No. 12, No. 12, No. 7, No. 7 and now No. 11 in achievement. Continue Reading →


California Dreamin’

Illustration by Teresanne Cossetta Russell

Illustration by Teresanne Cossetta Russell

How the left almost pulled off a school choice revolution

This is the all-in-one version of our recent serial about efforts to put school vouchers on the 1980 California ballot. It’s part of our ongoing series on the center-left roots of choice.

The woman stopped the professor as they were leaving church near campus.VL Cali dreaming logo

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.

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.


Cue “Staying Alive.”

Disco was king. Jimmy Carter was president. And across the bay from Berkeley, the punk band Dead Kennedys was blasting its first angry chords. But in 1978, Coons and Sugarman still hadn’t gotten the carbon-copy memo that the ‘60s were over.

The ballot initiative they detailed in their 1978 book, “Education by Choice,” wasn’t gradual change, organic growth, nibbling at the edges.

It was revolution. Continue Reading →


Thanks to a school choice archeologist

This is the latest in our series on school choice and the political left.

Adam Emerson

Adam Emerson

It’s amazing how many artifacts of the Voucher Left, but half buried and glinting in the sun, have been missed by so many. But not every potential archeologist has shrugged and walked on.

Voucher Left logo snippedWriters like Matthew Miller, in this piece for The Atlantic, and Peter Schrag, in this piece for The American Prospect, have accurately characterized the school choice movement in all its eclectic glory. Today, we’d like to pause and highlight the contributions of another.

Adam Emerson was redefinED’s founding editor before moving on to first, a gig as the Fordham Institute’s “school choice czar,” and now, charter schools director at the Florida Department of Education. At the same time he was setting the bar for quality at the blog’s dawn five years ago, Adam was unearthing gems from the sprawling dig that is choice and the left. Among them:

Continue Reading →


On school choice & Green Apples

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

green applesSurprising things sprout in the ideological compost that sustains the school choice movement, but not all grow to bear fruit. At the risk of jinxing their viability, let’s pause to marvel at the first shoots of an organic hybrid: Sprawl-hating, choice-loving Green Apples.Voucher Left logo snipped

Over the past year or so, a handful of “conservative” and “libertarian” think tanks and media outlets have thankfully drawn attention to the potential for expanded school choice to curb sprawl and benefit the environment (see here, here, here and here). As often happens with arguments about educational freedom, they dovetail nicely with positions advanced by folks from other perches on the spectrum.

Like Elizabeth Warren.

In her 2003 book “The Two-Income Trap,” Warren, now the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, boldly makes the case for “an all-voucher system” that would “shock” an education system that she says remains “public” in name only. Why would iconic “progressive” Elizabeth Warren want to shock public education with more choice? Because, she says, in no uncertain terms, doing so would expand the diversity of educational offerings, empower parents over bureaucrats and ease the “crisis in middle-class economics.”

In order to free families from the trap, it is necessary to go to the heart of the problem: public education. Bad schools impose indirect – but huge – costs on millions of middle-class families. In their desperate rush to save their children from failing schools, families are literally spending themselves into bankruptcy. The only way to take the pressure off these families is to change the schools.

Warren doesn’t include private schools in her universal voucher solution, but let’s give that a pass for now. (Hopefully we can more fully explore her positions on choice down the road.) Instead, let’s highlight the fact that Warren backed the notion of choice as a brake on sprawl:

If a meaningful public school voucher system were instituted, the U.S. housing market would change forever. These changes might dampen, and perhaps even depress, housing prices in some of today’s most competitive neighborhoods. But those losses would be offset by other gains. Owners of older homes in urban centers might find more willing buyers, and the urge to flee the cities might abate. Urban sprawl might slow down as families recalculate the costs of living so far from work.

The links between schools, zip codes and sprawl are obvious and, I think, deserving of more attention. I would think arguments for weakening them would resonate especially well with environmentalists; with the liberals, progressives and Democrats who are more likely than others to consider themselves environmentalists; and with mainstream news media looking for fresh angles on a complicated problem with repercussions in many directions. But will they?

On the one hand, the arguments for choice as an antidote for sprawl are still relatively new (as far as I can tell), so I won’t leap to my own conspiracy theories about why they haven’t surfaced with more zeal in more places. :) On the other hand, as long as choice continues to be portrayed as right-wing, and as long as it’s “conservative” or “libertarian” groups who make the points, I fear it’ll be tougher for those arguments to bounce out of the echo chambers. So, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

For what it’s worth, Elizabeth Warren wasn’t the only one talking choice and sprawl a decade ago, and not the only one whose credentials appear to be something other than “conservative.” In 2005, writer Daniel Akst made this pitch in the environmental news outlet Grist: Continue Reading →


Choice history, choice policy

This is the latest post in our series on the progressive roots of school choice.

James Forman Jr.

James Forman Jr.

Credit James Forman Jr. with the best account yet of the center-left roots of the school choice movement. Credit his stint as a public defender for being the spark.

Voucher Left logo snippedForman, now a Yale law professor, said the district “alternative” schools serving his juvenile clients in Washington D.C. 20 years ago were giving them the least and worst when they needed the most and best. He began exploring options like charter schools, only to be told by some folks that school choice couldn’t be trusted because of its segregationist past.

Forman knew about the “segregation academies” some white communities formed to evade Brown v. Board of Education. But he knew that wasn’t the whole story. Among other reasons, he was the son of James Forman, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the group whose courageous members became known as the “shock troops” of the civil rights movement.

Wait, he thought, recalling stories his parents told him about Mississippi Freedom Schools. Wasn’t that school choice?

“It seemed impossible to me to think that over all of those years, African-Americans had never organized themselves to try to create better (educational) opportunities outside what the state was providing them,” Forman told redefinED in the podcast interview below. “So that was my idea. My thesis was there had to be an alternative history, there had to be a history of African Americans who were not relying on the government and were trying to organize themselves to create schools to educate their children.”

The result of Forman’s research is “The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First.”

The 2005 paper traces the progressive movement for educational freedom from Reconstruction, to the civil rights movement, to the “free schools” and “community control” movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. A century before many activists were using the term “school choice,” it notes, black churches were making it happen. Decades before conservative Gov. Jeb Bush was pushing America’s first statewide voucher program, liberal intellectuals were promoting the notion in The New York Times Magazine.

A decade later, “The Secret History of School Choice” remains a must-read for anyone who wants a fuller, richer picture of choice’s beginnings. But Forman, who co-founded a charter school named for Maya Angelou, hopes progressives in particular see the light.

They ignore the history of school choice, and their role in shaping it, at their own peril, he said. Believing, wrongly, that it’s right-wing can result in it becoming just that. If progressives aren’t at the table, he suggested, they can’t bring their values to bear in shaping policy. In his view, it’d be good if they did. Continue Reading →