David Brooks addresses a fictional foreign tourist in today’s New York Times by presenting a guidemap to acceptable and unacceptable American inequality. “Dear visitor, we are a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other,” Brooks writes, and I’m reminded of a passage in Harvard University professor Paul E. Peterson’s book, “Saving Schools,” which addressed the fiscal equity movement of the 1970s. Peterson tries to help the reader understand why the equity movement ultimately ran up against entrenched interests, highlighting specifically the challenges redefinED hosts John E. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman faced when championing the Serrano case in California and the Rodriguez case in Texas. Coons, Sugarman and others had conceived a powerful idea, Peterson writes:
Equal protection before the law implies that all school districts within a state should have the same fiscal capacity. But that idea came up against the basic fact that those with more money want to spend more on their children’s education, just as they want to spend more on housing, transportation, and all the other good things in life. To be told that their child’s school shall have no more resources than any other school in the state runs counter to the desire of virtually all educated, prosperous parents to see their own children given every educational advantage. Fiscal equity was divisive.
The evidence that Coons and Sugarman had unearthed struck at the inequalities in spending between rich districts and poor districts, and it led the pair on a four-decade long mission to champion the cause of school choice. A commitment to family choice in education, Coons would later write, “would maximize, equalize and dignify as no other remedy imaginable.” Has the opposition to choice led to another form of acceptable American inequality?