This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the American left cheered Freedom Schools and free schools, condemned education bureaucracies, and raised a clenched fist for community control of public education. It didn’t hesitate to think big on school choice, either.
Adjusting for inflation, Ted Sizer’s 1968 proposal for a $15 billion federal voucher program for low-income kids would ring up $105 billion today – making President Trump’s still-fuzzy $20 billion idea pale in comparison. A decade later, Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman fell short in their bid to bring universal school choice to California, but their gutsy campaign still punctuates a historical truth: school choice in America has deep, rich roots on the left.
Some of today’s progressives are enraged about the suddenly serious possibility of school choice from coast to coast. True, Trump’s touch makes progressive support unlikely. True, many conservative and libertarian choice supporters raise their own, more thoughtful concerns. But it’s still stunning to see how much progressive views on school choice have shifted over the course of a few decades.
For skeptical but curious progressives, this 1970 proposal for school vouchers is a worthy read. It was produced by an all-star academic team led by liberal Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, and funded by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. That was the office, the brainchild of Great Society architect Sargent Shriver, that helped lead the charge in America’s War on Poverty.
Back then, vouchers weren’t maligned as a conspiracy to privatize public schools. Proponents, especially on the left, viewed them as a way to expand opportunity, promote equity, honor diversity, empower parents and teachers – and yes, improve academic outcomes.
The 348-page plan from the Jencks team is written in the language of social justice: Why, it asks, do we continue to call some colleges “public” when many people can’t afford them? Why do we call exclusive high schools “public” when only a few students can access them? Why are affluent parents considered competent enough to exercise school choice while low-income parents are denied?
The report brims with views like this: “ … [I]f the upheavals of the 1960s have taught us anything, it should be that merely increasing the Gross National Product, the absolute level of government spending, and the mean level of educational attainment will not solve our basic economic, social, and political problems. These problems do not arise because the nation as a whole is poor or ignorant. They arise because the benefits of wealth, power, and knowledge have been unequally distributed and because many Americans believe that these inequalities are unjust. A program which seeks to improve education must therefore focus on inequality, attempting to close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged.”
The authors sorted through a wide array of potential variations on voucher design, and proposed a multi-year “voucher experiment” that would eventually be tried, sort of, in Alum Rock, Calif. Ultimately, the experiment proved a big disappointment; no district agreed to a plan that included private schools. Still, the report suggests the authors wanted a blueprint that could guide many communities, perhaps as part of a federal initiative. Continue Reading →