EDUCATION BY CHOICE: THE CASE FOR FAMILY CONTROL



JOHN E. COONS AND STEPHEN D. SUGARMAN





This book was first published by the University of California Press in 1978. In 1998 it was published in Japanese, and in 1999 it is being republished in English by Educator's International Press. What follows below is the introduction to the 1999 edition.







INTRODUCTION TO THE 1999 EDITION





John E. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman





Public subsidy of parental choice is an idea as old as Tom Paine and Adam Smith. Religious educators and market theorists revive it from time to time, and in 1970, in our book called Private Wealth and Public Education (with William Clune), we endorsed subsidized choice as one way to solve the historic problem of inequity in the financing of public education through local taxes. A variety of school choice proposals soon appeared including another model of our own in 1971 tailored specifically to California. This complex scheme (The "Family Choice in Education Act") became one of a set of options presented to the Office of Economic Opportunity by a Harvard team led by Christopher Jencks. The OEO urged lawmakers in many states to give school choice a try, but in the end was forced to settle for one ill-designed experiment confined to the public schools of Alum Rock, California.

This earliest phase of the "movement" was understood to be part of the War on Poverty. The need for choice is most intense among ordinary parents who are unable to buy their way out of failing neighborhood schools. The middle class family can more easily protect itself by moving its residence to the attendance area of a better public school or simply by paying private school tuition. The poor or working family usually has neither form of exit.

During the mid-1970s, however, the intellectual focus of school choice began to shift from social concern to economic efficiency. Reviewing the literature of the day, we were puzzled that many champions of school choice pictured the market as its own justification, often scorning to cite specific social benefits of choice, as if doing so might suggest reservations about the invisible hand. The market was not an instrument to be justified by its results; the results were to be justified by whether it was the market that achieved them. This curious idolatry of "the market" has provided enemies of choice with what is still their favorite target.

Education by Choice was our bid to rehumanize the debate, deploying policy terms familiar from the 60s and emphasizing the enfranchisement of the family. We endorsed school choice on several grounds. Empowering parents promises first to achieve better those specific social goals around which there is consensus; these include both instrumental objectives, such as mastery of reading and basic math, and more ultimate ends, exemplified by the tolerance of others. At the same time, subsidized choice enables all parents, not just the "haves," to match their children with the sort of pedagogy that promises best to serve their particular needs and to link their family's deepest values to the educational environment.

Ignoring all warnings about over-reliance on market ideology, during the 80s and early 90s, school choice proceeded to the ballot portrayed by its sponsors more as economic, than as social and cultural, reform. The proposals presented in Michigan, Oregon, Colorado (twice) and California were structured and advertised as if they were plans to deregulate banks or airlines. Don't worry; let the market determine what is a good outcome. But the voters did worry, and these devices were sent to the showers by huge majorities.

Happily, there were politically sensitive friends of choice who watched and learned. In the 90s the Republican governor of Wisconsin teamed with a Democratic assemblywoman from Milwaukee's ghetto to produce the political miracle of state scholarships targeted at the inner-city poor. The public schools were failing far too many of these children, and everyone knew it; choice finally provided a way out for those who needed it most. This amiable device quickly inspired a similar deliverance for the have-nots of Cleveland, Ohio. Indeed, a garden of choice plans now appears to be incubating in the Northeastern states, Texas and Florida, with a focus on those who need the help.

The Milwaukee and Cleveland plans soon included religious schools and attracted the inevitable legal challenge. But in mid-1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that a neutral plan that included religious schools among the available choices did not amount to an illegal "establishment" of religion; and, at the end of the year, the United States Supreme Court declined to interdict the experiment. This legalized the Wisconsin program, at least until the Court one day accepts an appeal from Ohio, or elsewhere, and settles the crucial national question. The eventual outcome is too close to call; sadly, it will depend a good deal upon the membership of the Supreme Court at the critical moment.

The upshot is that family choice in education seems better positioned today to recapture the middle ground. What was the barest hope of Education by Choice in 1978 has become a realistic possibility for the next century. Even the academy is again making its contributions. The enduring considerations of justice and political wisdom are being fortified by systematic evidence that choice is an effective instrument with which to improve the education of our nation's youth. From higher test scores (at a reduced cost) to the infusion of civic virtue, the reports from schools chosen by disadvantaged families -- either with or without financial assistance -- are strongly positive.

This accumulating evidence addresses even James Coleman's prudent caveat about racial isolation, expressed in his 1978 foreword to this book; private religious schools -- with or without public subsidies -- have been found to be more integrated than their public counterparts. Some of this evidence was to be generated by Coleman himself. More now appears in the collection of essays from the Brookings Institution, Learning from School Choice; that volume and later essays by these same authors provide a rich new lode of promising data on class and race, all mined by academics of the first rank. The tide of such professional inquiry should crest early in the next century, but there is already reason to anticipate the celebration of choice as the ideal tool to achieve both the aims of the popular consensus and the hopes of individual families. Still, the political prospects for choice will depend upon the readiness of its champions to learn from states like Wisconsin which have taken the consensus seriously and focused rhetoric and practice upon those families most in need of choice.

There is a companion lesson to be learned from these limited experiments; it is a truth both practical and political. Where the subsidy is offered only to a targeted class such as low-income families or to those pupils who are stuck in the worst schools, the need for regulation of the participating schools is minimal. In some respects the current regimes for Milwaukee and Cleveland actually exceed in detail what is the ideal for an educational market. It is where the state, either immediately or over time, decides to make all children eligible for scholarships that finer legislative tuning and private institutional commitments will be necessary to prevent reconstitution of the class segregation now maintained by our public schools.

Education by Choice sketched those necessary commitments from the vantage point of 1978. We will let the book speak once again for itself. Though today we might alter details, we think its arguments remain basically sound. Experience has justified the conviction that -- once the have-nots are assured of access -- the market in education as elsewhere is generally best left to govern itself. Legal commitments from schools (public and private) can and should be limited to the barest minimum in order to maintain that substantial freedom so important to the special identity that makes a school worth choosing.

We wish also today to reemphasize strongly that any educational "market" must include the choice of public schools. Government providers must be as free to reorganize as are their private competitors. In a few states -- Arizona is presently the leader -- the "charter school" movement is already a strong step in that direction, and we applaud those particular programs. We would, however, perfect and complete them by offering parents state scholarships that are usable in either private schools or public charter schools. And we would encourage legislation that empowers public entities such as cities, counties, libraries, museums and universities to form charter schools in whatever number and with whatever educational missions and forms of management they see fit.

Of course, bestowal of that authority and freedom for the formation of charter schools should not foreclose the decision by any school district board to keep any or all of its present schools exactly as they are today on the prediction by the board that, even given new options, this is what its parents will choose. Such traditional schools should be required only to make their unused places accessible to all children. Note that this diverse array of charter and traditional schools in the public sector is no offense to market theory. A free market provides what is demanded, and many -- perhaps most -- Americans will prefer providers created by public agencies.

In short, the system should -- and perhaps must -- be neutral with respect to religion, and hence should allow free choice among public, nonreligious and religious schools. Any limitation to non-religious schools should be resisted. Neither justice nor political prudence justifies discrimination against religious choices.

From the vantage point of 1999, we have drafted in legal form yet another practical general solution. Again, by the term general we mean that all children are eventually to be eligible for state scholarships. This current model thus includes one form of the regulations that would be necessary to any such comprehensive system of choice. It is drafted in the form of a popular constitutional initiative designed for the ballot in California and appears as an appendix to this book. Of course, we realize that, in their detail, all such solutions must be local in character.

There are for us seven universal criteria for those statutes or constitutional amendments that propose to aid all families. These are the following:

1. Appropriate governmental entities (e.g. cities, universities, school districts) must be empowered to create public "charter" schools with missions and management as varied as those that presently are permitted in the private sector except for the limitations imposed by the "establishment" clause of the federal constitution. These charter schools would be financed exclusively by state scholarships available to all families and expendable also at participating private schools.

2. Participating private schools must be protected from any new regulation of curriculum, employment policies, and discipline standards.

3. Schools redeeming scholarships must accept some responsibility for the education of disadvantaged students and may not price them out.

4. The redeemable value of scholarships for low-income and ordinary families must at a minimum approach the level of average spending for pupils of similar circumstances in public schools. Such a substantial subsidy is necessary to the formation of new schools convenient to such children.

5. Special education students must be offered a scholarship worth an amount approaching the estimated public school cost of the child's "individual educational program."

6. The system must insure the provision of adequate market information to parents.

7. Transportation for reasonable distances must be guaranteed to low-income families.

We wish Jim Coleman were still with us to reassess the prospects for school choice which in 1978 beckoned from such a distance. We are grateful that Sarah Biondello and Educator's International Press have allowed Education By Choice to remain a voice for the extension to all families of the autonomy so prized by the rest of us. Wistfully, we hail the memory of Democratic congressman Leo McCarthy who hoped to turn this book into a popular initiative uniting liberals and conservatives in a practical program for both schools and families. That hope endures.