Ep. 287: Big Ideas — with Jack Coons

December 10, 2021

In this episode we speak with long-time choice advocate Jack Coons. He tells us about his start in the school choice movement and how he worked with our founder, Milton Friedman.

Jason Bedrick: Hello. And welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Idea series. Today I’m deeply honored to be joined by the legendary school choice champion Jack Coons, professor emeritus at Berkeley Law, former president of the American Center for School Choice, and a man with a very long resume in the school choice movement. Usually with the Big Idea series, we talk about a specific book or an essay as the subject of the conversation, but today Jack is going to be the subject of today’s conversation. So Jack, welcome to the podcast.

Jack Coons: Thank you. Thank you, Jason. I am honored and pleased and flattered and all of the above to be here.

Jason Bedrick: Well, thank you. Now you’ve been working to advance school choice for more than half a century. Famously. You had the dueling ballot propositions with Milton Friedman. You came at this from sort of a different direction than Friedman. We’ll get into all that I’m sure in a little bit. But let’s start with this. How did you come to be involved in the school choice movement?

Jack Coons: Well, I was just a kid really on the faculty of law at the Northwestern University in Chicago one day. And the phone rang and somebody from Washington and some federal commission said your colleague Willard Hedrick had turned down an offer to report on Chicago public schools for some commission that was formed to see whether northern cities were segregating by race or not. So I said I needed the money. I had five kids like you and said, “Sure, I’ll do that.”

So I knew nothing about public schools. I had gone to public schools, maybe a couple of years. The rest of it, I’d gone to Catholic schools up in northern Minnesota, in Duluth. And so I was little shy, but actually I think it helped me in coming to visit the public schools and learn their bureaucracy and et cetera, and get to know the infamous person who was running Chicago public schools, infamous from my point of view.

But anyway, so I took on the job and I did the best I could to see whether there was segregation in the public schools in Chicago. And of course there was. In fact it probably isn’t too different today, but I don’t know. So I don’t say that with any resolution. But I studied them as best I could and wrote my report for this US commission. And suddenly, I discovered I was in the papers and so forth.

And by the way, maybe that had something to do with my being asked to join the board of the American Civil Liberties Union. That was my next, what shall I say? My next lucky or unlucky break. And anyhow, so I got on the board of the ACLU, and defended Nazis and defended all sorts of nasty people. But I also got to meet some interesting characters, and partly, or maybe mainly, because one of the other members of the board of the ACLU owned a radio station, a couple of them, one FM one AM.

And he said, “How would you like to have a program on my station?” I said, “Sure.” So pretty soon I had a half hour a week interviewing people of all sorts, some big shots and some not. And of course, Milton Friedman was important, and Milton was on my program a number of times. So I got to know him.

Let me diversify here. At one point, I discovered that there were two young men who were available, who were thinking about Northwestern, and I talked them into coming, or they talked themselves into coming and worked with me, namely Stephen Dwight Sugarman. You don’t forget that, name Sugarman. He’s living down the road here and I’ll be having dinner with him next week. And William H. Clune, he is a law professor at Madison, Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin.

And I was beneficiary of their young brilliance and they showed me how really financing worked. They studied not merely the Chicago thing, which had diverted me. I had imagined that any financial mistreatment of Black students was just intra-district. They, Bill and Steve, smartened me up to understand that it’s everywhere, in hundreds of school districts across Illinois.

Jason Bedrick: So essentially you got your start with desegregation. That got you introduced to both radio and Milton Friedman, and the ACLU. But then you realized that the problem of inequity in the public school system was actually much deeper. And although this wasn’t really something that was making the papers at the time, inequity related to how education is financed. That’s where you saw one of the big issues. Right?

Jack Coons: Well, that’s the way I came in through that window, as it were. I studied both. For the feds, studied Chicago twice, the question of whether they were cheating the Black population. And Evantson as well to the north. There were three districts, the Chicago district, and then Evanston had two districts, one elementary and one secondary.

And finally, I awakened to the fact that there was a huge difference in the capacity to raise money from district to district. And Bill and Steve helped me to understand that. I want to give them as much credit as I… Well, I couldn’t give as much as they deserve. But anyway, in our first book, Steve and Bill and I were mainly interested in this intradistrict mistreatment of people, whether White, Black, or whatever. It turned out it was not necessarily a racial thing. It was just an accident from the 19th century, the way the districts were put together.

And it turned out some were rich and had big tax bases, and others were poor and they didn’t. So we made an argument for constitutional change. That is say, we developed a theory by which the Supreme Court could, without blowing up judicial restraint, get into and help the people who were in these low value districts.

By now, I was in California, of course, and by luck, I got a call from a professor at UCLA and he said, “Hey, we’re filing a lawsuit against the state and trying to reform the school finance system. We understand you have a book just came out.” “Yeah. Okay.” So they added as theory number 11, our theory, of constitutional intervention by federal courts, or state courts, or whatever. They had filed in the California state courts and they lost. And they went up to the California Supreme Court where I got a chance to argue our theory.

And lo and behold, the court adopted our theory and sent it back down for trial and so on. The case is called Serrano against Priest. And it is not technically related to what you and I started to talk about. That is choice for the family. But in the interim, during all of this introduction to public school finance, I learned that indeed there was this very radical separation of the poor from the rich in the course of getting into who a particular school. And I was surprised and gradually became even more horrified at what was happening to our lower income families in so far as they were losing their capacity to choose for their own children while the rest of us were doing that exactly, and cherishing that right, and that power.

So anyway, by the time that Serrano against Priest was decided, we had already written an article, I guess, a book. It turned into a book, a small book, showing how you could reconstruct the school industry as it were. And of course I’d known Milton Friedman and disagreed with him. I’ll explain that if you want, why we disagreed.

But anyway, the family. From the beginning, we were interested in the family and how to give the family its proper role, even though it was poor. It shouldn’t be run by the teachers union and the system. Anyhow, we published over the next, well, the next 20 years, I guess, 30 years. We published several books and hoards of articles and hundreds of essays on what was wrong with a system which took the family and disposed of its authority because it was poor.

And although you had the constitutional right from Pierce against the Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court decision in 1925, that parents can have a right to send their children wherever they please to school, as long as the school meets minimum requirements. And look, it gets more complicated. But in fact, that case, it was an odd case because it depended in part upon the right of the schools to function that way, that is to allow private schools to exist to. And of course it came out the right way as I see it.

It’s been part of the legal universe and practical universe ever since. So private schools have a right to exist, and parents have a right to choose them. But if you’re poor, your right is canceled and you are forced to go to the schools where Albert Shanker, my good friend from way back used to say, “I’ll start representing students when they start paying union dues.”

Jason Bedrick: And just to be clear, Albert Shanker was the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Jack Coons: That’s right.

Jason Bedrick: You and Albert and Milton Friedman were all in dialogue with each other at the end of the education episode of Friedman’s Free to Choose series on PBS.

Jack Coons: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

Jason Bedrick: But you mentioned Friedman. Milton Friedman starts from sort of, he starts as an economist. He looks at the situation and says these schools are run inefficiently. He also notices that the inefficiency disproportionately affects low income families and particularly Black and other minority families. That becomes the sort of the centerpiece of the argument that he makes in Free to Choose.

You also recognize that as a problem, see the issue of inequality and inequity in the system although you’re coming at it from sort of different ideological premises. Freedman coming at it as a libertarian. You coming at it more as a man of the left, although obviously there are differences, which we’ll get into I’m sure as well, in terms of the details of the policies.

But you do both come down in favor of school choice. From radically different ideological premises, you both fall on school choice. So what was it about the idea of school choice that you saw as solving the problem that you recognized that exists in America’s K12 education system

Jack Coons: Well, the system is very complicated of course, and I don’t understand all of it. I am not an expert economist or anything like that, the schools. But I’ve certainly been close to them for a long, long time in sort of practical terms and including my children.

But anyway, I came at it from the point of view that the life of parents and the life of children were being disordered by the system as it existed. That is of low income parents, not just really poor people, but people of modest incomes. They couldn’t afford to go to private schools. But anyway, my focus was on the family and on parenting. Milton’s was on money and the economy, although that sounded crude. But he was an economist and that was his main focus.

I was willing because I’m not an economist maybe, I was willing to make some concessions to regulation so that if we did have vouchers or whatever, charters… By the way, we mentioned charters as early as 1970 in our work. But anyway, we needed something to save human responsibility of the parent, and the dignity of being a parent. And the sense that I am somebody. I’m a citizen of this United States. And now that required some, we thought, we still think I guess, some modest protection in the system for the poor so that they don’t get simply excluded by the school that is taking the vouchers from the rich, or whoever gets them other than the poor. So that the entire civil order would be in terms of the responsibility and dignity and opportunity of the parent would be the same.

And I think really that much of our civic problem today, I think this, I don’t have proof, I’ll say more about this, but that it stems from the notion that we poor, let’s say. You know, I’m not poor, but we poor are simply not responsible anymore for our kids and their education. Who am I? I’m nobody as a parent, and the child sees it and the child sees that marriage is indifferent. It’s simply a job that the state assigns to dad and mom, or just mom, or whatever for five years. And then from there on their servant, the parent, delivers a child to this place called the public school, which is not public. It’s just a school by the government and it’s workers, so that neither the child nor the parent is given a sense that marriage and the family is a private enterprise with responsibility for grownups and children alike. And that it’s an opportunity when the child grows up in the civil order to get married, have his own children, and teach them the good as they see it.

Jason Bedrick: Let’s go back to your debates with Friedman. So both of you come down in favor of school choice to address what you saw as the pressing issues in the education system in your day. But you did differ significantly on the details. And that led, I believe, in the late seventies to these dueling ballot propositions in California that I mentioned before, with Milton Freedman going with more of a universal voucher that was more of a free market approach. Yours was more targeted at low income families. And, as you mentioned a bit more in terms of regulations when it came to accountability and testing and that sort of stuff. How did that work out?

Jack Coons: Well, here’s how it happened. I was sitting in church and a nice lady whom I had met slightly, a little bit, didn’t know her really well, came up to me and said, “Oh, I read your book.” That is Education by Choice in 1978. And she said, “And I gave it to my cousin.”

Jason Bedrick: Oh, the Congressman Leo Ryan. Right?

Jack Coons: You got it. You got it. And pretty soon I got a call and we got together at her house for dinner, Leo and Steve and she and I. So we discovered we were on the same path, and we forged a union, and it was very productive. He was very interested in running a popular initiative, and so were we. And so he said, “You write the initiative. And when I get back from England, I have to go to England. And first I have to get reelected.” And well, unfortunately he did get reelected, but his term was very short because he was murdered in Guyana.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. There was that cult in Africa.

Jack Coons: That’s right.

Jason Bedrick: Right. Jonestown Massacre.

Jack Coons: Oh, exactly. Jones. Oh, what can I say? Well, we had already, of course, committed ourselves to this thing. And Steve and I were trying to figure out what the hell are we going to do now? But we decided to go ahead with it. We had actually been to the Friedman’s home for dinner recently somewhere in this sequence. And Milton knew what we were doing.

And up to a point, we had been very optimistic about our chances. There were people from Michigan and other places who were moneyed people, people really well off, and they were ready to support this initiative of ours. Then they suddenly cooled off to our surprise. And instead, what were they doing? They were giving their support to Milton who was running a counter initiative without any regulation whatsoever, almost nothing. Well, that wasn’t very good news. And we were mad, of course, and our leader was dead and we had to do it ourself.

We went ahead anyway. Of course we didn’t get anywhere. And it cost me $20,000, which was lots of money in those days. But we were frustrated as hell, of course. And of course their thing didn’t go anywhere either. And it gave the unions, for one thing, a chance to reorganize and figure out how they were going to make us look like dodos. And of course we were at the time.

Anyway, of course the sequence came in three years later in 1981, when I got a call from Cardinal, what’s his name? I don’t know anymore. From Los Angeles, who invited me down and offered us two million bucks to help run a campaign for another initiative. And so we got ourselves all organized and connected with a lot of churches and private people and institutions and all kinds of people that were ready to support.

And then in the fall the bishops called me down to their annual meeting and said, “Oh, you know, we think you’re wonderful. And boy, are we on your side. But you know, our people are not ready.” Well, you can make what you want of that, but those people certainly weren’t ready, those bishops. And so that went down the hole, and for the next 10 years or so, there was no particular activity in the sense of political activity of that kind anymore until about 1990, when a businessman whose name I happily am repressing, called us. He was the head of the gang of businessmen. I’ve forgotten the title of the exact organization.

But anyway, he talked us into writing another initiative, which he said he would support. And so we did, and at the last minute, after all of this finagling and horsing around and so on, they changed the last minute to a form that we couldn’t accept. It was a more Milton kind of form, you know? And so it’s been a strange sequence. That isn’t the end of the story, but that’s the end of all of our initiative efforts. And I guess that’s what you wanted there for the moment.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. So essentially what you had was doing proposals. You had infighting in the movements and that did not produce success. And so this year we’ve been talking a lot on this EdChoice Chats podcast generally about how we’ve been having the year of educational choice, more school choice proposals passed than ever before. So far this year, we’ve got 18 states passing seven new programs, expanding 21 existing programs.

And it’s not only the quantity, it’s also the quality. You’ve got West Virginia passing a universal education savings accounts. In Indiana, you’ve got probably about 80% of students are now eligible for a voucher or a tax credit or ESA. Florida also probably close to 80%. And yet it took a long time to get to this point. So in your view, why did it take so long to get to this point where states are passing robust school choice programs?

Jack Coons: And hallelujah that they are. I mean, I’m so happy that I lived long enough to see this. But anyway, the unions, the teachers unions are very cunning and they know how to run politics. Here in California they really dominate to a great extent. I mean, obviously they don’t run everything, but they have enormous influence in the legislature. And the legislature would, I fear, at least to this legislature and all the ones that we’ve seen would be afraid, simply afraid, to let itself be seen as anti-union on the kinds of issues we’re talking about.

And I think that’s true in a lot of states. And I must say it is not widely understood as deeply as it should. That is the necessity for giving families and parents the responsibility that they might have. They never had actually almost. But anyway, it’s a political thing that depends on the particular state and the particular history and so on. But California is a bad example, but not uncommon.

I’ve watched the states you mentioned, God bless them. Florida has been extraordinary. I’ve been writing for their nonprofit organization, Step Up for Students, for 10 years now, I guess.

Jason Bedrick: Listeners can find Jack’s writings at the Redefine Ed online blog.

Jack Coons: Yeah, that’s right. They’re publishing a book of my essays, and so is Notre Dame by the way, publishing a collection of my essays going back to the sixties, I guess. Anyway.

Jason Bedrick: No. So I was just saying, I asked why it took so long. And so your argument is that essentially the main reason is that special interests, particularly the teachers unions, have been blocking the advance of school choice for all this time.

Jack Coons: Oh, absolutely. And I got to know them. You know, they were on our side. We were heroes of the teachers union, Steve Sugarman and Bill Clune and I, when we published our first book and we got Sarrano decided and all that stuff. But then we were invited to their meetings and so on, until they realized that we were for choice and vouchers and suddenly we were anathema. And we have been ever since, and hallelujah for that, because my experience with them has not been a happy one.

I mean, I’m sure there are decent people in some of these places, but they tend to collapse when the issue is real for them in dollars. And I’m sorry, I just am unhappy with unions. Now I’m not into the private sector, please understand. This is only… I mean, if the coal miners or the oil workers or somebody could go on strike, they risk being eliminated, I mean, because they risk putting their paychecks in the sea. If the company closes up or moves as they did from my hometown Duluth back in such numbers that the city has shrunk by about a half, they ruin themselves. So they have a reason to enjoy prudence in their approach to economy and their behavior. But that doesn’t exist of course, in the public sector, if you have all the protections that they have.

Jason Bedrick: If the unions were the main obstacle to school choice, does that mean that their influence is waning, at least in certain states, and that’s why the advocates have been able to be successful? Or what else explains the recent successes of the school choice movement?

Jack Coons: Well, I think, I think you put your finger on it. I mean, I think in places like Ohio their power has waned. Unfortunately I’m not sure that that is widely shared. Certainly our federal government has not shared it. I think that the unions still have enormous power in many states and the federal government, obviously.

Well, I voted for Biden and I would again if he had the same opponent. But other than that, I just still don’t know. I’m an old Democrat from 70 years ago. I was 21 when I registered and I’ve always been a registered Democrat, but I’m ready to go independent. I’m not going Republican, but because I don’t even know who they are anymore, but I certainly would be independent as I am anyway on the ballot.

Jason Bedrick: So let me ask this. In 50 years of being involved in school choice advocacy, is there anything that you changed your mind about? Anything that you saw one way at one point and then over time you shifted the way that you thought about something, because of either the way something worked out or new information that was brought to light? What have you learned, in other words, over the past 50 years?

Jack Coons: Well, for one thing, my colleague and friend and helper, everything, Steve Sugarman, and I have by and large not been in favor of treating well off people like me with the same choice, that is the same substantial vouchers or whatever that the poor need. We don’t need it. Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get anything or that we’re bad or whatever. But it is a difficult decision to make in terms of political action when you could actually save money by giving smaller vouchers to parents who are well off than you give to the poor. That is to have a graduated income scale for receiving a check to spend on tuition.

But on the other hand, it complicates things enormously. There are reasons on both sides and I am not completely convinced that I was right to be a hundred percent concerned about that. So I don’t know. I tend to be not so sure of myself.

I’m glad, because I was a law professor for forever and I learned early on and I felt complete comfort with a style in which, on the one hand Mr. Jones consider this. And then he gets through considering that. But what if I change this fact just a little bit, would you suppose, and so forth. You know, the Socratic method, so called. And I’m stuck with a kind of Socratic mind for better or worse. And so I tend to find fault in anything. You kind of look for it and you want to say, “Well on the other hand.”

And so I’m open, I hope, to much change and change in various ways. I mean, we’ve certainly supported tax credits and savings accounts and all that. We’re all for it. And certainly charter schools, although we would like to see them be able to teach religion. By the way on that subject, Steve Sugarman’s article on that subject is excellent. And I’m not fixed. And we’ve written several different model statutes, each of which was quite different from the others. And I’m open to learning I hope. I’m certainly not confident of everything.

Jason Bedrick: So you start with essentially the premise that as humans, we can’t possibly know everything. Intellectual humility. And that leads you in terms of policy to say, “Well, we don’t know the one right way to provide an education. So we should probably have a system of choice. But we don’t know the one right policy that’s going to provide a system of choice that’s going to lead to the best outcomes and to the greatest equality. So we should be open to vouchers, but we should also be open to charter schools. We should also be open to tax credit scholarships. We should also be open to intradistrict choice. We should be open to a wide variety of policies that seem to produce more freedom, more quality, better academic outcomes.”

And so that starts from, again, a position of intellectual humility. What other lessons though, do you take from the last 50 years? And for school choice advocates today, what advice do you have to give them?

Jack Coons: I would hope that they start from the premise that ordinary people need to be given a clear statement that they are responsible for their own lives and their own children. Instead of telling them we know what’s right for your kids. We’ll take them and make them good citizens. Please, please reconsider that giving poor people the same responsibility and dignity as the rest of us will make us better citizens and a better country, a better civilization than one in which the poor are treated as somehow from another planet, an undignified planet.

Jason Bedrick: Before we closed, you had mentioned that you have of a school choice song that you wanted to share with our listeners. So why don’t you give us a little bit of the background of the song and then go ahead and share it with us?

Jack Coons: Well, I was sitting around one day in the nineties and doing nothing, I guess. And it occurred to me, one thing that might be useful selling people that there is an issue to think about would be music. This is not intended to as an opera for dignified people, but it’s intended as simply a suggestion that there is simple music in the idea.

If you are rich, your kids can switch to the school you think is best. If you are not, they might get caught in a school that flunks your test. Try and you may well see what a little choice can do. Take a tip from little Chelsea, maybe choice is good for you. End of song.

Jason Bedrick: We’ll have to end more of our podcasts with songs. So Jack Koons, thank you so much for joining us on today’s podcast.

Jack Coons: Well, it was a pleasure and I hope we meet again soon, either on the air or together.

Jason Bedrick: That sounds great.

Jack Coons: Bless you all.

Jason Bedrick: Thank you for listening. Our guest today has been Jack Koons, professor emeritus at Berkeley Law, former president of the American Center for School Choice, and longtime school choice champion. You can find his writings on redefinedonline.org. You can find his forthcoming book, title to be announced, from Notre Dame Press.

Jack Coons: Right. And it’ll be coming out early next year, I think.

Jason Bedrick: All right. Well, we’ll have to have you back on once that’s out.

Jack Coons: Okay man, take it easy.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @EdChoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, EdChoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.