The Case for Parental Choice: God, Family, and Educational Liberty, by John E. Coons, edited by Nicole Stelle Garnett, Richard W. Garnett, and Ernest Morrell (University of Notre Dame Press, 269 pp., $45)

School choice is having a moment. In rapid succession, red states such as Arizona, Utah, Arkansas, and Florida have adopted full school-choice programs—including public support for schools deemed private. In blue states, however, the movement toward greater educational freedom has stalled, even when it comes to publicly funded but privately operated charter schools. This red-blue political divide reflects the prevalence of two false narratives about the nature of school, or parental, choice: first, that it is an attack on the public school system, which is portrayed as a bedrock of the American experiment; and second, that educational freedom for parents is, at heart, about lining the pockets of the corporate class.

The Case for Parental Choice, a new collection of writings spanning more than four decades by Berkeley law professor John (Jack) Coons, sets the record straight by pointing out the progressive—one might say liberal—roots of the school-choice movement. That the Left now largely opposes charter schools and vouchers and resists any concession on the public value of religious education is a testament to its transformation from champion of the poor and working classes to defender of public-employee unions and large institutions.

Coons describes his life’s work as an effort to answer a question: “Why does, in so many cases, the state appoint professional strangers—the ‘public’ school—to conscript the children of our poor and working-class families to serve 180 days a year for 13 years in government-operated schools that parents would shun, if only they had the resources either to better their residence or to pay private tuition?” There is a lot wrapped up in that question: the scare quotes around “public”; the emphasis on poor and working-class families; the notion of “conscription”; and the observation that the better-off have always had the opportunity to pay private tuition or move to districts with better schools.

Coons’s writings in this volume delve into each of these critical issues, and more. In doing so, they provide the means to counter the long-standing anti-school-choice narrative that public schools are the norm, grounded in our nation’s history, and necessary to the success of the American experiment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Public schooling emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, and its form and focus have necessarily evolved over the past 170 years. At the outset of the twentieth century, public secondary education was rare and concerned only a small slice of the population—those deemed college-worthy. Throughout the first half of that century, females were often excluded from college preparatory work, and black students were legally conscripted into segregated and under-resourced schools in several southern states. In the post-World War II years, the rise of the suburbs allowed the middle and upper classes to retreat to economically (and often racially) segregated school districts, while lower-income families of all races were confined to urban school districts serving families just like themselves. All of this existed under the rubric of “public education,” which, on inspection, was not very public at all.

Modern school-choice initiatives arose from efforts to undo many of these shortcomings in the public school system. Early voucher programs grew out of the observation that, by the 1970s, significant numbers of inner-city black families were choosing to pay tuition at urban Catholic schools rather than send their kids to local public schools. Coons and his collaborators’ initial entry into education policy was in public school finance reform; they developed the legal argument that questioned California’s reliance on local property taxes, which varied by residents’ wealth and income, to support its public schools. In time, Coons’s emphasis moved from “equalizing” school districts to equalizing families’ ability to purchase high-quality education.

Coons’s work has proved radical in another way. He has never limited his school-choice argument to questions of economic efficiency or academic success. He notes that the American concept of public education evolved from the paternalistic views of its nineteenth-century founders, who imagined “that education would in due course become a science, that there was ‘one best way,’ that it would be found, and that any rational person would freely choose it.” If history has taught us anything, it is that efforts to reduce education to such a science—to a singular “best” way for all—will fail. Instead, Coons’s advocacy reflects a conviction that “shifting educational authority from government to parents” is grounded in “basic beliefs about the dignity of the person, the rights of children, and the sanctity of the family; it is a shift that also promises a harvest of social trust as the experience of responsibility is extended to all income classes.”

Many of Coons’s writings consider the appropriate role of religion in schooling. He reminds us that the designers of our public education system were comfortable with the dominant Protestant version of Christianity prevalent in classrooms of the nineteenth century—all the better to Americanize immigrants into our common culture. By the 1950s, however, the Supreme Court found that the “subtle God-consciousness of the state’s classroom” constituted the establishment of a religion, specifically prohibited by the First Amendment. Public schools quickly got in line, erasing all vestiges of religion, or God, from their curricula.

It is impossible, however, to erase values from teaching, and to the extent that some families retain religiously based values, their autonomy to guide their children’s development was impaired. Finding the proper balance between respecting the dignity of those parents and the state’s interests is not simple. In the end, Coons sees it as a question of equality: “In the case of school choice, I am unclear what equality would mean beyond the need to finance the decisions of working class and poor parents. The ultimate ‘equality’ relevant here, I suggest, is that of human dignity and truly equal opportunity to have a conversation about God and about the appropriateness (or inappropriateness or even irrelevance) of religious consciousness and perspective as a fulcrum for intellectual development, and as a foundation for ethical, philosophic, and civic maturation.”

These are challenging times for both American schools and American families. Those looking for a better way to resolve differences, to transcend partisan narratives, and to promote a robust and pluralistic school system that engenders greater trust would be wise to consult Coons’s extensive scholarship. The Case for Parental Choice makes an elegant and accessible reintroduction to his work.

Photo: SDI Productions/iStock


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