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Jack Coons: From Serrano to School Vouchers

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Berkeley, Calif.--Some 20 years ago, as a young law professor at his alma mater, Northwestern University, John E. Coons got a fateful call from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The commission, the caller explained, was seeking someone to look into the Chicago school system's compliance with Brown v. Board of Education, and its first choice wasn't available.

"They'd heard I had a bunch of kids and needed the money," Mr. Coons recalled recently. "They were right. I took it."

"So there I was, prowling around Chicago looking for $100 differences in expenditures between black schools and white schools. Somebody said, 'If you think that's bad, you ought to look at New Trier [in a well-to-do Chicago suburb]; they spend twice as much.' And I started wondering what kind of system this was that allowed that to happen. ... When you step back and look at it, it really is a crazy system. If you tried to put it together now, nobody would tolerate it."

From that accidental introduction, Mr. Coons has emerged during the ensuing two decades as one of the nation's most influential theoreticians on the subject of public policy toward elementary and secondary education--and as something of a gadfly as well. Together with some of his former students, he developed the theory of "fiscal neutrality"--or equal revenue yield for equal tax effort, regardless of a communi ty's property wealth--that has reshaped the way most states finance public schools. He remains active in finance reform, having testified recently in the third round of California's Serrano case.

'Family Choice' in Education

These days, however, his name is most often associated with the idea of "family choice" in education through a regulated system of vouchers or grants--a cause he has actively promoted in California for the past several years, without succeeding in having it placed on the ballot.

And Jack Coons, now on the faculty of Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California's flagship campus here, is at it again. As they did with finance reform, Mr. Coons and Stephen D. Sugarman, a former student who is now a colleague at Boalt Hall ("the brains of the mob," Mr. Coons calls him), are now eyeing the courts as an instrument of change.

The idea, first suggested by a Japanese colleague on the Boalt Hall faculty, is strikingly simple: Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 permits individuals to seek money damages as redress for discrimination. Mr. Coons says minority-group students in unconstitutionally segregated school systems could sue to obtain from defendant school districts what would be spent on their education, then apply the money toward tuition in a private school or a suburban public-school district. Such a plan would, he says, give the victims of discrimination a genuine chance at a better education, without the divisiveness and unrest often resulting from court-ordered busing.

"What is it about judicial power that it can only force people and not give them opportunities?" he says. "There are empty seats in those [private and suburban] schools. For the same money that is now getting nothing in a place like Detroit, those kids could have gotten something."

The idea is still gestating; Mr. Coons and Mr. Sugarman are soliciting the reactions of other scholars and lawyers. And most im-portant, Mr. Coons said, is picking the right case to pursue such a remedy. "I don't want it to fall into the hands of some nut who'll screw it up," he says.

Corner on Educational Wisdom

Underlying both the general freedom-of-choice concept and the idea of seeking vouchers as recompense for illegal segregation, Mr. Coons says, are two central theses: that no one, particularly the public-school bureaucracy, has a corner on educational wisdom, so the choices of well-informed parents are most likely to be in the best interests of children; and that low-income families are denied the freedom of choice that is available to those who can afford to pay for private schools or to choose where they live.

"The wealthy in this country can make that kind of choice. If you've got the money, it's a perfectly respectable thing to move to Palo Alto and go to a fancy school. These are in fact private schools financed with public funds. ... [Choice is] what the rich have been busting their tails to get. It only takes experts not to see it."

A genial Midwesterner who is almost as well known in academic circles for his tenor singing voice as for his scholarship, Mr. Coons reserves some of his harshest criticism for state education bureaucracies.

"These ideas come partly out of my own values," says Mr. Coons. "Based on my observation of the ways that education spoils itself by excluding the family, I've come to the conclusion that the only way you can get equity and quality is to give the consumer the power he has in other areas."

Pointing out that parents are permitted to choose the best way to provide nutrition and health services to their children, he concludes that "public education is an aberration. It's very peculiar as an institution in that it's so untrusting of the average person. ... Actually, you could make a pretty good case for constraining parents with regard to medicine. It's an easy model; we can distinguish between dead and live people. But in education we have no model. We have all sorts of opinions, and rightly so. There are lots of panaceas that have been served up, and they're all in conflict. Beyond that, there is conflict over the values in education. So in light of the conflict over the means to achieve common values, and in light of the conflict over the values themselves, there is no intellectual justification for forcing people to go to certain kinds of schools."

Compatible With Equity Goals

Acknowledging that his stance on vouchers is tantamount to heresy among "some of my liberal friends," he insists that it is compatible with the equity goals of the finance-reform movement. "In the very earliest piece we published in 1969," he says, "we pointed out that fiscal neutrality was quite consistent with full state assumption, district power equalization, or vouchers. It is not a mandate for any particular centralized or decentralized model. We've always taken the position that decentralized models of decisionmaking are vastly superior to their opposite. Why anyone would suppose that fiscal neutrality is inconsistent with a family system is beyond me. I can see how you might not like it, if you don't trust the family, but intellectually, you can't justify it."

Although he concedes that centralized state authority often accompanied the finance reforms he was instrumental in pushing for, he believes that needn't be the case. The present system, he says, cannot be perfected, "because you'd still be imposing bureaucratic judgment, and there's no empirical evidence that it brings about better education, more integration, consensus, or any of the other things we cherish." But he believes, he says, that the public system could be greatly improved by bringing school governance "to the smallest possible political unit above the family" and by providing more choices within the system.

"I'd like to see Los Angeles broken up. Who has anything to say about what's good in Los Angeles except the unions and the politicians? Instead of having 1,000 school districts in California, we ought to have 10,000. Only in small units can individuals have any effect on the politics of the system. Of course, they would have to be power-equalized [financially].

"But the problem with politics as the basis for running a school is that there continue to be people who are simply losers: They are forced into schools they do not like. I would feel better if the unit were smaller so they don't get swamped."

He is cautious about lending his name to some of the many organizations promoting various "family-choice" initiatives in education.

For example, he opposes tuition tax credits such as those proposed by the Reagan Administration and the unregulated voucher scheme proposed by the economist Milton Friedman on the grounds that they would be of little benefit to low-income families.

Safeguards for the Disadvantaged

Central to the Coons-Sugarman voucher proposal--and what sets it apart from the Friedman model--are the safeguards it envisions for the disadvantaged. The plan includes guarantees that private schools set aside a certain percentage of spaces for minority, handicapped, low-income, and underachieving students, and it provides for an elaborate system of information and independent counseling for parents whose own lack of education might hinder their ability to make discerning choices for their children.

The work of the sociologist James S. Coleman and others, Mr. Coons says, "suggests that the kids who are worst off do better in private schools than their counterparts who are left in public schools. Nobody says the private schools are doing worse, and they're doing it in many cases with half the resources."

He retains the litigator's keen instinct for seizing opportunities. When Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote favorably about the concept of "literacy vouchers" enabling failing students to switch from public to nonpublic schools, Mr. Coons gleefully claimed the union leader as a convert.

"The very Establishment," the lawyer wrote in the December 1981 issue of The Kappan, "has now embraced the two central ideas of the voucher movement: Choice is good for education and society; and the poor are capable of exercising it."

Critics of vouchers, he says, treat the poor "like feckless, ignorant boobs who are incapable of making intelligent choices in the marketplace. The fact is that they've never been asked. They've been treated as though they had no brains or discretion. I'm not as ready to give up on ordinary people as some of the critics are."

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