An emerging centrist voice in school choice

It will take a centrist voice to advance the debate over school choice, and few individuals know that better than Jack Coons and Steve Sugarman of the University of California at Berkeley. The two law professors have thought more about parental empowerment in education during the last 41 years than perhaps anyone else living today, and they have established a rare progressive voice in school choice in an enterprise that has taken root at Berkeley.

That effort is the American Center for School Choice, an advocacy group that recognizes that the power of the marketplace alone in education reform has limited political appeal. “The empowerment of ordinary families will come only as the fruit of a credible coalition of recognized centrists,” the center’s leadership states. To that end, Coons and Sugarman have invited Gloria Romero and redefinED host Doug Tuthill to join them on the board. Tuthill is the president of Step Up For Students, which administers a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program that today serves more than 34,000 students with bipartisan backing, and he also serves as the Florida coordinator for Democrats for Education Reform. Romero is DFER’s California chief and a former Democratic state senator in California.

Those moves are the latest in the center’s ambitions to elevate the national debate over school choice. It has already hosted two national conferences and has plans to assemble more gatherings in the future. It sees choice as a moral imperative and as a public policy that has profound social effects on the poor families who benefit, and it is looking for credible researchers to examine just how profoundly. It sees a role for faith-based schools in a system of public education that is continually setting new precedents of pluralism and diversity, but the center recognizes that only a broad, interfaith coalition of support can advance that discussion (the center also named to the board Robert Aguirre, the chief executive of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders and appointed Kathy Jamil, the director of the Islamic Schools League of America, to its list of associates).

But while the center has collaborated with more free-market oriented groups who favor liberating the parent and the educator from “government” schools, it knows what is – and isn’t – needed for the school choice movement to gain political traction.

“When our political discourse proposes subjecting education to the same market forces as banks, airlines and electric power, we give aid and comfort to the enemies of school choice,” Coons wrote in a 2001 article in America. “Voters care more about the visible hand of the parent than they do about the invisible hand of Adam Smith. And they are right to do so.”

When Tuthill and Romero addressed the center’s conference in April, the assembly was exposed to two active Democratic voices that have largely been overlooked since the Reagan administration appropriated the quarterback role of school choice from the War on Poverty. But just as Coons and Sugarman framed the idea of choice as equity in 1970, the American Center for School Choice is trying to guide us away from the political extremes and look with clarity and reason on the value of parental empowerment. Look to it as an emerging centrist voice in a conversation accustomed to simple ideological divisions.