Remember this school choice Democrat

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan was a popular Democrat who favored school choice. In 1978, he started working with Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman on a plan to put school choice on the statewide ballot in California. An early poll showed 59 percent of voters were in support.

All of us know Lincoln was assassinated. But not many know the twist of fate that left historians asking: What if? Had it not been for a clown of a cop named John Frederick Parker – who was supposed to be protecting the president at Ford’s Theatre, but instead slipped next door to the Star Saloon – America after the Civil War may have coursed in dramatically different directions.

The history of school choice has its own forgotten twist of fate.

It involves Berkeley law professors, a murderous cult, and U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, a school choice Democrat. Given relentless attempts by choice critics and the press, in this age of Trump and hyper-tribalism, to portray choice as right-wing madness, it’s worth revisiting Ryan and what happened 40 years ago. Would white progressives still view choice as a Red Tribe plot had white progressives been the first to plant the flag? And in big, blue California to boot?

In 1978, Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Steve Sugarman laid out a social justice case for school choice in “Education by Choice,” a book that also offered a detailed policy blueprint. The prevailing system of assigning students to schools by zip code, they argued, was elitist and dehumanizing to low-income families. Their sweeping alternative included private school vouchers and independent public schools (which we now call charter schools). It also included visions of a system that would allow parents to build their kid’s educational programs a la carte, like today’s education savings accounts.

Coons and Sugarman wanted to plant seeds, not spark an instant revolution.

But then, serendipity.

Congressman Ryan, enjoying his third term representing the San Francisco Bay area, was a former public-school teacher and a product of Catholic schools. “Education by Choice” moved him. As fate would have it, his cousin went to church with Coons. So he had her invite Coons to dinner.

Ultimately, the professor and the congressman decided they’d try to get the California Initiative for Family Choice on the statewide ballot. All they needed was enough signatures. Ryan agreed to be the face of the campaign.

Choice couldn’t have found a better spokesman. Before Ryan was elected to Congress, he was a state lawmaker who practiced what one newspaper called “investigative politics,” and his aide Jackie Speier – now U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier – called “experiential legislating.”

Ryan worked as a substitute teacher to immerse himself in high-poverty schools. He went undercover to experience Death Row at Folsom Prison. As a Congressman, Ryan trekked to Newfoundland to investigate the slaughter of baby seals, and even laid down on the ice to save a seal pup from a hunter.

It’s not a stretch to think Ryan’s popularity would have rubbed off on the ballot initiative.

An early poll showed 59 percent of voters in favor. Remember, this was an era in which teacher unions had yet to become the tail wagging the Democratic Party dog. Leading Democrats, like Jimmy Carter and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, could still pitch vouchers and tuition tax credits without Blue Tribe backlash.

Coons, a choice stalwart whose advocacy spans 50 years (and whose writings continue to grace this blog), said Ryan’s support made him think, “The sea has parted.”

In late fall, Coons said Ryan told him: Get everything ready. I have to make a quick trip to South America. We’ll start pushing this as soon as I get back.

As fate would have it, Ryan had a more pressing issue.

San Francisco was headquarters for the Peoples Temple, a cult led by Indiana transplant Jim Jones. Jones was an avowed Marxist who turned his multicultural church into a political force. Behind the message of racial equality and communal living, desperate constituents were coming to Ryan, accusing the People’s Temple of abusing their relatives and blocking their exit.

To escape mounting media scrutiny, the cult moved. To the jungles of Guyana.

Ryan tried to get answers. But Jones had cultivated friends in high place. From the mayor’s office to the White House, powerful people looked the other way. So Ryan decided to take his “investigative politics” to Guyana. He and an entourage arrived on Nov. 14.

Jones knew the gig was up. On Nov. 18, he ordered more than 900 church members to drink Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. His thugs murdered Ryan at the airport.

Back in California, the school choice initiative died too. Coons and Sugarman weren’t political operatives. Their proposal generated headlines for months, but behind the scenes, it crumbled.

How would the dominos in public education have fallen had Ryan lived? We’ll never know. Just like we’ll never know whether America would’ve made more racial progress had Lincoln lived.

But it’s not California dreamin’ to think Ryan and the other school choice liberals had a shot. And that the politics of school choice would be different today had they even come close.