Private Wealth and Public Education
reviewed by Colin Greer - 1971
Title: Private Wealth and Public Education
Author(s): John E. Coons, William H. Chine III and Stephen D. Sugarman
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: , Pages: 520, Year: 1970
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This book is a gigantic act of faith in American public education. Unusually keen to the inherent inequalities pervading the system, John Coons and his colleagues present a plan which tries to grasp this beast by the horns, seeking to direct the unruly animal into closer harmony with its professed nature. The organizing principle which they want to establish in law, and for which the book is in part a model, maintains that "The quality of public education may not be a function of wealth other than the wealth of the state as a whole." They do not propose nor do they get into the subtler questions of quality; divergent familial preparedness to aspire to, and thereby to take advantage of, opportunity; nor indeed, do they, in their pages, show great interest in the overwhelming, unresolved contradictions between equality and freedom in this democracy. Their intent is to make clear that these considerations, confused and impeded as they constantly are, in fact are seriously "offended by the specific existing systems that dispense public education by wealth."
As the authors see it, the legislative reality in most states confirms that the material and organizational quality of public education will be in direct proportion to a school district's wealth. Realizing and engaging that reality, the authors concede, may be all we can reasonably expect at this point, but they are equally insistent that nothing less will do.
The crux of the problem, the writers argue, lies in the value Americans place on local decision-making: "Few would object in theory to equality of educational opportunity," they suggest, "if that result did not seem necessarily to cast out local choice." They believe that both these values can be preserved if we return to the family as the primary locus of school decision-making.
The authors begin by examining the growth of the state systems of school privilege on the basis of wealth. The cost of education grew rapidly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and it was only those districts which were a successful part of the expanding economy which could tax themselves sufficiently and comfortably enough to meet the costs. In poorer districts, of course, even an exactly equal effort would have produced far greater suffering and less satisfactory adjustments. Even the so-called "Foundation Plan," which encouraged state financed systems in the 1920s to compensate for district wealth variation and which remained the basis for school financing until after 1960, created only what the authors call an "equalization myth," while permitting wealthy districts to perpetuate their advantage. Fair distribution of resources remained only one value "to be balanced and compromised in deference to the voting power of the wealthier half of society."
The apparatus by which Coons and his colleagues propose to legislate for a "wealth free" system of decentralized funding is termed "family power equalizing." The draft statute they propose would eliminate the existing local political units altogether. The family would become the school district in terms both of assigning pupils to schools and of fixing local tax levels through "a variable self-selected tax on the family's income." What they are really talking about is throwing a committed hand back into history to force the school to take account of the family which it legendarily replaced with industrialization. Of course, the public school did not replace the family. Rather it was organized to reinforce certain social (family) values and condemn others. It linked itself with the increasingly dominant American middle-class family pattern, acting as a selector for, and anchor of the hierarchical social order. In this way the lower-class family, much like the lower-class, inner-city school now, was relegated to dependent status and virtual immobility, while the school, and successively the rich city school, the private school, and the affluent suburban school, reinforced and reinterpreted the power of the middle-class family in industrial and technological terms. But the school did, as we are constantly finding out, manage to replace the central education influence of the family.
The plan by which these authors try to make this leap is superficially similar to "family grant" plans, but it differs from them because it gives the major voice in determining the level of spending to the individual family itself. Further, the usual continued discrimination against the poor which locks them into schools charging no more than the amount of the grant is avoided by making access to any school within a system subject to an equalized economic sacrifice per family choosing that school, irrespective of family income. However, to retain the wealthy and not scare them away through high costs into private schools, the plan stipulates a universal, absolute tax liability so that taxes would never exceed twice the per pupil cost of the most expensive school in the system.
This is how the program might work: Upon enrolling its children in a school costing the minimum of $500 per pupil, a family with an income of $5,000 would pay a levy of $25 (.5 percent). The same family would pay $60 (1.2 percent) for access to a $1,000 school. Richer families would sustain correspondingly greater tax liabilities. Because the total tax would not vary with the size of the family, making the cost all-inclusive, it is hoped to make system schools more attractive than individual private tuition institutions.
Coons, Clune, and Sugarman are embarrassingly commonsensical in dealing with some of the obvious questions which perpetually haunt radical, and sometimes even superficial, changes in public schools. (For example, the variable cost system which might include cooperating private schools avoids conflict with church-state separation restrictions by earmarking funds per student, thereby treating the child as the recipient.) What of the nonprofessional choices, perhaps even ill-informed choices, made on behalf of children by their poor parents? The answer: What have we achieved through professional choice to convince us that a family choosing for its own will do worse or be more unlucky or even more malicious? "There is simply no experience upon which to draw, since the poor have never before been in a position of parity with the non-poor in manifesting their interest in education." (Do not present decentralization plans remove the need for such legislative imagination? No. Current decentralization proposals are imprisoned in the past by the local districts' lack of financial autonomy and the geographically defined units which discriminate against minorities within them. "A family base would permit organization of non-geographical communities of interest which can be freely chosen and freely abandoned. Power equalizing would permit each community to operate with financial independence.") Won't this program fail to satisfy the compensatory needs of great numbers of poor people's children? Unlikely. "Providing access to high spending schools on the basis of equal family sacrifice seems to the authors a plausible approach to ameliorating the special burdens of the disadvantaged."
The writers have given us an encouragingly modest and useful proposition for structural reform. Modest, because although an essential prerequisite to substantive reform in those school relationships out of which quality must finally be assessed, it is not a substitute for it and does not pretend to be. Their proposition is uniquely useful because it does differentiate these questions, dealing with the substance pragmatically and forcefully without losing sight of the wider, complicated fabric of competing interests.
Written by lawyers, Private Wealth and Public Education is tough reading, but it is also tough in imagination and dedication to the principle that all children in the schools of a society calling itself democratic are equally entitled to a good education, at least to the extent that its institutional underpinnings attest that there is no justification for any other aspiration. Both the book and the principle require and deserve persevering absorption and pursuit.