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An Interview with John Coons, Author of “The Case for Parental Choice”

John E. Coons is the Robert L. Bridges Professor of Law (Emeritus) at Berkeley Law, University of California, Berkeley. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, The Case for Parental Choice: God, Family, and Educational Liberty (March 2023). He recently answered some of our questions about his research.

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

I began to write about education in the 1960s. Since then, my hope been to contribute to the rationality and justice of our nation’s school systems. In 1962, when I was a law professor at Northwestern, I agreed with a federal commission to investigate racial segregation in Chicago Public Schools—or perhaps more accurately from my perspective, the so-called “public schools.” Later, this work extended to the same questions in Evanston, Illinois. My surprise and revulsion at the weird and unfair design of our tax-supported schools has kept me lawyering, scribbling and active in the subject of school finance for over sixty years. This book will be my second collection of relevant essays and articles, dating before Serrano v. Priest (1971)—in which the California Supreme Court invalidated the state’s tax-property-based system of funding education on equality grounds. I’ve also authored or co-authored four other books on the subject of education finance since 1970, which include model statutes and proposals for enlarging the population of lower-income families who would enjoy parental choice of a child’s school.

What is the history behind this collection of essays?

The seeds of the essays published in this volume were planted when I began working on my book Private Wealth and Public Education (Belknap 1970), along with my former students and later colleagues, William Clune and late, great Stephen Sugarman. (Steve recently passed away and was my colleague at Berkeley for 50 years). Law students at Northwestern did the research for my first book (statutory research across the country), and together we produced the theory that succeeded in Serrano.  

Did you learn anything new as you pulled the volume together?

A wee bit more of the unpredictability of human institutions. 

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

I very much hope that readers will resonate with the general theme of this collection of essays: That the ordinary and poor families of our nation will benefit by treating all parents as responsible to decide which schools their own children will attend. America’s mothers, fathers, children and the state will all prosper by ceasing to treat the non-rich parent as a civic threat.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

The late Marylyn Ann Coons, public teacher extraordinaire and mother of our five.

What is your writing schedule like?

Today, at 93, assuming that I don’t take another dive down the stairs, I get in a couple of hours of scribbling in the morning and the same in the afternoon.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

Make a plan—then a new plan. Don’t quit, but save time for your domestic derailments.

Who would you like to read The Case for Parental Choice and why?

The Teachers Unions! We have scrimmaged since the days of Serrano.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

I am rereading C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves 

What book or project are you working on next?

I am currently working on another essay examining and unpacking the absurdity of attaching the label “public” to schools which have been long accessible to families only according to their capacity to pay for a residence in desirable districts.

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