School Choice Is a Matter of Justice: an interview with Patrick J. Heffernan

Published June 1, 1999

Although philosophers teach us that ideas have consequences, few of them have the range of practical experience required to illustrate the truth of that statement with an example from their own lives.

One remarkable individual who offers that rare marriage of practical street smarts and abstract learning is Patrick J. Heffernan PhD, president of Floridians for School Choice. Twenty years after encountering the idea of no school choice, Heffernan’s efforts to promote parental choice in education helped achieve passage of the nation’s first statewide voucher bill in Florida.

Heffernan grew up in Miami and earned his BA in philosophy cum laude from Florida Atlantic University. After teaching at the elementary and secondary level in public and private schools, he earned his PhD in philosophy of education from the University of London. He subsequently joined the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University in England, where he taught for six years as a lecturer in philosophy of education at Homerton College.

After his return to the United States, Heffernan was director of the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, for three years. Subsequently he served as director of the Miami Archdiocese’s Education Foundation from 1987-1997. A member of the board of directors of the Urban League of Greater Miami, Heffernan became president of Floridians for School Choice upon its formation in 1998.

A few days after the Florida legislature approved its statewide voucher program, Heffernan spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

CLOWES: How did you become involved with the school choice movement?

HEFFERNAN: I think I’ve had one of the more unusual introductions to this issue. I was at Cambridge University in England in 1979 and the Labour Party, as part of its manifesto in the parliamentary elections there, said “If elected, we will abolish private schools in England.” As someone with a philosophy background, I responded, “I don’t get this. Why would a democracy place all of its schools in the hands of the government?” That got me curious about the relationship between the state and education.

I started asking questions like, “What’s the role of the state in education?” and “Why do governments fund education at all?” After all, they don’t pay for children’s summer vacations, or their clothing. I asked myself all of those broad questions that philosophers ask themselves. I looked at what different countries do. By the end of that exploration, it was very clear that most democracies actively involve the private sector in the education of children. The idea of not wanting any government dollars to go to non-government schools to help in the delivery of this public service or public good was really quite unusual. That’s what really got me started and I continued to follow the growing debate after I came back to the United States.

I attended CEO America’s first Founders Meeting in Orlando in 1993, and that led to a continuing familiarity with their work on privately funded vouchers. Indeed, it was a CEO America Conference at the end of 1997 that led to the decision to form Floridians for School Choice with a friend and associate from Miami named Steve Perrone. Steve already was working to help children in the inner city Catholic schools, trying to keep those schools going.

CLOWES: What were your objectives when you started Floridians for School Choice, and have they changed?

HEFFERNAN: Both the mission and the objectives have remained unchanged. The mission is: To give every family in Florida the opportunity to choose their child’s school. We see ourselves as a friend and supporter of both public and private schools. Our objective is simply to give as many families as possible the opportunity to choose between them.

CLOWES: At the time you formed Floridians for School Choice, what were the key features of the school choice landscape?

HEFFERNAN: Certainly the most significant external factor was the recognition that we had a candidate for governor–Jeb Bush–who had previously made plain his support for the concept of school choice and who, in the course of the 1998 election, developed a comprehensive plan for improving education in Florida–the Bush-Brogan A+ Education Plan.

Although the school choice proposal was only one small element of the A+ Plan, the opportunity scholarships–or vouchers–were made THE issue of the campaign by both the Democratic Party and the press. Bush brought the issue up, but it was the opposition and the press who kept it as the number one campaign issue. It was very difficult for the candidates to talk about anything else–the environment, the economy, elder care–without the subject being brought around to, “But what about those vouchers that you want?”

CLOWES: Did that give you the opportunity to address some of the objections to vouchers that were being raised by opponents of school choice?

HEFFERNAN: Absolutely. I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of our attempt to get solid information out, but we were dealing with a tidal wave of misinformation from the opposition. We were countering it as quickly as we could and in as many places as we could. If someone asked me for an image, I think it would be of people standing on a beach using pails to try to get that tidal wave to go back in the other direction.

Our formation was announced in June 1998, and I think we can honestly say that we have never been out of the newspapers since then. If anyone was doing a story on school choice and they wanted an opinion to balance that of the opposition, we were most often contacted.

CLOWES: Did the role of your organization change after the election of Jeb Bush?

HEFFERNAN: Yes, in two ways. While our mission is to give every family in Florida the opportunity to choose their child’s school, we were very clear that the real means of achieving that would be to have legislation that started to allocate our education funds in the form of scholarships–payments to the children rather than payments to the institution. That moved us from education to advocacy and we formed Floridians for School Choice Legislation as a parallel organization that could then advocate for specific school choice legislation.

Then, based on our knowledge of the experience in other states of how fierce this fight was going to be, we retained five lobbying firms to do battle for us in Tallahassee, knowing that–even at that–we were enormously outnumbered.

We announced our plans prior to the actual gubernatorial election, because we wanted it to be clear to people that we were an issue organization. Randy Lewis, our chief press and legislative liaison, always took the view that what we are doing is good and right and we should absolutely make it known. I think declaring our intentions up front helped us a great deal.

CLOWES: What do you see as the critical decisions you made during the legislative session?

HEFFERNAN: That’s an easy one to answer. It was the decision to get behind the governor’s plan rather than seek a broader one of our own. That was the critical decision.

We’re an organization that wants school choice for all families, and we had many ideas on how to move towards that ideal, but the decision we had to make was: Does Floridians for School Choice go for a broader bill, or do we get behind the governor’s A+ Education Plan–which has the opportunity scholarships as one of its elements? We chose to support the governor’s plan. As a result, our lobbying team in Tallahassee became key lobbyists with the administration itself for the Bush-Brogan A+ Plan.

By making that decision, we reached out to other organizations to form a coalition to help support the A+ Education Plan–organizations such as the Florida Federation of Catholic Parents and business organizations who had supported the governor in his race for election, such as the Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the National Federation of Independent Business, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Florida Farm Bureau. The Florida Farm Bureau and Associated Industries of Florida also specifically endorsed school choice.

CLOWES: Business organizations seem to be getting more involved with school choice, not only in Florida, but also in other states. What is driving that?

HEFFERNAN: I think for business there are two elements at work. First, these are individuals who, without exception, appreciate the value of competition. They see this as a natural extension of something that they know works to increase quality and reduce costs. That’s number one for them on their motivation scale.

Number two: There’s a change in understanding about the purpose of public funds. More businesses are coming to recognize that the purpose of our public funds is to underwrite the cost of children becoming educated adults, not to pay for the operation of an agency. What is starting to be recognized by business is that the role of the state is to assure every child of an education at public expense.

Until recently, business has simply equated help for public education with help for public schools. If your definition of public education now has changed to “children learning what they need to learn at public expense,” then the role of business is to help children rather than helping schools. Just as school choice suggests to government that the dollars should follow the child, this idea suggests to business: Your dollars should follow the child. The voucher idea says to government: Let the family choose the school. It also gives the same message to business: Let the families choose the school–that’s going to be the wisest use of your money. So let your private dollars that are meant to help children become educated–let them follow the child, too.

This idea of let the dollars follow the child is a liberating idea for business. It really is a major shift for business to say to themselves: Our role is to help children become educated. That’s different from saying: Our role is to help government schools be operated.

The A+ Plan, the school choice idea, and Floridians for School Choice have all succeeded in getting people to recognize that the measure of how well we are doing is: How well are the children learning? And so for business their fundamental question now is: Is this dollar going to help a child learn what that child needs to learn? If it is, then I’m happy to spend it whether or not that learning takes place at a school operated by the government.

CLOWES: How do the different groups in a state reach consensus on what legislation they all should push?

HEFFERNAN: They need to look at what is politically attainable. Based on our experience here, it took a fierce fight, an extraordinary fight, to achieve a very modest beginning.

When we learned that we had a Republican governor who favors school choice, a Republican Senate, and a Republican House, it looked as if we should go for the touchdown. But we decided we were going to make our way down the field, and not throw the deep pass. We went for the first ten yards, the hardest ten, and we got them. Now we’re definitely out on the playing field and planning to march right down it.

CLOWES: What advice do you have for organizations that are promoting school choice in other states?

HEFFERNAN: I would place two things at the top of my list, one practical and the other philosophical. Number one: Find lawmakers who want to get school choice into public policy. You need the choice issue to become a campaign or a legislative issue that political leaders are bringing to the attention to the people. Without that, it’s a much steeper climb. So, if I were a new organization, I would be concentrating on trying to get the idea embraced by legislative leaders.

My second point is to be clear on your message: School choice is a matter of justice. Here I’m indebted to Professor John Coons from the University of California at Berkeley, who has been writing on this subject for over twenty years and who has made it plain that our current system is manifestly unjust to children who happen to be born into non-rich families. The fundamental reason for working for school choice is moral, and our message at Floridians for School Choice reflects that. We promote school choice because the way children are assigned to public schools is wrong and unjust.

Certainly, parental choice of schools is going to encourage competition, and certainly competition should cause all schools–both public and private–to get better. But in the end, the justification for seeking school choice has to do with the rights of children to an education and the responsibility of parents to secure that. The fundamental reason for seeking school choice has to do with the effect on the children, not the effect on the system. In fact, we would insist on school choice even if some of those other effects didn’t show up.

No child should have their choice of school decided by a stranger if it’s within our power to have that decision made by the child’s own parents. Any system that gives more parents more say over where their children go to school is to be preferred over one that gives little choice to parents. Why should anyone other than the mother or father decide where their child should go to school? It comes back to the question: What is the purpose of the tax dollars that we raise for education? Are they to support government schools or to educate children? Rather than sending our tax dollars to government schools, whether they’re successful or not, we want our tax dollars to go to successful schools, whether they’re government or not.