John died last week at 61, leaving many in his debt. His book with Terry Moe, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, opened the door to many of the reforms that are improving education for poor and disadvantaged children. The book demonstrated the importance of school choice for families, but also argued for government oversight to protect the rights of children and parents.
John and Terry’s argument, too often reduced to the single word, “vouchers,” was much richer and more nuanced than that, since it provided for responsible but strictly limited public “licensing” of schools. The book’s publication in 1990 was a turning point in education policy, opening the way for charter schools, special education vouchers, student-based funding, and the still-ongoing reform of state and local K-12 governance.
John was a persuasive spokesman for his and Terry’s idea, but he wasn’t an ivory tower theorist. He moved into the trenches, joining a team that designed and operated a whole system of choice-based public schools (Edison). Anyone working closely with John knew that he was deeply involved in issues that most modern-day school reformers avoid as too messy: curriculum, instructional design, teacher recruitment, performance measurement, and corrective action when things go wrong. Of the group who met at the Hoover Institution as the Koret Task force (including such worthies as Diane Ravitch and Checker Finn), only one person, Don Hirsch, understood schools nearly as deeply as John.
True to his deep interest in effective schools, John took a decidedly practical-oriented final assignment, as head of the National Association of Independent Schools in DC. My last memory is of a delightful lunch last March, during which John expressed excitement about his new work, his family, and the future.
John was a decent and caring man and a generous colleague. Though by far the snappiest dresser among men working on school reform, he was also among the most down to earth and approachable. Many who never met him in life will still know him through his work.