Twenty years ago who besides chic New Yorkers and the super-rich drank lattes? In general two decades ago consumers accepted the mass market brands, sold largely already ground in cans, as satisfactory. Few knew there were better options. Then Starbucks and all the other high end chains aggressively sought to show consumers that there was better coffee out there. Not surprisingly, consumption of gourmet and specialty coffee increased rapidly. From 1999-2005 consumption of gourmet coffee among all Americans increased from .22 to .36 cups a day while consumption of regular coffee dropped from 1.48 to 1.26 cups per person per day according to the National Coffee Association an industry group. Not a tidal wave but a significant shift nonetheless.
What does this have to do with schools? Isn’t, in fact, this same trend basically happening in education now? Parents are starting to realize that there are better options and are becoming mobilized to get them. In other words, an inattentive public is starting to become keyed in on an issue that affects them. For example, take a look at what’s happening in LA, where veteran Democratic activist and founder of the non-profit Green Dot Public Schools, Steve Barr, has organized parents there to demand changes to Jefferson High School, a demonstrably failing local high school. Barr has organized 10,000 local parents. Because his teachers are unionized, work under a modified contract, and make more money than scale in LA people like to say that Barr is the next Al Shanker. Perhaps instead he’s the next Starbucks. Meanwhile LA and too many other districts just keep trying to tell people that Folgers is fabulous when they can see in their own communities that fresh ground is better.
One More Cup: Kevin Johnson the former point guard for the Phoenix Suns and all around class act has started a charter school in CA. Johnson likes to tell the story of how Magic Johnson convinced a gourmet coffee chain to open stores where he was opening his movie theaters. The coffee execs were at first reluctant believing that black people didn’t like coffee. Magic put up money and lo and behold the outfit sold a lot of coffee…
The lesson for Democrats is obvious: Black people like good schools, too. Yet from the usual suspects we keep hearing how people in urban areas don’t want more choice in education. But every time a real choice option springs up there is intense demand. In fact, one of the primary problems with market-based reforms in education is that, at least so far, the market isn’t self-correcting (pdf) because even poor quality choice options are proving wildly popular with parents. That’s a reason for public oversight and a more charter-like than voucher-like arrangement but it’s an issue where Democrats must engage. The general discontent with President Bush is sweeping this tension under the rug for now within the party, but one day Bush will be gone and like a caffeine headache, this issue will reemerge as a big problem.