Earlier this week, we lost a giant. Andrew Coulson, Senior Fellow in Education Policy at the Cato Institute, passed away after a fifteen-month battle with brain cancer. In the days that followed, colleagues, friends, and admirers paid tribute to his achievements, reminisced about his character and virtues, and reflected on his legacy. What follows is a compilation of those tributes.
There is no one else beside Andrew Coulson that you must read to discover what reforms we need in education and why they will work. That is not hyperbole. There are many very sharp people who have contributed important thoughts on education reform, but you will get everything essential that you need from reading through Andrew’s collective works. […]
Andrew was a fine thinker and passionate advocate. But, as many have noted, he was also a kind man with a splendid sense of humor and relentless optimism. He remained immovably committed to his principles and the conclusions to which his great mind had led him. But he always engaged with a sense of magnanimity and humor, never bitter or angry. Even when I made a good deal of trouble for him with my lack of these qualities, Andrew stood by me. When he faced difficulties because of his principles, he always stood firm on those as well.
Adam concludes his tribute with a recommended reading list of Andrew’s works, which are among “all the wonderful gifts he’s left us.”
A key to all of this success was the unique temper of his commitment to reform. Instead of expressing the intensity of his passion in invective, Andrew channeled his passion into an unusual blend of productivity, hard research, humor and intellectual joy. I suspect this is what [columnist William] Raspberry sensed in Andrew — a genuine goodwill that characterized Andrew’s writing even as he was summarily proving you wrong. […]
Andrew was a generous and talented human being who worked for freedom of choice for all children in education. This is surely tribute enough, but in Andrew’s case, I must add that he was a good man, and that he will be missed by virtually everyone who knew him. I join my colleagues at the Mackinac Center in wishing Andrew’s family, friends, coworkers and, most particularly, his wife, Kay Krewson, every solace in the days ahead.
I first remember meeting Andrew and his wife, Kay, at a conference in Toronto in 2000. I have to admit that he felt out of place. Here was this guy without any university, think tank, or other affiliation and without any formal training presenting on the history of markets in education. And people did not typically attend these meetings with spouses. Who was this guy?
As it turns out, this guy was a brilliant autodidact who “retired” after being an early programmer with Microsoft to devote his time to studying and advocating education reform. And he was really good at it.
The thing that struck me most about Andrew was his incredible optimism and quirky sense of humor. Liberty-oriented education activists tend to be on the losing side of policy battles. It can be downright discouraging. But Andrew never seemed discouraged or became bitter. It was a long game and he maintained a sunny optimism that freedom worked better and people would eventually gravitate towards what worked.
Andrew loved facts and logic. He had an engineer’s mind and was relentlessly methodical in laying out his arguments. I appreciated his commitment to civility and rationality in private and public discourse, and was always influenced, if not persuaded, by his reasoning and facts.
Andrew’s death is a huge lost for our movement. I will always carry our discussions with me.
Milton Friedman wrote of [Andrew’s book] Market Education: ”Encyclopedic in its coverage of the arguments for and against alternative modes of organizing schooling, readers will find this excellent book instructive whether they agree or disagree with his conclusion.” That captures Andrew’s intellectual contribution and his personality. He was provocative, learned, and engaging (even or especially to those with whom he disagreed).
At the core of Andrew’s reform ideas were two basic concepts. First, education has always been far more varied in its forms than we’ve come to appreciate and second, that parental and student choice should be front and center in all discussions. It’s a testament to his influence that each of these insights is becoming more popular and influential with every passing year. They allow us to create more varied and individualized forms of education while also minimizing social conflicts and anxieties over learning.
Here is an interview Nick conducted with Andrew in 2011:
It was my great fortune to work in education policy with Andrew toward a better education for all kids and to know he always held the line and set the pace for true markets in education. Market Education: The Unknown History is the book I tell everyone interested in education to start with.
Over the last year or so I had friendly exchanges with Mr. Coulson — and I followed along closely with the discussions I wasn’t a part of. They were master classes in wit, analysis and advocacy. That I had access to them at a cost of nothing more than my time was an almost-daily lottery win. I half-stalked the poor guy professionally, but I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.
Through those back-and-forths about every facet of school choice and its related disciplines, I gained an incredible amount of knowledge from Mr. Coulson — and he exposed himself to be a good man. You can’t go to school for that. You don’t apply, pay tuition or take up space in a classroom, and there’s no certificate at the end. It takes more time, more work, and comes at a greater cost. It’s a lot harder to do. […]
Andrew Coulson has passed, leaving behind an impressive body of work and a legacy that’s a little part of the life force of hundreds of thousands of kids, their families and their communities. Those numbers are poised to multiply.
I still don’t know what, if any, official credentials he had. Someone might tell me, but I won’t bother to look them up. I don’t need to. I know that he advanced the work of countless others, including mine, and helped lead a successful movement that decades ago seemed impossible. He did it with humility, civility and a seriousness of purpose.
It was only after hearing about Andrew’s death that I realized he must have been no more than 30 when he wrote the very compelling book, Market Education: The Unknown History. I knew when Ted Forstmann gave me a copy to read in 1999 that it must be an important book and that Andrew must be a very smart man since Ted, who was not one to lavish undeserved praise on anyone, insisted on how essential it was that I read Market Education before thinking I knew anything about education reform.
Andrew never disappointed. He was as nice as he was smart and very much a team player.
RIP Andrew. And may you find comfort, Kay, in the deep affection so many have for Andrew.
I have long been an admirer of Andrew Coulson’s work — even before I began my career at Pacific Legal Foundation. His book, Market Education, has long been a staple on my bookshelf. Andrew and I first crossed paths professionally when I posted this critique of an op-ed he wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. His response led to a very a interesting back and forth, which is summarized here. Despite our minor disagreement, that conversation led us to more closely follow the other’s work. We’d exchange emails now and then, usually when one of us had something interesting to say about school choice. For National School Choice Week last year, Andrew Coulson appeared with me on this PLF podcast. The podcast remains one of our most popular ever. Andrew and I discuss a lot of the contemporary issues facing advocates of educational freedom today.
Coulson was a kind, brilliant man whose sense of humor was always at the ready.
Andrew’s writing was the first to introduce me to the idea that school choice might not just be good for kids academically, but could help us create more harmonious communities. If we don’t have to fight each other over what gets taught in history or science class, and we respect our fellow citizens’ rights to instruct their children in the way that best fits their needs and their values, we can get along better with each other. What a great idea.
We truly do stand on the shoulders of giants. God bless his memory.