Over 50 million children and adolescents attend public schools in the United States. Our public schools are spread across every city, town, suburb and rural area. And because they are established and regulated by laws, they embody a promise to protect the rights and serve the needs of all children. The protections embodied in our laws have expanded over more than two centuries as our society’s understanding of children’s rights and needs has grown.
In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black reminds readers about the history and significance of our public system of education along with the protection of voting rights as the two central guarantees of our democracy: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together by public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 225) “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and CEO’s children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 250)
Here in Ohio, we’ve been discussing Derek Black’s new book—about 80 of us gathered on ZOOM. Despite the awkwardness of being together for an entirely online event, one advantage of ZOOM is that we were able to invite Derek Black himself to help launch our first evening’s conversation. He presented an introduction to the book’s history of the founding of public schools and all the subsequent threats to public education—as Reconstruction faded into the injustice of the Jim Crow South—as resistance to Brown v. Board of Education met with opposition strong enough to close public schools for four years between 1959 and 1963 and deny public schooling for the African American children in Prince Edward County, Virginia—and as today public schools face an overwhelming financial drain from charter schools and private school tuition vouchers in an era characterized by tax cutting across many states. Last Wednesday evening, Black concluded his formal remarks by reminding us—all supporters of public education—of the need for disciplined messaging as we try to fight the forces working to undermine our neighborhood public schools.
In the book itself Black explains: “Lawmakers, lobbyists, and commentators will tell you… they want to improve educational opportunity. If you aren’t sure about that, you will get sucked into policy papers about things like the effectiveness and cost of charters versus public schools, vouchers versus public schools, markets versus monopolies, and organized labor versus incentivized and competitive labor… The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess… (T)oday’s policy debates skew our frame of reference, trick us into looking at the wrong measures of education’s value and purpose, and distract us from the fundamental questions about the role of public education in our democracy.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 49-50)
Derek Black himself discusses some of these same policy questions in his book, but he urges all of us who cover the debates in education policy to remember to pay close attention to framing the issues. We need to articulate not only the threats but also the meaning and importance of the institution we are defending. And he would have us remember that today’s threats to taxpayer supported public education are historically connected to the period after the collapse of Reconstruction, when lawmakers in states recently readmitted to the union figured out how to segregate Black children and push them into inferior public schools by making education funding rely more and more on local property taxes. Historically we also should remember that the widespread racial and economic segregation of public schools today is the legacy of the more recent past—the post Civil Rights Movement, when wealth and privilege and racism expressed themselves in court decisions that banned desegregation across jurisdictional boundaries and encouraged families with means to insulate their children in exclusive exurbs.
One particular framing concern I find myself and others struggling to overcome is that, as we try to identify the people and organizations pushing bad policy, we forget to to follow through with a clear definition of precisely how that particular person or organization is undermining the public schools Derek Black holds up as our most important democratic institution. While it is good to know, for example, that Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children or Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd or Democrats for Education Reform or the Heritage Foundation or EdChoice or the American Legislative Exchange Council or the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is actively working to undermine public policy with dollars contributed by wealthy Americans, and while it is important to know the names of specific donors, these facts are not enough. Advocates must also explicitly demonstrate first, what dangerous policy steps that organization or individual is taking to bring about an outcome; second, how that specific policy will directly undermine the public schools in our particular state or local school district; and third, the logic and steps we must employ to counter that policy.
In Chicago, for example, many people accepted Arne Duncan’s (and later Rahm Emanuel’s) neoliberal Renaissance 2010 charter school expansion project as a nice experiment that might bring more choices to Chicago’s families with few choices. But advocates like Jitu Brown—an organizer of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (and now leader of the Journey4Justice Alliance)—realized that what Renaissance 2010 was really accomplishing was the closure of neighborhood public schools across Chicago’s South and West Sides. In 2016, Jitu Brown and other advocates protested the closure of Dyett High School with a 34 day hunger strike. Their advocacy and their action eventually reopened Dyett High School as a public neighborhood high school. After 50 Chicago neighborhood public schools were shut down due to charter school competition in June of 2013, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and sociologist Eve Ewing chronicled the massive and widespread community grieving that followed. Renaissance 2010 is a Portfolio School Reform policy to expand charters, and it’s always good to point that out, and even to point out that the theory came from the Gates funded Center on Reinventing Public Education. And it is fine to note that it was Arne’s policy later endorsed by Rahm. But what challenged Chicago to look hard at the danger of public-school-destruction was community advocacy about the meaning of the the school closures themselves. Advocates demonstrated that when Chicago tried Renaissance 2010, it destroyed public education across some of that city’s proud but poor Black neighborhoods.
In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black pushes advocates to do a better job of framing: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education. As they do this, they begin to roll back the democratic gains Congress sought during Reconstruction and then committed to during the civil rights movement… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, 238-243)
The late political theorist Benjamin Barber had a way of capturing the principles we must learn to name explicitly as we advocate for the public schools. Barber wrote:
“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)
Barber almost perfectly formulates the problem that threatens our public schools in 2021: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)