Widespread Attacks on Voting Rights and Attempts to Privatize Public Schools Together Threaten Democracy

In Friday’s NY Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie reflected on Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock’s first speech on the Senate floor:

“Warnock is the first African-American to represent Georgia in the Senate and only the second elected from the South since Reconstruction. His presence on the Senate floor is historic just on its own.  It represents progress—and yet it is also evocative of the past. A Black lawmaker from the South, urging his mostly white colleagues to defend the voting rights of millions of Americans is, to my mind, an occasion to revisit one particular episode in the history of American democracy: the fight in Congress over the Civil Rights Act of 1875.”

Bouie summarizes what was in this bill, proposed by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in a Reconstruction Congress right after the Civil War: “As originally written, Sumner’s bill would, ‘Secure equal rights in railroads, steamboats, public conveyances, hotels, licensed theaters, houses of public entertainment, common schools, and institutions of learning authorized by law, church institutions, and cemetery associations incorporated by national or State authority; also on juries in courts, national and State.'” In 1871, the bill was repeatedly blocked in committee, but Senator Sumner reintroduced it in modified form in 1873: “This revised bill added a clause that stated that ‘no citizen of the United States shall, by reason of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, be excepted or excluded from full and equal enjoyment’ of ‘common schools and public institutions of learning, the same being supported by moneys derived from general taxation or authorized by law.'”

School integration held up the bill’s passage, however, and when it finally passed in 1875, “It did so without the schools clause.” “It was the schools clause that proved especially controversial… (O)pponents saw school desegregation as collapsing a distinction between public rights that would allow the government to invade all provinces of an individual’s life.”

Senator Raphael Warnock addressed his colleagues last week not about the denial of educational rights but about the attack on voting rights during the recent election and in a rash of new attempts to block legislation which would guarantee access to the ballot box: “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era… This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”

Here in Ohio right now, we are in the midst of a three part discussion of Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning. Black, a professor of constitutional law, views denial of the protection of each citizen’s right to vote and the denial of the protection of each child’s right to education as tightly woven threats to our democracy: “Two hundred years ago our founding fathers gave us two gifts. Both were relatively unknown to the world at the time. The first was democracy—what they called a republican form of government. The second was public education. These gifts were inextricably intertwined… Our founding ideas, though flawed in their initial implementation, were compelling enough to take root and bear fruit for generations to come. The contradiction between our democratic ideas and practical reality was also strong enough to spark a Civil War and then constitutional change. The post-war Constitution prohibited racial voting restrictions, and then later gender and wealth restrictions. Another century later, the nation doubled down on those ideas through the Voting Rights Act…. The story of public education goes hand in hand with democracy and voting. That story, however, is not as well told… This book mines that history to help us better see who we are and have been—for better and for worse.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 10-11)

Black devotes two chapters to the urgent demand for public schools from freed slaves and a few years later during Reconstruction constitutional conventions when African Americans represented their constituents across the South.  He quotes a resolution passed by an African American Freedman’s convention in Arkansas in 1865: “Clothe us with the power of self-protection, by giving us our equality before the law and the right of suffrage, so we may become bona fide citizens of the state…. That we are… the foundation on which the future power and wealth of the State of Arkansas must be built… we respectfully ask the Legislature to provide for the education of our children.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 99)

Just as Senator Warnick worries that attacks on voting rights in 2021 are reminiscent of the years after the collapse of Reconstruction as Jim Crow state legislatures undermined voting rights, Derek Black worries that today’s trends in public education threaten protection of the public educational system that has been central to preparing citizens for the responsibilities of democracy.  Black explains: “The last decade aligns better with the darker periods of our history than the brighter ones.  The trend is alarming not just for public education. It is alarming for democracy itself.”(Schoolhouse Burning, p.12)

Black examines what has happened to public schools across the states during the Great Recession which began in 2008 and in the years since: “The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Jim Crow and the civil rights backlash saw attacks on public education, too. But those attacking public education did not claim public education was the problem. Rather, black people and the cost and inconvenience of extending equality to black people were the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment in public education and major new investment in private alternatives.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)

Black summarizes the trends that concern him: “Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession—overzealous and foolhardy, but understandable. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming. To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees… The most troubling thing is that it doesn’t take a constitutional scholar or education historian to recognize that something strange has happened. Politicians and advocates have taken on an unsettling aggressiveness toward public education.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp, 226-227)

Black concludes: “(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 recommitted to during the civil rights movement.”  And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement…. (W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need… Today, race remains a powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much money on other kids’ education. (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-243)


3 thoughts on “Widespread Attacks on Voting Rights and Attempts to Privatize Public Schools Together Threaten Democracy

  1. The connection of the attacks on voting rights and the underfunding/undermining of the commitment to public education seem to clearly reflect our increasing rejection during the last 40 -50 years of the concept of the investment in the social structure of our country. Senator Warnick captured with grace and dignity the unimaginable sadness and frustration of people whose dream of freedom continues to be threatened by our seemingly endless preoccupation with the promotion of “I-ness” and the continued rejection of the importance of “We-ness”.

    While I’m not inclined to see solutions in the thinking of Karl Marx, it’s hard not to see the wisdom of his concern that “capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction”. As we move ever closer to rule by the rich and a dismissal of growing poverty and the concerns of a disappearing middle class, we continue to ignore the lessons offered by the fall of the Weimar Republic and the collapse of Soviet Russia. In a cartoon panel a number of years ago, The Wizard of Id, the wizard warns the king (excuse me if I name him Bezos)… “Sire, the peasants are revolting.” “Yes”, says King Bezos, They certainly are.”

    We have a choice, “Freedom” or Freedumb” It’s not looking good. Right now ’freedumb” seems to be winning.

  2. Today’s “Resseger Report” aka wise words from my favorite blogger, reminds me that the attack on public schools is an attack on one of our most basic democratic institutions, the representative elected school board, but I am now aware today that these attacks on public education combined with voter suppression may very well be the one-two punch that strikes down our democracy. Never has our need been greater to stand up and speak out on these attacks on our democratic republic.

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