Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning, published in the autumn of 2020, is essential reading for all of us who care about public schooling. Beginning with the educational vision of the founders of our nation who understood public education as the center of the social contract, the book is a history of the institution that epitomizes our mutual responsibility to form citizens who will actively participate in our democratic experiment. Black’s book is hopeful about our history; he traces how the meaning of the guarantee of public education as a right for every child has become more inclusive in the over two hundred years since our nation’s founding—for the children of former slaves, for disabled children, for American Indians, and for immigrants. Those who conceptualized a system of public schools did not view education as part of a marketplace where individual parent consumers seek the perfect educational choice for each individual child. Why does it matter that our system of education in the United States is public—publicly owned, publicly governed and operated, publicly funded, and protected by law?
As Derek Black winds down his history of the impact of Reconstruction on the states’ constitutional promise of public schooling, the threats to equal access for all during Jim Crow, the long fight for civil rights protections against racial segregation, and decades of lawsuits brought to demand that state supreme courts protect adequate and equitable public school funding, he muses about today’s threats to our public system of schooling:
“The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can, in effect protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along? How strong is the commitment to the right to education and a system of public schools for all in the public’s mind today? There are now forces afoot, like there were during Reconstruction and the civil right movement, aiming to overwhelm public education. If it comes down to it, can public education persevere once again, or is it something different this time?” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)
The threat today is widespread school privatization—the transformation of public schooling in many places into a school choice marketplace at public expense. As we watch this scenario play out, it is clear that meager state budgets cannot sustain three education sectors: a public sector, a charter school sector, and widespread public funding for vouchers to pay private school tuition.
Black writes: “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures… 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… (S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)
I thought about Black’s concerns on Friday as I read a briefing fact sheet released by the White House: How the Biden-Harris Administration Is Advancing Educational Equity. This is, I think, intended as the framing document many have been waiting for. President Biden and his Education Secretary Miguel Cardona filled the American Rescue COVID relief bill passed by Congress in March with funding to support our public schools, and the President’s proposed FY22 budget would, if successfully negotiated through Congress, significantly increase funding. The briefing fact sheet frames all this as an equity agenda:
“For too many Americans—including students of color, children with disabilities, English learners, LGBTQ+ students, students from low-income families, and other underserved students—the promise of a high-quality education has gone unfulfilled for generations… Dramatically unequal funding between school districts means some children learn in gleaming new classrooms, while students just down the road navigate unsafe and rundown facilities. Amid a nationwide teacher shortage, high-poverty school districts struggle to attract certified staff and experienced educators. And students of color and children with disabilities face disproportionately high rates of school discipline that removes them from the classroom, with lasting consequences. With 53 percent of our public school students now students of color, addressing these disparities is critical for not only all our children, but for our nation’s collective health, happiness, and economic security. Consistent with the President’s Executive Order, the Administration is committed to advancing educational equity for every child—so that schools and students not only recover from the pandemic, but Build Back Better.”
In Friday’s fact sheet, the Biden White House names many of its progressive and worthy proposals to fund education reform—providing high-quality universal early childhood education and pre-school, increasing access to affordable child care, addressing the current shortage of well-prepared teachers, upgrading school facilities long deemed deteriorating in too many communities, investing $20 billion in Title I schools and incentivizing states to improve school funding equity, radically expanding the number of Full Service Community Schools, increasing access to broadband in underserved communities, and increasing funding for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by $2.6 billion.
Of course, Congress will have to agree to fund this needed investment. It is definitely not a sure thing, but Biden and Cardona’s proposal deserves credit for going to the heart of the gaping inequality across America’s public schools. The document does speak directly to issues in America’s public schools, the institutions that continue to serve around 90 percent of our nation’s children and adolescents.
There is something not quite right, however, in the narrative frame of the document, which consistently addresses equity in “education,” but not equity in “public education.” In what I compressed into four single-spaced pages, I find the word “public” only a handful of times. Perhaps this is mere carelessness, but I don’t think so. The Biden Administration has chosen not to address what public school parents are watching all over the country as their public schools run short of money for the basics, and what we all watched during the recent state budget debates when legislatures slipped more and more public dollars to charter schools and vouchers.
The framing of this document is consistent with another of the administration’s recent choices. While, in its FY 22 budget resolution, the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to ban funding from the federal Charter Schools Program for charter schools operated by the huge, for-profit Charter Management Organizations, the President’s FY 22 budget proposal is silent on this much needed reform at the same time the U.S. Senate is receiving massive pressure from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and others in the well-funded charter school lobby. (It is worth noting here that charter school supporters always do remember to frame their schools as “public” even though charter schools are always privately operated). President Biden and Secretary Cardona need to weigh in on behalf of the public schools against any form of for-private educational contracting.
By failing to confront the impact of ever expanding school privatization at public expense, the Biden White House and Department of Education have, perhaps understandably, chosen to avoid controversy. But by neglecting to name and confront the impact of the enormous problem of school privatization, the administration is tacitly supporting what is happening across the states.
Here is Derek Black’s response: “State constitutions long ago included any number of safeguards—from dedicated funding sources and uniform systems to statewide officials who aren’t under the thumb of politicians—to isolate education from… political manipulations and ensure education decisions are made in service of the common good. The larger point was to ensure that democracy’s foundation was not compromised. But the fact that politicians keep trying and sometimes succeed in their manipulations suggests these constitutional guardrails are not always enough to discourage or stop powerful leaders. This also reveals something deeper: modern-day incursions into public education are so unusual that our framers did not imagine them. They anticipated that legislatures might favor schools in their home communities at the expense of a statewide system of public education. They anticipated that public education might suffer from benign neglect when legislatures, from time to time, became preoccupied with other issues. But they did not anticipate that legislatures would go after public education itself, treating it as a bad idea.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 232-233)
Black continues: “But it is not just what today’s leaders have said and done. Also telling is what they haven’t said. Increasingly missing, if not entirely absent, is any discussion of education’s purpose and values—reinforcing democracy and preparing citizens to participate in it. What they miss is that charters and vouchers… involve an entirely different set of premises about education—and for that matter an entirely different set of premises about government.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 233)