Derek Black’s Fine New Book Explores the History of America’s Idea of Public Education — Part 2

On Monday, this blog examined Derek Black’s important new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, threads together the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history, but persistently revived: that our system of public schools, where all children are welcome and where their fundamental right to education is protected by law, is the one institution most essential for preserving our democratic society.

Monday’s post explored  Black’s history of that idea which has animated our society’s durable support for public education for more than 200 years. Today’s post will examine challenges in today’s ideological and political climate which Black believes threaten the very idea of public schooling. His book is a history of the constitutional protection of public schools—federally throughout our nation’s history and over time embedded in every one of the state constitutions. Can these laws and the principles they articulate protect public schools today?  Black explains:

“The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can… 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 rights movement, aiming to overwhelm public education.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

“Education reformers,” Black writes, “do not state their agenda as an attack on public education or students’ rights. Their pitch is gentler. They say public schools already have enough resources; they just need to spend what they have more wisely.  Or the problem is not low teacher salaries but tenure and ineffective teaching. They say charter schools and vouchers offer the common man the chance to escape a flawed public education system and trade it for something else… Those who would deprive individuals of that choice are the ones who are antidemocratic and elitist, they say.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 18)

Derek Black names several problems at the heart of today’s threat to public education: the expansion of school privatization via charters and vouchers, massive fortunes invested by far-right libertarians to attack so-called ‘government schools,’ attacks on school teachers and their unions, and persistent tax cutting by state legislatures and the consequent ratcheting down of state funding for public education:  “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.”  But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  Black cites research demonstrating that states have reneged on their public education promise particularly in areas where the public schools serve poor children: “(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… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Black explains that over the same decade: “While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… In Ohio, charter school incentives fueled so much growth so quickly that fraud and corruption took hold… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015.  While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-3014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a  hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 34-36)

Again, equity and racial justice were compromised: “The Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Northwest—the parts of America with the fewest racial minorities—have suffered only modest privatization. Their public school systems, for the most part, do not face major privatization threats… But the Southeast—the Confederacy’s old stronghold—tells the exact opposite story: large percentages of African American students and, save one state, their public schools are facing deep privatization forces.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 239)

All during the recent decade, the federal government’s education policy has also promoted school privatization. During the Trump administration, Betsy DeVos’s efforts to promote vouchers, her lifelong cause, have been well known. But the effort has been bipartisan: “Obama… tapped Arne Duncan… someone whose track record in Chicago involved substantially expanding charters… For the next several years, the federal government promoted and sometimes forced charter school expansion… The Obama administration basically condoned everything states were doing with school funding and made it a little worse. Federal funding for public schools remained flat while the federal budget for charter schools increased by nearly 20 percent between 2008 and 2013.  President Obama called for another 50 percent increase for charters on top of that in 2016 (though he didn’t get it).  The real surprise, though, is how much Duncan managed to accomplish through administrative action… His biggest coup was the process he set up for doling out innovation funds during the recession. As part of the economic recovery legislation, Congress had set aside a substantial chunk of money for education innovation but didn’t specify exactly what schools could spend it on. Duncan, however, told states that if they wanted access to the money, charter schools had to be part of the mix. States that ‘put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools,’ he said, ‘will jeopardize their grant applications.’… The overall result of these state and federal actions was stark—nearly 40 percent growth in the number of charter schools and 200 percent growth in their enrollment.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 36-37)

Derek Black identifies the Red4Ed teacher walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 as the greatest symbol of hope that the idea of American public schooling can survive: “In 2018, teachers finally reached their breaking point and started talking about strikes and walkouts. Media attention then helped educate the general public about what had happened to public education funding and the teaching profession over the past decade… And it happened in the most unlikely of places—in deep Republican country, in nonunion states, and in the South, not in bastions of liberalism or pro-labor sentiment… The first teacher strike was in West Virginia in 2018… The second teacher walkout was in Kentucky… After that, the protests and walkouts jumped westward to Oklahoma and Arizona… From there, major protests seemed to pop up every month in every place imaginable… Colorado, California, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Oregon, and Washington.” Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 244-245)

Derek Black concludes his new book positively by reminding readers of America’s education idea, which has survived since 1787: “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…. 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. We know that the idea has never been fully true in our schools, but we need to believe in that idea… The pursuit of that idea, both in fact and in mind, has long set us apart from the world….” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 250)