Sounding the alarm on threats to public schools

It’s no secret that public education is under attack, in Indiana and in other states. But it’s easy to miss just how radical and well organized the assault is – and how it is part of a longstanding political drive to undermine the very concept of the common good.

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain in their new book, “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.” They show how free-market ideologues, driven by hostility to government and fueled by deep-pocketed donors, are endangering a cornerstone of American democracy.

“The threat to public education … is grave,” they write. “A radical vision for unmaking the very idea of public schools has moved from the realm of ideological pipe dream to legitimate policy.”

Berkshire, a journalist, and Schneider, an education historian, make their case in a clear, readable style that echoes their casual give-and-take on the education podcast “Have You Heard?” They draw from U.S. education history, studies and policy briefs, and recent news stories to make their case.

“A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” focuses on a fundamental debate on the nature of schools. Education, the authors argue, is best treated as a public good that belongs to everyone.

“Like clean air, a well-educated populace is something with wide-reaching benefits,” Berkshire and Schneider write. “That’s why we treat public education more like a park than a country club. We tax ourselves to pay for it, and we open it to everyone.”

The alternative: education as a private good that benefits and belongs to those who consume it. In that increasingly influential view, families should choose schools – or other education products and services — the same way they choose restaurants or where to buy their shoes, with little concern for anyone else.

The threats they describe are not a wolf but a veritable wolfpack: conservative ideologues who want to reduce taxes and shrink government, anti-union zealots, marketers bent on “selling” schools, self-dealers making money from ineffective virtual-school schemes and technology enthusiasts who envision a future in which algorithms replace teachers.

That may make the book sound like a polemic; it’s not, at least in my reading. The authors offer a fair and accurate reading of opposing views and acknowledge that public schools aren’t perfect. All too often, they admit, public schools have excluded or failed students of color, immigrants, religious minorities, students with disabilities and others.

“Yet all of these groups fought to be included because they were determined to hold America to its promises,” they write. “They believed that if the United States could live up to its ideals anywhere, it would be inside the schools.”

A key component of the idea of schools as a private good is the movement for vouchers, which provide public funding for students to attend private schools. Berkshire and Schneider detail how the idea dates from 1950s essays by the economist Milton Friedman, who extolled the efficiency and “freedom” that a fully free-market system of education would create. Long dismissed as a fringe idea, vouchers got new life in the Reagan era, when libertarian principles were pushed into the mainstream.

I remember, in the late 1990s, being surprised when the Indiana Chamber of Commerce said it planned to push for vouchers. Democrats controlled the governor’s office and the Indiana House. Just a few years earlier, a well-organized voucher push led by prominent business officials fizzled out.

But, as Schneider and Berkshire document, voucher supporters have played a long game, carried forward by groups like Indianapolis-based EdChoice and the American Legislative Exchange Council. In 2011, with a GOP supermajority in the legislature and Mitch Daniels in the governor’s office, Indiana approved vouchers. The program started small but grew to include over 300 private schools, nearly all of them religious, and over 36,000 students. Now there’s talk of expanding it further – or possibly of adopting education savings accounts, one of the “neo-voucher” programs that Schneider and Berkshire describe.

Berkshire and Schneider find reason for hope in the fact that there is still little public support for vouchers. Arizona voters rejected a voucher ballot initiative, and citizen pressure stymied vouchers in other states. They also celebrate the public support for public-school teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma who walked off the job in 2018 over low salaries. They note that over 20 governors (including Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb) have called for raising teacher pay.

There’s hope in their message, but there’s also a great deal of worry and alarm.

Are you trying to scare people? That was the question,” they write, “that a senior scholar put to us after reading an early draft of this book. In a word, yes.”

2 thoughts on “Sounding the alarm on threats to public schools

  1. Pingback: Steve Hinnefeld Reviews “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” by Schneider and Berkshire | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Pingback: Voucher philosophy: money to ‘follow the child’ | School Matters

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