To Protect Democracy, Defend Public Education

Derek W. Black

America has never fully realized the promise of either public education or democratic government. That is no coincidence: throughout US history, strong public schools have been inseparable from a strong democracy.

Public schools have been called on to fix more and more of society's problems but haven't been invested with the resources necessary to solve them. (Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images)

Interview by
Meagan Day

Tracing the history of public education in America alongside the expansion and contraction of political rights, Derek W. Black’s Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy is a novel and necessary defense of public schooling. Exhaustive but accessible, the book concretely develops an argument often encountered only in the abstract: that political democracy and public education live and die together, and the choice is ours to make.

Black is a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He spoke with Jacobin’s Meagan Day about the historical evolution of American public education and the formidable new obstacles — in the form of drastic education cuts and school privatization — to fulfillment of the promise of knowledge and rights for all.


MD

So-called “education reformers” use what they identify as the failures of the public education system to justify their promotion of alternatives like charter schools and vouchers. How “broken” is our public education system, really?

DWB

When it comes to public education, there are good old ideas, but there aren’t really good old days. Public education is one of the most audacious ideas this country has ever come up with, and at no point in our history have we ever fully realized it. Instead of calling it broken, I think it’s more accurate to say we’ve made progress and taken significant steps forward, but we still have a long way to go.

We can and should have a conversation about the reasons why some schools are not meeting our expectations, including resegregation, socioeconomic stratification, and unequal funding. But while we do have underperforming schools, it’s also true that half to three quarters of our schools are actually doing pretty well. So when people say that our schools are broken, that characterization applies to a particular a slice of them, not public education as a whole.

We really turned to the language of failure with the No Child Left Behind Act. Some people will say that its primary purpose was to paint public schools as failures in order to justify moving toward alternatives. In fact, there were many people who supported it in order to collect data to prove that states were not meeting their responsibilities to disadvantaged students and to force them to take action. But whatever the intention, the result was this language of failure.

Lunch at Nettelhorst Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. (Tim Boyle / Getty Images)

At the same time, schools have been called on to fix more and more of society’s problems — homelessness, health care, hunger — but haven’t been invested with the resources necessary to solve them. When I was a child poor kids got lunch, whereas nowadays poor kids sometimes get three meals a day from school, including on weekends. Schools often struggle to meet these responsibilities, and may increasingly appear to be failing because new expectations are being foisted upon them to compensate for issues in the broader society.

MD

While schools are being asked to provide more in the way of social services, they’re also reeling from drastic budget cuts. What happened with state funding for public education during the Great Recession?

DWB

During the Great Recession, states took a hatchet to the public education budget. We saw Florida and North Carolina, for instance, lopping off a thousand or more dollars per year per student, so that schools in those states lost about three thousand dollars over the course of three years, which came out to about 25 percent of their funding.

Many defenders of public education thought this simply had to be done, and said “Sure, we’ll make some concessions, we’re all in this together.” But as the recession passed and the dollars for the public sector returned, what we saw was that everyone else got their resources back, but the public schools didn’t. Or, in some cases, those resources were never returned, given away instead in the form of lower taxes.

After the recession, there was still a smaller place for public education in state governments. That has persisted for about a decade, and still persists. About half of the states in this country provide less in real dollar terms per pupil than they did before the Great Recession. That of course has exacerbated the conditions that people are referring to when they talk about public schools being broken.

MD

How did the United States even develop a public education system to begin with?

DWB

“System” might be an overstatement for what it was at in the beginning. It was more like a public education idea, which was simply called “schools.”

In 1785, the United States Congress passed a land ordinance that lay the groundwork for expansion outside of the colonies. It said that every single town in the remainder of the United States, west of Pennsylvania, would be chopped up into thirty-six equally sized lots. One lot would be reserved for a school, and the lots on the outer rim of those towns would be used to generate financial resources to fund those schools.

That ordinance applied to towns outside the original colonies, which left the colonies playing catch-up. In the cities in the North, there were already some public schools, but the task was to keep developing them and to extend them to rural communities. The South didn’t really have any public schools and at that time wasn’t really interested in developing any. So in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the story looks different depending on what area of the country we’re talking about.

MD

The Civil War and in particular its aftermath really accelerated the growth of public education. In your book you write, “Between 1865 and 1868, the nation embarked on the most aggressive education project before or since, rapidly turning the education world upside down.” What critical developments in education took place during Reconstruction, and how lasting was its legacy?

DWB

I focused on that time as the most important and formative in the public education story in America. We had some ideas in 1785, but the nation was just getting going. It was broke, coming out of a war, and building from nothing. A lot of people thought the land ordinance would be enough to establish schools in the center of every town, but it didn’t work everywhere. There was a lot of mismanagement of land, etc.

But when we get to the end of the Civil War, we suddenly have a lot of clarity. Congress understood that if the United States was going to actually function like the democracy envisioned at the nation’s founding, then there had to be public education at the center of policy.

For the Southern states who reentered the union, one of the conditions was that they provide public education. Prior to the Civil War, the South did not guarantee public education, and then almost overnight — literally in between 1868 and 1870 — every single one of those states rewrote their state constitutions in a way that established public education as a right.

Meanwhile, all other states westward are also expected to do the same. No state is ever again admitted to the union without guaranteeing public education in its constitution. And every state that was already admitted, whenever they had a chance to rewrite their constitutions they added education clauses as well.

So the Civil War reforms the South, sets new guidelines for the West, and gives the North the opportunity to rewrite its constitutions as well. Eventually we get to a place where in the late 1800s every single state is guaranteeing public education.

Now, the story was far from over in the South, where after Reconstruction is over and the so-called Redeemers are in control, there’s an attempt to undermine the rights and position of African Americans. That attempt includes not just taking away the vote, but also segregating public education and underfunding schools for African American children — in part because teaching black kids how to read and write was costing white people money they didn’t want to spend, and in part because they just didn’t want black people to have full social citizenship.

This backlash was enormous and had serious consequences which are evident in the history of the first half of the twentieth century. But there was also a silver lining, which is that the South was never actually able to get rid of public education entirely and return to how it was before. The state of Mississippi actually tried. They said, “Well we didn’t have public education before the end of slavery, we ought to get rid of it altogether.”

But it soon became clear that white folks liked public education too, so it became here to stay, even if it was in a highly segregated and unequal form. The idea of public education was sufficiently strong at that point that not even the virulent racism of the day was enough to stamp it out. The right to education survived, though it was left for later generations to fully realize it.

MD

What further developments occurred during the Civil Rights era, often called the Second Reconstruction?

DWB

Most people know the Brown v. Board of Education case pretty well, but they don’t know too much what happened later. They just talk about the country’s failure to actually fulfill its mandate to desegregate public schools. If you did a poll of Americans right now and asked them if America failed to desegregate public education, I would venture to guess that three-quarters or more would say yes.

But I totally reject the idea that school desegregation failed. In fact it succeeded tremendously at first, and then the country gave up on it, because its successes were more than some people could live with.

When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, fewer than 1 percent of African American students in the South attended an integrated school. It stayed there for a decade, because there was no enforcement of the decision. But then we passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and within a decade that figure goes from less than 1 percent to 40 percent. And of course that means a lot of white students were attending them too.

That decade was also the time when we saw the largest, most sustained movement toward closing the achievement gap in the history of this country. The First and Second Reconstructions are the greatest education success stories that have ever been achieved in this country. It didn’t fail. It set off some people and created a backlash.

MD

What did the backlash to Civil Rights and the rollback of the desegregation process actually consist of?

DWB

Richard Nixon campaigns in the South basically telling people that he will slow down this desegregation train if they elect him. He wins the South in a landslide, and proceeds to appoint a series of Supreme Court justices with histories of resistance to school desegregation. Once he puts those folks on the bench, the court flips, and they start coming up with reasons why we’re getting out of the desegregation business.

The implications of what happens next are not confined to the South. When desegregation starts out, the basis for ordering the integration of schools is basically just the existence of racial isolation. So if you’ve got white schools over here and black schools over here, you can order desegregation. That’s the way it happened in the South. But elsewhere in the country, it’s much harder to point to stark racial isolation.

It’s also harder to prove that if schools are not integrated in the North and West that this is the result of intentional policies to make them that way, and the courts are ratcheting up the evolutionary burden to prove this as a pretext for desegregation. Then there’s the additional issue that in the South you often have large districts, but in Northern cities you have all these little suburbs and carve-out cities running their own school districts, which poses the problem of whether courts can order inter-district desegregation.

Ultimately the courts decide you can’t force bussing across district lines unless you can prove there’s some sort of intentional collusion between the districts. This basically crystallizes the idea that if you don’t want to send your kid to an integrated school, all you have to do is move up the street. There was already other impetus for white flight, but this certainly exacerbated it.

Meanwhile, by the ’90s in the developing South there’s a new consensus that if there are segregated schools, it’s not because of intentional policy anymore but because of the fact that people are moving around so much. The Supreme Court decides that demographic shifts are now the cause of segregation rather than any school policies, and therefore they’re not responsible for it. Ultimately all of this puts the brakes on desegregation.

MD

Resegregation isn’t the whole story. What else is happening in public education at the end of the twentieth century?

DWB

In 1983, the “A Nation at Risk” report comes out saying the United States is being outpaced by the Russians in education, and we need to get our act together or we’ll be crushed. There’s a very broad consensus at the time that our students are not up to par internationally.

As a result of this we see the rise of the standards-based reform movement, where we begin to set academic standards and test to see if we’re living up to them or not. Some good things and some bad things begin to happen at that point.

On the one hand, we are highlighting failure without really addressing the fact that we have underfunded and segregated schools. On the other hand, we are starting to see states investing in systemizing education in a way that’s helpful. We do want students across the state of North Carolina or across the state of Texas to have the same opportunities, and while we’re not at the point of realizing that idea, at least we’re now saying that we want it to be more standardized.

When the data starts coming out about student and school performance, it fuels school funding litigation, because now they’ve got test scores that give credence to the idea that there are some places in the state of North Carolina or Texas or wherever that are not actually delivering a quality education to their students, and that violates the state constitution. School funding litigation begins to sweep across the nation on a state by state-by-state basis.

MD

That seems like a potential step forward, but then you end up with No Child Left Behind. You mentioned earlier that there was a broad constituency for that law, but what was the actual result?

DWB

No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001. It said that there should be a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, all students must be proficient in core academic subjects by 2014, and that proficiency would be measured by standardized tests. Who could disagree with that?

But statistically, total proficiency didn’t make any sense. There’s always going to be some percentage of the population that doesn’t achieve proficiency for a variety of reasons. Any statistician could have told you that this goal set public schools up for automatic failure.

So what you get is lots of schools, including very good schools, being labeled as failures throughout the Bush and Obama administrations. And you get higher and higher indicators of failure each year, as schools are punished for not making adequate progress toward the goal of total proficiency. The states were in a hard place, because even schools that were making progress, just not fast enough, were out of compliance No Child Left Behind, which triggered a number of cuts, sanctions, and interventions.

Former secretary of education Arne Duncan. (Center for American Progress / Flickr)

The majority of students were labeled as failures during the tenure of Arne Duncan, the secretary of education under Obama. And because states were in a tough spot, Duncan used that failure to extract concessions from the states that didn’t adopt his education policies.

MD

What are the origins of the “education reform” movement, and when did it really accelerate?

DWB

Well there are many different faces of the education reform movement. You of course have libertarians who don’t like public education at all, regardless of how it’s doing, and they want a more privatized system, whether that’s school vouchers or charter schools — anything to get the government out of the education business.

But then, especially in the Obama era, you also have Democrats who are cognizant of the fact that the state really never lived up to their obligations to disadvantaged students, and they’re thinking maybe we ought to try something new. A lot of those Democrats got on board with charter schools, persuaded by the libertarian argument that the problem is that the public education system has monopoly.

The Kochs and DeVoses initially pushed school vouchers, but there wasn’t a big appetite for vouchers in minority communities, and teachers were even more militantly against school vouchers than they were against charter schools, so the former never really caught on in the Democratic Party. But charter schools did catch on. In many cases it was minority families who were demanding them, especially after funding cuts to public education during the Great Recession.

You also had economists at the time who thought they could innovate and manage the country’s education system into a better place. I don’t necessarily think they had bad motivations, but some of them were overconfident in the power of their data and their prescriptions. I think they convinced the Obama administration, and particularly Duncan, that charter schools would work, and that the management of the education system would be as easy and clean as selling widgets at Walmart.

MD

The result of this confluence of factors was that charter schools exploded at the same that states slashed education budgets in the wake of the financial crisis. That has put defenders of public education on the back foot for a decade, while school privatization proceeds apace.

But the teachers’ strike wave of 2018–19 may be remembered as a turning point. It was pivotal in drawing attention to the actual systemic causes of the shortcomings of our public education system, and it may have turned the tide of public opinion on school privatization. What are its lasting effects?

DWB

Public school teachers tend to be extraordinarily patient, long-suffering individuals. They’re used to being overworked and underpaid. They’re going to show up and vote on election day but they’re usually not rabble-rousers.

After the budget cuts of the Great Recession, they sat back for about five years and said, “Surely they’ll do right by us.” Then six years passed, then seven years, and they started to go, “Are you serious? We normally don’t complain, but there’s only so far you can bend us before we break.”

In the early years after the recession, states really took advantage of the goodwill of teachers and public education advocates. If they would have stopped the assault on public education, they probably could have gotten away with it, but they didn’t let up. There was no amount of undermining that was too much for opponents of public education, and the private sector just grabbed more and more with states’ permission. Eventually that provoked teachers across the country to take to the streets.

It didn’t start in liberal bastions. In fact it started in West Virginia, then moved on to Kentucky, then Oklahoma, then Arizona. These are not Democratic strongholds. I saw the protests down here in South Carolina. Outside of family events, it was one of the most amazing days of my life. The whole square outside the Capitol was engulfed in red, with people in red T-shirts spilling onto Main Street.

We have never seen that type of protest here before. Not even the Civil Rights protests had that many people. When I saw that, I pictured the people who had taken advantage of public educators and thought, “Yeah, you messed up. You went too far, and now it’s swinging back the other way.”

That said, I’m not really sure where we stand ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began. I was thinking we were set to make another leap forward in the story of public education in this country, but I think the pandemic may have sapped some of the energy and momentum from that movement.

At the beginning of the pandemic there was high approval for teachers and widespread understanding of how hard their jobs were. But as the pandemic wore on, Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump took advantage of the fact that parents had frustrations about schools not reopening. And now the Right is whipping people into a new frenzy over curriculum issues, and that’s quickly becoming very politicized. I can’t say whether the momentum of 2018–19 is actually gone, or if it can be recaptured.

MD

What is your argument about the relationship between public education and democracy?

DWB

We frequently hear people connect education to democracy, but it’s almost always just a piece of rhetoric to rally the troops. I think my book is singular in that it demonstrates that from the very beginning of the conception of American democracy, public education has been understood as a necessary component in realizing it. We have never fully realized either idea, and they can only be realized together.

Over and over again, when America makes big leaps forward in guaranteeing the right to a public education, it’s articulated as a necessary component of fulfilling the promise of democracy. This thread runs throughout American history. Each moment that democracy is expanded, such as with the First and Second Reconstructions, public education has been massively expanded too. And each moment that democracy is contracted, such as with Jim Crow and the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, the assault on public education has happened alongside that contraction.

The warning I’m trying to communicate is that the current attack on public education in the form of school privatization and drastic underfunding is actually a threat to democracy. We need to wake up to the gravity of what’s at stake. We’re either going to deliver an education that is inherently designed to bring different people together in one place around common values and strengthen our democracy, or we will send them off into their unequal silos. If we do the latter, they’ll eventually end up at each other’s throats, and only the strongest will survive.