The End of Public Schools Would Mean the End of the Common Good

If education is nothing but a provider of the “human capital” that will help students get a job, the argument to privatize public education will be far too convincing. Instead, we should look at our schools as institutions to educate kids to be citizens in a democracy with expectations for better lives.

A classroom in Edward W. Bok Technical High School, a shuttered public school in Philadelphia. (Katrina Ohstrom)

Serious fans of science fiction understand that the best work in the sci-fi genre either uses the future or an alternate reality to provide a window into our present. Episodes of the Twilight Zone (1959–64), which I’ve rediscovered on Netflix during this pandemic, routinely imagined scenarios that made Americans consider the consequences of real threats like nuclear war or automation. Blade Runner (1982) asked what would happen when the line between human and artificial intelligence was no longer clear. More recently, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013) envisioned a future of wealth inequality in which the 1 percent live in a beautiful satellite above the Earth while the planet is given over to poverty and squalor.

By imagining plausible futures stemming from our present, these works shock the viewer into considering what will happen if we don’t rethink our priorities.

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire’s A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School is not science fiction, but it could be the premise for a good film. The book asks us to imagine a future in which the growing movement of school privatizers in the United States totally have their way.

Just as with good sci-fi, the authors make a compelling case that, based on our current trajectory, a nightmare future is closer than we think. Schneider, a historian of education, and Berkshire, a freelance journalist, are the cohosts of the podcast Have You Heard, where they explore some of this territory. This book goes further, systematically surveying an education system in deep peril.

For decades, Americans have seen politicians and corporations try to force American schools to function more like businesses in a marketplace. Democrats and Republicans alike have pushed for reforms to create charter schools (which are usually public schools but with less democratic oversight), to hold public schools “accountable” by increasing their reliance on standardized tests, and, in turn, to taylorize teachers by assessing their work with dubious “value-added” metrics.

When market fundamentalist Betsy DeVos was appointed to be Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education in 2017, however, something even more reactionary was afoot. Schneider and Berkshire begin their study with DeVos’s ascent to the federal education bureaucracy’s summit. But DeVos, the authors point out, is not a singular problem: her elevation instead is the result of a growing movement, to which most of us have not been paying enough attention, to fully privatize the school system.

Indeed, the billionaire Michigan Republican is merely the “most prominent public face of the recent push to dismantle public education . . . The movement has been steadily gaining power and notching progress for decades — building financial support, erecting a policy infrastructure, and constructing a finely-honed public message.”

Education, the Last Vestige of Entitlement

This movement has deep roots, beginning with economist Milton Friedman’s famous essay “The Role of Government in Education” in 1955. Though Southern white supremacists used voucher schemes to prevent integration, for the most part, reformers stayed on the political fringe until Ronald Reagan’s administration prioritized vouchers in the 1980s.

Reagan’s efforts were stymied by Congress, and the few successes of the movement were local, like the Milwaukee voucher program signed into law in 1989. Since the early 2000s, however, the privatizers have won more victories, chipping away at public education. Today’s adherents of this movement are wealthy ideologues like DeVos, right-wing legislative hacks that push bills out of the ALEC playbook, and neoliberal opportunists who see the tax dollars flowing into public education as a major opportunity to extract profits. (Since we live in an economy of relatively low growth, squeezing profits from public services represents an increasingly popular opportunity for capitalist accumulation, as scholars like David Harvey and Pauline Lipman have pointed out).

According to Schneider and Berkshire, the privatizers are essentially driven by four principles: 1) education is primarily a personal commodity, not a public good; 2) schools should be administered in the marketplace, not by government; 3) “consumers” should pay for their own education as much as possible; and 4) unions represent a major impediment to this agenda and thus must be crushed.

Oakland teachers on strike on February 21, 2019. Joe Brusky

The last principle is particularly important. Whether seeking to sate political ambition, market fundamentalist ideology, or their thirst for profits at everyone else’s expense, the privatizers all understand that teacher unions not only provide a bulwark against privatization but also serve as one of the few paths to protect teachers, students, and parents against a market logic that trends toward austerity.

For a good example of why unions are so important, the authors point out, consider the successful fights unions have recently waged to force states to spend more money on public schools, even in red states like Oklahoma and West Virginia. More recently, during the COVID-19 crisis, the strength of teacher unions, which have pressured school boards into opening virtually or enhancing safety procedures in face-to-face instruction, have represented the difference between life and death.

Schneider and Berkshire’s argument is divided into three parts. First, we must understand the privatization movement’s ideology. This explanation is important because, here, the authors illustrate that the privatizers do not see the market as simply a metaphor for competition between schools with some level of government oversight, as have Democratic reformers like Obama education secretary Arne Duncan or New Jersey senator Cory Booker. Instead, DeVos and her ilk see public education as the last vestige of social democratic entitlement.

In spite of some highly prominent efforts during and after the New Deal, social democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, Augustus Hawkins, and Coretta Scott King were unable to ensure Americans won the right to a job, to housing, or to health care. Other rights, like the right to form a union and collectively bargain, have been significantly diminished since their codification in law. But the right to a public education, in spite of all the inequities that we know still characterize it, still represents an expectation. Privatizing education, the market fundamentalists believe, is the last frontier and will delimit expectations for good.

Next, Schneider and Berkshire highlight the many efforts undertaken in the past few years to enact this market fundamentalist agenda.

In 1997, the state of Arizona passed a law that provides taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit when they donate money for private-school scholarships. In effect, every donation — Schneider and Berkshire rightly call it “money laundering”— means less tax dollars for public schools and a subsidy for private schools. Most shocking, however, is that similar laws are now on the books in eighteen states, including blue states like Illinois.

Many states have also siphoned public funds to “Education Savings Accounts,” which allow parents to use taxpayer dollars for private tutoring, books, and supplies, or even to simply save the money for college. For-profit schools like those run into the ground by White Hat management in Ohio are becoming increasingly common, too, and even nominally nonprofit charter management companies allow school CEOs and politically connected landlords to profit through inflated executive salaries and rent for facilities.

An elementary school classroom in Alaska, 2007. (Liz / Wikimedia)

Finally, Schneider and Berkshire highlight the widespread abuse of virtual schools, which in many states have almost no public oversight, large class sizes, and, in many cases, unqualified “mentors” instead of teachers. Over the past year, many parents like me have seen how stressful it is for their kids to be in front of a screen, even with great teachers on the other side. The virtual schools documented in A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door are a travesty of the highest order for any society that even pretends to care about giving every child an education.

The End of Schools and the End of the Common Good

It is in the last third of the book, however, that the authors have done us a great service in thinking through where our education system is headed if the privatizers keep winning. Schneider and Berkshire imagine an endgame that is the stuff of a Black Mirror episode: an education system that truly no longer has any public obligation, in which every school is a business, every parent a consumer, and every teacher a fungible worker motivated by getting high customer satisfaction ratings.

In this world, every parent would be forced to determine what is best for their own child, navigating dozens of options and having to think about how each decision would impact their child’s future. Parents would shop for education services as you would any consumer commodity, including whatever brick-and-mortar schools remained in addition to scores of virtual options.

Schools could teach whatever they wanted, and parents could shop for schools or even classes á la carte, which taught them only what they believed would give their kids job skills or that fit with their own worldview. Each school could teach their own version of science and their own history, and could exclude LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, or any other groups they wanted.

These schools could hire any teachers they wanted, whether they were certified or not or graduated college or not. Since ever more schools will be driven by the pursuit of profits in this world, administrators would be highly motivated to prevent unions from forming — or even from hiring teachers at all, breaking that work into discrete transactional tasks or even simply having students work by algorithm. (The schools, as the authors remind us, will argue that this is “personalizing” instruction.)

It’s tough to fathom a sci-fi dystopia more horrifying, because doing this to our schools will actually mean the end of a coherent society.

The nineteenth-century promise of common schools was accompanied by all manner of problems: among others, that promise abetted market capitalism and excluded African Americans and other minorities for much of American history. But at the end of the day, our education system has promised Americans something in common: citizenship in a nation that could improve ordinary people’s lives.

Doing away with our schools in this way means the end of any coherent polity, and as a consequence, the possibility of a social movement to reinvigorate social democracy in the United States. And at the end of the day, that’s what right-wingers like Betsy DeVos want: a series of corporate fiefdoms in which neither democracy nor economic security for most people is possible.

If it’s not already clear, teacher unions are vital in arresting this trajectory. But what we organize for is just as important as what we oppose. For decades now, too many Americans (and this includes many in teacher unions) have accepted the premise that schools are there mainly to help students develop individual human capital that will allow them to succeed in the labor market. Too many Americans believe that investing in education is the primary, or even the only, way to overcome economic and racial inequality.

If education is nothing but the “capital” that helps one get a job, then the argument to make it a private commodity is far too convincing. If we want to save our schools, then we have to stop looking at them as factories for human capital and instead as serving to educate our kids to be citizens in a democracy with expectations for better lives. When we talk about the purpose of education, we have to see it as only one part of a broader series of social-democratic rights that includes the right to a secure job, good housing, and quality health care — no matter what kind of education credential you have.