We Can’t Win the School Culture Wars

Flash-in-the-pan school controversies distract us from the Right’s long-standing aim: destroying public education itself. To preserve this audacious experiment in democracy, we must bridge cultural and ideological divisions to find common ground.

Students work at Nevitt Elementary School, in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 26, 2022. (Olivier Touron / AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a charter school in my Massachusetts town that markets itself as a place where students are immersed in art, music, and hands-on learning. These things appeal to me, and I’ve been tempted to consider applying to it for my almost kindergarten-aged daughter. On the website, it’s clear that the school is pitching itself to a certain brand of crunchy, organic parent; since I’m one of them, I get it.

Our local public school district, on the other hand, is definitionally incapable of pitching itself to a particular sort of family. It’s for everybody, and at times that can feel bland or even messy. It’s harder for me to name the special advantages my daughter will gain from attending the public schools, because those advantages won’t accrue just to her, or to others in our specific sociocultural camp. Rather, we all get to rest assured that the members of our community have access to a baseline of academic and social training, including the experience of working together with heterogeneous others. Our public schools bring the disparate members of my town together for activities both recreational and political. On election day, I cast my ballot in the high school gym, helping to vote in a school committee of my neighbors.

These collective purposes of public schooling are a primary focus of the new book from the authors of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. In The Education Wars: A Citizen’s Guide and Defense Manual, education journalist Jennifer C. Berkshire and education historian Jack Schneider lay out, in compact and accessible terms, the deadly threats posed to our nation’s public schools by deep-pocketed networks of right-wing privatizers. They also highlight how communities across the United States are fighting back against these assaults on public schooling and the public good. With targeted historical context, they build a compelling case that if we are to preserve and strengthen the audacious experiment in democracy that is our public schools, we must bridge cultural and ideological divisions to find common ground.

Schooling for the Public Good

Among the largest expenditures in state and local budgets, public schools represent our shared investment in the future. By financing this project with our tax dollars, we ensure that, in Berkshire and Schneider’s words, “at least to some extent, our futures are bound together.”

It makes sense, then, that education is frequently the terrain where we hash out questions of social progress, such as the expansion of civil rights — and that this leads us, every few generations, into school-centered conflicts that are really about much more than, say, curriculum or athletics policies. Although we’ve never actually realized the civil rights dream of K–12 equity, these authors point out that our society is much fairer today than it would be without our public schools.

Far from a grassroots outpouring of once-latent parental concerns, the flare-ups we’ve seen in recent years regarding COVID-19 mitigation, the teaching of US history, and LGBTQ rights represent a tiny number of people causing an outsized fuss designed to distract us from a long-standing right-wing aim: to dismantle public schooling. Berkshire and Schneider describe a convenient alliance between those laser-focused on Christianizing the shared institution of public K–12 and those whose primary goal is “to change the way we understand ourselves as a public, such that the very idea of a shared institution becomes impossible.”

The breathtakingly well-funded free-market ideologues determined to annihilate public education (and all public goods) include actors genuinely hostile to the concept of equality, and to all of the collective enterprises that enable us to see ourselves as a political “we.” Right-wing attacks on kids and educators aren’t popular with most Americans. Their success, however, has been their ability to sow division and mistrust in an institution whose popularity is increasingly becoming polarized along party lines.

While school culture wars are nothing new, Berkshire and Schneider argue that for this iteration of them, the stakes are existentially high:

The more that publicly funded schools demand that gay students leave, or teach girls that they are lesser than boys, or tell nonbelievers they are going to hell, the more the very idea of public education is eroded. “I don’t want my tax dollars going to pay for that!” is an understandable response to each outrageous revelation.

The advanced stages of school privatization we’re now seeing constitute a potentially fatal threat to the secular and financial basis of public education. The prospect of state-sanctioned public school prayer, mandatory Ten Commandments posters in classrooms, and openly Christian charter schools undermines the universal accessibility and freedom from discrimination that education civil rights advocates have fought for over generations. At the same time, GOP-dominated state legislatures are using voucher plans to direct vast, unaccountable sums of taxpayer money toward homeschooling and primarily religious private schools that pick and choose which students they care to enroll. In concert with the generous tax cuts those same state legislatures have been passing, these school privatization schemes promise to rapidly drain the pool of funding available to the public schools whose doors are open to everyone.

When we empower certain parents (whether they’re asking for it or not) to opt out of public K–12 and pursue their preferred ideological flavor of private education on the public dime, we fracture the notion of publicness. This is embodied by the right-wing call to “fund students, not systems.” It sounds logical enough (why, after all, would we want to fund faceless bureaucracies?), but there’s a problem that Berkshire and Schneider argue is by design.

The premise that we should all pay taxes for public schools regardless of whether we have children in them presumes that education is viewed as a universally beneficial public good. And indeed, our faith in the collective value of public schooling has survived decades of bipartisan insistence that education’s exclusive object should be to confer competitive advantages (human capital) onto individual future workers. We intuitively recognize our common interest in maintaining a floor of educational adequacy, because, as Berkshire and Schneider note, “the stakes for society are simply too high to leave the matter . . . to chance.”

Taxing ourselves to fund public schooling is “what we do to ensure that we live in an educated, humane, and cohesive society — one that is able to reason collaboratively, even across disagreement, and decide collectively.” But if voucher plans and education savings accounts succeed in “unbundling” K–12 into a choose your own adventure that only benefits a slim minority of American families, we’ll lose the collective will to keep paying for it at all.

Along the way, Berkshire and Schneider argue, we will have traded in the guarantee of rights for the profound insecurity of market-based “options.”

Winning the Peace

Unlike many depressing but important political books, The Education Wars goes beyond contextualizing the problems we face. Appealing to readers with varying levels of political savvy, its authors present rhetorical tools we can use to fight back, elevating the public value of universal education. And rather than resting in the realm of abstraction, Berkshire and Schneider illustrate these techniques with moving, geographically diverse examples — many of which will be familiar to listeners of their popular podcast, Have You Heard.

Drawing on political research, the book shows how authoritarian messaging à la Moms for Liberty loses out to expansive language that frames public schooling in terms of our common values, hopes, and dreams. While it is necessary to address cruel and divisive rhetoric head on, calling out the dark money donors fueling school privatization, Berkshire and Schneider suggest that public school advocates won’t win by rattling off facts and figures. Instead, by telling a “Big Us, Small Them” story about the war on schools, we can build a broad-based defensive coalition that welcomes everyone from urban liberals to rural conservatives.

This last piece is critical. As personally offensive as we may find the vitriolic right-wing messaging around schools, Berkshire and Schneider are clear that we should not be aiming to vanquish conservatives. In fact, we shouldn’t be aiming to “win” the culture wars at all. Just as a conservative Christian rebranding of education will alienate those of us on the political left to middle, if public schooling comes to be seen as a leftwing cause, strictly the domain of Democrats and teachers’ unions, that will alienate school stakeholders on the Right. And because public education is enabled by all of our tax dollars, the whole thing could fall apart if it becomes categorized as a “blue” issue.

In other words, we need to figure out how to talk to one another across our differences. Fortunately, because public schools — which are still largely governed by nonpartisan school boards — form the lifeblood of communities across the political spectrum, we’re in a good position to begin having those conversations.

Awakening the Will to Do More Than Endure

In March, I attended a packed public hearing on my town’s proposed budget for the coming school year. One after another, community members faced the mayor and school committee and insisted on improving current funding levels. One middle school mom decried the absence of science labs, while a kindergarten parent used tear-inducing anecdotes to show how understaffing has driven increasingly punitive, exclusionary discipline practices. The picture looked very grim.

Still, there was something heartening about seeing so many caregivers, grandparents, and educators coming together to demand that our town dip into its discretionary funds to make up for the loss of federal pandemic aid. In a more affluent neighboring town, the mayor’s refusal to do so has sparked furious organizing and protests, including high school students occupying her office. Everywhere I go, I meet strangers eager to discuss “level services budgets” and the need for our state to upgrade its commitment to K–12. It’s exhilarating to see so many ordinary people engaged in decision-making about their local public schools — which, after all, are arguably the sites where we can most directly participate in democracy.

At one organizing meeting I attended, a former educator proffered a truly bold suggestion: Instead of beginning these discussions with talk of financial constraints and looking for tweaks to reconcile school operations with a shrinking budget, what if we began by asking ourselves what it looks like when schools and students have what they need to thrive — and then figuring out how we pay for that?

This grim yet exhilarating space is exquisitely captured in The Education Wars, which ultimately argues that although “prospects may seem dire, it is also the case that in defending the ideal of public education, we might awaken the collective will to do more than endure.”