Book Reviews

Are Public Schools Finished?

Has the right’s vision of “education freedom” really triumphed? And at what cost to students?

By Jennifer C. Berkshire

Tagged EducationInequalitySchools

The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America by Cara Fitzpatrick • Basic Books • 2023 • 384 pages • $32

“They have hijacked the program.” This is how Annette “Polly” Williams described the dramatic expansion of Milwaukee’s private school voucher program in 2013 under then-Governor Scott Walker. Williams, a Black Democratic state legislator from Milwaukee, had championed Wisconsin’s original voucher program—an experiment in which the state paid the private school tuition for 1,000 low-income children in Milwaukee. But in the decades after she teamed up with Republicans to launch the program in 1990, Williams watched in dismay as vouchers ballooned, expanding to include ever wealthier families. Whereas she’d made the case for private school choice as a civil rights cause, Walker and his supporters used the rhetoric of the free market to push for what they called “education freedom” for all.

Today, Williams’s warnings that Republicans sought to give vouchers to the wealthy seem understated. Over the past two years, one red state after another has enacted so-called “universal school choice,” rushing to pay the private school tuition of even their wealthiest residents and redefining all of public education in the process. Meanwhile, the civil rights rhetoric that accompanied the initial push for voucher expansion is all but gone as conservative advocates lean into the school culture wars and the language of parental rights to make their case.

“What once would have seemed unimaginable—the government paying for the educational preference of each student instead of a system of public schools for all—now feels not that far off,” writes Cara Fitzpatrick in her new book, The Death of Public School. Fitzpatrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning education journalist, chronicles the conservative crusade to break up the public school “monopoly,” a one-time fringe cause that has now moved to the policy mainstream. Informative and infuriating, the book charts the strange political alliances and ever-shifting sales pitches behind the movement to redefine schooling in the United States from a public good, paid for by taxpayers and governed through democratic oversight, to a private one, determined solely by the priorities of parents. Today, the demand to “fund students, not systems”—a policy idea akin to “fund drivers, not highways”—is being enacted into law in one state after another. Fitzpatrick has provided an essential guide to understanding how we got here.

We owe the concept of school vouchers to libertarian economist Milton Friedman. In a 1955 essay and manifesto, Friedman argued that it was time for the “denationalization” of schools. The government should get out of the business of running schools, he wrote, and instead give parents vouchers that they could use at the public or private school of their choosing. But Southern conservatives had already seized upon a similar idea as a way of resisting court-ordered integration. In the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, voucher-like programs that paid for white students to attend private schools not subject to the same federal oversight as public schools exploded in popularity. As historian Steve Suitts has documented, by 1965, legislators across the South had passed as many as 450 laws and regulations aimed at blocking, discrediting, or evading school desegregation, many through school vouchers or tax credits. As for Friedman, he addressed the issue of segregation directly in a lengthy footnote to his essay, in which he stated his opposition to both “forced segregation” and “forced nonsegregation.” The solution, he argued, was a private system in which “exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools” could develop according to the preferences of parents.

The cause of school choice has long been a right-wing priority, attracting the support and the funds of a familiar cast of deep-pocketed conservatives—the Bradleys, the DeVoses, the Kochs. But the idea of giving money directly to families to pay for schooling also appealed to a surprisingly diverse political coalition. As Fitzgerald traces the history of school vouchers from the libertarian and far-right fringe to the mainstream, she brings to life a lesser-known cast of characters who rallied around versions of school choice. In Wisconsin, for instance, a Jesuit priest named Virgil Blum was urging the government to subsidize the cost of religious education. Blum was ahead of his time. His argument for religious school vouchers, based on the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, was the same one the Supreme Court would embrace three decades later. But he died in 1990, just months before the Milwaukee voucher program was enacted, lamenting that his crusade for state-funded religious schools had gone nowhere.

Meanwhile, support for vouchers was also growing on the left. In 1966, a young sociologist named Christopher Jencks penned a series of influential essays urging fellow liberals to back the idea of tuition grants to pay for poor children to attend private schools. Public education was failing what he called “slum children,” and it shouldn’t be expected to solve the problems of “racism or poverty, illness or crime,” wrote Jencks. Sounding Friedman-esque, he took aim at urban school districts in particular: “Were it not for their monopoly on educational opportunities for the poor, most big city school systems would probably go out of business.”

Two years later, psychologist Kenneth Clark, whose influential testimony on the damaging impact of school segregation had helped shape the Brown v. Board decision, made a similar argument in the pages of the Harvard Educational Review. Frustrated by the lack of meaningful school desegregation, he argued that public schools had become “captives of a middle class who have failed to use them to aid others to move into the middle class.” Like Jencks, Clark saw competition as a force for good, particularly in urban districts that were plagued by “dank stagnation.”

Yet the push for vouchers as a means of realizing the unmet goals of the civil rights movement was barely underway before it ran into the sweeping aims of Friedman’s more expansive vision of vouchers for all. Barely a quarter of the way into Fitzpatrick’s account, prominent voucher supporters, including Jencks, have grown increasingly wary of Friedman’s concept of “Selling Schooling Like Groceries,” as a lengthy article the economist penned for The New York Times Magazine in 1973 was titled. Meanwhile, school choice proponents on the right were growing ever more skilled at embracing the language of civil rights en route to realizing market-driven vouchers. Clint Bolick, a co-founder of the influential Institute for Justice—which would go on to litigate key voucher cases, including the recent Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue—epitomized this dance. The think tank, started in 1991 with seed money from the Koch family, began with the aim of opposing government regulation in the name of economic freedom. But when Bolick and his team aimed to swing the Supreme Court on vouchers just a few years later, they would target Sandra Day O’Connor with a message heavy on racial uplift—a surprising choice for an ex-Reagan Administration lawyer who’d made a career out of opposing affirmative action. “[H]e was shameless about promoting whatever angle helped his case,” Fitzpatrick writes.

That tension, between the sincere goals of advocates for low-income minority children on the one hand and the opportunism of free market ideologues on the other, provides the animating core of Fitzpatrick’s book. “One reform creates the possibility for the next one” is how Jeb Bush, a vocal proponent of the universal vouchers now being adopted in states like the one he formerly governed, put it. His brief description, as Fitzpatrick observes, neatly sums up a decades-long strategy of embracing targeted programs clad in the rhetoric of civil rights while continually pushing the boundaries of state and federal law toward the ultimate goal of vouchers-for-all.

Polly Williams, whose advocacy for Milwaukee’s voucher program kicks off the story, is mired in bitterness by its midpoint. In her words: “They got the door open, and that’s all they needed.”

The subtitle of Fitzpatrick’s book is “How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America.” But her aversion to politics is the book’s great weakness. Take the question of Friedman’s connection to Southern segregationists. Fitzgerald seems to regard the overlap between Friedman’s 1955 essay and the earlier embrace of school choice by Southern segregationists as a case of unfortunate timing. She parrots Friedman’s own claim that he was largely oblivious to the existence of vouchers in the South because he’d been out of the country, spending the academic year of 1953-54 at the University of Cambridge and traveling through Europe with his family on school breaks. But this issue was exhaustively litigated by historian Nancy MacLean in Democracy in Chains and a follow-up article, “How Milton Friedman Exploited White Supremacy to Privatize Education,” both of which chronicled the extensive collaboration between the economist and the architects of school privatization in the South. MacLean convincingly documented that Friedman and other libertarians viewed “massive resistance”—the efforts, particularly in Virginia, to block the desegregation of public schools—as a way to advance their agenda. The language of the free market, meanwhile, provided Southern policy elites with a rhetorical replacement for blatant racism. Yet MacLean’s research appears nowhere in Fitzpatrick’s account.

Steering clear of ideology is a tall task in a book that charts the history of what is at its heart an ideological battle. But ideology is not the writer’s natural terrain. Fitzpatrick, who won a Pulitzer for an investigative series on how schools in Pinellas County, Florida, were failing Black children, is a star representative of a certain kind of education journalism focused on what “works.” “If someone picks up the book who knows nothing about school choice, that is the obvious question,” Fitzpatrick said in a recent interview. “Does it work? And, if so, how does it work?” Despite her best efforts to arrive at an answer, the voucher results she cites are inconclusive: Here is a study showing higher graduation rates; here is one showing high rates of parent satisfaction; here are others showing declines in student achievement. (This mixed view is still more optimistic than that provided by voucher-scholar-turned-critic Joshua Cowen, a professor at Michigan State, who describes the post-2013 track record of vouchers as “dismal.”)

And yet as we’re told in the book’s opening pages, what the research says no longer really matters because the debate over education is now centered on values. So what does this mean for education journalists? Of the universal programs that have now been enacted in nine states, including Arizona, Florida, and, most recently, North Carolina, most require no tracking of student achievement at all. Public dollars now go directly to parents, and it’s up to them to determine whether the school, the online curriculum they use for homeschooling, or the products purchased on Amazon in the name of education are working effectively. If “education freedom” means the death of public school, it also likely means the death of a certain kind of education journalism, one steeped in data and accountability.

Charter schools, which emerged as a “politically palatable alternative” to vouchers in the 1990s, are the success story of Fitzpatrick’s narrative. She recounts the emergence of a “new type of public school” that found support among a broad coalition that included neoliberal Democrats, Republican businessmen, civil rights groups, and even the powerful head of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker—replacing vouchers as the school choice reform of choice. “Media coverage often was favorable too,” she concedes. By The Death of Public School’s denouement, charters are consuming entire school districts, their explosive growth propelled in part by the sort of test score comparisons that have come to define education journalism.

Fitzgerald’s account ends before the latest development in the school choice wars: an effort by voucher advocates to redefine charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, as “nonstate actors.” A case involving a North Carolina charter school that required female students to wear skirts because they are “fragile vessels” nearly made it to the Supreme Court this year. Plaintiffs maintained that charters are essentially private schools and hence not covered by the civil rights protections of the Fourteenth Amendment; attorneys general from ten states filed an amicus brief supporting their arguments. While the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, it is only a matter of time before red state legislatures begin enacting its central premise into state policy.

The push to declare that charters are private is the most recent twist on a far older goal. Just as school choice originally emerged in the South as a means of sidestepping constitutional guarantees of equal treatment and equal opportunity, today’s version—which includes both the expansive voucher programs being enacted in state after state and the effort to redefine charter schools as private—seeks to “liberate” students from the entire federal civil rights architecture. This includes the Fourteenth Amendment, whose anti-discrimination tenets don’t apply to private entities; Title IX and its expansion of gender rights; and protections for children with special needs. Shift kids out of what choice advocates refer to derogatorily as “government schools” and their civil rights evaporate, too.

Fitzpatrick ultimately declares Friedman the winner in the battle to redefine public education in America. But Friedman wasn’t just an advocate for a free-market vision of education. A decade after he penned his landmark essay calling for school vouchers, he would emerge as a passionate voice against the Civil Rights Act. The bill was misguided, he argued, because it attempted to force the minority to “conform to the values of the majority.” What Friedman really objected to was the use of state power to further equality, precisely the cause that animates today’s crusaders against “woke.” When Christopher Rufo et al. target school district equity plans or propose banning the collection of race-based data as the next front of their war on woke, it’s Friedman they’re channeling.

Of course, using state power in the interest of furthering equality is the defining purpose of public education in this country. It’s why we fund public schools with our tax dollars, expect them to deliver similar outcomes for students of dizzyingly different backgrounds, and are collectively crushed when they fail to deliver. The Friedman vision, by defining education as an individual good, purchased for private consumption like groceries, exempts us from even the aspiration toward equality.

Not long before he died, Friedman delivered remarks on school vouchers at an event marking the fiftieth anniversary of his essay. He wished that he’d proposed a smaller amount of government funding, he told the audience. After all, Friedman always envisioned school vouchers as a temporary measure, with the burden of paying for education ultimately falling upon parents themselves. Such a shift would usher in an almost unimaginable level of inequality. Fitzpatrick concludes that, seven decades later, the “education revolution” Friedman envisioned has triumphed. We will all be the losers if she’s right.

Read more about EducationInequalitySchools

Jennifer C. Berkshire hosts the education podcast “Have You Heard.” Her new book, The Education Wars: A Citizen’s Guide and Defense Manual, is co-authored with Jack Schneider and will be out in 2024.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus