Democracy and Education

20 Dec

By Thomas Ultican 12/19/2020

Democracy and free universal public education are foundational American ideologies. They have engendered world renowned success for our experiment in government “by the people”. Two new books – Schoolhouse Burning by Derek Black and A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire – demonstrate that these principles which were integral to the American experiment are shockingly under serious attack by wealthy elites.

After his father Fred died in 1967, Charles Koch took a disparate set of assets – a cattle ranch, a minority share in an oil refinery and a gas gathering business – and stitched them together. Today it is the second largest privately held corporation in the world. In the excellent 2019 book, Kochland, Christopher Leonard states, “Koch would eventually build one of the largest lobbying and political influence machines in US history.”

Both the introduction to A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door and the “Through History’s Eyes” chapter of Schoolhouse Burning mention the same quote from Charles Koch. In 2018, the Koch network held its annual three day gathering near Palm Springs, California. It was a 700-person confab of some of the richest people in America. Black wrote,

“Charles Koch told the audience that ‘we’ve made more progress in the last five years than I had in the last 50…. The capabilities we have now can take us to a whole new level…. We want to increase the effectiveness of the network … by an order of magnitude. If we do that, we can change the trajectory of the country.’ One of the donors at the summit explained that education is ‘the lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today … I think this is the area that is most glaringly obvious.’

“Let that sink in for a moment; change the trajectory of the country and do it through education. In other words, the agenda is not to improve education. The agenda is to change America.”

In Kochland, Leonard gave some context to the effects of the progress for the 160,000 households in the wealthiest 0.1% that Charles Koch was addressing,

“In 1963, the top 0.1 percent of households possessed 10 percent of all American wealth. By 2012, they possessed 22 percent. This gain came as the vast majority of Americans’ lost ground. The bottom 90 percent of Americans possessed about 35 percent of the nation’s wealth in the mid-1980s. By about 2015, their share had fallen to 23 percent.”

Clearly, the great transfer of wealth in America has been from the working class to billionaires and privatizing public education is seen as key to continuing and accelerating that trend.

Schoolhouse Burning Documents the Legal Evolution of Public Education

In the introduction Derek Black states,

“From it first days, the nation’s theory of government depended on educated citizens. The founders feared that democracy without education would devolve into mob rule, open doors to unscrupulous politicians, and encourage hucksters to take advantage of citizens even as they stood in line to vote.”

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 is the oldest working constitution in the world and had great influence in the writing of the US Constitution. It divided the powers of government into three branches – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Its education clause states that, “wisdom and knowledge … diffused generally among the body of the people [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties…. [Thus,] it shall be the duty of the legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of the commonwealth, to cherish the … public schools.”

Before the US Constitution was adopted, public education was written into the national legal framework. Black notes that every bound volume of the current United States Legal Code begins with a section called Front Matter which includes the four “organic laws” in chronological order. It is made up of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, the 1777 Articles of Confederation, the 1787 Northwest Ordinance and the 1789 US Constitution.

Black outlined how the Northwest Ordinance fits,

“…, the Northwest Ordinance’s substance is a constitutional charter of sorts. Practically speaking, it established the foundational structure for the nation to grow and organize itself for the next two centuries. Precise rules for dividing up land, developing the nation’s vast territories, and detailing the path that these territories would follow to become states are not the work of everyday legislation. They are the work of a national charter. Those rules and their effects remain in place to this day.

“From this perspective, the Northwest Ordinance’s education agenda cannot be separated from our constitutional structure and vision. And it was under this constitutional structure and vision that George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took office and served as presidents of the United States. To no surprise, all would assert education’s utmost importance and call for its expansion.”

In the north, the ideals of public education were fully embraced and the only debate was over the details. It was different in the antebellum south where poorer whites paid almost no taxes and the wealthiest southerners paid two-thirds of all taxes. Johann Neem explains in Democracy’s Schools, “Because of their political power and the way the tax burden fell largely upon them, slaveholding elites spread an antitax gospel to convince ordinary whites that taxes were a bad thing”

During the period of reconstruction following the civil war, the US congress made provisions for freed slave education and political rights to be enforced by federal troops.  The thirteenth amendment to the constitution which passed December 6, 1865 abolished slavery. In 1866, the fourteenth amendment which prohibited discrimination in various aspects of life and extended citizenship to African Americans was adopted.

Requirements for states being readmitted to the union included ratification of the 14th amendment and adopting a constitution that conforms to the “Constitution of the United States in all respects.”  This last provision was a demand to establish a republican form of government which in turn meant enshrining public education in their state constitution. Because of growing signs of recalcitrance, Congress imposed an education commitment as an explicit condition for the last three states to reenter the Union – Virginia, Texas and Mississippi.

The compromise of 1877 undermined legal protections for black people in the south and financial support for public education. A closely divided corrupt election pitted a Republican abolitionist from Ohio, Rutherford Hayes, against the Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York. Tilden gained the most votes but 20 electors were disputed. A committee of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats decided Hayes would become President provided he agree that

  • Troops will be recalled from the statehouse property in the three states. [South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana]
  • “Funds will be provided to build the Texas and Pacific Railroad.
  • “A southerner will be appointed as Postmaster General.
  • “Funds will be appropriated to rebuild the economy in the South.
  • “The solution to the race problem will be left to the state governments.”

All decisions were made on party line votes of 8 Republicans for and 7 Democrats opposed.

Throughout the south, segregated schools were soon mandated, spending on educating the newly minted citizens was reduced to lower taxes and voting rights were restricted. Black writes,

“Planters saw the value of competent workers but no value in ‘inflat[ing] the economic and political expectations of workers.’ The only thing education would accomplish would be to ‘spoil good field hands.’ Even worse, education would lead blacks to push for even more social and political equality.”

Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers from the NAACP won many court victories including the famous Brown vs. the Board of Education case that declared education “must be made available to all on equal terms.” Black says the one phrase the court omitted in its 1954 opinion was a clear declaration that education is a fundamental right.

After that case, the Supreme Court expanded desegregation efforts. In the early 1970s a backlash came with the election of Richard Nixon. Nixon campaigned against the Supreme Court and especially against forced desegregation. Between 1969 and 1974, he appointed four justices – Burger, Rehnquist, Powell and Blackmun. Rehnquist held the view that Plessy v. Ferguson which Brown overturned had been correctly settled. Even more troubling, Justice Powell while on the Richmond, Virginia school board and later the Virginia state school board supported school segregation and the massive resistance movement against Brown.

In the 1974 case of Millikan v. Bradley, the court dealt a death blow to desegregation efforts. Black shared,

“By a vote of 5-4, the Court insisted that plaintiffs needed to show intentional school segregation, not just in Detroit’s city schools, but in its suburban districts, too. Absent that, lower courts could not order metropolitan-wide school desegregation.”

By the 1990s, no new Federal Court orders to end school segregation were in the works and those underway were being ended. Since then schools have been re-segregating.

“Are You Trying to Scare People?”

A senior scholar asked this question after reviewing an early draft of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. The authors’ response was, “In a word, yes.”

Schneider and Berkshire declare that ideas which for multiple decades have been considered fringe thinking are now central. The radical right and especially leaders in the religious right like Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, denounce the whole concept of public education.

So, what do these ever more potent deep pocketed funders and conservative politicians want? The authors lay out the four main principles of the radical right.

“1. Education is a personal good, not a collective one.”

“2. Schools belong in the domain of the free market, not the government.”

“3. To the extent that they are able, ‘consumers’ of education should pay for it themselves.”

“4. Unions and other forms of collective power are economically inefficient and politically problematic.”

The conservative enemies of public education today sound like Fred Koch and his John Birch Society did in the 50s and 60s. From A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,

‘“Elementary and secondary education in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise,’ declared Joseph Bast, CEO of the libertarian Heartland Institute, in a 2002 blog post. Bast was explaining his distaste for public education while making the case for so-called universal private school vouchers, which conservatives view as a way station en route to whole-sale privatization.”

The socialist charge has also been directed at teachers. Writing about the 2018 teacher uprisings Schneider and Berkshire explain,

“They demanded that the wealthy pay higher taxes to fund public education, employing a hashtag slogan – #RedforEd.… While the slogan, and the cause it represented, attracted widespread public support, conservative critics saw #RedforEd as something more nefarious. Leaders of Arizona’s teacher protest movement, warned one Republican state representative were using ‘teachers and our children to carry out their socialist movement.’”

The push to privatize public education had foundered until charter schools appeared and a newly formed Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was created to push the Democratic Party more to the center. A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door reports, “When the DLC unveiled its official agenda at a 1991 gathering in Cleveland, its head, a rising young Southern governor named Bill Clinton, gave school choice a full-throated endorsement.”

Not only has the push to privatize public education been a bipartisan effort of political elites from both major political parties but even more strangely they have also joined together in attacking labor. From the book:

“The irony is that weakening the influence of organized labor – teachers’ unions in particular – has been largely a bipartisan cause. Bill Clinton made his attack on Arkansas teachers a centerpiece of his 1983 gubernatorial campaign, burnishing his image as a new breed of Democrat who wasn’t afraid to take on the party’s own ‘special interests.’ And during Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House, tough talk against teachers’ unions as protectors of the status quo emerged as party orthodoxy. ‘It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones,’ Obama proclaimed in a 2009 speech in which he praised the idea of merit pay for teachers, long a favorite policy tool of Republicans.”

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Schneider and Berkshire explain the pursuit of profits in education and the push to implement virtual learning. They ruminate on the history of government regulation (child labor – meat industry – healthcare products and practices) and the push to end regulation. Here like in school privatization there is a religious like belief in markets to be self-regulating and superior to any “big government” organization.

They delve into the marketing that comes along with market driven privatized education. Especially interesting is the potential for micro-targeting student families using companies like Facebook. It enables schools to target only certain demographics.

They also address teachers being pushed into the gig-economy and its ramifications.

The push for “personalized learning” at computers employing AI algorithms to guide students through lessons instead of teachers has the twin goals of reducing teacher costs and creating an edtech market. With cyber-schools, costs are reduced in two ways, facilities requirements are significantly cheaper and with their large class sizes teacher costs are reduced. Even more promising for cost reduction at cyber-schools is the prospect that all classes can be conducted by hourly paid gig workers. Schneider and Berkshire note:

“Of course, the replacement of flesh-and-blood teachers by personalized learning programs will not be universal. Students from privileged families will continue to be educated much as they always have been, with students and teachers coming together as communities of learners.”

Concluding Remark

There is a lot to these books. They highlight the multiple dangerous paths our nation is on which is indeed scary. Together Schoolhouse Burning and A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door paint – a maybe not probable – but a very possible grim picture for the future of public education in America. Even grimmer is that this attack on universal free public school is also an attack of America’s 250-year experiment with government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” It is a credible attack on democracy.

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