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Is School Choice Destroying Public Education?

by Staff

THE DEATH OF PUBLIC SCHOOL: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America, by Cara Fitzpatrick

Cara Fitzpatrick’s first book,“The Death of Public School,” opens with a superb survey of the political, cultural, legal and natural forces undermining public trust in our nation’s schools. The terrible disruption of the pandemic. The Republican-fueled culture wars over gender and race in the curriculum. The decades-long conservative campaign to legalize private school vouchers, capped by last year’s Supreme Court ruling that parents must be allowed to spend those vouchers at religious as well as secular schools.

More than a dozen states created or expanded voucher programs in the wake of the pandemic, and more than half of all the states now offer publicly funded options to help parents pay for private educations. This means less money for traditional public schools and the 90 percent of American students who attend them. “Support for traditional public education has become another partisan divide in our already divided country,” writes Fitzpatrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning education reporter and editor.

For all that, declaring the death of public schools at this point is, with apologies to Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. In late 2022 — with culture wars raging — 80 percent of U.S. parents surveyed in a Gallup poll said they were somewhat or completely satisfied with their children’s education. This was a small increase from before the pandemic. It’s American adults in general, only a fraction of whom have school-age children, whose confidence has plunged to a 20-year low (just 42 percent said they were satisfied).

Nonetheless, Fitzpatrick makes the case that the conservative crusade to break the government’s education “monopoly,” as the libertarian economist Milton Friedman termed it, has gathered remarkable strength after maneuvering for 70 years mostly in the political backwoods. “The Death of Public School” is a history of how that happened. The narrative can be plodding, with long detours into state-by-state and city-by-city political and court battles. And, curiously, it ends before the arrival of the Covid pandemic and the convulsions of school closings, book banning and school culture wars — all of which have become accelerants for the “freedom of choice” idea in education.

Still, the book is a timely history of a movement that could reshape American education and set off explosive policy debates for many years. One example: What becomes of equity, accountability and the protection of constitutional rights inside private and religious schools where the government pays the tuition but isn’t in charge?

As Fitzpatrick demonstrates, such questions came up early and often throughout the movement’s history. In a 1955 manifesto, Friedman called for the government to get out of the business of running schools and instead give parents vouchers to spend at any public or private school that met “minimum standards.” Amid the South’s Massive Resistance to integration after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, some governors and local officials closed public schools and created tuition grants for white children to attend race-restricted private schools, often called “segregation academies.” Many Black students had nowhere to go during the closures and suffered the greatest learning loss, a striking parallel with the Covid era. Ultimately, the tuition grants were deemed unconstitutional — “directly in the teeth of the language of the Supreme Court,” as one federal judge wrote.

While “freedom of choice” functioned as a subterfuge for segregationists, it also made sense to some civil rights advocates, given the gross inequities between impoverished urban schools and rich suburban ones. Why couldn’t poor and minority parents have the same privilege as wealthy white ones and move their children to better schools, public or private? “Were it not for their monopoly on educational opportunities for the poor, most big city school systems would probably go out of business,” the liberal sociologist Christopher Jencks wrote in the 1960s, borrowing Friedman’s language.

This was the position of Polly Williams, a Black Democratic state legislator from Milwaukee, who crossed party and ideological lines to partner with the Republican governor Tommy Thompson and created the nation’s first modern voucher program in 1990. At the time, it was tightly circumscribed as a five-year experiment to pay private school tuition for only 1,000 low-income children, 1 percent of the Milwaukee district. Voucher campaigns in other states adopted Williams’s and Thompson’s template, pitching freedom of choice as a social justice program for children in struggling urban schools.

The learning crisis in these schools fueled the rise of charter schools at almost the same time. Fitzpatrick charts their meteoric growth and their support among many Democrats as publicly funded options that are privately operated outside the government bureaucracy. She also traces the evolving definition of public education, from traditional district schooling to — among many Republicans — any education paid for by taxpayers, including religious, private and charter schools as well as home-schooling.

In the process, voucher champions have moved away from their early focus on the education of America’s highest-poverty children. Now, their target is traditional public education in general. “To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust,” Christopher Rufo, a conservative strategist, said in a speech last year. This year, six Republican-controlled states passed universal or near-universal voucher laws, supporting even affluent parents already paying for private schools.

In Milwaukee, where Williams helped write the voucher law that provided benefits to 1 percent of the city’s schoolchildren, almost a quarter of students now receive them. Williams, who died in 2014, is hailed in school-choice circles as the “mother of our movement,” although it is unclear that she would want the moniker.

In later years, Williams was troubled by how much the state’s voucher program had expanded beyond its initial focus on equity. “It was never supposed to get this big,” she said in 2011.

Dale Russakoff is a journalist and the author of “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”

THE DEATH OF PUBLIC SCHOOL: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America | By Cara Fitzpatrick | 375 pp. | Basic Books | $32

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