Savvy readers likely understand the shape of the current political battle waged against public schools in the context of 1983’s “A Nation At Risk”, which launched a generation of school reform rooted in the language of accountability, standards, and school performance. Younger educators can probably even recount the impact of 2001’s No Child Left Behind on their own experiences of school centered around standardized testing in our national push to achieve 100% “proficient” schools by the year 2014.
Journalist Jennifer Berkshire and education historian Jack Schneider - co-hosts of the wonderful Have You Heard? Podcast - have teamed up again to bring readers a well-researched and, frankly, harrowing illumination of the latest iteration of school reform in A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School. This newest version of school reform is the most reactionary by far, rejecting the bipartisan coalition-building and compromise that birthed the first charter schools and NCLB (which passed 91-8 in the Senate) and instead unapologetically embracing right-wing identity politics, pernicious nostalgia, and the negative partisanship so characteristic of our post-2016 political climate. As Donald Trump Jr.’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention captured in equal parts:
“Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle-class, now they’re stalled on the ground floor. They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers; for the teachers and administrators and not the students. You know why other countries do better on K-12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school.”
And as Jennifer and Jack frame in their book, “...the present assault on public education represents a fundamentally new thread, driven by a new kind of pressure group. Put simply, the overarching vision entails unmaking public education as an institution.”
What are the tenets guiding this unmaking, what are the aims of the unmakers, and what is there for the rest of us to be worried about?
When Your Only Tool is a Hammer...
While the most visible public debates of the new reform-era are fought over what amounts to political branding - “school choice”, vouchers, Education Savings Accounts, etc. - the first two chapters of the book detail the comprehensive ideological framework underpinning these public-facing issues and informing reformers’ tactics.
An optimistic-yet-arguable interpretation of previous reform efforts like NCLB, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that they were intended, at least in spirit and with broad bipartisan support, to improve access and quality of public education as a public good, with vouchers and charter programs intended as state-level experiments and private schools as a common and accepted feature of the educational landscape. In the DeVos-era, however, privatization has become the key policy objective. “No-excuses” charter academies, fly-by-night virtual learning centers, private sectarian schools - and the various schemes to fund them - are now the primary tools intended to dismantle education as a public good and shift the means of education into private hands to suit private ends.
The most troubling of these new tools of privatization are the “neo-vouchers” described in the book as “a laundromat for tax dollars”. Since many states prohibit the direct transfer of public money to private sectarian religious institutions, tax-credit scholarship programs and so-called scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) were created as a loophole for public funds to pass into private hands. They work like this: individuals donate to the tax-credit scholarship program/SGO of their choice, the program pays its expenses and salaries, provides scholarship money to qualifying families, and the donors get a tax write-off: “While the state wasn’t sending money directly to private schools, the impact on the treasury was the same: funds were diverted from tax collection and sent to private schools.”
As programs inevitably expand to encompass all families regardless of need and when corporate donations get involved, the cost of these tax-credits on state revenues has reached $140 million in Arizona and “nearly a billion dollars a year” in Florida. The results of these programs in Arizona and Florida are also described in the book as “a cottage industry of fraud and chaos” and “a rigged system that keeps private education a privilege for the already privileged.”
Further, as our national failure to address the coronavirus pandemic drags on, the opportunity to use - and to profit from - school closings as a wedge issue for voucher programs and educational scholarships is not lost on reformers. As a companion to the $2.2 trillion CARES Act relief package, the administration also supported passage of the School Choice Now Act. Languishing in committee and dead on Inauguration Day 2021, this act would have appropriated $7 billion in federal funds for scholarships for K-12 students distributed via hand-picked state-level SGOs: “Governors will also determine which students and education providers are eligible, including career and technical education, special education services, transportation to any school, and tuition for private schools.” (emphasis mine). The act would also have established a $5 billion annual federal tax credit to “encourage voluntary donations to SGOs”, meaning individual and corporate donors would have received state and federal tax deductions while state and federal budgets bore the loss of revenue that could otherwise be spent on public schools.
If it all sounds convoluted and confusing, well, that’s the whole point. The more hoops the money goes through on its way from public coffers to private bank accounts the less likely it is to become the target of public regulation and accountability. As a grift, its success depends on being too confounding for the average person, let alone the average lawmaker, to effectively raise a fuss over. These rebranded scholarship schemes also allow so-called “school choice” advocates to avoid calling their preferred policy a “voucher”, an idea which most Americans oppose when asked about.
The Preschool-to-Amazon Pipeline
Of course, "neo-vouchers" are just a single example of this public-to-private transfer of money and power. There are countless descriptions of other means by which the comorbidities of privatization and de-regulation also work to de-professionalize teaching, undermine organized labor, and "unbundle" education to be repackaged and personalized for consumers and employers alike. The standardization, automation, and cultural domination that was once coined "McDonaldization" needs an update for the 21st century.
The economic devastation of the pandemic left 40 million Americans unemployed as businesses shuttered, consumers turned to buying online as a safer alternative to local stores, and Jeff Bezos saw his net wealth increase by $48 billion from March to June 2020. To meet the demand, Amazon's workforce grew more than 50% from the previous year. Most new hires filled physical, high-stress warehouse positions but thousands of high-skilled workers were brought on even to streamline and automate the hiring process. Seemingly unrelated to the company's hiring spree; however, in September 2020, Jeff Bezos also announced he would be opening the tuition-free Bezos Academy near Amazon's Seattle, WA headquarters. And in November, Amazon's vice president of workforce development, Ardine Williams, appeared in a New York Times piece* explaining their future growth plan, as business continues to boom:
"To grow so much, Amazon also needs to think long term, Ms. Williams said. As a result, she said, the company was already working with preschools to establish the foundation of tech education, so that 'as our hiring demand unfolds over the next 10 years, that pipeline is there and ready.'" (emphasis added)
The influence that Bezos' deific patronage buys him on curriculum and hiring in shaping that pipeline in Amazon's image cannot be overstated, but there are limits on what market forces can actually accomplish. Given that learning occurs on a developmental timetable that remains largely unchanged over the course of human history, children are especially resistant to the kinds of continuous growth measures demanded by capitalism. The relationship-centered, labor-intensive nature of school also means formal education necessarily resists calls for increasing return-on-investment. One-hundred years from now, wages will have risen for teachers while children will still likely develop at the same pace they do now. Market forces, and the barons which compel the "invisible hand", are also confounded by the varied purposes and outcomes of school. As Jennifer and Jack note in the book:
"What good is it to Walmart or Amazon if their employees read poetry in their spare time or understand American history? What use is it for the affluent class if lower- and middle-income earners can paint or play an instrument?" (pg. 39, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door)
*The same week Ardine Williams appeared in the New York Times to promote the preschool-to-Amazon pipeline, as if in some throwback to 19th century labor unrest, leaked emails revealed Amazon had in fact hired Pinkerton agents - the same organization Andrew Carnegie used to violently break up the 1889 Homestead Strike that left 9 strikers dead - to infiltrate and gather intelligence on warehouse employees in Poland suspected of labor organization activities.
None of this is to say that we should not also be critical of our public schools, and they are ours to criticize. That practices within schools need to change is beyond question at this point. Inequitable outcomes driven by school funding formulae, outmoded and overly rigid curricula, policing of student minds and bodies, grading and assessment practices that hinder the development of curiosity and intrinsic motivation, etc., all of these problems impede the realization of an education system tasked with the monumental mission of providing every single child in the United States of America a free and appropriate public education.
For example, in 2017, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state’s school funding unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable. Wealthy suburban schools took advantage of high property values and so-called local budget options to raise revenue for schools while urban Kansas City schools were forced to cut $55 million over 8 years. In June 2019, after the state legislature approved $90 million in additional education funding, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that education funding was no longer unconstitutionally inadequate. By October 2019, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools superintendent announced their district was “no longer the lowest performing in the state.”
As Jennifer and Jack write in the book, "...When it comes to school spending, money does indeed matter, especially for low-income students." They go on to detail recent studies which have demonstrated a 10% bump in graduation rates for low-income students and a similar increase in student lifetime earnings related to increased school funding. One study even links a 20% increase in school spending to a 20% drop in the poverty rate.
Yet at the same time Kansas was failing to meet its constitutional obligations to their public schools - failing students and families in the process - in 2015, the state enacted its first tax-scholarship program, limited at first to “low-income families in ‘lowest performing’ public schools." According to EdChoice.org, the scholarship funding amount of $8,000 is enough “to provide even the poorest families with access to almost all private schools in Kansas.” Since the beginning of the program, there have been “1,496 students awarded scholarships totaling $5,990,537.76” - nearly half of eligible students have come from Kansas City schools - at a cost to the state of over $8.2 million in tax credits, based on the Jan 2020 Legislative Report. The list of participating schools eligible for tax-scholarship funds include Sacred Heart Catholic School, Calvary Baptist Academy, Central Christian Academy, and Urban Preparatory Academy, among hundreds of others.
“The best way to drive off a wolf is to band together and fight back.”
As the economic stakes become even greater for families and their children - amid the stagnation of social mobility, the greatest wealth inequality since the Roaring 20s, and soaring college tuition costs - education has likewise come to be viewed as a high-stakes zero-sum game played for the advantage of a few rather than a public good for all:
"Americans have heard little over the past quarter century about education as a public good. Instead, schooling has come to be seen chiefly as a vehicle for getting ahead. The 'public' aspect of public education - the part that benefits all of us, regardless of whether we have school-age children or any children at all - is increasingly forgotten." (p. 211, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door)
The neo-conservative project of the last 40 years has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: to break public institutions and undermine public faith in them to demonstrate how broken they are and how glad we should be to part with them.
While it’s the role of the public to debate and disagree on the means and ends of education, public schools, including public charters, are made better by mass democratic participation in shaping them to meet the needs of the communities, families, and students they serve. That process is not served by the abdication of state and local - and increasingly federal - governments in their failure to meet those needs and subsequently handing the reins, as well as the purse, over to market forces and tycoons to cash in. How do sincere people take an honest account of the real need for educational change while recognizing that the narrow, unpopular ideological program of the would-be unmakers is also antithetical to the project of democracy?
As Jennifer and Jack leave us to ponder in the closing words of the book: “The best way to drive off a wolf is to band together and fight back.”