John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, reviews law professor Derek Black’s recent book, Schoolhouse Burning.

Derek Black’s new book,Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, combines the best principles of the historical research that I was taught in the 1970s with the best of recent scholarship. Overall, the result is a surprisingly hopeful overview. Unfortunately, it offers an analysis of contemporary history which is more pessimistic.Black makes the case that at the end of the 1700s, and after the Civil War, Americans saw education as a right of citizenship. That explains why access to the 19th century American education system was second only to that of Prussia.

In 1972, however, the Supreme Court denied that education was a fundamental right, and that contributed to today’s argument that education is a private choice, not a public good. Black reminds us that “Schools are not roads.” But, today, the outcome of the battle for public education is unclear.

Black explains that federal grants to education began in the 1700s, but then the South criminalized education for blacks. Schoolhouse Burning doesn’t downplay the evils of slavery and racism which denied education to people of color. But, despite efforts by slave owners who knew the quest for knowledge was a huge threat to their system, enslaved persons passed “secret knowledge” to each other, 

Moreover, “Between 1865 and 1868, the nation embarked on the most aggressive education project before or since…” By 1867, 600 schools and 600 Sabbath Schools provided education services to former slaves. And, freedmen spent over $1 million on their educations through 1870, with 30,000 students paying tuition. Moreover, during Reconstruction, Congress demanded that states revise their constitutions, and provide education; Southern states acceded as they rejoined the nation.

According to Black, Congress’ effort to base readmission after the civil war created a “baseline” where “states could expand education rights, but they could not retract them.” Even the terrible 1899 ruling in Cummings v Richmond Co. Board of Education had a “silver lining.” Black notes, “wereas attacks on public education were the centerpiece of the assault on black citizenship, the right to education … nonetheless lived on.”

After the last decade of bipartisan denigration of education, Black has had to wrestle with the question whether African Americans were right to focus on education, as opposed to housing and jobs. He still believes the answer is “yes” because “public education has always represented the idea of America, not its reality.”

During the 1980s, the Reagan administration launched an assault on government as a whole, as well public schools. Those who would privatize schools and other institutions have shown remarkable political savvy in demonizing teachers and “government schools.” So “those who would fight to save public education are playing catch-up with opponents who have no intention of playing fair.”

Koch brothers, for instance, treated education as the “lowest hanging fruit for policy change.” Radical individualist-libertarians have advanced their own economic self-interest over public welfare. This market-driven approach “incentivizes insatiable, base human instincts.”

Black also speaks the truths that too many education supporters have been reluctant to express. He writes, “The assault on public education happened because of the general discontent with public education.” Because of its flaws and the ways it has been broken in many places, too many Democrats bought the argument for charter schools that “if its public dollars, its public education” Moreover, “It was Arne Duncan, not Betsy DeVos who fueled the fire” attacking tenure, and mandating test-driven accountability. Due to both the Great Recession and Duncan’s “reforms,” from 2009 to 2012, schools lost 300,000 teaching positions. Also, the number of students pursuing teaching degrees has dropped 30%.

Of course, the Trump administration stepped up the assault on the already-weaken public school system.  The administration’s most notable victory was tax deductions and credit for private schools. And, “Betsy DeVos even hinted she might ‘try to use the widespread pandemic-driven shutdown to create a path to national school vouchers.’”

Although Black’s research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, he added a few final thoughts on the additional threats it produced. For instance, online learning can be spun as “a shining panacea,” replacing schoolhouses.

So, Black is not saying public education will be better off in five years. Too many Americans have not been taught to distinguish fact from fiction. And as more Americans lose faith in government, opponents are positioned to exploit those feelings. Black admits, “Public education could go out with a whimper, not a bang.” So, “I do not know how many additional losses our schools can take on top of the last ones.”

But Black does know about historic successes. His history can serve as a “pleasant reminder of silver linings – silver linings that, when added together could reveal enduring truths.”

Today, as in other frightening times, liberal democracy “is not as stable and robust as the world thought.” Political norms have declined but he still believes “the average American won’t let go of public education.” Black thus concludes, “I believe education will survive, not that it already has.”