David Berliner and Carl Hermanns edited a book about the value and importance of public schools in a democratic society. Its title is Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, and it was published by Teachers College Press. I was one of the contributors, along with other well-known figures in the field.

The book would be a terrific Christmas gift for an educator.

This review will give you a good look at the contents.

Public Education is a 346-page book containing 29 chapters penned by some of America’s most eminent scholars, including Diane Ravitch, Jennie Oakes, Sonia Nieto, H. Richard Milner, Deborah Meier, Ken Zeichner, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Michael Apple, William Ayers, and of course, co-editor David Berliner. The late Mike Rose has a chapter in the book as does Edward Fiske, the longtime New York Times education reporter and author of the ubiquitous Fiske Guide to Colleges.

While the themes of the book are quite varied, all the contributors to the book seem to agree that a child’s prospects in life, the quality of America’s public schools, and the country’s future as a democracy are all intimately intertwined. The importance of high-quality public education has been covered by Berliner previously in co-authored books such as The Manufactured Crisis (with Bruce Biddle, 1996) and 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools (with Gene Glass, 2014), and in well over a hundred articles.

However, in comparison with Berliner’s earlier works, this book has a stronger sense of urgency and a more dispiriting sense of disappointment in the ways in which federal and state governments have undermined, underfunded, and underappreciated the singular accomplishments of public education. In Berliner’s chapter on charter and voucher schools, for example, he uses the word scandalous over thirty times.

The very first sentence of the book’s introduction states, “The belief in the vital importance and central role of public education in the development of our country and the sustenance of our democracy runs deep.” When discussing the history and future of American public education, the specter of Horace Mann is always difficult to ignore. Indeed, more than half of the contributors explicitly discuss Mann’s ideas concerning the importance of a free education, sometimes in great detail. Even when he goes unnamed, Mann runs like a powerful current throughout these pages.
To offer a sense of the content and variety of the chapters, citations from four contributors follow.

Mark Weber
“Reform has become the core of the resistance to meaningful and sustained investment in schools. Education reformers are providing cover for those who fear that the United States might take its obligation to fund schools more seriously—starting with raising taxes on the wealthiest of its citizens.” (p. 205)
“A 2017 meta-analysis of merit pay experiments found ‘a modest, statistically significant, positive effect on student test scores (.053 standard deviations).’ This is the equivalent of moving a student at the 50th percentile in test scores to the 52nd percentile.” (p. 207)

Gloria Ladson-Billings
“Currently most major cities do not have enough white students attending their schools to adequately desegregate them.” (p. 227)
“The number of the most intensively segregated schools—with more than 90% of low-income students and students of color—more than doubled [from 2001 to 2014].” (p. 229)
“Beyond the crudeness of the per pupil expenditure measure is also the way ‘average daily attendance’ is derived. In Wisconsin, ADA is calculated on ONE day per year–September 15.” (p. 230)

Diane Ravitch

“After the Civil War, no state was admitted to the Union without an education clause in its constitution.” (p. 21)

“For many years, the term ‘school choice’ was stigmatized because of its association with advocacy for school segregation.” (p. 23)

Carol Burris

“The term public school is generally not viewed as a pejorative, which is why those who oppose public schools are so anxious to either exclude the term from the discourse, blur the definition, or hijack it for privatized systems.” (p. 236)

“We need to mind our words, being cognizant of how language has been used to shift the perception of privatized choice. Terms like privately-run charter schools and neighborhood public schools should replace public charter and traditional.” (p. 240)

As with any edited book, one chapter may seem nondescript while another may seem absolutely indispensable. For example, James Harvey’s chapter, “Education is our only political safety,” (pp. 214–225), a clearly written, tour-de-force about how education in the U.S. is funded, would be a perfect fit for an undergraduate foundations of education course.

Some of the book’s chapters are quite short and informal; others are fully realized, in-depth academic papers, replete with conclusions and recommendations. Most authors use APA bibliographic style, but a few use Chicago, and some chapters include no list of references at all. The chapters are divided into six “interrelated” parts that are so interrelated as to be indistinguishable from one another. Sections are identified not by titles but by Roman numerals, I–VI.

The divider pages indicating a transition to a “new part” often feature historical photos and text. For example, on p. 233, the divider page for Part V shows a picture of 16 very young child- employees of an oyster plant in a small town in Mississippi located on the Gulf of Mexico. The children depicted in the photo look to be between the ages of 5 and 8, and one of the 8-year-olds is struggling to hold another child-worker who appears to be around 2. The caption reads:

Before America had child labor laws and school attendance requirements….all [these children] worked from before daybreak until 5 p.m. for extremely low wages.”

Child Labor laws in the United States were ratified less than a century ago, in 1938. When children were liberated from the chains of illiteracy and the drudgery of working long hours for near-starvation pay, public schools emerged as welcoming, empowering institutions that offered the possibility of a better life. Rather than submit to a permanent sentence of indentured servitude, an American child—every American child—was suddenly given the opportunity to be treated as an equal among peers, regardless of race, religion, wealth, or family connections.

One can argue about the extent to which America has fallen short of its promises. But, powerful forces at work in the United States today are working to obliterate public schools and debunk the idea that every child deserves a fair chance. As noted repeatedly by the contributors to Public Education, if our public schools go down, our democracy seems likely to follow.

Author Biography
LAWRENCE BAINES, Ph.D., writes on educational policy and multisensory learning. He is the author of 13 books, including What’s a Parent to Do? How to Give your Child the Best Education (2022, Rowman & Littlefield). His homepage is http://www.lawrencebaines.com.