Archives for category: Privatization

Maurice Cunningham is a political scientist with a deep interest in how Dark Money influences education policy. His motto is: “Dark Money never sleeps.” He is a master at following the money. He customarily blogs at a website called MassPoliticsProfs, but was kind enough to send me this post first.

He writes here about the groups pushing the attacks on critical race theory:

The Corporate Critical Race Theory Attack: Chaos is the Product

“The backlash” begins an opinion piece in Newsweek by Parents Defending Education outreach director Erika Sanzi, and these may be the most accurate two words published by those who are attacking “wokeness,” gender studies, and Critical Race Theory. The sad fact is that white backlash has a proven record of effectiveness in American politics and it is once again being employed in the service of right wing corporate interests. The end product desired has less to do with CRT than with spreading disruption, fear, and chaos across America’s most important democratic public institution, schools.

According to the Washington Post, as of June 24 CRT (a theory developed in law schools and not well known among most Americans) has exploded on Fox News. The term was heard on Fox only 132 times in 2020 but has been mentioned 1,860 times this year, escalating month by month. The narrative is that grassroots parents groups have discovered the threat CRT poses to their children in schools and have arisen organically across the country to form local parent groups, a movement noticed and captured by websites and the powerful Fox News. The truth is that of an oligarch-funded and coordinated campaign using time tested techniques.

Follow the Money

Over the past five years I’ve been following “education reform” groups created by billionaire investors with names like Families for Excellent Schools, Massachusetts Parents United, and National Parents Union which have presented diversity as their public face while attacking teachers. So when I saw the launch of Parents Defending Education on March 30 I took note because it follows a different path: white backlash aimed more at school boards, superintendents, and principals. The first thing to do when evaluating these groups is always, follow the money.

But as the financial backers of groups like PDE well know, public disclosure of funders will only come about nearly two years down the road, if then, in publicly available Form 990 tax returns for organizations with Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3)status as charitable organizations. PDE president Nicole Neily has refused to disclose the organization’s donors when asked by media outlets. It’s not just that she won’t. She can’t. Disclosure would likely reveal ties to radical right funders tied into the Koch network and similar underwriters. We know this thanks to work done by PRWatch and from Sourcewatch at the Center for Media and Democracy. They show that Neily is a political operative at Koch network funded operations like the Independent Women’s Forum, Franklin Center, and Speech First.

The Speech First association is instructive. Neily is founding president of that non-profit as well. Sourcewatch has identified some of its funders as the Bader Family Foundation for $30,000, Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund: $500,250, Judicial Education Project for $1,000,000, and National Philanthropic Trust: $500,000. The real check writers will probably never become known. Form 990s show that Neily is the sole employee, earning $161,000 in 2018 and $150,000 in 2019. Speech First brings lawsuits against universities for policies touching on race. For this, it paid the law firm Consovoy McMullen $950,000 in 2018, and to get the word out paid the Republican communications firm Creative Response Concepts $106,000. Boiled down, Speech First is a pass through that allows wealthy conservative donors to remain hidden while paying Consovoy McMullen to attack universities.

And who represents Parents Defending Education? Why, Consovoy McMullen. William Consovoy also represents Donald Trump and clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas. The firm is conservative legal royalty. PDE did not hire it after an especially successful bake sale.

Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, and Moms for Liberty

PDE launched its well-developed website featuring pages with links to its allies, most of which were branches of groups called No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty. According to NBC, No Left Turn in Education was launched in 2020 when a parent from a Philadelphia suburb became enraged at her children’s school for teaching concepts of racism after the police murder of George Floyd. Elana Yaron Fishbein then sprang into action to attack wokeness and founded NLTE. In September she appeared on Fox’s Tucker Carlson program and the next day the group’s Facebook increased from about 200 followers to over 30,000 and there are now 30 chapters in 23 states.

But when I looked at local NLTE chapters’ Facebook pages linked to through the PDE site in April, I found sparse membership: Alabama, 7; Arkansas, 3; Delaware, 6; Iowa, 2; Idaho, 4; Indiana, 8; Michigan (Betsy DeVos home state), 13; Mississippi, 3; Montana, 2; North Dakota, 2; Massachusetts, 17; Hawaii, 1. All of the NLTE Facebook pages featured the same banner, a montage of diverse teens against a background of school lockers, each student smiling and engaged, not a pimple on their perfect teenage faces; probably models, most certainly not local students. As for Moms for Liberty, it too had sparse membership in its affiliates: Arizona, 17; Wright Co, Minnesota, 8; Corpus Christi Nueces, Texas, 70. Moms for Liberty’s creation story is similar to others in the anti-public education universe: “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” The story goes that two parents became upset with their local schools and started up a parents group. It happens. It’s a lot more unusual for the two grassroots moms to then book former Fox host Megyn Kelly for a fundraiser with tickets running from General Admission of $50 up to Presenting Sponsor for $20,000 with perks including a photo with Ms. Kelly and corporate logo on print and online marketing materials.

From Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty and on to groups like National Parents Union, the creation stories are similar. A handful of disgruntled moms talk over their frustrations, determine to start their moms or parents group to seek change, and then in pour the millions of dollars; contracts are quickly signed with nationally recognized public relations firms and pollsters (one newly birthed charter school-tied group in Rhode Island immediately hired a Biden pollster); the head mom is booked on Fox or featured in national media outlets. Conservative outlets like The Federalist, Washington Times, Campus Fix, and most importantly Fox News amplify the misleading message.

How to Attack Educators in a Few Easy Steps

The tactics for going after K-12 educators did not spring up anew but have been adapted from successful attacks on college and university professors. Isaac Kamola has explained this in an important article titled Dear Administrators: To Protect Your Faculty from Right-Wing Attacks, Follow the Money. Kamola finds that groups like Campus Reform and Campus Fix, which pay conservative students as “reporters” to whistleblow on their professors, are funded by wealthy right wingers including Koch who wish to gain leverage over what is taught and researched at America’s universities. These attacks follow a common script. Something a professor says or writes in research, a lecture, or even on social media is grabbed and most often taken out of context; there is never an engagement with the actual intellectual product. (In Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, Anne Nelson shows that Campus Reform is tied into right wing clearing house organizations the Leadership Institute and Council for National Policy). The targets are often scholars of color, especially women, and their work focuses on race or inquiries into capitalism. The out of context remarks are then percolated through a right wing ecosystem which includes web sites funded by the same network and all the way up to Fox News. Results can be stark. After Campus Reform did a story on a speech by Princeton University professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor the piece was picked up by Fox; threats against Professor Taylor were so virulent she cancelled talks in Seattle and San Diego. After Campus Reform misrepresented remarks by Trinity College professor Johnny Williams the campus had to be shut down due to threats and Williams was unfairly placed on leave. So the radical right knows how to generate chaos. Parents Defending Education has refined the play book further.

PDE relies upon two modes of attack on schools (which may include charter as well as public schools). The first, often well covered in the media and with appearances on Fox, is individuals who inundate school districts with public records requests. The second involves anonymous attacks on school personnel, concealment guaranteed by guidance offered by PDE to assure their agents remain hidden.

NBC News reported on one now famous Fox-supported attack by an individual wielding public law requests. A Maine parent named Shawn McBreairty was disgruntled with his local schools and joined No Left Turn in Education. He has filed over 50 public records law request with his Maine school district, tying up education professionals serving the public for his individual crusade. In South Kingstown, RI a parent whose child is enrolled but not yet attending kindergarten in the town filed 200 public records law requests “seeking copies of middle and high school curricula, lists of all books related to gender available in the library and 10 years’ worth of harassment complaints and emails.” The district estimated it would take 300 hours to fulfill the request. Local officials were undoubtedly right in assessing the attack as an effort to disrupt public education and attack a public good. The Rhode Island parent was rewarded with an appearance on Fox. When districts try to resist the onslaught of requests, corporate spokespersons like PDE’s Sanzi are ready with pro-wrestling sincerity to whine—to Fox News—about the people’s right to know. These groups weaponize the very openness of government to undermine government.

In a forthcoming work, Kamola and co-author Ralph Wilson show how groups like Speech First use discovery in lawsuits to create a “nightmare for administrators and their general counsel.” PDE and allies are now using public records lawsnationwide to achieve the same goal against public school districts.

While the public records requests are designedly onerous and discouraging, at least educators can tell where the attacks are coming from. The second tactic promoted by PDE is much worse, to encourage anonymous attacks against educators.

Take a recent example involving the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. This was an anonymous complaint forwarded by PDE grumbling that Wellesley had violated civil rights laws by providing affinity rooms for students to process their emotions after anti-Asian attacks across the nation. Ms. Neily confessed she has no idea who submitted it to PDE or if anyone in Wellesley agrees with the complaint. This is a baked in design by PDE as we see from examining the operation’s website page that teaches How to Create “Woke At” Pages. It provides detailed instructions for how to set up “an anonymous, safe Instagram page.” First set up a Gmail account “that can’t be tied to you.” Gmail is recommended because the site creator will also need to set up “an anonymous Google Form . . . which allows you to receive anonymous tips” that shields the informant’s identity, even from the Woke At administrator. At all times “we recommend erring on the side of secrecy.”

The Woke At instructions encourage PDE’s local spies to check out social media pages of educators which may reveal woke attitudes. The Understanding Woke Jargon page catalogs terms like “social justice” or “antiracism” the group finds offensive. Questions to Ask School Officials offers gotcha questions that can be asked of woke school officials “with cameras rolling.”

Why the advice to always act with hidden identities? Because of the terrifying disposition of those “woke activists” who talk about “inclusion, equity, justice” but are really “divisive, toxic, and extreme.” PDE is one education organization that was absent on the day irony was taught, for it insists on secrecy while pretending it promotes transparency. Concealment is especially important “given how angry and retaliatory many woke activists get when criticized.” PDE understands that much of its audience consumes a heavy diet of Fox News. Research by Jeffrey M. Berry, James M. Glaser, and Deborah J. Schildkraut shows Fox’s “underlying strategy is to anger viewers by stoking their resentment of racial and ethnic minority groups” and building fear. For instance, after the images of George Floyd’s murder, which initially shocked even Sean Hannity, Fox repeatedly showed video of “rioting and looting by protestors, relying on film showing fires burning and Blacks running out of looted stores with stolen merchandise in their arms.” These images were repeatedly shown well beyond the first week, after which there was little new such behavior to report upon. But the coverage stokes ideas of lawlessness and fear.

Whether by an avalanche of public records requests or generating negative coverage from anonymous tipsters, PDE and its allies are in business to create disruption and chaos in public education.

Getting Results

As Kamola has shown with his work detailing the corporate backed assault on higher education, these tactics often work. They are now working at the K-12 level. Public records requests have tied up school boards and administrators. NBC reports that Washoe County, Nevada halted in person school board meetings “after residents filled a large auditorium and lobbed insults and threats of violence during the public comment portion.” When open meetings later convened in a smaller venue, many residents waited long hours in the hot sun to make their comments against CRT and anti-discrimination policies—including quite a fewwho do not even have students in the system. “During the most recent meeting, which lasted 11 hours, speakers railed at school board members, calling them Marxists, racists, Nazis and child abusers, among other epithets.” In Rockwood Illinois, the St. Louis Post dispatch reported, teachers called upon the school board and superintendent to protect them against “personal attacks and outright threats of violence.” In Camas, Washington, the state’s 2020 teacher of the year thanked the school board and administrators for defending her efforts to promote inclusion and access after some residents “railed against the school district’s ‘woke’ agenda, COVID-19 mask mandates, remote learning and racial justice and equity programs.”

After all, as No Left Turn Maine’s Shawn McBreairty said in an email to NBC News, “This is a war with the left, and in war, tactics and strategy can become blurry.”

As the corporate agitators behind all this understand, they are making public service exhausting and distasteful, a campaign to drive good community members away from serving. This isn’t an unfortunate byproduct. We’ve seen it at the university level. It’s intentional.

The Rise of the Right Wing Moms

In announcing PDE’s complaint against the Columbus, Ohio public schools for its willingness to address racism in the wake of the police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, Ms. Neily acknowledged that no Columbus parent had complained, but that PDE was just a concerned group of parents. “We just all work from home,” Neily told the Columbus Post-Dispatch. “We’re all working moms.”

That sounds cozy and homey but Neily is a well-compensated veteran of numerous right wing organizations, including not only Speech First but the Cato Institute. Sourcewatch reports that “Nicole Neily has worked for many Koch-affiliated groups.” Ms. Sanzi has worked for billionaire funded school privatization groups, also bringing home a hefty paycheck. According to research from Mercedes Schneider the Education Post, an online publication originally funded by Eli Broad, paid Sanzi $121,000 in 2016 and $131,000 in 2017. She is also a “senior visiting fellow” at the Fordham Institute.

This is another area where patterns are not immediately visible but things become more clear years down the road when Form 990s become available. What we see is that following the emergence of these organizations with their tales of concerned moms banding together is that the moms are actually political operatives or communications professionals being well paid. Take for example Keri Rodrigues, “mom-in-chief” of the Walton backed Massachusetts Parents United. One of the several creation stories is that Ms. Rodrigues (always identified as a former union organizer) and a few other mothers gathered in their local library and decided to start a parents group. Actually, Ms. Rodrigues had been state director for Families for Excellent Schools, which ran a losing ballot campaign to increase charter schools in Massachusetts in 2016. She is also a communications professional, having been a radio host. MPU and an affiliate paid Ms. Rodrigues over $388,000 in 2017-2018. But the mom-in-chief story has had some penetration.

When the CDC announced reopening guidelines for schools in May 2021 Ms. Rodrigues, now also of Walton and Koch backed National Parents Union, appeared on Fox News to accuse teachers unions of undue influence. The host accused “teachers unions of basically writing the guidelines” a claim that Ms. Rodrigues enthusiastically agreed with. There was no basis for that claim other than that the unions, like over fifty other advocacy groups, had offered comments to the CDC. But it was blown up by Republican senators from a letter provided by a Republican dark money group. And then on to Fox and the eagerMs. Rodrigues.

Thus we shouldn’t be too surprised by a recent Media Matters study that showed that a number of the concerned parents featured on Fox News criticizing CRT are actually Republican political operatives. Quisha King, an African American woman billed by Fox News as an “everyday American” who is “Northeast Florida co-chair of Moms for Liberty” and “mom of two daughters” is also a GOP political consultant who worked for the Republican National Committee in 2020. Though Fox News billed Ms. Neily as a parent fighting against CRT in schools, Media Matters added that she “has spent her entire career working in and for libertarian and conservative political advocacy organizations and think tanks . . . .” PDE senior fellow Elizabeth Schultz was noted by Fox’s Dana Perino as a former Fairfax County, Virginia school board member. But she is also a former Trump appointee to the Department of Education, under Betsy DeVos. Before being defeated for re-election to the school board Schultz was known for opposing “‘expanding the school system’s sex-education curriculum to include lessons on gender identity and transgender issues’ and supporting armed teachers in classrooms.”

Charles Koch’s Pincer Movement

Far right groups like Parents Defending Education are new born but billionaire funded corporate education reform groups like Massachusetts Parents United and National Parents Union have been around a bit longer. Families for Excellent Schools was successful in New York until its 2016 Massachusetts charter school campaign was badly beaten, its dark money donors were ordered to be disclosed by the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and its CEO was fired after #MeToo allegations surfaced. These groups often present themselves as leaning liberal, non-partisan but vaguely Democratic, featuring spokespersons who are women of color, and advocating for their privatization policies as being pro-civil rights. National Parents Union even released a statement defending Critical Race Theory on May 21, but it seems to have dropped the topic since. Why then would Charles Koch, a likely source of support for the right wing groups, also be funding National Parents Union?

But he is, through his Charles Koch Institute, which is partnered with the Walton Family Foundation in a joint venture called the Vela Education Fund. Vela dropped $700,000 on NPU to promote home schooling. NPU then spread Vela funds around in grants for home schooling. As Casey Parks explained in The New Yorker these foundations “advocate ‘school choice’—rerouting money and families away from traditional public schools through such means as charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, and vouchers, which allow public-education dollars to be put toward private-school tuition.” NPU had been launched by the Walton Family Foundation to help in the Waltons quest to undermine teachers unions. Recognizing the opportunity presented by closed schools Vela formed and wrote the $700,000 check even though NPUhad been in business only a few months. Vela has pursued other such opportunities including funding the far right Home School Legal Defense Association.

Coincidentally or not in 2017 the civil rights-proclaiming Ms. Rodrigues and the radical right Ms. Sanzi were partners in another venture named Planet Mom, which featured a podcast and proposed radio show. In her paid position at Education Post Ms. Sanzi wrote of Ms. Rodrigues “I consider her a partner in this work. And a friend.” It’s a small planet, after all.

The point is not Critical Race Theory, or charter schools, virtual schools, or home schools. The point is to undermine public education, keep taxes low, spread doubt of the efficacy of public goods, and demolish institutions like unions and local school communities that make demands on the Waltons and Kochs of the nation. It is, as Nancy MacLean has said, to put democracy in chains. Diverse-presenting National Parents Union and white backlash Parents Defending Education serve the same cause.

Whither We Are Tending and What to Do About It

I hope my colleagues in academia continue to speak out about the intellectual contributions of Critical Race Theory and the fine efforts of K-12 educators to provide the kind of schooling all our students need—open and honest about the nation’s race and history and our ongoing challenges, including corporate promoted white backlash.

On the other hand, don’t expect any engagement from Nicole Neily or the anti-CRT bard Christopher Rufo, who has helped spike this ridiculous campaign. In a triumphant appearance at the Claremont Institute, Rufo described his annoyance at scholars trying to bait him into a discussion of what CRT really means and proclaimed “I don’t give a shit about this stuff.” (Nine minute mark)

As Isaac Kamola has urged, start with follow the money and pursue that relentlessly. There’s a reason groups like PDE and NPU can’t come clean about their funding sources and amounts and that reason is that they know the public is suspicious of the Kochs and Waltons of the world and what’s more, the public and America’s billionaires are on a different page on policy issues.

These are corporate generated right wing attacks. Say it. Name names.

Come awake to the threat. Recognize what this is and that isn’t just about wokeness or even education but something else Koch and the Waltons can’t say out loud: to destroy the capacity of people to coalesce together and fight for a better life for themselves, a project that offends oligarchs ideologically and threatens their power and pocketbooks. They focus on educationbecause schools have been a fertile locale for white backlash but also a source of great progress, because teachers unions are a barrier to them, and because local community organizations defy them.

That means that teachers unions, school boards, superintendents, principals, lunch workers, school bus drivers, custodians, business, parents and students—everyone who serves their local school community—have to recognize that they need to fight together against this assault. In other words, join together to take action—exactly what the Waltons, Kochs, and other radical right billionaires fear.

And stand up for a real education for all our children, not the white(wash) backlash being promoted by phony AstroTurf fronts like Parents Defending Education. Remember, fronts are fronting for someone and in this case, fronting for radical right billionaires.

Money never sleeps. Follow the money.

Maurice T. Cunningham is recently retired as an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a union member. He is the author of the book Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, forthcoming in 2022.

I’ll be sending you occasional notices to remind you that the end of the pandemic means the return of the annual conference of the Network for Public Education. This will be your opportunity to make connections with friends and allies fighting for public schools across the nation. Join us!

Our Network for Public Education Action conference will be an in-person conference on October 23 and 24 in Philadelphia.It will be terrific. So much has happened in the world since the 2020 conference was canceled due to Covid-19.

We will have wonderful keynote speakers including Little Steven, Jitu Brown, and Noliwe Rooks.

We will have panels that include stopping school privatization, lifting up community schools, creating inclusive schools free of systemic racism and valuing democracy in schools. That is just a sample. The full schedule will emerge soon.

Best of all, we will be together in a beautiful hotel in the City of Brotherly Love.

The conference theme is Neighborhood Schools: The Heart of our Community. As we emerge from a year of isolation, that theme is more important than ever.

If you registered for the 2020 conference and did not request a refund, you are registered for the conference but be sure to register for the hotel.

The discounted rooms are going fast.https://book.passkey.com/gt/218126437?gtid=3b2e4f0403f2a2b9544e40207d650ccb
If you did not register for the 2020 conference, don’t wait. We have only about 50 spots left.
https://npeaction.org/2021-conference/
We need each other and NPE needs all of us to adovocate for public education.

See you in October!

A while back, I read a vitriolic article in a rightwing publication that expressed contempt for the public schools and congratulated Betsy DeVos for trying to cut federal funding for schools.

The article asserted that public schools are “garbage” and the government should slash their funding. A major piece of evidence for the claim that money doesn’t matter was the failure of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants program, which spent more than $3 billion and accomplished nothing. The evaluation of SIG was commissioned by the U.S Department of Education and quietly released just before the inauguration of Trump. The report was barely noticed. Yet now it is used by DeVos acolytes to oppose better funding of our schools.

The wave of Red4Ed teachers’ strikes in 2019 exposed the woeful conditions in many schools, including poorly paid teachers, lack of nurses and social workers and librarians, overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling facilities. The public learned from the teachers’ strikes that public investment in the schools in many states has not kept pace with the needs of students and the appropriate professional compensation of teachers. Many states are spending less now on education than they did in 2008 before the Great Recession. They reacted to the economic crisis by cutting taxes on corporations, which cut funding for schools.

Sadly, the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top program promoted the same strategies and goals as No Child Left Behind. Set goals for test scores and punish teachers and schools that don’t meet them. Encourage the growth of charter schools, which drain students and resources from schools with low test scores.

One can only dream, but what if Race to the Top had been called Race to Equity for All Our Children? What if the program had rewarded schools and districts that successfully integrated their schools? What if it had encouraged class-size reduction, especially in the neediest schools? Race to the Top and the related SIG program were fundamentally a replication and extension of NCLB.

When Arne Duncan defended his “reform” (disruption) ideas in the Washington Post, he cited a positive 2012 evaluation and belittled his own Department’s 2017 evaluation, which had more time to review the SIG program and concluded that it made no difference. The 2017 report provided support for those who say that money doesn’t matter, that teacher compensation doesn’t matter, that class size doesn’t matter, that schools don’t need a nurse, a library, a music and arts program, or adequate and equitable funding.

The Education Department’s 2017 evaluation shows that the Bush-Obama strategy didn’t made a difference because its ideas about how to improve education were wrong. Low-performing schools did not see test-score gains because both NCLB and RTTT were based on flawed ideas about competition, motivation, threats and rewards, and choice.

Here is a summary of the SIG program in the USED’s report that the Right used to defend DeVos’s proposed budget cuts.

The SIG program aimed to support the implementation of school intervention models in low-performing schools. Although SIG was first authorized in 2001, this evaluation focused on SIG awards granted in 2010, when roughly $3.5 billion in SIG awards were made to 50 states and the District of Columbia, $3 billion of which came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. States identified the low-performing schools eligible for SIG based on criteria specified by ED and then held competitions for local education agencies seeking funding to help turn around eligible schools.

SIG-funded models had no significant impact on test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment…

The findings in this report suggest that the SIG program did not have an impact on the use of practices promoted by the program or on student outcomes (including math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment), at least for schools near the SIG eligibility cutoff. In higher grades (6th through 12th), the turnaround model was associated with larger student achievement gains in math than the transformation model. However, factors other than the SIG model implemented, such as unobserved differences between schools implementing different models, may explain these differences in achievement gains.

These findings have broader relevance beyond the SIG program. In particular, the school improvement practices promoted by SIG were also promoted in the Race to the Top program. In addition, some of the SIG-promoted practices focused on teacher evaluation and compensation policies that were also a focus of Teacher Incentive Fund grants. All three of these programs involved large investments to support the use of practices with the goal of improving student outcomes. The findings presented in this report do not lend much support for the SIG program having achieved this goal, as the program did not appear to have had an impact on the practices used by schools or on student outcomes, at least for schools near the SIG eligibility cutoff.

What NCLB, Race to the Top, and SIG demonstrated was that their theory of action was wrong. They did not address the needs of students, teachers, or schools. They imposed the lessons of the non-existent Texas “miracle” and relied on carrots and sticks to get results. They failed, but they did not prove that money doesn’t matter.

Money matters very much. Equitable and adequate funding matters. Class size matters, especially for children with the highest needs. A refusal to look at evidence and history blinds us to seeing what must change in federal and state policy. It will be an uphill battle but we must persuade our representatives in state legislatures and Congress to open their eyes, acknowledge the failure of the test-and-punish regime, and think anew about the best ways to help students, teachers, families, and communities.

The findings of the report were devastating, not only to the SIG program, but to the punitive strategies imposed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which together cost many more billions. 

My first reaction was, Money doesn’t matter if you spend it on the wrong strategies, like punishing schools that don’t improve test scores, like ignoring the importance of reducing class size, like ignoring the importance of poverty in the lives of children, like ignoring decades of social science that out-of-school factors affect student test scores more than teachers do.

Despite public hearings in which a huge majority of citizens showed up online to oppose vouchers, the New Hampshire Senate Finance Committee approved voucher legislation. The legislation already passed the House and will certainly be signed by the Governor. Governor Sununu and the legislative majority are Republicans. Before the 2020 elections, the legislature was controlled by Democrats, who rejected vouchers. Governor Sununu’s state education commissioner home-schooled his children; he has tried repeatedly to defund public schools by allowing students to use their state funding anywhere they pleased.

The vouchers are called “Education Freedom Accounts.” They explicitly guarantee that the private voucher schools will not be required to alter its creed or its admissions policy. The $4,600 voucher will be insufficient to pay tuition at any of the state’s elite private schools.

Senator Jeb Bradley stated at the bill’s hearing that its purpose is to provide choice for parents so that students can succeed whereas they may not be doing so in public school. He estimated the bill’s cost at an average of $4600 per student.The bill hands oversight of EFA applications, notifications, payments and accounting to an independent scholarship organization. Currently, the Children’s Scholarship Fund of New Hampshire is the only such organization. It has one employee. This organization will also approve Education Service Providers [ESPs}.

According to the bill:194-E:7, II – Education service providers shall be given maximum freedom to provide for the educational needs of EFA students without government control…

In order to be approved, an ESP must submit a request to receive payments and agree to follow the rules of the EFA program and to comply with anti-discrimination laws.

V – An education service provider shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum in order to accept payments from an EFA.

Clearly, the Republican party has abandoned the principle of separation of church and state as it pursues the goal of using public funds for religious schools.

Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider explore what happens when a state government is taken over by a combination of libertarians, who want to diminish government and taxes, and Republicans, who have spent decades attacking government as “the enemy.” It turns out they are indistinguishable. .

This is a don’t-miss edition of their reader-supported “Have You Heard” podcast (with transcript available).

Among the services cut were garbage collection and animal control. So people in the state are getting used to seeing bears ransacking their garbage.

The situation is growing dire for the state’s public schools. The libertarians want to eliminate public education. They want to replace it with charter schools, vouchers, home schooling, and pretty much anything that a parent wants to do.

Under the leadership of Governor Chris Sununu and Frank Edelblut, the home schooler he selected as state commissioner of education, the state is well on its way to its goal of privatizing and/or abolishing public schools.

This is a fascinating paper published in the peer-reviewed Education Policy Analysis and Archives in 2018. It explores the question of how Forbes magazine selects the “edu-preneurs” who are recognized as education leaders. It is quite a plum to receive this recognition, as it supposedly confers recognition on those young people who are “the best hope for revolutionizing and reforming education.” This recognition sets them apart as “experts,” despite their youth and meager experience.

The authors are T. Jameson Brewer, Nicholas D. Hartlep, and Ian M. Scott.

They see this selection process as a means of advancing privatization and the market-orientation of education, given the composition of the judges and the winners.

The marketization of public education in the era of neoliberalism elevates buzzwords like “innovation,” “investments,” “return on investments,” and “technology integration.” Moreover,  within the context of education and schooling, the professional status of educators is challenged in an effort to exalt the logic and norms of the business class. President Trump, a businessman, appointed Betsy DeVos to be the Secretary of Education despite the fact she and her children have never attended public schools. The message the White House sent to Americans is that experience in education is not a necessary component of administrating education. Education reform, both Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education 5 domestically and internationally, has been led by a consortium of organizations and individuals who have expanded market-oriented reforms throughout schools. Those market-oriented reforms have included charter schools, school vouchers, and alternative certification training for teachers. The logic, as it were, is that government based training, organization, and control of schooling is woefully inefficient and would benefit from market competition. Finding roots in Milton Friedman, market-oriented education reformers seek to inject competition (note the business terminology) into the public sphere of public education. And, despite a growing body of research that suggests that charter schools underperform traditional public schools (Miron, Mathis, & Welner, 2015) and exacerbate segregation (Author & Lubienski, 2017; Frankenberg, 2011; Frankenberg & Lewis, 2012), and other research raising concerns over alternative certification programs like Teach For America (Brewer, 2014; Anderson, 2013a, 2013b; Redding & Smith, 2016; Scott, Trujillo, & Rivera, 2016), these reforms continue to expand. And these reforms are not conducted within a vacuum. The disproportionate number of TFA alumni who have received the Under30 and the shared language of neoliberal education reform highlight the common understandings and aims of market-oriented reformers (Lahann & Reagan, 2011)…

Given Forbes’ s ideological commitment to promoting business-oriented reforms in education, the Under30 award itself—using the language of industry—highlights the role that neoliberalism continues to play across education reforms. Grounded in the assumption that government is both too ineffective and inefficient to oversee schools (Chubb & Moe, 1990; Friedman, 1955, 1997, 2002; Greene, Forster, & Winters, 2005; Walberg & Bast, 2003), neoliberalism asserts a solution of free-market competition and individualization (Ball, 1994, 2003, 2007, 2012; Giroux, 2004; Harvey, 2005). As explicated in our findings, the individuals who receive the Under30 not only lack degrees in education, but the judges of the award and the majority of the awardees have direct connections to organizations that operate along an ideological commitment to competition, deregulation, and privatization (often, for-profit). In their discussion of alliances and divisions within the policy landscape, DeBray-Pelot, Lubienski, and Scott (2007) outlined how  various types of ideological groups influence policy outcomes. Our analysis here adds to that work by contributing further empirical evidence that the market-oriented landscape has become more complex in that support for such reforms have shared connections across the ideological (and often competing) stances of “Centrist/New Democratic,” (e.g., National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) “Center/Left,” (e.g., Center for American Progress) “Neoliberal,” (e.g., Center for Education Reform, Walton Foundation, Broad Foundation, New Schools Venture Fund, etc.) and “States’ rights” (e.g., American Legislative Exchange Council) groups presented in their findings

If we were to apply social closure theory to Under30, we might ask ourselves: “Who are the judges, and who are the recipients?” The four judges for the 2017 competition were: (1) Stacey Childress, the CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, (2) Arne Duncan, the Managing Partner of Emerson Collective, (3) Wendy Kopp, the Co-founder of Teach for America (TFA) and Teach for  All, and (4) Marcus Noel, the Founder of Heart of Man Ventures and a TFA alum (see Howard & Conklin, n.d.). We might also ask, “Who were the recipients of the award?” If the award recipients  were found to be mostly from the organizations that were connected to the judges, then we might be able to discern whether social closure is occurring. By nominating and awarding Under30 to people like themselves, the judges effectively act as gatekeepers to the resources and benefits that come to those who receive such a designation. Those benefits are national recognition, marketing of the individual and the individual’s organization or business by Forbes , and networking connections made during the Under30 Summit (a multi-day event of speeches and networking). Given that the purpose of the Under30 is to identify and celebrate those who are leading in their industry, receiving the Under30 designation stands to help recipients expand their business ventures.

Raymond Murphy (2001) points out that social closure is really about monopolization of opportunities. What this means is social closure and closed networks lead to protecting power and maintaining the same messages and signal ideologies. Within the realm of the Under30 network, those ideologies are ones that elevate ideologies of pro-privatization and pro-marketization of schools and education. These ideologies support the de-professionalization of teacher preparation.  The manifestation of social closure increases and is an outcome of echo chambers whereby members of the closed network not only engage in self-congratulations but rely on the growing network information and resources to further its shared ideology. Social closure is not a new area of study; it has been documented to exist in higher education award systems, such as the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Fellows program (Hartlep et al., 2017). However, the present study contributes new knowledge to how social closure can lead to moving forward policies that are pro-market and pro-privatization and that lead to bolstering edu-preneurship.

The authors reviewed the resumes of five years of recipients of the 30Under30 award. Few of them had studied education.

Only four of 192 Under30 recipients over the last five years have had an undergraduate degree that focuses on education. While 23 have master’s degrees in some field connected to education, many of them completed that training through partnerships between universities and Teach For America (TFA), which has some control over the courses their corps members take...

Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, and Stacey Childress, the CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, both have served as judges for the majority of the years that the Under30 award has included the education industry. Additionally, other judges alongside Kopp and Childress have direct ties to the individuals and organizations being recognized through the award. While there is no way to know the academic background and connections of all of the Under30 nominees—that is, we do not know if the majority of nominees are, for example, TFA alumni—it is clear from our analysis that the majority of the recipients of the award have very close connections to the judges and their organizations. And while we explore the specific connections below, because the judges are so closely connected to the individuals that receive the award the Under30 serves as a mechanism through which judges are able to highlight the individuals and alums of their organizations.

Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education 13 recipients can, in turn, use the platform the Under30 award affords to further market and promote their specific brand of education reform. This process feedback loop becomes reciprocal. For example, Marcus Noel, who, having connections to TFA was awarded the Under30 in 2016, became a judge in 2017. Additionally, Joe Vasquez, a judge for the newly announced 2018 cohort of Under30, has direct connections to TFA and was, himself, a recipient of the award in 2017 when Kopp was a judge (Kopp was also a judge in 2018).

The paper goes on to describe the networks within which most of the awardees are embedded, the most prominent being Teach for America. Although TFA comprises less than 1% of teachers in the nation, TFA alums comprise 22% of the 30Under30 awardees. It helps that Wendy Kopp is often one of the judges of the competition.

The paper has some very illustrative sociograms that show the connections among the organizations, the judges, and the awardees.

They conclude:

Our findings suggest that the Forbes  Under30 award, its judges, and the growing network that the award creates both benefits from and reinforces social closure. The theory of social closure examines the myriad ways in which individuals and institutions are able to restrict access while simultaneously protecting the resources, power, and influence that members on the inside have and share among each other. If we believe the Under30 award to be a prestigious award, as Forbes suggests, then we should equally expect that those recommended for the award undergo a rigorous  Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education 19 and unbiased selection process. Yet, our findings suggest that the judges of the Under30 award systematically select individuals who are either directly associated with the organizations that the judges represent and/or those who share the same ideological commitments to education reform— ideological homophily. Such a reality is suggestive of an echo chamber where individuals within, or close to, the reform network are selected for the award as a means of self-congratulating the ideology fueling their reforms and, in short, self-congratulating the judges since the recipients of the awards largely come from the judge’s organizations.

In short, the 30Under30 competition is an echo chamber where the judges select members of their own or similar organizations and complete a closed circle. The judges use their influence to enhance their power and promote their proteges. In normal terms, this would be considered a conflict of interest.

Three scholars have recently published a very informative book about the history of education in New Orleans. The authors tell this story by scrutinizing one very important elementary school in the city, the one that was first to be desegregated with one black student in 1960. The book is titled William Frantz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery in New Orleans (Peter Lang). The authors are Connie L. Schaffer, Meg White, and Martha Graham Viator.

This is the school that enrolled 6-year-old Ruby Bridges in November 1960. Her entry to the school each day, a tiny little girl accompanied by federal agents, was met with howling, angry white parents. Her admission to an all-white school in New Orleans was a landmark in the fight to implement the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. It was immortalized by Norman Rockwell in a famous painting called The Problem We All Live With.

The authors set the stage for their history by pointing out that the Reconstruction-era constitution of Louisiana forbade racially segregated schools. In the early 1870s, about one-third of the public schools in New Orleans were racially integrated. Some schools had racially integrated teaching staffs. School board members were both white and black. When Reconstruction ended, rigid racial segregation and white supremacy were restored.

The William Frantz Public School opened in 1938 as a school for white children. It occupied almost a full city block.It was one of the few schools built during the Depression. It was built to accommodate 570 children. The authors demonstrate the vast inequality between white schools and black schools. Not far away was a school for black children of elementary age. Not only were black schools overcrowded, but black neighborhoods had problems with poorly maintained sewers, streets, sidewalks, gas and water lines, and structurally unsound buildings. Black schools were dilapidated, students shared desks, and class sizes were often in excess of 60 children to one teacher. Black students had fewer instructional hours than white students, due to overcrowding. White teachers were paid more than black teachers.

Black citizens of New Orleans were outraged by these conditions but they were politically powerless. The white power structure did not care about the education of black children.

Then came the Brown decision of 1954, which declared the policy of “separate but equal” to be unjust. The federal courts moved slowly to implement desegregation, but eventually they began to enforce it. The federal district judge who took charge of desegregation in New Orleans was J. Shelley Wright, a graduate of the city’s white schools. He determined to implement the Brown decision, despite the opposition of the Governor, the Legislature, the Mayor, and prominent white citizens of the city, as well as White Citizens Councils.

In 1958, the Louisiana legislature passed several measures to weaken desegregation efforts including laws allowing the governor to close any school that desegregated, providing state funds to any students seeking to leave the traditional public schools, and granting the state sweeping power to control all schools.

Their well-written history brings the reader to the present, to the all-charter model that privatizers hold up as an exemplar for every urban district troubled by low test scores and white flight.

The section of the book that I found most interesting was their detailed account of the white reaction to the prospect of school integration, despite the fact that the black students who applied to attend white schools were carefully screened for their academic potential and their behavior. Ruby Bridges was the one and only student chosen to start desegregation. Crowds gathered every morning to spit and scream. They harassed not only Ruby, with her federal protection, but any white student who dared to enter the school. Their blockade eventually forced whites to abandon the William Franz Public School. A few persisted, but little Ruby never met them. She was assigned to a classroom with no other students and one teacher.

The whites who tried to stay in the school were subject to threats of violence. Some lost their jobs, as did Ruby’s father. They feared for their lives. The hatred for blacks by whites was explosive. The portrayal of malignant racism is searing.

A relatively small number of whites tried to calm the situation. One such group was called Save Our Schools. They reached out to the white parents of the school, trying to bring peace and reconciliation.

In perhaps the most disturbing response to an SOS mailing, a WFPS parent who had received a letter from SOS returned the letter smeared with feces. A handwritten comment on the letter stated the parent would rather have ignorant children then to send them to a “nigger school.”

The mob won. By the middle of the school year, fewer than 10 white students remained in the school, and they too needed protection. By 1993, not one white student attended the school.

As the tumult continued after Ruby’s admission, prominent whites funded private schools so that white students could escape the specter of desegregation. The Legislature passed laws to support the resistance to desegregation and to give vouchers to whites fleeing the public schools and to underwrite the private academies where racist white students enrolled.

When the battle over desegregation began, New Orleans schools enrolled a white majority. Racism led to white flight, and before long the school district was overwhelmingly black, as was the city.

The authors detail the problems of the district. Not only was it segregated and underfunded, but its leadership was unstable. The management was frequently incompetent and corrupt. Its accounting department was a mess. So was Human Resources. Teachers were not paid on time. The management was woeful. The state wanted to take control of the district before Hurricane Katrina. Three months before the disastrous hurricane, the state leaned on the district to hire a corporate restructuring firm at a cost of $16.8 million.

In June, the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board signed an agreement relinquishing the management of the district’s multi-million dollar operating budget to the state. As a result, the district entered into negotiations with a New York turnaround management corporation, Alvarez and Marsal, to oversee its finances. In the contract, the board not only surrendered financial control, it also granted the firm authority to hire and fire employees.

Alvarez & Marsal put one of its senior partners, Bill Roberti, in charge of the district. Before joining the management consultants, Roberti had run the clothing store Brooks Brothers. A&M had previously received $5 million for a year of controlling the St. Louis school district, which was not “turned around,” and collected $15 million for reorganizing New York City’s school bus routes, with poor results (some children were stranded for long periods of time, waiting for buses on the coldest day of the year).


Before the hurricane, the state created the Recovery School District (in 2003) to take control of failing schools. In 2004, it passed Act 9, which allowed the state to take over schools with an academic score of 60 or less and hand them over to charter operators. After the hurricane, the Legislature passed Act 35, which changed the criteria for takeover and paved the way for the Recovery School District to take charge of most of the city’s public schools. Parents got “choice,” but the new charter schools created their own admissions policies, and most did the choosing.

Prior to Act 35, schools with School Performance Scores below 60 were considered to be in academic crisis. Act 35 raised the threshold score to 87.5, virtually ensuring every school in Orleans Parish would be deemed in academic crisis, and therefore, eligible for takeover by the Recovery District…Act 35 achieved what Governor Davis, Leander Perez, and segregationists failed to do in 1960. Act 35, for all intents and purposes, allowed the State of Louisiana to seize control of the Orleans Parish school district…The takeover of the failing schools within Orleans Parish made the Recovery District the largest school district in the State of Louisiana. Had the threshold for the School Performance Score not been raised in Act 35, the Recovery District would have taken over only 13 schools and had a much reduced presence and influence in public education in New Orleans.

After the hurricane, district officials and Alvarez & Marsal issued a diktat permanently terminating the jobs and benefits of more than 7,500 teachers and other staff.

Sixteen years since Hurricane Katrina and the privatization of public schools in New Orleans, the debate about the consequences continues, as it surely will for many more years.

For those interested in New Orleans, I recommend this book, along with Raynard Sanders’ The Coup d’Etat of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power, and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System, Kristen Buras’ Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. For a favorable view of the charter takeover, read Douglas Harris’s Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education.



The privatization movement is built on the ideology of “a backpack full of cash.” Give the money to the family and let them spend it where and how they want. The money is not actually in the child’s backpack, but handed out to families to spend as they wish. If they want their child to attend a religious school or a private school or a for-profit school or a virtual charter school or home school, here is a voucher worth $5,000.

This approach discounts the obligation of the community and society to provide certain basic goods and services that are available to everyone. We have public beaches, public parks, public transportation, police, firefighters, and other goods and services that are the responsibility of government. We pay taxes to maintain public schools, even if we don’t have children ourselves. We pay taxes to maintain public schools, even if our own children are grown and are no long in school. We pay taxes to maintain public schools, even if our own children attended private schools. That’s what a community does to make sure every child is educated. It is the job of the polity to assure that all public schools have equitable and adequate resources.

The “bait and switch” of the school choice is to individualize the social obligation and turn it into a consumer choice. This is a deceptive way of evading society’s obligation to ensure that every school, wherever it is located, has equitable and adequate resources. All schools should have the resources they need for the children they serve: well-tended buildings, a library with up-to-date technology, a full arts program, experienced teachers, small classes, a curriculum that includes history, science, civics, mathematics, literature and foreign languages.

But some very rich people don’t like paying taxes so poor kids can have what their children have, and they have persuaded many legislators to buy into the hoax of school choice. Persuasion takes the form of campaign contributions, and they are very generous with their efforts to evade taxes that serve the good of all.

This reader explains:

I just don’t get why it is so hard to get the message across that we are not purchasing our own child’s education, we are providing a public good that educates all children. We are not buying the right to use roads or police and fire services, we are participating in the funding of those common goods for the entire community.

This situation points out the importance of avoiding public/private partnerships or at least structuring them much differently (to avoid huge tax write-offs). If everyone pays their taxes, the needs of the community will be met through that common collection. When private sources get to direct what happens, that means the common good has been sabotaged. No private entity should be dictating what the common good will be.

Gary Rubinstein is well known to readers of this blog, as I have posted almost all of his blogs. He is a career high school math teacher in the New York City public schools. I met Gary about ten years ago, when I had made a complete turnaround in my views about testing and choice. I was working on an article about “miracle schools” that fudged their data and discovered that Gary was an expert on reviewing school-level data and exposing frauds. He helped me write an article (“Waiting for a Miracle School”) that appeared in the New York Times in 2011, and he has continued to be a friend ever since. Gary’s analytical skills have been invaluable in fighting off idiotic “reforms,” like evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores (known as VAM). In his multiple posts on that subject, he showed its many flaws. For example, an elementary teacher might get a high score in reading and a low score in math, posing the dilemma of whether the district could fire her in one subject while giving her a bonus in the other. I confess that I am a person of The Word, and I have never taken the time to learn how to put graphics into my posts. I can’t even reproduce charts. I only do words. So when I need to post a pdf or a graphic or anything else that is not words, I turn to Gary for help and he is always there for me. In addition to being a math and computer whiz, Gary is an author. As most of you know, Gary began his career working for Teach for America. As he explains below, he became disillusioned with the “reform” spin just as I became disillusioned with the propaganda about testing and choice. Gary writes about how strange it is to be frequently attacked on Twitter and other social media by “reformers.” My admiration for him is boundless.

Gary writes:

I got into blogging almost exactly ten years ago, just after the Teach For America 20 anniversary alumni summit.  Until that time, I was unaware of the politics of education and the emerging education reform movement.  I had seen ‘Waiting For Superman’ and knew it was propaganda, but I didn’t quite understand who was benefiting from it or what the possible negative side effects of it could be.

But at that conference it became very clear to me what was going on during a ‘Waiting For Superman’ reunion panel discussion.  I watched as Michelle Rhee, whom I had known from years earlier when we worked together at the Teach For America training institute, and Dave Levin, who I had known for a lot of years from when we were teaching in Houston around the same time.  At the end of the conference, Arne Duncan made an odd speech about how great it was that he shut down a school and fired all the teachers and now it is a charter school in which every student supposedly graduated and got into college.

It sounded fishy to me.  Having worked, by that time, at three different schools that had low standardized test scores, I knew that a school can have good teachers but still have low test scores.  I suspected that there was more to the story than Arne Duncan was saying so I did my first investigation.  Little did I know that it would lead to a ten year adventure that would give me the opportunity to be an investigative journalist and help save the world.  As an added bonus, I made a lot of friends, got a following to read my writing, appeared on NPR and also on a TV show called ‘Adam Ruins Everything.’  But there was a downside to this attention because I also became a target of various known and unknown internet personalities who have attacked, ridiculed, and slandered me.  I think that on balance the good outweighed the bad, but it is sad to me that I have had blog posts about what an awful person I am and there have been podcasts about how I don’t believe in the potential of all children.  Students of mine have googled me and located some of these smears and asked me about them.  It’s hard to explain to them that I’m embroiled in a strange war where the FOX news of education wants to vilify me for telling the truth.

Here is a recent example where Chris ‘Citizen’ Stewart, the CEO of the Education Post website, compares my views with those of Charles Murray of ‘The Bell Curve’ fame.

I suppose my story is that I was the right person at the right time and in the right place.  The small group of resistors to the misguided bipartisan teacher-bashing agenda needed someone like me.  I was a Teach For America alum so I had that whole ‘war veteran against the war’ kind of credibility.  I was very patient and able to comb through state data.  I was a math major in college so I was able to do some basic statistics and make the scatter plots that helped the cause so much.  You may or may not know that I have slowed down a lot on my blogging.  After about 7 years of intense blogging, I started to burn out.  Fortunately other bloggers came on the scene and took up the cause and have been great.  I do try to blog from time to time still, but I have also been doing other projects, like my recent effort to explain all the essentials of elementary school, middle school, and high school math in one ten hour YouTube playlist.  These efforts come from the same source — the desire to help students learn.  Whether it is by fighting off a destructive element or in providing a free resource that anyone in the world can access, I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished in the last ten years.

I want to thank the great Diane Ravitch for taking me under her wing and for being a great mentor and friend.  I wish for her a speedy recovery from her surgery.

Here is a presentation I did at Tufts University describing my journey from teacher to crusader:

Jack Schneider is a historian of education at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. He and Jennifer Berkshire recently published a superb book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, which I recommend to you.

The “Public” in Public Schools

There are two stories that we tell over and over these days about our schools. The first is that schools are a mechanism for getting ahead in our society. In a competition of each against every, schools are the ostensibly meritocratic sorting mechanism that determines who gets what. The second story is that schools are the engine of the economy. Education builds human capital, which in turn promotes economic growth.

These aren’t entirely wrong. Despite the fact that the privileged work feverishly to tilt the playing field for their children, schools can and often do serve a leveling function. And it is impossible to imagine the American economy thriving in the same way without an educated populace. Yet this is a torturously narrow way of understanding the value of public education.

We don’t have public schools in this country so that young people can win advantage in an unequal society (and we especially don’t have public schools so that racially and economically advantaged families can launder their privilege). Nor do we publicly fund education so that the private sector can reduce the costs of training labor. Instead, we tax ourselves to pay for universal K-12 education because public schools are the bulwark of a diverse, democratic society. 

The founders knew this. As early as the 18th century, leaders were making the case that education was too important to be left to the whims of the market. If the young republic was to be governed by the people, those people needed access to schooling. Of course, education wasn’t universal from the outset; racially minoritized students were excluded and segregated, low-income students attended poorly-funded schools, and students with disabilities were refused at the door. But access to public education increased in commensuration with the recognition of other rights. Over time, our notion of “we the people” has expanded most obviously in our schools, and the benefit of this has accrued to all of us. We live in a stronger and healthier society because of our investments in public education.

And public schools weren’t merely seen as purveyors of academic content. As early advocates like Horace Mann understood, an increasingly diverse society needed a mechanism for fostering civic relationships and mutual understanding. Schools could draw young people from various walks of life together under a common roof and teach them to work in common cause. Although this inclusive vision of education has often remained an elusive ideal, integrated schools are also a reality. They have strengthened all of the communities in which they exist, and at a time of increased social fracturing it is perhaps more important than ever to heed the wisdom of Thurgood Marshall—that “unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will learn to live together.”

As Jennifer Berkshire and I document in our new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door (which Diane wrote about in The New Republic), public education in this country is presently facing an extinction threat. Those who wish to privatize it like to make the case that the “public” part of public education isn’t so important; in fact, they argue that it’s a liability. I vehemently disagree. In the nineteenth century, we had a system much like the one envisioned by the radical right. And is essential to remember that public education was developed as a replacement for that largely-private system, which had proven insufficient at advancing the public good. There are things that all young people in this country should learn, and common destinies for which they should be prepared. Moreover, this is work that should be done in equal fashion for all, since we all stand to benefit from the education of our populace.

We’ve been so distracted by the use of schools for social mobility and economic sorting that many of us have forgotten about the essential role education plays in making and sustaining an American public. Yet what other institutions do we have for fostering the kinds of civic virtues that increasingly seem so short in supply? Shall we leave it to private entities to build that public? Do we trust that the profit motive will advance the interests of us all? Whatever the flaws in our existing system, we risk tremendous harm in unmaking it.