School & District Management Opinion

Are the Republicans Abandoning Public Education?

By Marc Tucker — September 01, 2016 8 min read
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I ask this question, of course, partly tongue in cheek. I have good friends—including current and former federal and state officials—who are Republicans who continue to be strong supporters of public education. But I ask it to make a serious point.

The arc of bipartisan support for public schooling began its rise in 1837 when Horace Mann became chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Through the rest of the 19th century, Americans came to take enormous pride in their common schools and to see them as the primary means by which ordinary Americans of modest means who were willing to work hard could vault themselves into the upper reaches of the world’s most egalitarian country. It was a vision shared equally by Republicans and Democrats.

This commitment to schools funded by government, run by government, and staffed by government employees strengthened decade by decade even though most Americans assumed well into the 20th century that government had a limited role at best in relieving social distress. But that assumption changed with the Great Depression and the flood of social safety net legislation that emerged from that existential crisis. Mainstream Republicans and Democrats both supported the new consensus from which that legislation had emerged. The trajectory of support for our public schools as a fixed star in the institutional firmament of our country was, if anything, reaffirmed with the passage of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which together framed a far more assertive role for the federal government in support of the public schools without abridging the state role in education, in an extended bipartisan consensus. That section of the arc included actions by the Supreme Court under the Eisenhower Administration, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation and the commitments made by Richard Nixon when Pat Moynihan was his White House advisor on social policy.

That was before the drift away from supporting our public schools. It started, I suppose, with Ronald Reagan, who famously jested that the person to be afraid of was the one who announced that he or she was from the federal government and was there to help you. Reagan helped to create an environment in which it was ever-more-widely assumed that the government always has two left feet, and, left to its own devices, will always make things worse. Then Grover Norquist managed to get himself—remarkably—into a position in which he could force almost everyone who wanted to run for office as a Republican to take the pledge not to raise taxes, come hell or high water. “My goal,” he famously said, “is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

That proved to be an opening you could drive a truck through. The famous Reagan-era federal report on education, A Nation at Risk, had made it abundantly clear that the education establishment had presided over a catastrophic decline in student performance (which, incidentally, was not true). The charge was that the professional educators had stolen control of the schools from the public to benefit themselves. They were acting as monopolists, driving up the price while providing a product of increasingly shoddy quality. The appropriate response to monopoly providers is competition. The market will do what it does best, raise quality and responsiveness, while lowering cost. Enter, stage right, vouchers and charters.

The text for this hymn was provided by Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who dressed up this idea in economic theory. If the problem was a government monopoly of public education, then the answer was market forces, the power of competition in the education marketplace to do what government, obviously, could not do: right the ship, make our schools better in every way.

These were new ideas in the field of education. Prior to that, when I was growing up, Republicans and Democrats alike assumed that public education would be provided in schools organized by government and staffed with public employees, subject to extensive public regulation by the state. In the post-war years, when returning soldiers and their young wives were making babies at an unprecedented rate, politicians of both parties were falling all over themselves to build and fund public schools to house the great expansion in the size of the student body. It was widely assumed that the professional educators would know what to do with the money and facilities.

But the Vietnam War marked the end of widespread faith that the government could be trusted to do the right thing, the civil rights era made it clear that large numbers of Americans were not being served by the schools and A Nation At Risk delivered the coup de grace by charging professional educators—unfairly—with failing the country.

As time went on, the party cleavage grew. Democratic orthodoxy backed the teachers. Republican orthodoxy backed choice, vouchers and charters. As time went by, many Democrats embraced public charters to stave off private charters and vouchers. Republicans, stymied in their demand to remove the caps on the numbers of charters, responded by pushing draconian accountability systems for the regular public schools, while resisting accountability for the charters.

Now, we see in Kansas and other states the rise of a new phrase to describe what I have always thought of as regular public schools: “government schools.” It is clear in the context that this is meant to be a term of exquisite opprobrium. “Government schools,” it seems, are schools that no right-minded person would want to put their own children in. It is a term which, coming out of the mouths of the people who coined it, is intended to polarize the education debate, to complete the great arc of denigration of the public schools—all public schools—that began with the truck that Milton Friedman built. It is the coining and political circulation of this term that inspired this blog and its title. We have now gotten to the point that, in the eyes of some spokespeople for one of our two great political parties, regular public schools are to be scorned as a group, as are the professional educators who staff them.

The Republican political leaders I admired when I was growing up would be beside themselves to see things come to such a pass. They were political descendants of Teddy Roosevelt, who saw themselves as deep believers in capitalism and, at the same time, deep believers in the need for government to do what capitalism could not do, to do what government does best. They believed that strong, competent government was needed to create the public services that a capitalist society needed to survive and prosper. They would never have recognized a Republican party that wanted to turn the production of a classic public good like education over to private enterprise. They would, at the very least, have demanded evidence that such a strategy actually worked somewhere before trying to do it everywhere. They would have been astounded at the conviction that government could never do anything right except make war.

But the modern Republican Party has become the defender of commercial providers of postsecondary education whose whole business plan is to fleece the taxpayer, put their customers in lifetime debt and provide as little in return as possible. It has become the ardent advocate of school vouchers and very lightly regulated charters, although there is no evidence that vouchers or lightly regulated charters can significantly raise student performance at the scale of a state. It is assuming almost everywhere the position that the strong form of local control is superior to all other forms of educational governance, when there is no evidence whatsoever that this form of governance leads to superior state performance in public education.

My point is very simple. For almost 200 years, there was a political consensus on the need for public schools financed by government, run by government and staffed by government employees. The public schools supported by that bipartisan consensus were arguably the single most important factor in creating the conditions that led to this country becoming the world’s greatest economic power and then the world’s sole superpower. Following the end of the Second World War, the bipartisan consensus on the whole social safety net that ended up greatly strengthening our public schools proved the underpinning of the most remarkable period of growing broadly shared prosperity in the nation’s history.

During the Clinton administration, one could be forgiven for thinking that that consensus had shifted toward choice, charters and privatization. But the recent statements from the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, to say nothing of the nearly universal anger at unscrupulous private providers of post-secondary and vocational education seeking to part poor people from their savings as well as their future earnings, make it clear that whatever the consensus might have been, it is now falling apart.

I hereby submit that the Republican embrace of market solutions in education and their progressive abandonment of their centuries-old commitment to the public schools was an error, an aberration and a mistake. It is time to reverse course, and for the Democrats and Republicans to find common ground as both work together at the state and federal level to figure out how to catch up with the growing list of countries all over the world that are eating our lunch in the field of elementary and secondary education...before it is too late to catch up.

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