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Why This Scholar Says The Last Decade Was One of Public Education’s Most Brutal

By Daarel Burnette II — November 05, 2020 7 min read
Derek Blake

In his latest book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina where he specializes in constitutional law and education, argues that even before the pandemic hit, public schools were undergoing a crisis of confidence.

He talked to Education Week about public schools’ current political standing, how the pandemic could upend funding for public schools. and who’s to blame for the ongoing fiscal crisis.

Why do you call this last decade one of public education’s worst?

We had money, we had teachers and we had privatization all going on at the same time. There was free fall during the last recession, and we thought those budgets would come back, but they didn’t. Legislatures were either eating into them or holding them steady.

We had a war on teachers—an attack on teacher tenure, the attack on benefits, and what they’re doing in the classroom. We thought we could find grossly ineffective teachers using a statistical method and root them out and make them better.

The job has gotten more expectations, less money and a lot more political heat. Some states turned them into boogeymen, and that dried up the teacher pipeline.

Vouchers, which had been a non-issue, never got off the ground, all of a sudden they’re on steroids following the recession. The same with charters after [former U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan] eliminates caps on charters. Now there are federal funds flowing in to increase them.

We didn’t get into the rhetoric: “government schools,” “failing schools.” The rhetoric is inaccurate and hyperbole and mean-spirited. It’s disingenuous. This nation ... has made all the progress it’s made ... through public schools. To target this institution that’s been an engine of opportunity is crazy talk.

Talk more about the failing schools. Were public schools failing?

Empirically, it’s wrong. Our schools are not failing in some new and radical way. We need to be doing better by our students. But if you look at students in the top half, they’re performing as well as any other half in the world. We have a problem with inequality. We deny an education to those in the bottom half. This is not a failure of public schools. This is a failure of commitment, but we’re blaming the victims

Meanwhile, you have all these people debating whether money matters. The secretary of education [Betsy DeVos] is saying we’re wasting money. And yet there’s no empirical evidence to support that at all. There’s certainly waste, but on the average, the data shows us that money matters. It mattered before the recession and during the recession.

They’re just wrong.

Who’s to blame?

All 50 states’ constitutions obligate a public education. That’s the right of our children. It’s the integenerational inheritance that they get. It’s the foundation of our democracy. So when legislatures refuse to fund an adequate education, that is a state’s role.

I put the fault on Congress, Arne and [U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos] because they’re making matters worse. And it’s through acts of omission: I do believe that there is a federal role in education to ensure that everyone can participate in a democracy. So far as the feds have set back and ignored segregated schools, then they are complicit. They’re aiding and abetting states.

How did tax cuts after the recession hurt public schools?

North Carolina and Kansas are perfect examples. North Carolina passed these enormous tax cuts, and they’re cutting from their public education funds to cut these taxes.

When the economy rebounds, we expected them to replenish those funds. North Carolina was doing so well, it was running half a billion surplus and yet they still didn’t put it into education. I don’t see how you can justify that.

[Republican Gov. Sam] Brownback was promising in Kansas that he could jump-start the economy with tax cuts as well, and that he wouldn’t have to enact budget cuts in K-12. This is all part of a master plan to, as Grover Norquist, said, “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.”

Democratic states have done a better job than Republican states but it’s dangerous to paint with too broad of a brush. One of the important things I focus on is the fact that public education until the modern era, was not a D or R issue. It’s always had bipartisan support. You couldn’t rise to statewide politics and oppose public education. Until this fall, there’s never been a major party candidate that opposes public education.

But that just shows how politicized it’s become. The fact that there’s an enormous gap between parties is hugely problematic when you consider education was the foundation of democracy and stood outside politics. Even with all of our country’s racial issues, it’s survived. Now what we’re doing is we have governors and presidential candidates turning their backs on 250 years of history and we should be scared about that reality.

Is there a way to make public education nonpartisan again?

I don’t have good answers on how we can get back there. But, there’s still widespread bipartisan support for public education among voters. There seems to be a disconnect from what regular people want and what public officials are doing. Republican leaders have been able to take radical positions and win primaries. Democrats have gotten so used to being bipartisan that we didn’t realize those folks are coming for our kids.

They also say their taxes are too high.

That’s true, but I don’t know many people who complain about their level of taxes that go to public schools. There are xenophobic complaints such as, “I don’t want my money going to those kids.” But when you ask, should we tax to support to support public schools? Most people say yes.

Can budget cuts to public schools prolong the recession?

Teachers are an enormous part of our workforce. When you’re cutting money from public schools, you’re cutting jobs. It’s not like teachers are highly compensated anyways. There’s not a lot of fat to be cut. I don’t know what the end goal is with cutting money from public schools. I don’t buy the argument that this is good for the economy. If we want to have families who are resilient in the workforce, who have skills that are needed by employers, for a lifetime, we are going to have to do that through our public school system. Are we being smart or are we being short sighted? Money reduces overall governmental costs.

What worries you most about this pandemic?

Public schools have still not fully recovered from the last recession. Half the states had, and half the states have not.

How much can we expect them to suffer and still make it through? We’re getting to the breaking point for a lot of these schools. I worry that the current conversation that’s blaming our public schools for not opening during the pandemic and holding the economy back won’t help. They vilify the school, because a certain percentage of people latch onto this.

Privileged families are opting out of public school systems and enrolling their kids into the private school system. If they don’t come back, we’ve got a huge political problem. States used to operate pauper schools, they didn’t operate regular schools. There was a stigma that public school was for poor students because all public schools were pauper schools. Now, we believe that public education is for everyone and that it brings us together. This pandemic is potentially driving a wedge where the more politically powerful push themselves out of the public school system and it moves us closer to idea that they should just be for poor people.

If we get close to that situation, we’re going to have a bigger problem of getting people to support public schools.

We’ve had worse moments than this before such as post-Reconstruction in the South, the backlash to civil rights moments in the ‘70s and ‘80s, both eras in which politicians undermined democracy and went after public schools. They segregated schools, underfunded schools all in an effort to stop integration. Those are terrible moments in American history but the idea of public education and its roots were strong enough that they lived on.

Public schools stand on a strong ideal that can make it through this pandemic.

What do you make of public support of public schools right now?

Anything that the #RedforEd Movement in 2018 and 2019 showed, when 50,000 marched on state capitals, is that a public education is what regular people expect.

I’m an optimistic guy. I think public education is here for a reason and that it’s made it this far for a reason. But as I say at the end of the book, when there’s a challenge confronting the country such as political polarization, cultural division and the fracturing of our democracy, when it doesn’t even seem to function, our public schools from day one have been about closing that cultural gap. It brings people from different religions and statuses together to find a common good. Public schools are our way out of these cultural and political problems.

Most people aren’t hyperpartisan. We need to take the bull by the horns and say, we can begin to heal this nation’s wounds.

That’s a key message in book, that schools can unify this nation. I think on an instinctual level, I think voters get that. There seems to be this populist revolt that wants to tear down the government, but when you ask regular folks about their commitment to public education, they don’t want to throw that away.

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