Rachel Cohen interviewed Cara Fitzpatrick, editor at Chalkbeat, for a piece at Vox about Fitzpatrick's upcoming book, The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America. Despite its depressing title, I've ordered the book, and I'll probably write about it once I've read it, but the interview triggered a few thoughts as Fitzpatrick teases some of what's in the book.
Is public education actually dead yet? That's a point that can be argued, but we're going to skip it for now. She may just mean "public education as we know it": in which case, sure, because the "as we know it" has died a few times already. I'll wait to see how she clarifies it in the book. (So, yes--I asked the question in the title, and I'm not really going to try to answer it.)
There's the destruction of the wall between church and state/public schools. Fitzpatrick describes it as a "small legal window" that has conservatives have "cleaved open wider" over time, with the Supreme Court going after the establishment clause to an extent that she says has "gone even farther than school choice advocates thought it would."
Fitzpatrick says she wanted to keep things neutral, but help someone understand how we got to today's universal voucher situation. She talks about Polly Williams, who wrote the first choice legislation and soon repudiated it (she took to calling choice a Catholic movement) as a connection of sorts between the first choice wave (the racist, anti-integration one) with the modern "social justice and civil rights" one. I think we can reserve judgment on all of that until we see how she manages it in the book.
Fitzpatrick notes that education "can really change in a short period of time," but she also notes that conservatives successfully played a long game on vouchers. She also points to a shift in message, from "choice will drive improvements in the public system" to the current "government schools are full of pedophile groomers and we should burn them all down."
I'm not sure that's a change in the message of choice so much as a shift in the allies that free marketeers, the true heirs of Milton Friedman, have put themselves with. When they were allied with Democrats like the Clintons and Obama, the fix public school rhetoric made sense. But now that they're linked up with the Chris Rufo-Betsy DeVos full-on burn it down wing, that message predominates. She correctly links to that Jay Greene piece advocating that long-time reformsters should use the culture wars to push their agenda.
Fitzpatrick is curiously fuzzy on the research on voucher outcomes. Though she agrees that research shows "that the programs haven't lived up to the promise of what early advocates wanted or assumed would happen," she finds that wading through all the studies out there "can be a little intimidating," which tells me that she didn't talk to Josh Cowen, who has been wading through that research for twenty-some years, originally with the intent of touting voucher awesomeness, and come to some fairly clear conclusions-- vouchers have lousy outcomes for students.
Cohen asks her about the role of unions in the rise of vouchers, and Fitzpatrick says she doesn't see much difference being made by them, which I think is a short part of a complex answer, because unions, by getting behind the Democrats on issues-- especially Common Core (back when Dems joined up with conservatives on this stuff)-- helped fuel the narrative that US schools are "failing," which in turn fueled the push for vouchers.
And here she gets something almost on the nose:With teacher unions, what’s interesting is that a lot of their fears about where the programs would go seem to have come true. Unions warned from the start that this was not in fact going to be just a little experiment, that these programs are not going to be just limited to disadvantaged students, and now we are seeing these universal programs pass.
Instead of saying their "fears" now "seem to have come true," let's say instead that their predictions turned out to be accurate.
There are other points that she misses that I hope make it into the book.
For instance, voucher advocates needed to take a long game approach because the short game--having taxpayers democratically install vouchers--never works. Doing an end run around democratic processes takes a little time and a long game that involves getting key people in key spots. The problem on the voucherfied far right is the same problem as the problem they have with outlawing abortion and proving that Trump won in 2020--the majority of American voters don't agree with them. So part of the long game has been to deliberately chop away at public trust in the public school system.
What I really hope made it into the book is an understanding of the larger implications of a voucher system.
It's not just about privatizing the education product; it's about privatizing the responsibility for procuring an education for your children. A world in which vouchers rule and public education is dead is a world in which getting your child a quality education is nobody's problem but yours. It's a world in which you have to find vendors you can convince to take your child on as a "customer," and if that's hard--well, that's your own problem. Hard to pay for that quality education on your own, even with your voucher pittance? That's also your own problem.
Voucherworld is all about ending society's shared responsibility for providing each child with a decent education, and letting the market decide who deserves what based on their ability to pay, just as the market decides who deserves to drive a new Lexus and who deserves to drive a used Kia. Who deserves a fancy prep school, who deserves a microschool of neighborhood kids gathered around a computer screen, who deserves an education composed of facts rather than church-approved "facts," and who deserves to get an "education" in widget building? In voucherworld, the marketplace will decide, and parents will have no avenue for appeal.
In short, I hope that Fitzpatrick's book is not just about what system may (or may not) be on the verge of death, but what U.S. citizens are expected to accept in its place.