Three books critical of education choice, as well as book review, miss the mark

Patrick R. Gibbons

Education historian turned education activist Diane Ravitch critiques three recent books on education choice, but her review, as well as the thought line of the books themselves, contains fatal flaws.

Can public education survive against so-called “free market fundamentalists, religious zealots, and others” who hate the idea of public education and want to replace it with “privately managed charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, online learning, home schooling, and for-profit schooling”?

Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, ponders this question in her recent New York Review of Books examination of three books critical of education choice. But her question, not to mention the review itself, misses the mark, in part because the three authors she reviews substitute “public education” (i.e., taxpayer funded education) for public schools (government owned and operated schools).

Derek Black, author of “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy,” conflates school choice supporters with segregationists as “opponents of democracy,” even when these groups are at odds or when segregationists used democratic means to achieve their ends.

Katherine Stewart, author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism,” conflates all sorts of thinkers as part of a monolithic opposition to public schools while misquoting sources.

And Steven Suitts, author of “Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement,” conflates private school attendance during the 1950s-70s with racist motives.

If the authors are making more complex arguments, Ravitch doesn’t demonstrate it.

Black has argued that following the Civil War “public education corrected the flaws in our democracy.” Citing Black’s book, Ravitch notes that Louisiana’s Constitution of 1868 required all students to have access to free education, regardless of race, and that no school should be established exclusively for any race.

This, we are made to believe, was all undone by “opponents of democracy” who imposed Jim Crow laws and segregated education.

Not only was this not public education fixing flaws in democracy; racial integration wasn’t even achieved democratically in 1868. That was done by the Fifth Military District and Gen. Philip Sheridan. Sheridan had the power to remove democratically elected leaders and replace them with favored political appointees who were loyal to the Union and committed to the cause of racial integration and legal equality.

Louisiana wasn’t the only state that required free schools for Black students following the war. Florida did as well, and like Louisiana, quickly abolished any pretense of equality shortly after democracy was restored.

Louisiana replaced its constitution in 1879, and by 1885, Florida had done the same, cementing racial segregation in law for another 83 years. The state’s first democratically elected superintendent of public instruction spent his career trying to shut down a racially integrated private school and prevent white teachers from educating Black students.

To argue that public education, or even public schooling, is a cornerstone of democracy, there needs to be an acknowledgement that democracy brought about racial segregation. It was non-democratic means, a massive Civil War, and later the U.S. Supreme Court that began the slow march toward equality in education.

Here it seems almost as if Ravitch, and perhaps Black, Suitts and Stewart, are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that public school advocates could also be staunch segregationists.

Historian Phil Magness noted that public school lawyer and advocate John Battle Jr. opposed school vouchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the grounds that it would weaken the district’s ability to resist racial integration. Battle found other pro-segregation allies to oppose school vouchers, including the all-white Virginia Education Association.

Racists and segregationists, such as Gov. Walter Pierce of Oregon and William N. Sheats, recognized as the father of Florida’s public school system, have supported public schools and opposed private ones.

Stewart unearths quotes from obscure villains to argue opposition to public schools is rooted in racism Christian and free market fundamentalists. But this strategy ignores the real and complicated debate about public education and school choice.

Public schools have been supported by “free market fundamentalists” such as Richard Cobden and even the father of capitalism himself, Adam Smith. And they’ve been opposed by thoughtful thinkers such as the scientist who discovered oxygen, Joseph Priestley, as well as New York statesman and abolitionist Garrit Smith.

The father of the modern voucher movement, Milton Friedman, was an agnostic who found racism and segregation to be morally repugnant.

Ravitch’s book review venerates public school advocates as saints defending the education of children fighting racism and saving democracy. The reality is that there have been heroes and villains on both sides, and it’s not clear these books take seriously the rich and complex history of American education and school choice.

In the end, Ravitch remains convinced that most parents remain loyal to their public school despite 47 states offering voucher, tax credit or charter school programs.

Indeed, many parents are satisfied. But that doesn’t justify her opposition to giving all parents, especially those in underserved communities, the same choices she had.

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