Threats to our nation's public schools are well documented, with evidence bolstered by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who used her Cabinet post over the past four years to advance the flawed claim that school choice is the civil rights issue of our time.
What's not well known is how contrary the work of billionaire voucher proponents and the politicians they control is to our American ideals, unraveling centuries of progress in ensuring quality education available to all.
Professor Derek W. Black, a constitutional scholar at the University of South Carolina School of Law, sets the record straight in “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.” In his compelling account of our nation's founding, growth and civil rights conflicts, he reminds us the right to public education is a cornerstone of our democracy.
Black turns a sharp focus on the fine details of U.S. history, highlighting education's “origin story.”
“The undisputed and easiest facts to verify are these: All fifty state constitutions include an education clause or other language that requires the state to provide public education,” he writes. “By law, Congress explicitly conditioned Virginia's, Mississippi's and Texas' readmission to the Union based on the education rights and obligations they had just put into their constitutions.”
No states entered the Union without an education clause; New Mexico's petition for statehood was rejected until one was included. And the public education systems of all states except for the original colonies were funded and expanded by federal land grants. Those facts stand not as a coincidence, Black argues, but as evidence of the commitment to public education stretching to the first days of the republic. The integral role of public education was clear in the writings and work of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, with the former tying the case for public schools to independence as early as 1765.
“The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country,” Adams wrote. “It is even of more consequence to the rich themselves, and to their posterity.”
Creating the grand system of public education would be an uphill struggle. But the relentless pursuit of equity and equality, detailed over decades of civil rights struggle, adds to the compelling case for public education as a revered feature. Black cites the words of U.S. Sen. Oliver P. Morton, an Indiana Republican who later served as governor, from Congress' Reconstruction debate in 1867.
“Republican government may go on for a while with half the voters unable to read or write, but it cannot long continue,” Morton said in making the case to provide education for emancipated slaves.
“Schoolhouse Burning” is an alarm call, and it rings loudly for Hoosiers. Aside from the state's expansive voucher program, Indiana is without an elected state superintendent, effective today. But the once-elected office demonstrated the value early Americans placed on education, according to Black.
“One of the first steps was to make the state superintendent of education an independent constitutional officer,” he writes of Pennsylvania's 1874 constitution. The superintendent should be “characterized by official purity” and free “from all contaminating influences of political manipulation and management.” Delegates even insisted on separating the description of the office from the part of the constitution pertaining to the executive.
Indiana's loss of an elected superintendent flows directly from the work of so-called education philanthropists and free-market ideologues. On a larger stage, it's another spark in the destruction of public education.
“Schoolhouse Burning” is an unsettling read, but also an enlightening one. The concept of education as a commodity – chosen on the basis of personal preferences and resources – emerges as the radical idea, and as a threat to our democratic ideals. Many who embrace school choice in the name of freedom would do well to learn the origin story of American education.
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.