During her tenure as secretary of education, Betsy DeVos repeatedly asked Congress to allocate billions of dollars for vouchers for religious and private schools. She was repeatedly rebuffed. Even Republican members of Congress were unwilling to use the federal education budget to pay for vouchers. After all, most of their constituents’ children attend public schools.
After the pandemic struck, DeVos tried again. Late last March, Congress passed a $2.2 trillion relief bill called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which allocated $13.2 billion for K–12 education. Congress expected that the money would be shared, as federal education funds typically are, among the nation’s nearly 100,000 public and 7,000 charter schools, as well as private schools based on the number of low-income students they enroll. DeVos instead directed states to share the money allotted to public schools with private and religious schools that enrolled middle-income and affluent students. The NAACP and several states responded with lawsuits, arguing that her order was illegal. Three federal judges in different parts of the country ruled against DeVos, and she backed down.
But the Trump administration found another way to enrich charter and private schools. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), also part of the CARES Act, was supposed to rescue small businesses. Lobbyists for the charter industry, however, encouraged charter schools to apply as nonprofits, thus double-dipping into both the public school and PPP funds (public schools were ineligible for PPP funding). Private and religious schools also qualified for PPP funds as nonprofits. Therefore, through a bill supposed to aid small businesses at risk of bankruptcy, thousands of charter, private, and religious schools received an average of about $855,000 each, compared to about $134,500 per public school through CARES. Religious schools of every denomination, elite private schools, and more than one thousand charter schools received anywhere from $150,000 to $10 million each according to a database compiled by a website called COVID Stimulus Watch. Antelope Valley Learning Academy, a charter school in California, received $7.8 million. The for-profit Academica Corporation charter school chain won $28.6 million. Buckingham Browne & Nichols, an elite private school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has a thousand students, high school tuition of $52,300, and an endowment of $75 million, received between $5 million and $10 million. The Paycheck Protection Program turned out to be a multibillion-dollar bonanza for nonpublic and religious schools, at a time when most public schools lacked the funding to pay for social distancing, health measures, and personal protective equipment for students and staff.
DeVos has spent the past three decades leading a campaign against public schools and personally subsidizing political candidates who favor private alternatives. Trump’s decision to appoint her as secretary of education was a reward to right-wing Christian groups that share her extremist views. In The Power Worshippers, Katherine Stewart documents these groups’ long-standing crusade against public schools. They are “the New Right,” the Moral Majority, Christian nationalists, and the Christian Coalition: angry crusaders against secularism, liberalism, abortion, feminism, gay rights, and public schools. They include groups like Capitol Ministries, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Council for National Policy, and the World Congress of Families. At least eleven members of the Trump cabinet met weekly for Bible study with Ralph Drollinger, the leader of Capitol Ministries, who argues that God favors private property owners and that social welfare programs “have no basis in Scripture.” The needs of the poor, he writes, should be addressed not by government but by “the husband in a marriage…the family (if the husband is absent) and…the church.”
Initially, the animating issue behind this amalgam of radically conservative groups was not abortion, Stewart’s reporting shows, but protection of the tax-exempt status of segregated schools and universities after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Many of the “segregation academies” for whites that sprang up in response to Brown were affiliated with conservative religious groups that believed that racial segregation was ordained by God. But their leaders knew that they could not build a national movement around the issue of protecting the tax advantages of racist schools. Not until 1979, six years after Roe v. Wade, did the religious right settle on abortion as its unifying cause.
Stewart traces the roots of the hatred of public schools to Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian pastor. Born in Virginia in 1820, Dabney was a defender of slavery and critic of the theory of evolution. He complained about “having to pay taxes to support a ‘pretended education to the brats of black paupers.’” After the Civil War—during which he served as a Confederate army chaplain—Dabney tried to undermine Reconstruction by attacking “the Yankee theory of popular state education.” He proclaimed that public education was “pagan” and “connected by regular, logical sequence with legalized prostitution and the dissolution of the conjugal tie.”
In the twentieth century Dabney’s ideological descendants denounced the New Deal and welfare programs as theft from the rich, which was contrary to God’s word. These right-wing theologians claimed that public schools were anti-Christian, amoral, atheistic “government schools” determined to destroy God, religion, and the family. They found allies in the Austrian school of economics, which espoused libertarian views, opposing the welfare state, labor unions, public education, and any other government efforts to intervene in the free market. In 1979 Jerry Falwell Sr. said he looked forward to a time when there wouldn’t be “any public schools—the churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them.” Stewart cites this 1982 statement by Gary North, who is both an Austrian school economist and a leader in the Christian reconstructionism movement:
Let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.
A number of charter school chains, including Heritage Academy in Arizona and Newman International Academies in Texas, were started in recent years by Christian nationalists, who use their tax-funded schools to teach their religious values. By allying themselves with secular education reformers, the Christian nationalists have been able to make “remarkable progress,” Stewart writes, toward their goal of converting “America’s public schools into conservative Christian academies.”
The project of turning America’s public schools into privately managed charters with minimal regulation has been advanced with funding not only from the DeVos and Koch families, but also from billionaire charter school supporters like Bill Gates, Reed Hastings (a graduate of Buckingham Browne & Nichols), Eli Broad, the Walton family, Michael Bloomberg, and the Wall Street hedge fund managers who are part of a privatization group called Democrats for Education Reform. These individuals and groups contribute to state and local school board candidates who favor school choice, as well as directly funding school choice organizations.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, US public schools typically enrolled 90 percent or more of the nation’s students; since the introduction of charter schools in the early 1990s, that share has dropped to 85 percent. The charter sector has increased to seven thousand schools, which enroll 5 percent of the country’s 56.4 million students, though its expansion has slowed over the past five years in part because of the high rate of failure of charter schools. (Approximately 10 percent of students are enrolled in private schools, although a precise snapshot of enrollment at any given time is hard to come by, since families move, schools close, and a shifting percentage of school-age children may be homeschooled.)
The growth of both charters and vouchers reflects thirty years of advocacy for school choice. The first publicly funded voucher program began in 1990 in Milwaukee and was expanded eight years later to include religious schools. The first privately managed but publicly funded charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. Currently all but four states (Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont) have laws authorizing charters, largely in response to the Race to the Top program designed by President Obama’s secretary of education Arne Duncan, which required states to have charter schools in order to be eligible to compete for $4.35 billion in federal funds. Advocates for school choice claim that charter schools and voucher schools outperform public schools, but most studies find that they typically get the same results as public schools when they enroll students from similar backgrounds, and those that get high test scores choose their students carefully or push out low performers. These findings, however, have not dimmed the enthusiasm for school choice among its very wealthy funders.
How did “school choice” develop into a national movement that has brought public funding to privately managed and religious schools in most states? Catholics unsuccessfully sought public funding for their parochial schools in the 1840s, and then again in the 1960s, when Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Act, which included benefits for low-income students in religious schools. But there was never a national “school choice movement” until more recently. Ronald Reagan, who had attended public schools in Illinois, was persuaded by his friend the libertarian economist Milton Friedman to support vouchers. Friedman’s 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education” advocated for vouchers and employed terminology such as “freedom of choice,” “government schools,” and “mixed schools.” His arguments and rhetoric were quickly embraced by southern segregationists.
Reagan was unable to persuade Congress to pass his proposals for vouchers and tuition tax credits for private schools. In 1981, his first year in office, he created the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which issued a report in 1983 called A Nation at Risk. It decried the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American public schools and blamed the public schools for the loss of American industries to Japan, South Korea, and Germany. It cited low rankings of American students on international tests, without noting that they had always scored poorly on such tests, and that these rankings did not predict future national economic success. It pointed to falling SAT scores, which reflected the increased number of low-income students taking the test. Instead of bolstering support for vouchers and school prayer, as Reagan had hoped, the major accomplishment of the report was to create a false narrative about “failing schools” that sidestepped child poverty, the correlation between test scores and family income, and the failure of American companies to anticipate changes in the marketplace, such as the demand for fuel-efficient cars. With its strident rhetoric about public school failure, A Nation at Risk set the stage for school choice advocates.
The proponents of school choice over the past three decades claim that choice will save poor children who are “trapped in failing public schools.” In a 2017 address, Trump told Congress that “education is the civil rights issue of our time,” meaning that families should be “free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.” Families, of course, have long had that freedom; his proposal was to publicly fund choices outside of public schools. This is high irony, as Steve Suitts demonstrates in Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement. Suitts, the author of a biography of the liberal Supreme Court justice Hugo Black and a longtime civil rights organizer in the South, details the history of school choice, the central strategy of the southern segregationists who fought Brown:
The political movement for “school choice” is employing the icons and language of civil rights and social justice to advance private school vouchers that fifty years ago were primary tools for segregationists to preserve unequal education for African American and Hispanic children. President Trump’s call for a national program of “school choice” echoes the language of George Wallace and others who demanded the federal government and US courts permit Alabama and the South to administer “freedom of choice” for elementary and secondary schools.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, seven states across the South—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—enacted voucher and tuition tax credit plans to subsidize white families fleeing integrating public schools. Suitts writes that white flight was so great that by 1965, “there were nearly one million Southern private school students. Almost all were white.” Promoters of school choice prefer to trace their ideological lineage to Friedman instead of southern segregationists, but their ideas overlap. Language used by various state legislatures sixty years ago seems to presage DeVos’s argument that all students should have government funding to attend the school of their choice; when Georgia enacted tuition tax credits, the state’s attorney general insisted “that any plan to ‘subsidize the child rather than the school’ was lawful.” Suitts finds it remarkable that today’s school choice movement is “replicating so closely the primary strategies and tactics of Southern segregationists while claiming the righteous mantle of the people and movement who fought against those segregationists.”
Most Americans remain stubbornly loyal to their local public schools. Even in states where Republicans have zealously promoted charters and vouchers, like Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, most families still choose public schools, as shown on the websites of state education departments. Indiana has one million students; about 36,000 (3.6 percent) choose vouchers, and 44,000 (4.4 percent) enroll in charters. Florida has three million students; 11 percent are enrolled in charter schools and 5.5 percent in voucher schools (which are mostly religious). In Ohio, where Republicans have prioritized school choice, about 2 percent of the state’s 1.7 million students use vouchers and 6 percent are enrolled in charter schools, most of which are rated D or F by the state. Michigan, DeVos’s home state, has many charters (most operated by for-profit corporations), but only 10 percent of families enroll their children in them. Voters have overwhelmingly rejected vouchers in Utah, Michigan, California, Colorado, Oregon, Florida, Oklahoma, and, most recently, Arizona. Yet the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court seems almost certain to sweep away the provisions in state constitutions that prohibit public funding of religious and private schools.
How did public schools retain this position of public esteem despite nearly four decades of bipartisan denunciations? Derek W. Black’s Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy explores the privileged place that they hold in our country’s history. Black, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina and a civil rights lawyer, makes clear that public education was central to the Founding Fathers’ vision of a new kind of democracy that rests on the consent of the governed. They knew that consent required an educated citizenry. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were particularly outspoken in their belief that the state should bear the expense of education, and that it should not be left to private or religious interests. Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which contained this powerful endorsement of public schools:
Wisdom and knowledge…diffused generally among the body of the people [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties…. It shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the…public schools.
Jefferson proposed a tax-supported school system for Virginia, though it was rejected by the state legislature due to its cost.
What Black considers the strongest endorsement of public schools preceded the Constitution; included in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 was language specifying how the new territories should be organized in order to join the nation as new states, rather than as expansions of existing states. According to the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, Black writes,
every new town had to set aside one-ninth of its land and one-third of its natural resources for the financial support of public education. And every town had to reserve one of its lots for the operation of a public school.
Each town was to be divided into thirty-six squares of equal size; lot sixteen was to be set aside for a public school. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 declared that to ensure “good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Black writes in detail about the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the progress of public education. Before the war, the South had rudimentary schools for white children and none at all for black children. Several southern states forbade teaching enslaved people to read, for fear that they might be exposed to abolitionist literature. Near the end of the war, Congress recognized the urgent need for education for freed blacks by creating the Freedmen’s Bureau to supply teachers, books, and schools to them. African-American leaders saw that their quest for freedom and equality depended on their access to education and urged legislation to open public schools to children of both races.
When the former Confederate states applied for readmission to the Union, Congress required that their state constitutions include a guarantee to provide education to all their citizens. Black notes that “almost all of [the new state constitutions] used the phrase ‘system’ of schools, making statewide and consistent access to public education clear.” Florida mandated “a uniform system of Common Schools” and made it “the paramount duty of the State to make ample provision” for these schools. South Carolina asserted in its constitution that its public schools would be open to all “without distinction of race.” Louisiana’s constitution provided that
all children of this State between the ages of six and twenty-one shall be admitted to the public schools or other institutions of learning sustained or established by the State in common without distinction of race, color or previous condition. There shall be no separate schools or institutions of learning established exclusively for any race by the State of Louisiana.
And this was in 1868!
The contested presidential election of 1876 brought Reconstruction and the days of idealism to an end. The Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote, but the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, and his allies brokered a deal to get the electoral votes of the southern states in exchange for a vow to withdraw Union troops and end Reconstruction. When the military forces left, southern whites systematically withdrew the hard-won rights of African-Americans to voting and schooling. An important residual benefit of Reconstruction was that whites had gained access to public schools and did not want to abandon it. But once they were back in control in the South, they established a dual school system in which black education was sparse and underfunded. And they withdrew African-Americans’ access to the ballot box by introducing literacy tests and other means of denying them the right to vote.
Black describes the woeful state of schools provided to African-American students and the careful legal strategy devised by lawyers for the NAACP that eventually led to Brown. That landmark decision provoked a vigorous and sustained backlash in the South and in other parts of the nation, as Suitts’s book also shows. For more than a decade, the federal courts, Congress, and the executive branch acted in concert to protect Brown and its order to desegregate the nation’s public schools.
But after the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, executive support for desegregation withered, and his four appointees to the Supreme Court—Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell Jr., and William Rehnquist—backed off as well. Their most consequential education decision may have been San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), an appeal for equitable school funding in Texas, which provided half as much money to poor and minority school districts as to other districts. The Court ruled that education is not a fundamental right, a ruling that has been used since then to deny federal lawsuits for equal protection of students, and it backed away from cases seeking remedies for segregated schools. As a result, segregation in the nation’s schools began to reverse course, reaching levels not seen since the early 1960s.
As the federal courts abandoned educational equity and desegregation, litigants looked to state courts, where they often found justices prepared to agree that all children have a right to a sound, adequately funded education. Black asserts that education has a special place in what he calls our democratic ideology:
Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their leaders accountable. Education allows children from all stations of life a fair shot at the American dream…. Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.
The question today, as Stewart, Suitts, and Black agree, is whether public education can survive the attacks by amply funded free-market ideologues, religious zealots, and others who hate the very idea of it. Public schools have always had their critics and their flaws, but—with the singular exception of the segregationist movement of the late 1950s and 1960s—never before has there been a sustained effort to replace them with privately managed charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, online learning, home schooling, and for-profit schooling.
Access to education does not belong in the marketplace. Like police and fire protection, public parks, public highways, and clean air and water, public schools are public goods, funded by and belonging to the public. Public schools are democratic. That may be why the families of most children have ignored the billionaires, hedge fund managers, religious sectarians, and entrepreneurs who have been wooing them for the past three decades. The school choice movement hastens the resegregation of society along lines of race, class, and religion at the same time that it diverts funding from the public schools, making it harder for them to meet the needs of children, families, and communities. As our society grows more diverse, and as our democracy grows more strained by divisiveness, the need for genuine community-based public schools grows stronger.