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Wendy Lecker: Two Books That Demonstrate Why Public Education Matters

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Wendy Lecker is a civil rights attorney who writes frequently for the Stamford Advocate. In this column, she reviews two important books: One shows how deeply embedded public schools are in our democratic ideology, the other describes that coordinated assault on the very concept of public schooling. The first is low professor Derek Black’s Schoolhouse Burning, the other is A Wolf at the Schoollhouse Door, by journalist Jennifer Berkshire and historian Jack Schneider.

Lecker writes:

In his scrupulously researched book, Derek Black emphasizes that the recognition that education is essential to democracy predated public schools and even the U.S. Constitution. He describes how the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, which applied to 31 future states, mandated funding and land for public schools, declaring that education was “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.” Education was not explicitly included in the U.S. Constitution. However, after the Civil War, the United States required Southern states guarantee a right to education in their state constitutions as a condition for readmission. Northern states followed suit. State education articles were based on the notion that education was necessary to citizenship and democracy.

These lofty ideals were often not matched by reality. Enslaved African Americans neither had their freedom nor education. However, African Americans recognized early on that education was the key to full citizenship, and fought for the right to equal access and treatment for all. For Black, the struggle of ensuring equality in public education is intertwined with the struggle for political equality.

Black posits that attacks on public education throughout American history are attacks on democracy itself. Recent events prove his point. For example, Rutgers’ Domingo Morel showed that when majority African-American elected school boards won gains such as increased school funding, states took over those school districts, neutralizing the boards’ power. Northwestern’s Sally Nuamah found that in Chicago, where there is no elected school board, the city’s closure of 50 schools in one year despite protest by the African-American community decreased political participation by that community afterward.

A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” complements “Schoolhouse Burning” by detailing the specific mechanisms those who attack public education have employed in recent years. In this eminently readable book, the authors describe the “unmaking” of public education and the players behind this effort. They explain how the attacks on public schools are part of a larger effort shrink government and in general what the public expects from the public sphere. One target is the largest part of any education budget: teachers. Anti-public education advocates have pushed cutting state spending on education, attacking job protections, de-professionalizing teaching, weakening unions and promoting failed educational ideas like virtual learning- where teachers are replaced by computers. These “unmakers” also aim to deregulate education, including expanding unaccountable voucher and charter schools.

Schneider and Berkshire demonstrate that attacking public education has also torn at the social fabric of America. Attacking unions weakened the base for democratic electoral support. Deregulation resulted in the gutting of civil rights protections for vulnerable students in charter and voucher schools.

Put them both on your Christmas-Chanukah-Kwanzaa shopping list. They are important wake-up calls.

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