Public education is often called the bedrock of American democracy and yet few Americans would disagree that it is currently in its worst shape in living memory. After two decades of becoming a standardized testing factory thanks to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race To The Top policies, now an American public school education suddenly means either going to school via videoconference calls from home or going to school wearing face coverings all day long while interacting with teachers through plexiglass. Let’s be clear about something: these are two low-grade options. Though the public school response to Covid-19 may make sense from a public health perspective, the measures being taken are dramatically reducing the quality of public education and therefore the opt-out movement — whose most famous figurehead is Betsy DeVos — is thriving like never before.
Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, is missing nearly 11,000 of its students since it started the school year. Miami-Dade, the fourth-largest, is down 16,000 students. Of 100 districts National Public Radio sampled in a recent survey, Kindergarten attendance is down 16%. This is all very good news for school choice and school privatization, but very bad news for public education and American democracy.
The origins of American public school date back to 1642 when the colony of Massachusetts founded the first public school system “taking into consideration the great neglect of many parents and masters in training up their children in learning and labor.” Concern about America’s social cohesion and democratic virtues underpinned primary and secondary school universalization in the first half of the 20th century and much of the movement-building around public school education today. Deborah Meier, educator and founder of the small schools movement, calls public education “a necessary and secure part of this American dream of steady progress” in her 1995 book The Power of Their Ideas and says that “schools embody the dreams we have for our children. All of them. These dreams must remain public property.”
However, the political movement that would develop in the wake of a series of reforms at the start of the new millennium was not operated or owned by the public. Instead, 2001’s No Child Left Behind gave way to a wave of school choice voucher and for-profit charter school programs which granted motivated parents the opportunity to opt-out of their designated public school and choose a different option for their children. Dramatized in 2010’s school privatization propaganda documentary, Waiting For Superman, parents of low-income students would devote emotional and political resources that they would otherwise dedicate to