The future of public education is on the ballot this year.
Unfortunately, most voters aren’t aware of this. The pandemic has displaced school funding and teacher pay as critical issues — issues critical enough in 2018 and 2019 to fuel massive protests across the country. Many families are focused solely on the immediate questions of when and how their children will physically return to school. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has drawn schools into his culture war, claiming that young people are being taught to hate America and demanding what he calls “patriotic education.”
Behind the crisis and Trump’s distractions, however, is a simple truth: Rather than working to improve public education, his administration has waged a full-frontal assault on it. And four more years will have devastating consequences for the nearly 90% of American children who attend public schools — children of both Republicans and Democrats.
When Trump selected Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, many took it as a sign that he wasn’t serious. After all, DeVos seemed to know little about public schools. But that was a product of her extremism. Over the last four years, she has been crystal clear that her primary interest in the public education system lies in dismantling it. For evidence, look no further than her proposed Education Freedom Scholarships plan, which would redirect $5 billion in taxpayer dollars to private schools.
Unmaking public education is a long-standing goal of libertarians and the religious right. Conservative economist Milton Friedman conceived of private school vouchers in 1955, and four decades later was still making the case for “a transition from a government to a market system." As they see it, public education is a tax burden on the wealthy, an obstacle to religious instruction, and a hotbed for unionism. Rather than a public system controlled by democratic values, they’d prefer a private one governed by the free market. If they had their way, schools would operate like a welfare program for the poor while the rich would get the best education money could buy. The result would be entrenched inequality and even more concentrated segregation than now exists.
This extreme view has never caught on, largely because public education is a bedrock American institution. Many states created public education systems before the nation even existed. Massachusetts, for instance, was educating children in public schools long before tea was dumped in Boston Harbor. In 1787, the federal government explicitly mandated that the center plot of land in every new town in the territories — land that would become states like Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois — be reserved for schools, and that other plots be used to support those schools. After the Civil War, Congress doubled down on that commitment, requiring readmitted Confederate states, and all new states, to guarantee access to public education in their constitutions. In each of these foundational periods, leaders positioned public education at the very center of our democratic project.
The founders and their successors recognized that public education is essential to citizens' ability to govern themselves, not to mention protect themselves from charlatans and demagogues. Public education is the surest guarantee of individual liberty, the founders understood — no less essential than a well-trained army to the survival of the nation. That’s why they recognized that the education of American citizens couldn’t be left to chance.
Public education could have evolved in a very different manner, with the wealthy paying to educate their own kids, while the poor relied on charity. Indeed, so-called “pauper schools” existed prior to the advent of universal tax-supported education. But this approach had major flaws — low-quality opportunities, stigma, and financial instability. Horace Mann, the leader of the “common school” movement, understood that public education could only succeed if it was high-quality, if it educated all children together, and if the burden and benefit of taxation were shared by the entire community.
Democrats and Republicans have long disagreed about the particulars of education policy. But until the recent past, support for public schools was firmly bipartisan. This was true at the state level, as well as at the federal level. But that has changed in recent years. In states like Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Ohio, Republican lawmakers have embraced controversial school voucher programs over the objection of their own constituents. And at the federal level, Betsy DeVos has — contrary to what most Republican voters want — advanced a radical effort to dismantle public education.
As the election approaches, the Trump campaign is vulnerable on education. While his supporters may agree with some of his positions, they also like their public schools and the role those schools play in their communities — particularly in rural areas. They believe that education should be adequately funded and open to all, and that teachers should make a decent living. They know that an educated populace has long been the backbone of America’s democracy, as well as its economy. These are American beliefs, red and blue.
We are here to sound an alarm to Republicans and Democrats. The future of our nation’s public schools is at stake. And insofar as that is the case, the democracy envisioned by our founders — one with universal, tax-supported schooling at its core — hangs in the balance.