Is public education part of the foundation of democracy in this country? How long have the fights for and against it persisted? And where does that fight stand right now? Legal scholar Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning, is a sharp, clear look at the long history of public education in this country, viewed through a legal lens.
Black asserts up front his conclusion that “the ideological, legal, and constitutional roots of our public education system stretch to the very founding of our nation.” Through thorough research and a close reading of critical court cases, Black traces how those roots have been fed, attacked, and refreshed over the last 250 years.
Education was viewed as critical from the very first, but in Black’s telling, it is in the aftermath of the Civil War that public education receives a real boost. For the freed slaves, education was a huge priority. It becomes a critical part of new southern state constitutions, and that view of public schools spread, so that every state in the Union has a clause requiring the state to provide public education. During Reconstruction, some states went so far as to impose a school tax. This furthered the old idea that education was part of a functioning democratic country. Black writes, “Committing to and acquiring education was, in effect, to assume the role of citizen.” He lays out how Reconstruction featured significant steps forward in guaranteeing an education to every American.
After Reconstruction, of course, assaults on that right accelerated. “Public education moved forward as a conflicted institution beset by unreconcilable tensions,” writes Black. “An idea too strong to abandon but too dangerous to faithfully implement.” States segregated students and segregated dollars in an attempt to avoid fully honoring the promise of public education, and as part of the program to keep Blacks out of the voting booth. But the author sees one silver lining—the actual right to an education was never stripped from the laws of the states.
Black writes about the Second Reconstruction and the series of legal challenges attempted to force states to honor the promise of public education for all students, and the defenses mounted by advocates of segregation, and this makes for particularly useful reading if your knowledge doesn’t extend far beyond Brown v. Board of Education.
While many of the attacks on education for non-white citizens will seem familiar, Black observes that modern attacks on public education have shifted. While much of our history has involved attempts to avoid providing free public education for Black and brown Americans, he now sees a shift to attacks on the very idea of public education itself. Race still remains a “powerful undercurrent fueling the notion that government spends too much on others’ kids education.” But we’ve gone beyond that. He points at how state spending on public education did not bounce back after the Great Recession cuts of 2008. “States did not have to stop funding education at adequate levels,” he notes. “They just stopped trying.”
Many folks discuss education with semi-formed ideas about whether or not education really is a fundamental part of our democracy and whether or not it is something that is truly promised to our children. Schoolhouse Burning makes a strong case that yes, public education is and has always been a foundational element of our nation, not just a pretty ideal held by some, but a promise supported by the Founders and baked into our legal framework
Black’s book is packed with information and analysis, but remains exceptionally accessible, like getting a detailed explanation from a legal scholar who just happens to speak plain English. Beyond the well-researched history, Black also provides a convincing argument in favor of public education in this country, a defense of a foundational institution at a time it is once again under attack.
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