January 9, 2023

Jon Valant: What if Americans sour on public education?

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This piece by Jon Valant ran on the Brookings site back in August of 2022. Now after many months, it’s remarkably prescient. For instance, Valant’s analysis of the source of many current ed policy problems and the erosion of the country’s commitment to public education.

Increasingly, there are reasons to wonder about the durability of that commitment. In a 2020 book, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire warned of an escalating threat to public schools from reformers who were taking ever-more antagonistic approaches to public education. In my view, that threat has become clearer and more powerful over the last two years as the coalitions in education politics are changing.

I’ll admit to oversimplifying here, but the coming together of two groups of conservatives is especially worrisome to me.

First, there are Republican leaders who don’t seem to care much about education per se but see opportunities to use schools for political gain. This group has seized on culture war issues like transgender students playing sports. It has no clear theory for educational improvement—just a relentless attack mentality that resonates with many Republicans today. Let’s call this the DeSantis wing of today’s conservative education coalition.

Then, there’s a group of conservative leaders that does seem to care about education but maybe doesn’t particularly care for public education. This group has a theory of school improvement. Most of all, they’re skeptical of government-run schooling and drawn to the supposed efficiencies of markets. Let’s call this the DeVos wing of the conservative education coalition.

For decades, the latter group looked for allies where it could find them, and it found a decent number of Democrats. Making those alliances work required emphasizing certain principles (like equity and a strong public education system) and showing restraint in rhetoric and policymaking. Hence, the proliferation of charter schools as voucher programs stagnated. Then the country’s politics changed. When these conservatives no longer found Democratic allies, they looked to the right-wing culture warriors, sometimes explicitly. The result has been rhetoric more hostile to public schools, policy objectives less focused on addressing inequities, and initiatives built to undermine the public education system.

Valant made three predictions about what was headed down the road. The third one is particularly striking in its predictive power.

3. More aggressive moves against public education and government support of public schools

Arizona’s expanded private school choice program stands out for its breadth and audacity, but it probably won’t stand out for long. Even before the latest Supreme Court decision on the voucher program in Maine, advocates for private school choice were making advances at the state level. Those are sure to continue in Republican-controlled states.

Antagonism toward public schools will show itself in other ways, too. Just this summer, a former U.S. president and education secretary have called for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education (and, presumably, much of the federal funding that comes through it) while Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial candidate has vowed to slash about half of the state’s public education funding.  

Fortunately, that candidate failed. But other trends have not been so favorable.

Read the full piece here.


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