Derek Black’s book, School House Burning, Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, could simply be titled The Assault on American Democracy with a subtitle of The History of Public Education in America. The book is the story of the assault that is being waged on our democracy by the dismantling of our public education system and the historical precedents of this current trend. Public school buildings aren’t burning, they’re being dismantled by power seeking reformers and replaced with charter schools and vouchers. The dismantling has already happened in New Orleans; it’s well underway in Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky.
School House Burning should become required reading in all education administration and policy programs. Black very poignantly and personally gives us a detailed history of public education in the United States and carefully and thoughtfully explains the unassailable fact that public education has always been essential to our democracy. Black makes clear that public education was and is the key to making our ideal a reality. The provisions for a publicly financed education were established even before the Constitution in the Northwest Ordinances. Black acknowledges that our ideal democracy and the public education system necessary to support that democracy has yet to be fully realized. Achieving the ideal of public education and our democracy has been shunted by multiple segments of U.S. society, including the Federal and State courts. The ideals set forth in the Northwest Ordinance, the Constitution, and the 14th Amendment are all plans to be carried out in every state. The good news is that Black sees that it is still possible to save public education and our democracy, but it’s not a sure thing. We will need to stave off those who are trying to use public funds to pay for private schools and quasi-public schools.
The proposed Page/Kashkari Amendment to the Minnesota constitution is a current example of the attack on our democracy. The amendment takes the language of Minnesota’s constitution that currently reads:
“...it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state”
And changes it to:
“All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.”
A set of standards already exists in Minnesota statutes. They are available for all to read here. “The Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards are the statewide expectations for student learning in K-12 public schools. School districts are required to put state standards into place so all students have access to high-quality content and instruction. In accordance with Minnesota Statutes.” Schools are already required to report to the state how students are doing as measured against those standards. The proposed amendment eliminates the state's existing responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.
The proposed amendment also takes the state off the hook for providing the funds in order to secure the thorough, efficient and quality public education. Removal of - "The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system..." creates the possibility of semi-private schools providing the quality education. That means the state could close down the public school and determine that only a charter school that is owned by a friend of a legislator is the one that provides a quality education.
A non-uniform system that is not funded solely by taxpayer dollars is what resulted in New Orleans after a constitutional change and a hurricane. All public schools in New Orleans were replaced with charter schools. The Page/Kashkari amendment puts Minnesota on course to do it with a blizzard. The promoters of the Page Amendment hold up Louisiana and Florida as states where changing the constitution has worked to improve education. Currently Minnesota is in the top five of U.S. states for average student achievement. Florida is ranked 32nd and Louisiana just edges out Mississippi for last place. Changing the constitutions may have improved the achievement of students in Louisiana and Florida but it did so by essentially destroying public schools and replacing them with charter schools and vouchers to private schools. Both Louisiana and Florida have lower achievement gaps than Minnesota; Florida’s Black students score one point higher than Minnesota’s, but Louisiana’s lag far behind. The lesser gaps in Florida and Louisiana are a result of white students scoring much lower than Minnesota’s white students. The Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis’s report claims that if achievement gaps correlated exactly with socioeconomic gaps, Minnesota schools do better than expected. Or in other words, if Minnesota schools weren't as good as they are, the achievement gap could be even worse. Eliminating the state's existing responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state and not requiring the state to fund it with tax dollars is not improving education.
The Page/Kashkari Amendment could be a way to avoid the provision of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which requires that when a state establishes a public school system (as in Minnesota), no child living in that state may be denied equal access to schooling. The amendment ensures that charter and private school operators will have a better chance at making money while significantly decreasing the number of schools financed with only public money.
This assault on public education is part of the larger trend that Derek Black describes; “ the challenges confronting public education and democracy are variants of the ones we faced generations ago. Plantation and property owners resisted the cost of public education during Reconstruction. Segregationists considered dissolving public education before they integrated in the 1960s and 1970s. ...in today’s story, the primary rallying cry is against public education itself.” Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump and Florida’s Governor DeSantis have railed against ‘government schools’ by which they meant schools funded solely by public money. In May of 2021, DeSantis signed a bill that expands what state scholarships can cover as part of a private education.
Privatizing our education system will lead to an even more stratified society and control by those with money and power, which is what the founders of the United States wanted to prevent. Our democracy has not yet lived up to the ideals set forth in the Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance and the 14th Amendment, but dismantling public education will make ever fully achieving a democracy less possible just as surely as white supremacists made sure that the ideals of democracy were not fully realized by all after the Civil War.