You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Bipartisan Assault on Public Schools

Betsy Devos was no exception in education. She pushed an agenda that Republicans and Democrats have strangely united behind for years.

Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Two years ago, Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s secretary of education, and Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of education, wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post lamenting the decline of public support for the bipartisan consensus about education policy that began under Ronald Reagan. Elected officials strongly supported a regime of testing, accountability, and school choice, they wrote, but public enthusiasm was waning due to a lack of “courage” and “political will.”

A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School
by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire
The New Press, 256 pp., $26.99

They were right. Elected officials, educators, and parents were rapidly losing faith in the bipartisan consensus. For a decade, it had failed to produce any improvement on national tests. Parents were opting their children out of the annual testing mandated by federal law; in New York, 20 percent of eligible students refused to take them. Teachers went to court to fight the test-based evaluation methods imposed by Duncan’s Race to the Top. Communities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia were complaining about the growth of charter schools, which diverted funds away from public schools. A year after Spellings and Duncan’s essay appeared, teachers across the nation, from West Virginia to California, went on strike to protest low wages, low funding, and large class sizes, issues that were ignored during the era of bipartisan consensus.

What went wrong? Why did the bipartisan consensus that Spellings and Duncan praised fall apart? In their new book, historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire provide a valuable guide to the history and the politics of the rise and fall of the bipartisan consensus. Theirs is indeed a cautionary tale, because they show how Republicans and Democrats joined to support failed policies whose ultimate goal was to eliminate public education and replace it with a free-market approach to schooling. Betsy DeVos was publicly reviled for her contemptuous attitudes toward public schools, but she was not an exception to the bipartisan consensus: She was its ultimate embodiment. She was the personification of the wolf at the schoolhouse door. 

Schneider and Berkshire write that they began the book to answer “a puzzling question: Why had conservative policy ideas, hatched decades ago and once languishing due to a lack of public and political support, suddenly roared back to life in the last five or so years?” Their prime example was private school vouchers, an idea first promoted by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and rejected at that time by Congress. Private school vouchers were not the only policy prescription that was recycled from the ashcan of failed ideas. There was also “market-based school choice, for-profit schools, virtual schools,” and deregulation. These ideas were repackaged as innovative while their history and their conservative ideological origins were obscured. True believers, intent on eliminating public schools, built donor networks, cultivated political alliances, and churned out ready-made legislation. A key element in this network-building was the enlistment of billionaires who were enamored of free-market solutions and who opened their wallets to persuade national and state elected officials to inject competition and private-sector solutions into the public education system. 

The assault on public education began with the Reagan administration’s 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which asserted that the nation’s public schools were threatened by “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Inspired by the report, many governors concluded that education was too important to be left to educators, and they increasingly inserted their uninformed pro-business ideas into the education policy agenda. Governors wanted more testing, higher standards, and accountability for poor results. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors in a national summit to decide what to do about the schools. Led by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, they adopted national goals, such as “American students will be first in the world in mathematics and science by the year 2000.” Nothing was said in the lofty statements about the close correlation between student achievement and family income, nor was there attention to funding the goals. None of the goals was met by the year 2000. 

What remained, however, was the conviction that public schools were failing, a perception that fed continual attacks on the schools and nurtured the growth of a well-funded movement for school choice. Behind these spurious attacks on the schools, write Schneider and Berkshire, was a “radically conservative vision of schooling,” disguised by “banally familiar language.” Critics said that the public school was modeled on the nineteenth-century factory and was hopelessly outmoded. But “none of this is really true, of course. Schools were not modeled on factories; student experiences in schools are not uniform; and most of today’s jobs will, according to predictions, still exist a generation from now.” Critics played to the anxieties of parents about their children’s prospects in a rapidly changing economy. But parents were fooled by the ideologues into believing that any innovation would be better than the public schools. This wasn’t true, either. What the ideologues wanted was nothing less than “unmaking public education as an institution.”

Schneider and Berkshire describe the four main principles of the privatization movement: First, “education is a personal good, not a collective one.” Second, “schools belong to the domain of the free market, not the government.” Third, “to the extent they are able, ‘consumers’ of education should pay for it themselves.” And fourth, “unions and other forms of collective power are economically inefficient and politically problematic.”

From this template, they describe how the bipartisan consensus was created and how it fed into the conservative agenda to privatize public schools. Bill Clinton believed in privately managed charter schools, expecting that they would be innovative and that competition would spur public schools to improve. In 1994, Clinton started a $6 million federal program to help new charters get started; that small program has grown into a $440 million annual subsidy to the charter industry, whose major recipients now are corporate charter chains. Over the years, the federal Charter Schools Program has been marked by frequent closure of charter schools it funded, wasting more than $1 billion. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, passed in January 2002, imposed annual testing from grades three to eight on the nation’s public schools and threatened the closure of schools with low test scores. So-called failing schools typically had large numbers of low-income students, non-English-speaking students, and students with disabilities. Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Duncan built their Race to the Top program on the foundation of Bush’s NCLB law. In the depths of the 2008–09 recession, Race to the Top offered states the chance to compete for $4.35 billion if they opened more charter schools, adopted common national standards (the Common Core), evaluated teachers by the test scores of their students, and enacted plans to close or privatize low-performing schools.

In 2015, Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind and renamed it the Every Student Succeeds Act. NCLB was unsuccessful in “leaving no child behind,” and ESSA was equally unsuccessful in making “every student succeed.” Republicans knowingly enacted harsh and punitive programs whose ultimate goal was the dismantling of public schools and their replacement by charter schools, religious schools, homeschooling, for-profit schools, and virtual charter schools. Betsy DeVos expressed these goals with clarity. Democrats never endorsed vouchers, but they facilitated Republican goals by supporting charter schools, which encourage consumerism and which are at least 90 percent nonunion; Democrats also advanced the conservative agenda by endorsing high-stakes testing on the mistaken belief that testing somehow advances equity and reduces achievement gaps among racial groups. Twenty years of high-stakes testing has demonstrated the falsity of that belief. Poor kids need to be lifted out of poverty; they need medical care and nutrition, which would do more to improve their school performance than a regime of annual testing.

Free-market ideologues, Schneider and Berkshire show, have kept up a steady stream of “reforms” whose intent is to advance their assault on the schools. They have demanded cost-cutting and pointed out that the biggest expense in education is teachers’ salaries. Through right-wing think tanks and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by right-wing billionaires like Betsy DeVos and Charles Koch, they have attacked teachers’ unions, professional colleges of education, and the teaching profession. They favor groups like Teach for America that recruit recent college graduates who promise to stay in the classroom for two years. ALEC is the favorite tool of the free-marketeers. It counts some 2,000 state legislators among its members and invites them to posh destinations, where they get copies of model legislation to introduce in their states on behalf of vouchers, charter schools, and lower standards for teachers.

Schneider and Berkshire review the A–F school rating system that was created in 1999 by Jeb Bush when he was governor of Florida and has been adopted in more than 20 states. While it makes sense for consumers or the government to rate restaurants, based on the food they ate and the service they experienced, it makes no sense for government to give schools a single letter grade based on test scores, which captures only a small part of what schools do and are expected to do. The rating systems are intended to turn parents into consumers and to justify a free market in schools. In addition to government ratings, many businesses have sprung up to create a Zagat-style grade for schools, built on the comments of students and families. These ratings are biased by the fact that those most likely to comment are those who are most dissatisfied. 

The attack on the legitimacy of public schools seems to be coming from many directions, but the reality is that the same small group of far-right billionaires is in the wings, calling the shots. Public schools, as the authors write, are “a cornerstone of democratic life” and “a driver of social progress.” They belong to the public. Schneider and Berkshire wrote the book as a warning to the public about what was happening and a call for concerted action to drive the wolf away from the schoolhouse door.