Jack Schneider & Jennifer Berkshire
Public Education after Trump
Today we take stock of public education in the United States after the 2020 election. With me are Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire. You may know Jack and Jennifer from their education podcast called Have You Heard, which you should definitely check out. They’ve also recently co-written the book A Wolf at the schoolhouse door: The dismantling of public education and the future of school, which traces the war on public education in America. They argue that we should be watching the changes at the state level after the recent election.
Jack Schneider is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and Jennifer Berkshire is a freelance journalist. They co-host the podcast Have You Heard.
Citation: Schneider, Jack & Berkshire, Jennifer, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 220, podcast audio, November 9, 2020. https://freshedpodcast.com/schneider-berkshire/
Will Brehm 1:41
Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, welcome to FreshEd.
Jack Schneider 1:43
Thanks for having us, Will.
Jennifer Berkshire 1:45
It is great to be here.
Will Brehm 1:46
It is kind of exciting that we’re bringing two podcasts together, isn’t it?
Jack Schneider 1:50
It’s like one of those ’80s cartoons where the various pieces fit together to form a giant robot.
Will Brehm 1:56
And we are doing this at a very strange time as well. How are you feeling after this year of campaigning?
Jack Schneider 2:03
I think if listeners could see us right now, they would know that we are both bleary-eyed from tracking the news all night long. You know, sleeping fitfully, at least in in my case, I don’t know about Jennifer. And consuming too much caffeine as a way of perking up this morning, which only made the news cycle seem to be even more terrifying this morning, you know, alternating between being like, really inspiring and really scary at the same time.
Will Brehm 2:36
And Jennifer, how are you feeling?
Jennifer Berkshire 2:38
Like a rag doll. And it’s not just -I mean, it’s the fact that this level of tension has not really abated at all. So, we’ve now had multiple election nights, essentially. And that’s something that we haven’t experienced in this country in a while.
Will Brehm 2:54
Yeah, I mean, it’s just been -I sort of wake up at 3 am in London, sort of calculate what the time is in America and say, you know, maybe there’ll be some more election results out, and should I get up and look at my phone? And I mean, it’s no good. It’s no good at all. But I guess, you know, the reason I invited you on is to sort of think through what this election means for public education going forward. And so, I guess, to start, maybe we should take stock of what has happened in the last four years under the Trump presidency. So, what happened in terms of public education in the past four years?
Jack Schneider 3:29
Yeah, well, I’ll start by talking about the federal level since that’s where Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, have had the greatest influence. And, you know, one of the things that Jennifer and I have talked a lot about on our show is the fact that DeVos was initially dismissed as an airhead, which certainly is a gendered response to her. But it’s also a misreading of the fact that she doesn’t know a lot about how traditional public schools function. And that’s because she doesn’t really care. She is not interested in traditional public schools. She is not interested in sustaining or improving the public education system. What she is interested in is pulling that system apart, and creating something that is funded not by taxpayers, but by private individuals that does not serve public goods, but rather serves private aims. And she has been very successful through her rhetoric in normalizing radical positions about the role of religion in schooling, about diversion of public dollars to private organizations, and about the devolution of school. About turning schooling into something that looks much more like a series of components that families will have to scramble to piece together on their own than it does like what you and I experienced as a school.
Will Brehm 4:57
The idea, though, is that, you know, these radical ideas aren’t necessarily unique to Betsy DeVos and the Trump presidency, right? They have a longer history.
Jack Schneider 5:06
So, in terms of the history here, one of the points that Jennifer and I make in the book is that this is not a new agenda. This is not a DeVosian agenda. This is an agenda that is, you know, several decades old -it’s half a century old. It emerges around the time of Barry Goldwater’s defeat when he ran for president and was trounced. And that loss led to the creation of a number of radical, right-wing, grassroots organizations that eventually became the status quo. And that have really done a great deal to colonize the Republican Party. And in terms of public education, the Republican Party has, again, for decades, wanted to do some of the things that DeVos is succeeding, at least in signaling about from the federal level. So, Ronald Reagan, for instance, in the 1980s, wanted to push a federal voucher and lost on it, was badly defeated, and basically turned tail and gave up on education as a kind of vision for privatization and went on to other sectors -largely left public education alone. But what we see is that where Reagan lost, DeVos is really winning. That she doesn’t need to pretend to be an advocate of public schools because the groundwork has been laid over the past several decades at the state level, by think tanks at the state level. So, smaller organizations that many listeners won’t have heard of like the Heartland Institute, the Mackinac Institute, but also these larger national organizations, the Cato Foundation, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council). And so, what they have done is they have changed the landscape, largely at the state level, often at the local level, and to some degree at the national level.
Will Brehm 7:06
Jennifer, what is going on at the state level? What has happened over the last four years under DeVos as being Secretary of Education, what has happened at the state level?
Jennifer Berkshire 7:16
Well, that’s where we really start to see the vision taking full flight. And that’s where I think that the results of the election start to get really interesting. So, there has been so much attention paid to Betsy DeVos, as a divisive figure. You know, she has had a lot of influence, prompting states where like-minded political leaders are eager to turn her, enact her agenda. And so, you really start to see key states like Florida, like South Carolina, that have continued to expand private choice and have really seen the pandemic as an opportunity to further consolidate that. So, that’s something that we need to pay attention to. And then in the election, what you saw at the state level, was that there was a lot of hope that Democrats were going to take control of some state houses; that really has not happened. Instead, you saw republicans consolidate. And that’s going to be taken as a signal of support for agenda that’s actually quite divisive. So, I heard that from somebody, a public-school advocate in North Carolina, where the Democrats were just crushed. And she said, you know, we think this is it for us.
Will Brehm 8:29
What’s fascinating is that at the state level in America over the last four years you have seen, and maybe even longer, you’ve seen these protest movements by teacher unions, and sometimes wildcat strikes, right, not even by the union themselves. So, you know, are some of these unions strikes or wildcat strikes in response to this sort of changes that have been happening at the state level? Or are they disconnected in some way?
Jennifer Berkshire 8:51
They’re absolutely related. And I think the most interesting state to watch right now is Arizona. We talk a lot about Arizona in our book because it was really ground zero, not just because it was Barry Goldwater’s home state, but because it’s gone the furthest as far as rolling out this alternative approach to education. That basically the vision is that parents get some portion of their per-pupil funding preloaded on what they call an edu debit card, and then they can spend it on any learning options that they want. There is no oversight; that is a feature, not a bug. And so, what you’ve seen is this really broad-based resistance to this idea. And so, Arizona happens to be one of the few states where Democrats did make considerable gains in this most recent cycle, and education was literally on the ballot. Voters there approved hiking taxes on the richest people in the state in order to send more money to schools. And that was a measure that had bi-partisan support, which is really interesting at a time when we’re so polarized.
Jack Schneider 9:55
I would just add in thinking about Arizona that this radical agenda is not in line with what a lot of mainstream Republicans want in terms of public education. In one of our recent episodes, our 100th episode, we talked to a former lobbyist for one of these state-level organizations, this would be the Goldwater Institute. And what he described was a situation in which the goalposts were always moving from something that might seem reasonable to Republican voters and Republican leaders at the state level. And that became more and more clearly the enactment of a kind of ideological agenda. So, one of the things he described was that, you know, they would push for a voucher that was for students with severe special education needs. And then they would work to expand it right to all students who are on IEPs, and then to low-income students, and then to students in low achieving districts, and then and eventually to everyone because this is one of the strategies that has worked over the past several decades. And it is not about compromise. It is not about finding a middle ground and saying, you know, well, we’re in favor of a kind of radical, privatized market-driven system and you are not, let’s find some things that work that actually characterized the mainstream Republican Party in terms of its support for charters, for instance, right, where they and their neoliberal counterparts, carved out a kind of policy consensus there for the past few decades. Instead, it’s about winning however you can in the short term but always keeping your eyes on that long term ideological aim of pulling apart the public education system, of reducing expenditures, of minimizing taxation, of privatizing the system, of breaking teachers unions, that this is really an ideological movement and not a practical or pragmatic one.
Will Brehm 12:05
And so, this ideological sort of commitment is embedded within sort of a larger, it is not just about education, I would imagine, right? It is about other aspects of the way in which government functions in society more or less, is that right?
Jennifer Berkshire 12:18
That’s absolutely true. What’s interesting in the US is that there is really growing awareness that our policy, really in all sorts of institutions, is increasingly being dictated by a relatively small group of conservative plutocrats, right? People are very aware of that, but they tend not to focus on education as an issue. And we argue that you really, you’ve got to pay attention to education. Because, you know, first and foremost, it’s the biggest expenditure at the state level. It’s why it’s such a juicy target. If your goal is to reduce the tax burden on the richest Americans, that is where you absolutely have to direct your attention.
Jack Schneider 12:56
Yeah. If you just do the math there and think about 50 million American students and an average per-pupil expenditure of $10,000 per student. If your aim is to pull apart public life, to unmake government, to work against anything you perceive as collectivism, and to minimize taxation so that people can keep what they make, and plutocrats and oligarchs can influence the kind of influence that they would have in a free market, in a privatized system, rather than a public governance system, then you can see public education has to be agenda item number one for them.
Will Brehm 13:34
Absolutely. What’s so interesting, and I think, you know, the pandemic has really sort of revealed this in really stark ways, whereas the sort of value of education that people might have perceived before the pandemic was maybe about citizenship education, and you know, being part of a member of the national community, or some other people might say, it’s for economic growth, increasing earnings, that sort of economic perspective. But when the pandemic hit, it was like public education is a welfare good, and you know, it is taking care of our children when we have other things to do in many ways. And you know, you can start realizing in America, at least, that might be one of the last pieces of the social welfare system that exists.
Jennifer Berkshire 14:17
That’s absolutely true. And that was such a wake-up call for people when schools suddenly shut down. That schools are the places where kids are fed and cared for and where they get their internet access, right. And so, this really opened people’s eyes. And I think the real irony of this is that the disaster that’s been our pandemic response, especially when it comes to the schools, is that people sort of woke up to discover that they were just completely on their own, right? That as a school district, you are on your own; as a teacher, you’re on your own; as a parent, you’re on your own right. That DeVos and the Department of Education are making a point of not tracking outbreaks in the schools. So, people look at this vision with a kind of horror, right? It is pushing them to the brink. And the vision that we are talking about in our book is basically about making this school policy, right? That this is a feature, right? That good, you are supposed to be on your own.
Jack Schneider 15:13
And one of the things that you can see right now is just how deeply unequal that kind of future will be. And certainly, it is clear in the pandemic, but we can see how this ultimately plays out where affluent families exercise their influence in a free market, right? Private schools have remained open far more than public schools have because they are beholden to people who are paying tuition. Whereas public schools are making decisions largely driven by public health concerns. We can see that families with resources have created pods together, where they’re accelerating the learning of their children. There is no learning loss due to the pandemic, there is actually a learning gain for those families. And you can see how, in this future, those with access to resources, those with social, economic, racial privilege, will absolutely benefit from that future in some ways. And I think it is also important to note the ways in which they will also pay very steep costs, right? They will live in a far more unequal society, a far less just society, their children will attend school with children who are exactly like them, they will be exposed to fewer different kinds of ideas, they will be less able to get along with their counterparts in what is ostensibly a democratic society. Ultimately, this is bad for democracy. And it is bad for human beings.
Will Brehm 16:46
So, I mean, given that history and sort of where we are after decades of sort of slowly chipping away, and always keeping that long term vision insight, and in many ways, that long term vision, we’ve realized it and maybe because of the pandemic, we’ve accelerated into that realization. The question is, you know now that Biden has won, is a Biden administration going to be able to undo some of what has happened over the last 30, 40, 50 years?
Jennifer Berkshire 17:16
So, that’s where things get interesting, and frankly, quite complicated, right? The Democrats went all-in on education, starting with Bill Clinton, that you know, we didn’t really need things like unions anymore, and we didn’t need to redistribute wealth; instead, you know, I just saw somebody the other day say that learning was the new pension. And so, in a lot of ways, this set of ideas has fed right into that corrosive polarization that we are living through right now. That we have this enormous education divide. 65% of people in the US don’t have a college degree. And frankly, you know, the argument of the Democrats all this time, it comes across as too bad, right? Like, you need to get yourself to college. That’s the way to make your future better. And so even like Joe Biden can appoint somebody who has the “bully pulpit” and isn’t seen as so antagonistic to either teachers or to the institution of public education. But the Democrats have this larger problem. We could go down a list of all sorts of other issues like energy or immigration, and you would be able to articulate pretty quickly what the progressive policy position is. But when you get to education, that really isn’t the case. And so, you know, it’s unclear what the future is going to look like. I see something that’s less bad than it has been, but a lot of the forces that have been put in motion in recent decades are going to be really hard to contain.
Jack Schneider 18:45
And we can see that in the Biden platform on education. That they’re really throwing everything in the kitchen sink at the issue. So, if you go on to JoeBiden.com, you can see support for school infrastructure, expanding Title One expenditures, expanding pre-K, supporting teacher pay, expanding teacher diversity, supporting school desegregation, expanding wraparound support. Right, it is everything. And what that speaks to, you know, on the one hand, as Jennifer said, right, that’s certainly less bad. But on the other, what it speaks to is a lack of a clear and coherent theory of change for schools. That the previous bipartisan consensus that Obama certainly bought into and Joe Biden was his vice president for eight years around charter schools and competition around testing and accountability that has really dissolved and in some ways that creates an opportunity for the left because DeVos who really broke that treaty between the right and the left around choice and around accountability, created an opportunity for the left to go someplace new that Biden is likely not going to pursue choice and charters and accountability as the core of his education policy agenda. It is just not clear what will be that core.
Will Brehm 20:22
So, I mean, I guess one signal might be who he selects as Secretary of Education. I mean, so who are some of the front runners, do you think? Who would you like to see?
Jennifer Berkshire 20:32
Well, that’s an interesting question, because you really see a jockeying for power and position. And so, there was a story out this week that an influential group called Democrats for Education Reform had put together a shortlist of candidates that they consider acceptable. And these are basically urban superintendents who are very pro-charter. And to me, it just it felt like almost like it had been dug out of a time capsule. Right that just days before the election, DeVos announced that religious groups can now apply to open charters, right? Like, we have that train has left the station. But then you also hear reports that the heads of the two major teacher unions are under consideration. And I think for, you know, for other reasons, those would also be disastrous choices. I would like to see somebody completely different. I’d like to see somebody from a rural, somebody who has something to do with rural education. Part of that, we have this incredible rural-urban divide in the US that is so starkly along educational lines, but I also really believe that support for public education is one of the few areas where people can coalesce across that divide. So, I wish somebody who is listening out there would think about a way to use that position in that kind of a strategic way.
Jack Schneider 21:51
I can’t help but make a case for a scholar here. That, you know, there are those of us who actually study this stuff for a living, and that does not exclude people like you, Jennifer, but you are a public scholar. I mean, somebody who either has formal credentials or not, who has spent at least a decade and hopefully more learning about both k-12 and higher education, about rural schools and urban schools, about segregated schools and integrated schools, about well-funded schools and about schools that have been denied equal funding. That there is so much to know and wrap your mind around. Whether we are talking about teachers’ pay, teacher diversity, if we are talking about students, their various needs, the ways that student learning encompasses so much more than test scores. I would love to see a really broad-minded scholar whose research is kind of all over the place. And you know, maybe who has some teaching experience to boot? I think that would be a great pick.
Will Brehm 23:03
Are you worried about the lame-duck session before Joe Biden comes into office? Are there things that could happen in education that could have lasting effects that Betsy DeVos and Trump could enact in the next few months?
Jennifer Berkshire 23:19
I am really worried about a number of things, and some of them are lame duck. I mean, the administration is not going to let up on these priorities. They are absolutely committed to increasing the amount of public money that is going for private and especially religious education in states where Republicans made gains. You are going to see stuff, bill sorts of policies coming down the pike pretty quickly. The other thing that I worry about, and this goes well beyond the lame-duck session, is just that, you know, we are in for just unbelievable sort of tension and polarization. And one real danger is that public schools are increasingly going to reflect that. To a remarkable extent, given the fraught nature of our times, they’ve kind of remained outside of that. Yes, you know, people argue about stuff, you have contentious school board elections, but those statistics show up every – you know, Jack can talk about the history of polling around this. But, you know, people regularly say that they like their local public school, right? That tells you something at a time when doubt in institutions is so widespread. My real concern is now that schools become just more fodder, and you know, another thing that we can’t agree on, and that makes them really vulnerable. And I think that you know, both the lame duck and whatever comes after it, it’s going to be what we’ve gone through, but even more intense, and that that scares me a little.
Jack Schneider 24:43
I think that one thing that Trump could do is sign a bunch of executive orders and, you know, there is definitely danger there. But we should also note that anything done by executive order can be undone via executive order. I think, as Jennifer noted, though, the kinds of divisions that we see across the United States right now can absolutely enter the schoolhouse. And that’s one of the moves that Trump was making before the election, really for the first time is trying to bring the culture war to public education. And so, his so-called 1776 Commission is perfect evidence of this, right? Trying to position the 1619 work by the New York Times, and by Nikole Hannah-Jones, as a kind of attack on America, and establishing himself and this so-called 1776 commission as a defense of traditional American values, right? I would hate to see December and January spent trying to create divisions across the United States within public schools. And it’s certainly something that could happen. All that said, you know, the deepest problems and the deepest threats are at the state level. And anything that Trump or DeVos would be doing would be enabling that. It would be normalizing those kind of state-level attacks. And so, Jennifer described some of what we’ve seen happening in Arizona, but lots of other places are worth paying attention to: Indiana, Florida, across the south, in fact, Georgia, we did an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about efforts to bring this DeVosian vision there. And so really, what we are seeing is that deep red states are the places where the attack on public education has really been mounted earliest and most aggressively, but it’s spreading to purple states. And so, my biggest fear is less about the lame-duck session in the second half of November, and then December and January, and more about what’s going to happen over the next four years, eight years, 12 years at the state level given how much progress has already been made in dismantling public education.
Jennifer Berkshire 27:09
I would just add to that there are states that people might be surprised to hear about, like New Hampshire, right? In the election, Republicans there took control of all branches of government, the head of their education department is a DeVos ally. He’s seen the pandemic as a huge opportunity. He homeschooled his nine kids. And you know, he is a relentless crusader against the system, as he calls it. And he talks a lot like Betsy DeVos. He thinks that schools have sprung up to replace the family. And we need to do something about that.
Jack Schneider 27:42
And that is one of those purple states, right, that went for Biden, but you know, has deep red sections of it. And where, you know, like so many places, people have assumed that education is outside of politics, as it has long been, and that really is no longer the case.
Will Brehm 27:59
All of the judges that were appointed in the last four years by Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, would that have a lasting effect on education? You know, not just in the next four years, but as Jack was saying in the next 8, 12, 16 going on.
Jennifer Berkshire 28:14
Absolutely. And there you see a really clear pattern of where this is headed, right? That you see one case building on another to expand the terrain of vouchers, what public money can be used to pay for. So, for example, there was a Supreme Court decision handed down in the late spring that further expanded vouchers at the state level. And then sort of the next round of cases coming up is to keep states from being able to regulate voucher programs, right? And so that you can spend public money on private religious education, but you can’t keep those schools from, say, firing teachers because they are gay. And so, what it does, it creates this broader and broader segment of education that is free from oversight, free from all kinds of labor regulations. And it is kind of a free for all. And that is very much where this is headed. And the new judges are, they are very much in keeping -you know, they look at the world through a sort of DeVos lens.
Jack Schneider 29:11
And this is really in keeping with the far right’s strategy in public education in general. And so, what we can see is that their first effort seems like, you know, typical mainstream republican policy. So, the creation of a private school scholarship, right? That public funds could go to support, let’s say, low-income families who are sending their kids to a private school. That then is expanded so that the voucher can’t be denied at any school. That it would have to be allowable via public funds anywhere. And then the aim is to expand that further and to say that anybody who is receiving public funds can do whatever they want with those public funds. And you are not too far at that point from saying, well, anybody who is receiving public dollars is therefore participating in public education, right? This is a DeVos quote, right? She said, echoing the governor of Florida, right, if the taxpayer is paying for education, it is public education. Right that this is the long-term vision to say that ultimately if that is the case, what do we need public schools for? We don’t need public schools. Why are we sending money to schools? We should be sending money to families. And the next step from there is to say, why are we sending money to families? That doesn’t make any sense at all; let people pay for this on their own. And that’s how you move step by step, luring people along from one decision to the next, where each one doesn’t seem particularly extreme because it is not a very far leap from what preceded it.
Will Brehm 30:56
It really reminds me of James Buchanan and all of the history that Nancy MacLean talked about in her book, Democracy in Chains. And you reference this in your book, and your book is sort of the Democracy in Chains but focused on education. And you sort of see this real clear parallel with all of these judges, and this long-term vision, this slow sort of progression towards this long-term goal being enacted. And judges are, you know, a huge piece of the puzzle. It is very worrying in many ways, to me at least.
Jennifer Berkshire 31:28
But yeah, you are absolutely right. And we talked a little bit about this earlier, but the target is collective power, right? Whether it is families who exert their influence through a school, through a PTO, whether it is teachers in a union. By individualizing public education, you neutralize that. And that was exactly what Buchanan was always after. What were the million little booby traps you could lay to keep people from being able to band together, to worst of all, demand higher taxes on the rich, right? And so, this fits right into that. What are all the different ways that you can individualize education so as to minimize the tax burden on the wealthiest among us?
Will Brehm 32:08
So, given this sort of history, and where we are after this election, is the wolf, this proverbial wolf, still at the schoolhouse gate, do you think?
Jack Schneider 32:17
Oh my gosh, yes! Our inspiration for writing the book was to initially try to raise awareness about the ways in which the Trump administration posed a clear and present danger to public education. And as we worked on the book, I won’t speak for Jennifer, but what I learned was that actually the real threat was at the state level and was going to be far more difficult to weed out. That this was going to be a project, not about winning a single national election, but about grassroots activism across the 50 states. That is a much bigger project. But ultimately, it is one that makes me even happier about having written this book. Happy is perhaps the wrong word there, right, but it makes it feel like an even better investment of time because if this was a book about Betsy DeVos and Trump were ousted from office, then that’s the end; people don’t need to buy it. We didn’t need to write it. But if instead, and as I believe to be the case, this is a book about an agenda that has been unfolding over several decades, and which really only came on to the public radar because of DeVos, then our task is, frankly, to frighten people enough that they begin paying attention to what’s happening inside their states and inside their communities so that they can take action.
Jennifer Berkshire 33:49
And one of the arguments that we make throughout the book is that the radicalism of the agenda has been obscured by the extent to which Democrats have normalized it, right? That post-Clinton, they really made that language of empowering families to make their own choices. They made that language theirs. So, it is much harder for people to hear that and realize, oh, actually, we’re talking about an edu debit card in a completely unregulated marketplace, right. So, that’s what’s going to be so interesting to see play out in the months and years ahead. Do the Democrats see that they’re, in fact, sort of responsible for unleashing the wolf on us? And what are they going to do to protect this institution? That’s so key.
Will Brehm 34:35
Well, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, and I can’t wait for the next episode of ‘Have you Heard.’
Jack Schneider 34:41
Thanks for having us, Will.
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