After such a polarizing election, as the nation grapples with how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its financial fallout, many people wonder what can bring us together.

In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, Derek Black convincingly argues that, historically, public education can, and frequently has, unified a divided country.

Black’s deftly rendered historical account stretches from the nation’s founding to the Civil Rights Movement and into modern times. It describes how public education has long been the touchstone for the nation to recommit to its founding principles.

And though his book is mostly a historical account, Black is as concerned with the past as with the present, especially in anticipation of a post-Betsy DeVos world where public schools have been falsely portrayed as anachronistic. I recently talked with Black about his book and whether public schools are in danger of going away. The following discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You write in the book’s introduction that the nation is in the middle of a battle for the long-term viability of public education. How might this battle continue under a Biden presidency? 

Derek Black: There are multiple layers to that onion. But oh my God, it’s going to be great to be rid of Betsy DeVos, at least psychologically, if nothing else. In some respects, she was more of a cheerleader than an executioner, but she cheered on the executioners, especially [on the state level]. It’s going to be nice that those folks don’t have a friend in Washington, so when they attack public education, they have to do it on their own political capital, not hers or the president’s.

The other layer to this is that it’s not as though the Obama Administration was good. Obama’s Education Secretary, Arnie Duncan, had problematic charter school policies and policies that were part of the war on teachers. Biden hasn’t sounded like he plans on resuming Obama policies, but we will see.

At the state level, nothing has changed because of the election. Our schools have been underfunded for more than a decade. Biden has made promises to do something about improving funding, but can he get that through Congress?

Last, public schools have been a place of democratic reconciliation and healing that occurred in our history. Public education helped the nation heal following the Civil War. It was a central piece of reconciliation that occurred during the modern Civil Rights Movement. We have reconciliation and healing to be done right now—a generational healing, a cultural and citizenship healing.

Q: Your book says that the public education system is broken in many respects, not because the concept of public education is flawed, but because we have yet to finish the task of living up to its historic purpose because of obstacles like inequality, racism, and segregation. But what do you say to those parents who respond, “I can’t wait for the public schools to get their act together? My kid is in second grade now.”

Black: I do not second-guess minority low-income families who feel they need to try an alternative to public schools. Schools have failed a lot of these communities. And a book by a white dude saying, “Hang on for schools to get better,” offers no comfort.

But there’s a flip side. It’s actually incumbent on us white privileged individuals, as people who have the ability to speak out, who have the ability to push levers, to say we have never done right by these children. If white people want a society that works, then white people need to fix it. But we will never fix it by abandoning the system. There is no private system of education out there waiting to save all of our children.

Q: True. That theme is also in the book, that going into a privatized system is not going to solve our problems with inequity. 

Black: Zoe Savitsky has said, correctly, that the further away we get from the public system, the less equipped we are to protect our children. Although there is the right to enroll in a private school regardless of race, children do not have protection from racial discrimination once they enter those doors. The same for students with disabilities.

And in a privatized system, children have no protection from sexual orientation or identity discrimination. If somehow we think that we can solve the problem of discrimination and inequality by throwing children to the wolves, that’s the most fantastical thing I’ve ever heard of.

Q: Your book discusses such important legal precedents as Northwest Ordinances, state constitutions, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings, especially Brown v Board. Given our current situation, where Trump has stacked the federal courts with conservative idealogues, is the legal system really the best place for us to fight for public schools? 

Black: I have enormous reservations about the federal courts. I literally fear this U.S. Supreme Court on questions of education rights. State courts are a different matter. We won a big case, on vouchers in South Carolina, a conservative state. There’s promising litigation moving forward in Mississippi, Michigan, and Rhode Island. Yes, the solutions to most education issues are in state houses. But when state legislatures violate state constitutions, we have no choice but to resort to the courts.

Q: When state legislatures completely ignore court rulings demanding states uphold their constitutional duty to fund schools, what should be the role of the federal government?

Black: It gets a bit tricky. Does the federal government sue? Does Congress intervene with some kind of action? The Rhode Island litigation going on right now is making the assertion that the state constitutional guarantee is legally enforceable in federal court. Now, I’m scared to death of having this U.S. Supreme Court answer that question.

But there’s a question whether Congress is also responsible for enforcing this. Why doesn’t Congress say to [a state], “You’re not living up to [constitutional] commitments you made?”

Sadly, I don’t see how you get Congress to force [a state] to do anything, but a Biden Administration might be able to do it. You could say, “We’ll give you this money each year, and you have to make X amount of progress towards equity each year. If you don’t, the money stops coming.” That’s actually how Title IX worked. The feds didn’t suddenly require states to make funding for female sports relatively equal to male sports. States were required to make steady progress.

Q: One of the most moving parts of your book is your description of how, during the Civil War, escaped slaves who made their way to freedom in Union-occupied territory made it a priority to set up schools for teaching reading. If you look at our culture today, our politics, and much of our public discourse, we don’t seem to give education the kind of priority that people give it when they’ve been robbed of it. 

Black: That’s what I learned from the story of the Freedmen [that you’re referring to]. When we talk about education today, most of us have not had the lived experience of not having access to education at all. If we don’t fight for education, one day, we could wake up and find it’s not there. I hope we don’t get to that.

Q: Right. I’ve written about school districts like in Flint, Michigan, that are chronically on the brink of complete insolvency. What’s going to happen if school districts completely break down? 

Black: Those are hypothetical questions, but they’re certainly well within the realm of becoming reality. We don’t have any kind of solution for what you do about the kids who are left behind.

Q: Another role you have public education playing is its power to bring different races together.  In the prologue, you write about how your education benefitted from attending a racially integrated public school in the South. Yet I see very little research and public discourse about the benefits of racially integrated schools to white kids.

Black: Robert Garda wrote a good piece in the Florida Law Review called “The White Interest in School Integration.” But we’ve mostly thought about racial integration in a paternalistic way—how it helps minorities, when they, by virtue of being minorities, already had to cross racial boundaries whites haven’t had to cross.

When white people respond to racial issues by saying, “Oh, that’s too PC,” those reactions are a result of the fact that they’ve been in silos where they haven’t had to think about anyone other than themselves. I’m not trying to toot my own background, because my school wasn’t incredibly diverse. It was just desegregated. But my experience allowed me to experience the modern world in a much different way than most white folks my age did.

Q: Some people pose the question, “Will public education survive?” Is it being overly alarming to ask that?

Black: A better way to frame the question is, “Will public education become public education for poor kids.” Because as we underfund schools, struggle to reopen them safely, and wait to see if wealthier people come back, we may have a year or two of bad times for schools.

We may see them move towards a  pauper schools model in which all the kids attending are primarily poor kids, not just in poor communities, but actually in all communities. In my book, I talked about how Pennsylvania had operated a system of pauper schools up until the early 1870s. The state had obligated itself to serve poor kids, but rewriting its constitution in 1872, Pennsylvania committed to having public schools for everyone.

With wealthier families creating their microschools and learning pods, we are taking a step towards the pauper schools model. So our next steps must be to ensure public schools do not become de-facto pauper schools and that we make a deeper commitment to the idea of public education for all.

(From The Progressive.)

(Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.)