Transcript of the episode “The attack on public education: Will public schools survive?”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Derek Black. Professor Black is a professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. The focus of his current scholarship is the intersection of constitutional law and public education, particularly as it pertains to educational equality and fairness for disadvantaged students. His most recent book, published in 2020,is “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.” Welcome Derek! 

Derek B: [00:00:45] Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jon M: [00:00:48] “Schoolhouse Burning” is subtitled “Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.” Why did you choose that subtitle?

Derek B: [00:00:57] Well, the idea is that the American project of reaching for democracy, at least the best ideas of this democracy are intertwined with public education. And therefore, attacks on public education are our attacks on democracy itself. And we look at the last 10 years in particular, what we see as a pretty consistent attack on our public schools, on the very idea of public schools. And I want to alert folks the idea that if we sacrifice our public schools, we are jeopardizing our continuing commitment to our highest ideals of democracy as well. 

Amy H-L: [00:01:38] Education isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, but has been central to these battles over access and equity throughout our history. You point to the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, especially 1865 to 1870, as fundamental to our understanding of the role of government in education. Why is this period so critical?

Derek B: [00:02:01] That period is critical because that is the time in which we go from a nation in which fewer than half of the states guarantee access to public education in their state constitutions to a nation in which about 80 plus percent guaranteed public education in their constitutions. And within a few more years, we’re at 95%. So that’s a transformational moment. It’s also important because this doesn’t happen by accident. This happens by congressional mandate.

And you know, I also would note, Amy, you referenced the point that the word “education” doesn’t appear in our Constitution, but I dwell on this quite a bit in my book and say that we actually had a national federal commitment to public education before we even had a United States Constitution. Many of us, you know, think of the Constitution as being there at the nation’s founding, but that’s not the case, right. At the beginning, we declare independence and then once we win independence, we have Articles of Confederation. So we were really operating in a loose net, a group of partners or allies, a league of friends, as they called it. And so the Continental Congress, prior to even moving to have a United States Constitution, they passed the Northwest Ordinance, and it mandated every new territory that wanted to be a state would guarantee education in those states and actually plotted out and required that schools be at the center of every single town and location in the remainder of all the lands that the United States held. 

Amy H-L: [00:03:38] What is the extent of the education that’s provided or promised in most of these state constitutions?

Derek B: [00:03:47] Yeah, I mean, I think when we look at them with modern eyes, you can read them real quickly and miss a lot of good stuff, but a lot of them guarantee a high quality education. Some of them say the state must provide a uniform education. Others might say adequate. A couple of words I would really focus on is the word “uniform.” Now in today’s world, “uniform” just seems like bureaucracy, but in a time of rurality and non-existent education, uniform access to education is quite a radical idea. So that word uniform is very important in my mind, but we also have, and this is one that even I had missed until more recently, that the Southern state constitutions in particular have the phrase, a system of schools “open to all.” That “open to all” idea is quite radical, because what it is really doing is emphasized in the idea of equal access for low-income kids and, believe it or not, equal access for African-Americans. And in fact, that phrase in a few states was explicitly debated in terms of the question of school integration, right. That if we have a constitution in 1868 in South Carolina that says the “schools must be open to all.” Does that mean that white and Black children have to be allowed to go to the same school in the state of South Carolina in 1868? And I can tell you that the constitutional convention delegates said, yes, yes, that’s exactly what it means. And others said, whoa, the white kids might not show up if we do that. And they said, you know, look, this is a model society we’re building here. And if they don’t show up, it’s on them, but we’re not going to compromise our ideas. And that phrase boggles the modern mind, right. Do you think integration is the idea of the NAACP in the 1930s? No, that was the idea of the freedmen a handful of months removed from slavery, and they put it in a South Carolina constitution. They put it in the Louisiana constitution, and so on and so forth. So really these are, these are quite progressive documents. Yeah. We have failed to live up to those documents more often than not, but nonetheless, the founding ideas there are quite incredible. 

Jon M: [00:06:13] Public schools are often seen as the means to reproduce existing social structures and are also pointed to as vehicles for social mobility. How do you see the interplay between these two views? 

Derek B: [00:06:26] Well, there is a huge tension here, right. You know, I talked just a moment ago about the idea of a constitutional phrase that would have brought slave holders’ kids together with slaves’ kids, months removed from slavery. Now you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that there are a lot of people who would violently oppose that, and you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that once those people became the political ruling class again in the South, they would do it through political means. But that doesn’t change the constitution. And that, that is the tension of America on so many different levels is that we have these constitutional clauses with ideas that are better than we as individuals quite often are, right? And so we have segregated schools and unequal schools following those amendments at times.

 I often, and I quote it in the book, that Abraham Lincoln gave a speech during the primaries or during the first election, when he was talking about the fact that our forefathers, when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and other things that they knew good and well, that people were still held in slavery at that moment in time. And they knew good and well, when they wrote the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution that guaranteed equal protection, that when folks woke up the next day, they didn’t have equality in America, but that they put these ideas there for us, so that at some point in the future, men and women could call back on these ideas and demand that we’d be better, right. And so they really are aspirations, but aspirations that have the force of, law, if we have the stomach to commit and fight for them in the real world. 

Amy H-L: [00:08:25] You’ve written about equity in school funding as one of the demands of the Civil Rights Movement. How can we achieve that?

Derek B: [00:08:35] Well, unfortunately, the Supreme Court is a big piece of this puzzle, not the only piece, but it’s a big one. And we had a Supreme Court that was committed to enforcing the Constitution and equity and things of that nature for a period of time, but then we had a president or a man who ran for president, Richard Nixon, who made it his mission to reshape the United States Supreme Court and put members on there that would reverse that legacy. And that’s exactly what they did. And we’ve been living with the legacy of Richard Nixon for quite some time now. I fear we could have a new legacy of the most recent president that we live with for quite a long time. And so all of that is to simply say that the federal courts are not necessarily the place we’re going to find that equity now..

On the other hand, our state supreme courts, which is surprising to a lot of folks, have been quite receptive to a lot of these claims. There’s new litigation happening constantly and new victories happening constantly. And the state courts, in fact, New York recently got a positive decision out of its Court of Appeals. And so we have these victories, it’s one state at a time, but even once you win the courthouse, right, then you have to get a legislature to pass new legislation. So that really means grassroots people not believing in it simply because it’s written in the constitution or written in a court decision that it will happen, but rather they call their political leaders to account for and hold them accountable for what’s in the constitution and what’s what’s in the court decisions. So that is ultimately, a public information campaign. It’s a litigation campaign, and it is a legislative campaign to make equity happen. And then it’s a people thing. I think that’s the, one of the things that gets forgotten by folks in DC and state capitals, which is, and of course you guys know, particularly on this podcast, that learning happens between human beings, happens between one man or woman standing, going outside those terms, that an individual standing in front of the classroom and creating a safe space for kids to learn. So all the good intentions and all the good laws in the world will not produce good education, unless we’ve got,to use your terms, right, ethical persons in front of the classroom, trying to do the best for our children.

Jon M: [00:11:01] You were just talking in terms of court decisions, for example, saying what must happen, that there must be equality or equal funding. Do you have particular thoughts on logistical methods  that you’ve looked at, whether it’s doing this through additional targeted state funding? I know EdBuild was proposing moving the property tax basis from the local school districts to a broader basis, maybe county-wide in some situations. Are there things you’ve seen that could be implemented if there were the political will, that would have some of this effect?

Derek B: [00:11:39] Yeah. I mean, certainly the general principle is that the more schools are funded locally, the more likely they are to be unequal. At the same time, I think it’s wrong for anyone to think there’s only one policy way to get there. I would say that the general solution to that is again, number one, for states to take more responsibility. But sometimes we use that word equal, equal isn’t equal. What we really need are students with the highest needs getting the most resources. So we have to have progressive funding systems whereby nominally, low income schools get anywhere from 40 to 80% more than other schools. And the tricky thing about, I don’t want to get too wonky here, but the tricky thing about school funding is that nearly no matter what percentage of school funding the state is responsible for, the real question is how much is the state going to make up for the variations that are created, based on that local amount. So even if it’s only 10 percent, some local groups might say, well, we’ll do 15 or we’ll do 20. So as long as there is a substantial local responsibility, there is capacity to create inequality unless the state is counterbalancing it. So we have to have a commitment to 40% or more for each low income kid and have to have a commitment that the state will counterbalance locally created inequalities because there is, at the end of the day, a competition for teachers.

Now, how do we get there? And this goes to my point about there is no one way. I wrote a paper about two years ago that was called Abandoning the Federal Role in Education. I wasn’t advocating for it. I was describing the status quo of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which basically handed over an enormous amount of authority to the states or relinquished it back them and did whatever they wanted to, in that paper. At the end, though, I call for the feds to quadruple their current level of funding for low-income students. You know, the feds only pick up about 10% of education now, and even my quadrupling wouldn’t lead them to 40. It would just focus them on the income kids. I think that dollar amount would move us to about 80 billion a year or 60 billion a year for low-income kids. Senator Warren picked up that idea and put it in her presidential campaign policy platform. And the key, as I said, and she picked it up, is not necessarily the precise amount of money that the feds give to the states but rather the conditions for that, right. The federal government has been giving out money to states since the sixties for education, substantial amounts, but they’ve never conditioned that money on equitable results. And one of the reasons is they’ve never given states enough money for states to say, yeah, that that’s a deal that I’ll take. So what I calculated in that paper is that I think, the overall cost of getting the additional funds for low-income kids, I don’t know, 120, 150 billion, that if the feds would commit to covering half of them that it actually could be a deal too good for the states to pass up. You give us half, we’ll close the other half. 

And what I also say in that paper is that in those proposals, the feds should not precisely dictate how the states do that. They should only look at the outcome. You know, if you wanna do it through local property taxes, fine. If you want to do it through state income tax, fine. If you want to do it through lotteries, fine, on and on. The real question is when you submit us data at the end of the year, we want to see that you are closing the funding gap. And I also likened it to Title IX, which is our sex equality statute, which didn’t require that athletics be equal overnight because that just wasn’t going to happen. What they did require was progress each year. Or there’s other mechanisms, but I also say, look, what we really ought to do is tie states to making a certain amount of equitable gap closing over the course of 10 years. I do think that in a mere 10 years, and I do understand there’s a lot of kids going through, but that in 10 years we could go from a situation in which low-income kids on average receive about $2,000 less per pupil than their peers to a situation when they are receiving more than that, and up to the level of which they actually need. That would be transformational, in 10 years for us to do that. Joe Biden has been moving in the direction of those levels of funding, but there have been no conditions attached to them to achieve the results that I’m talking about.

Jon M: [00:16:35] Shifting from what would be nice to see, such as increased funding and increased equity, to one of the other things that you talk about a lot in your book. What is the current landscape of voucher laws around the country?

Derek B: [00:16:50] I don’t know if it’s a good term, but I’ve called this the Voucher Spring, because this is the year when we have seen more voucher legislation than any prior point in our history. The other irony is that Betsy DeVos is gone. I mean, in some respects, this Voucher Spring is the Republican party trying to prove that it’s Trumpier than other Republican party members or that they’re Trumpier than Democrats or whatever. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s almost as sort of like an ideological credential right now. How pro voucher can you be? Cause she really did, you know, typify in some respects, really, really bad stuff. So, see that legislation lots of states passing. And so it’s been an enormous year. The only thing kind of slowing it down is the legislative calendar running out in June. You know, some of those may have sort of run out of time, but I suspect we’ll see more of them taken up in the fall and in the next year.

Jon M: [00:17:52] Can you, can you mention some specific examples of states? 

Derek B: [00:17:55] Kentucky passed a huge new bill. West Virginia passed a big bill. Ohio passed a big bill. I think there’s about 20 new voucher legislation this year, I think, which is actually a huge number when you think about it. Now, some of those are brand new programs and some of them are expansions of existing programs, but the voucher expansion also intersected with the vilification and the COVID issues, right. Somehow I know that the COVID was schools’ fault, and schools don’t do their job, et cetera, et cetera. And if vouchers are the only thing we can do to punish or get kids out of these public schools. And so, again, there’s a new political thread going on there with COVID and hopefully that part of it will die away by the fall.

Amy H-L: [00:18:49] Are many of these vouchers going to parochial schools?

Derek B: [00:18:55] Well, that’s the big issue. The big fight. You’re exactly right. As a factual matter, yes, they are going to religious schools. The fight has been whether there should be some limitations or at least regulation  around that issue. The United States Supreme Court last spring held in Espinoza that if you’re going to have a private tuition or voucher program, that you could not exclude schools from participating just because of their religious status. It left open the possibility that you could still restrict the money for what we call religious use, which is to say, look, if you’re a religious school and you say you’re going to do it just like a non-religious school in terms of teaching history, English, et cetera, fine. You can participate. But if what you’re going to do is take this money and teach religious doctrine, well, then we’re not going to allow that. That would be the principle that that many folks are fighting for. It’s sort of the anti-vouchers crew would say at the very least, we have to restrict this money being spent on religious instruction or, goodness forbid, on discrimination itself.

Unfortunately, very few, if any, I should say, I’m not sure how any of these new voucher states actually prohibit discrimination in the schools receiving these funds. And as someone pointed out there, there’s a little bit of a demographic mismatch here, which is in the states that are most likely to impose anti-discrimination norms on vouchers, they’re so anti-voucher that they won’t pass a voucher bill at all, and so this becomes a non-issue, whereas in states that are less likely to be concerned with anti-discrimination norms, well, they’re actually the ones most likely to  like vouchers. And so you have vouchers moving forward, largely without any restriction or regulation.

Amy H-L: [00:20:47] What about charter schools? We’ve seen a proliferation of these charters, especially those operated by large charter school management organizations. What is their impact?

Derek B: [00:21:00] Well, you know, the funding impact is enormous because more and more students are coming out of the traditional public school and go into the charter school system, and that reduces resources for public schools. Now the charter school advocates would say, well, you’ve got fewer students to teach. Therefore, It’s not costing. Maybe you’re even saving money. And the point, you know, that I always make is imagine an idyllic system with one or two high schools and one or two middle schools and three or four elementary schools, and they lose 500 kids to a charter school. The electricity bill at each and every one of those schools are going to be the exact same, whether they do or don’t have those 500 kids, they’re going to run the same exact bus routes on down the list. The costs actually don’t change very much at all. Cafeteria costs, it could change some, but, but they stay pretty steady. So if you now have a school that is tasked with doing relatively the same job, but has fewer reasons. So there’s a big impact and to bring the voucher and charter school story together, we could see if, if the law doesn’t work out in the way that I think it should, we could see another vast expansion of charter schools right around the corner, because those folks who have led the charge to open up vouchers to religious schools are also now claiming that Supreme Court doctrine requires that states give charters to religious organizations as well. So a Catholic school currently charging tuition could just convert to a charter school and not change anything else other than that, and receive public dollars that would turn the school funding world upside down because of the number of new resources flowing out of the public school system. We’ve got serious, serious challenges that have been around for about a decade and have only gotten worse over time.

Jon M: [00:22:54] We’ve been talking about the proliferation of charter schools. Why is it taking so long over the past few decades for the voucher to become so widespread? When they were originally proposed, maybe in the seventies or so, then they didn’t really catch on that much until, as you’re talking about now, there’s this whole explosion..

Derek B: [00:23:12] Well, the vouchers have a sordid history. You know, the first voucher programs came into existence during the South’s attempt to resist school integration. And the idea was we’ll just close the public schools. We’ll give everyone a voucher, and then we’ll have private white academies and private Black academies. And so civil rights organizations and elders in the Black community have a strong mental aversion, I think for good reason, to vouchers. And so that has limited their uptake in communities of color. And the people pushing the vouchers have often made the argument that we want to give vouchers out to help the most disadvantaged students or they’re trying to use communities of color  as a poster child of sorts. Well, the communities didn’t want them, for the most part. So that, that was one big issue.

And the other one was charter schools, you know, whatever critique one may or may not have them have of them, they have, you know, a lot of aspects of publicness to them, right. So those have been popular in a lot of communities. And so the choice was what a family wanted in a struggling school district, which charter you’re offering them. And so the vouchers didn’t really take off. The vouchers that are now taking off really more around what we call “freedom ideology,” anti-government ideology. That what’s really helped them take off. And also the claim is that somehow or another, that like individualism, religious faiths are oppressed in  the public school system and that they need freedom just like everyone else. I think that has accelerated, um , the uptake of them as well.

Jon M: [00:25:02] You’ve said that today’s battles over charters and vouchers are different from previous education battles because they’re really undermining the very concept of public education as something that the government should be doing. Could you elaborate on that? 

Derek B: [00:25:23] Whatever great ideas, and there are plenty of great ideas in our theory of public education across time, I always like to point out, those great ideas we’re not immune to racism. And so we have seen attacks or  issues within the public school system, but the idea, and we go back to. Jim Crow segregation, following Reconstruction. We go back to the backlash against integration in the 1960s. Those aren’t attacks on the idea of public education. Those are attacks on, we don’t want to go to school with with those kids, and we don’t want to fund their education. We’re fine with public education. We’re just not okay with them. As people used to say with integration, our resistance to integration, it’s not the bus, it’s us that you have a problem with.

So the problem wasn’t with public education, it was with some of the children it was serving. And what has changed now is that it is an attack on public education itself, that in this sort of modern iteration, there’s certainly a racial undercurrent motivating lots of individuals, but the public rhetoric and the public policy is actually asserting that public education, as an idea, is gone, that government schools are wrong, that freedom of all individuals to go and pursue their own destiny in the private sector is where we need to move on. And so that is an attack on the education for white children. That’s an attack on education for students of color. To some extent,  that’s also an attack on suburban communities that, diverse or not, who want to maintain a public system that bring brings people together. It is a wholesale attack, in my mind, on the idea of public education that’s occurring .

Amy H-L: [00:27:08] Well, isn’t some of this libertarianism just thinly veiled selfishness?

Derek B: [00:27:13] Well maybe. Yeah. I mean , I think it’s a diverse constituency. So you limit it to libertarianism. I think part of the libertarianism movement is naive ignorance. And some of it is selfishness, as you say, some, some libertarians, particularly the ones like the Koch brothers, that really fund these movements, believe that the public education system simply extracts wealth from rich people and sends it out to educate poor kids. And that that’s right. That we are stealing their property to educate other kids. And so that is selfishness. I think there’s a good deal of ignorance there as well. We have a lot of thinkers that say, look, you know, do you really want to be rich and live behind armed gates? Is that actually a better world for you? And I think that the Koch brothers of the world would probably say, no, they don’t want to live behind, or hopefully,   there’s not many of them that want to live behind armed gates, they think that the free market, right, individual motivation would somehow or other make public education better or education better overall if the government just got out of it. And there’s no evidence of that in history. In fact, the public education system comes into existence because the private system is incapable of serving the many different needs of the students of this country. And it is incapable of producing quality, public education opportunities in remote communities in the same way that remote airports struggled or closed, the same way that the train doesn’t run to all the places it once ran before, once the government got out of mandating it. There’s, there’s simply no evidence in history that the private system could do that. But nonetheless, there, there are individuals who, I think foolishly, believe that that it could. 

Amy H-L: [00:29:07] Well, it would create a pretty good caste system doesn’t it?

Derek B: [00:29:09] And if we’re attributing bad motives, which may be appropriate. It’s just, my southerness gets the best of me sometimes. Yes, it could certainly be bad motives. And I do talk about this a little bit in my book, and so far, as I say, look, privatization rates, whether through charters or vouchers or combined together are highest in the places where there are higher percentages of students of color. Privatization is not an issue in Montana. Privatization is not an issue in Nebraska, and those places have some of the lowest levels of privatization in the country. Privatization, until this legislative session, had really never been a serious issue in the state of West Virginia. Now there’s some Trumpism going on there that I think is, is, has moved them a little bit.

But whereas, you know, you look at where African-American and Latino children live at, you know, it’s off the charts. And it is because I think at a, at a subconscious level, even if not stated explicitly, that white wealthy individuals and maybe middle income, white individuals who perceive themselves to be wealthier than what they are, don’t want to pay for the education of anybody other than their own children.

Jon M: [00:30:19] And I get the sense, in addition, from some of what you’ve said, that one of the underlying factors is to reduce the taxes of the very wealthy because vouchers and charters generally get less funding than public schools. And therefore, what you’re doing is lowering the amount of taxpayer money that is going towards education. So in a sense, it’s sort of the opposite of the struggle for more funds for public education. They’re saying that if we switch the whole model, that we’re reducing the government footprint, because we’re reducing the amount of money that is allocated towards education. Am I understanding correctly?

Derek B: [00:31:12] That’s correct, but there’s another, there’s an insidious element of what you’re talking about. I think there’s also just fiscal conservatism, which is, we just don’t want to spend, we don’t like taxes or don’t want to spend money and how can we reduce the education footprint? And, you know, we spend less per pupil on vouchers and charters than we do in public schools. And so it is a way of getting them outside the system.

And I also would note, I think a relatively few people appreciate a key premise of what you’re hitting on Jon, which is that once you get a child off of your books, say in Year One, you know, you move a kid from public school to voucher, or public school to charter, and maybe you incur a $2,000 per people savings or something like that from the state level. But that savings actually grows over time, right, because you’re not obligated to increase the voucher benefits. On a year to year basis ,you’re not obligated to change the contract with, because that’s what it is with charter schools. You can hold those costs constant. So imagine a world just for a moment in which everyone had a voucher tomorrow, and it was $5,000 a kid, which my, well, let’s say it’s $7,000, which might be enough in some locations, people say that I want that deal. But then fast forward, 10 years from now and your child’s in high school and costs have gone up and now tuition’s 10,000 and the school says, well, we need you to make up the other $3,000 to the family. And the family goes to the legislature. Let’s just forget that. Right. That’s your responsibility. We’ve moved toward this libertarian system that Amy was describing earlier. Like, I mean, we’re giving you a little bit of help here, but education, that’s the family’s responsibility in the same way that it’s your responsibility to feed yourself. So food stamps don’t make ends meet. That’s not our problem. And that is exactly what a voucher and potentially a charter system can begin to look like, as opposed to a public system, which is voted on, which is constitutionalized and had all these rules. The state certainly cuts public education, but there are limits to what it can do in a public system. There are no limits to the race to the bottom, and the privacy. 

Amy H-L: [00:33:29] What was the significance of the #RedforEd teacher strikes in some of the more conservative states a few years ago?

Derek B: [00:33:37] Well, I think that last phrase that you raised is maybe the most significant. You said in conservative states. And I emphasized this in my book, that the grassroots movement to fully fund or refund or repair the cuts to public education, that movement didn’t start in Massachusetts. It didn’t start in  New York or Oregon. It started in West Virginia with the coal miner’s daughter, right. It then moved to Oklahoma, right. And I don’t have a good adjective to put on there. And it moved to Arizona, right. 50,000 people marched on the Capitol of Arizona. Well, actually Kentucky happened in between that. And then it started coming back to places like South Carolina, the homeplace of the Confederacy, or the birth of all bad things. At one point in history, it comes back here, and  I had the good fortune to attend that. It was actually one of the most exciting days, outside of birth of my children and marriage, to see what was the largest gathering of any sort of protests on the state steps of the Capitol here so much so that it flowed over into downtown, they had to close traffic. So the significance is that things had gotten so bad that even in the reddest of red places, people weren’t willing to take it anymore. But the other significance is, is that maybe red and blue don’t really matter when we understand what public education does, right. Public education, and I talk about this a lot in my book, historically has always been a nonpartisan issue. That’s not to say that Democrats or Republicans don’t disagree. They disagree all the time, but No Child Left Behind, like it, don’t like it, Congress voted for it. Every Student Succeeds Act, like it, don’t like it, 85% of Congress voted for it during a period of, right, this is the Obama presidency when they couldn’t agree on the time of day. If Obama said first letter of the alphabet is A, you know, the Republicans would have said, no, it’s it’s a Z or W or U or V.  85% of Congress votes in favor of this. So I think the fact that these things took off in red states and places we didn’t expect them sort of reaffirmed my notion of how fundamental the average person’s commitment to the idea of public education is. Right. It doesn’t mean they’re not infected with racism and other things at times, but that fundamental commitment there. So that was very exciting. And it educated the public about how much had been cut out of the budgets and how far we needed to go. Unfortunately, you know, COVID interrupted that, but it really was an important moment in history.

Jon M: [00:36:23] What’s your response to a low-income parent of color who  says she’s choosing a charter school or a voucher because she can’t wait for  her local public school to improve. What would you say? 

Derek B: [00:36:35] Yeah, I would say I can’t second guess that decision. He or she might say, wait a minute. I thought you just wrote a book that was railing on these things. And I think the thing I emphasize is that what I am really railing on is our state legislators, who refuse and have refused in some instances for as long as the history of these education clauses have existed, to fully serve poor and minority students. And if a state refuses to provide an adequate equal education, I am highly sympathetic to those families to do whatever they feel is necessary and best for their children. But my response is that a handful of individual choices and one off options will not remedy the fundamental challenge of delivering equal and adequate education to all our children. And so we have to take that issue to our states and insist that they live up to their obligations. So, those families unfortunately are put in a untenable situation and they had to do what they think is best for them.

Amy H-L: [00:37:42] And when you say “we,” what kind of movement or coalition are you envisioning to fight against these charter and voucher movements?

Derek B: [00:37:51] Well, when I say “we,” I think about my most direct colleagues, but I also think that we have to understand that we need to be much, much bigger, Amy. And that is to say that when the state refuses to fairly and fully fund adequate education, it’s not just doing a disservice to students of color in New York City or Newark or wherever. Maybe they’re doing a disservice to rural children, poor, white or otherwise, across the country, that a refusal to have an equitable school funding system, for the most part, only accrues to the benefit of relatively upper-middle  income suburban schools, right. And everyone else is left to fend for themselves. And so when I say “we,” what I mean is that the high poverty, you know, students of color communities in some of our large cities have to understand that they have allies or need to establish allies with folks in other communities, because with vouchers, for instance, that sort of make it concrete, the thing that I often say, of course our civil rights advocates in our urban centers are, are fighting them because they see the most immediate effects of this, but they need to engage the rural communities who haven’t seen a brick laid, a bus bought, or a fully staffed school in decades. And those communities, those rural communities, should be outraged that in their moment of need that the state’s number one priority is a one-off set of vouchers, right. And that fact, that dichotomy, shows us that these individuals pushing vouchers and one-off orders really don’t have the interest of people, I mean, broadly speaking, people, in their minds. They’re serving a narrow ideological end that goes back to, you know, the comments that, that you and Jon had been raising about selfishness or lower taxes and other alternatives.

Because I think when we see that larger system and how many people are disserved by it, we have to see that there’s a lot of people getting the short end of the stick. 

Jon M: [00:39:57] Going back to this question about what kind of movement is needed and what kind of coalitions, you focused, of course, on funding issues. How do you see this fitting in with some of the other demands about what education should be about. What are going to be the combination of things that will motivate large numbers of people. Is it strictly funding or is it part of a broader set of questions?

Derek B: [00:40:24] I think the funding one is actually the easiest one. You know, everybody likes money, right. Everybody wants more money for their schools. And I think building coalitions around that is not difficult if you understand the underlying facts and what’s happening. But money is a necessary but insufficient condition for quality education. And I talk about this towards the end of my book, that if we think about the ideas of public schools is bringing folks together, we’re not talking about bringing folks together who were already together already. We’re talking about bringing diverse communities and dealing with difference and learning how to build a better society or better or good values in the microcosm of education. And that means right, racially diverse and socioeconomically diverse. And I’m on the National Coalition for School Diversity. I was one of the original founding steering committee members of that group. And that’s hard work, right, convincing state legislators to make our schools more diverse. Encouraging communities to do that is more difficult. But, you know, for all the steam that we may have lost on the sort of grassroots #RedforEd movement as a result of COVID, I think the nation has obviously got a heightened attention to issues of racial oppression and racial separation. And I think the percentage of people who are open to more great and diverse schools, I like to believe is actually a little bit bigger today than it was yesterday and the day before, that it is a growing and expanding movement.

How long will it continue to grow and expand? I don’t know. What’s the tipping point that we can do something? I don’t know. I can tell you that last year, that National Coalition for School Diversity was intricately involved in a diversity bill that did, in fact, pass the House, the United States House of Representatives last year. We’re expecting it to pass again this year. And you know, in the Senate is an open question, but we are getting more leverage at the federal level.

Jon M: [00:42:27] Thank you, Professor Derek Black of the University of South Carolina.

Amy H-L: [00:42:31] Thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails.

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