Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy by Derek W. Black – Here are my five lessons and takeaways

School House Burning• Geographically, education was to be at the physical center of all future development. Financially, education would be inviolably supported by the nation’s public resources. Governmentally, education would be a central function that states and localities must carry out. Symbolically, public education would be the foundation of “good government and the happiness of mankind.”
• Public education is, in effect, the inheritance that we all share, and one that is crucially important for kids like me who never could have hoped for an inheritance in the literal sense. This book is about safeguarding and nurturing that inheritance for current and future generations.  
• What follows is my best effort to tell America’s education story—and tell it in a way that is relevant to the challenges our kids face today: poverty, inequality, and a public education system under siege. I hope it resonates.  
• So these families are not really choosing on an even playing field. They are not choosing between a decent public school and a charter or voucher. They are, instead, fleeing from what they perceive as a burning house. No one can begrudge families who feel they must leap from the windows and hope they land on their feet. It’s no surprise that these families defend charter and voucher programs that would allow others to do the same.  
• If this book makes anything clear, it will be that states have underfunded and abused their public schools.  
• Lawmakers, lobbyists, and commentators will tell you that charters, vouchers, school funding, and teachers are questions of education policy. …The point of this book is to help you see that entertaining those policy questions is partly to blame for the current mess.   
• My telling of this history is to remind us of our fundamental guideposts and offer a fair lens through which to assess today’s education discussions.  
• In other words, the nation is in the middle of a battle for the long-term viability of public education, not nearly to the point of assuring a conclusion. …we must acknowledge that the battle is much larger than the public policy debates of the past.  
• Can we still claim to be a democracy committed to the idea that all citizens have the right to equally participate if we do not maintain a robust public education system?
• Yet the bipartisan awakening of support for education suggests that public education norms, although not irreversible like I once might have thought, are more durable than the last decade suggests.  
Derek W. Black, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy


There is no substitute.  You simply learn more from reading good books.

At the September Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare, I presented my synopsis of Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy by Derek W. Black (New York:  Public Affairs. 2020).  I learned things – things that I did not know – from reading this book.

This book basically says “Let’s go back to what was intended; and let’s do that.”

So, what was intended?  This is what was intended:  a robust, permanent, public education system, available to all.  For the good of the students; for the good of our communities; for the good of society; for the good of our democracy.

(Note:  I went to what anyone might call “everyday public schools,” in a Jim Crow era Jacksonville, Florida elementary school, and then finishing my elementary school days-high school in Harlingen, Texas).  Mr. Black attended public schools, but especially one school that had quite a history; it was helped to integrate by Thurgood Marshall before his Supreme Court days.

Derek W. Black’s story is a story of the white boy from a quite unstable family who was basically saved by public education.  He went to school at the University of Tennessee, then went to Law School, and taught at Howard University, the historically black university. He is now a Law Professor; with plenty of focus on civil rights studies.  He also served as a member of the Obama-Biden transition team.

In my synopses, I always ask What is the point?  Here it is for this book:  Democracy needs educated citizens.  Public education should be…public.  Our democracy must educate our people.  A true public education system is essential to the survival of our democracy.  And, alas, our public education system is in jeopardy. Great jeopardy.

And I ask Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three answers for this book:

#1 – This book is a history of the centrality of public education in America.
#2 – This book takes the reader on a journey through the fights and struggles to make our public education system one that works for all.
#3 – This book captures the current dangers of our now endangered public education system.  It is a call to rise in defense of a very needed, critical part of our democracy.

I always include Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” my highlighted Passages.  Here are quite a few of the best of the best for Schoolhouse Burning:

• For most of my life, I was a white student surrounded by white teachers, white students, and white ideas, including most of college.
• I roughly understood that my schools were desegregated, that some of my interracial friendships were possible because of someone else’s courage, and that things that did not seem entirely right in the late 1980s and early 1990s might have a larger story behind them.   
• One cannot be at Howard long, regardless of race, without appreciating that you are standing on others’ shoulders. …I never suffered from the naive illusion that I could fill any of their shoes, nor did I carry anything like their burden, but walking those halls alters one’s worldview. 
• However progressive we might think we are, our forefathers have us beat in spades when it comes to education. 
• And because these problems aren’t new, the nation came up with solutions long ago that can still work today if we trust our roots. 
• I know now that the public education I received rested on decisions that people made for communities like mine well before I ever set foot on this earth. 
• Slaves fled for Union lines. Once physically safe there, education was foremost on their minds. Makeshift schools quickly swelled beyond anyone’s expectation in places like Fort Monroe, Virginia, and Port Royal, South Carolina. …In the Freedmen’s Camp in Vidalia, Louisiana, an observer told of a thousand slaves gathering under a large magnolia tree to learn from a missionary teacher.
• An official report to Congress later rhetorically asked: “What other people on earth have ever shown, while in their ignorance, such a passion for education?”
• While threats to the ballot are immediately understood as threats to democracy, attacks on public education are not always fully appreciated as such. But rest assured, just as the gift of public education has helped build up our democracy, taking it back threatens to tear down our democracy. Because public education has for so long served as the foundation of our democratic norms, it has also served as a battlefield for those who resist democracy or seek to bend it toward their own ends rather than the greater good. 
• The powerful interests behind the scenes want a much different system of government than the one our founders put in our state and federal constitutions. Undermining public education is a big part of making that happen.   
• In short, the real agenda of those pushing education budget cuts and alternatives to the public education system is not to improve the public education system or to create better educational opportunities outside of it but to fundamentally undermine or end, if possible, the public education system as we know it. 
• The second sign that things had gone too far was the public response to Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. …The notion that she—“ somebody who scorns public education, who never went to a public school, [whose] children never went to a public school”—would be Secretary of Education was too much for regular people, regardless of their political party, to stomach.   
• What happens when education policy becomes a political football rather than the most basic obligation of government to its citizens?  
• Shockingly large percentages do not vote or understand the basic structure of government.
• …If education becomes the bystander in a political power struggle, democracy could lose the tool it needs to heal itself.
• Separate and unequal public education perpetuates winners and losers. 
• While America has never fully lived up to its education promises, it is a mistake to think its shortcomings require or justify a new theory of education. 
• Charter schools, as much as public schools, now claim an inherent right to exist. 
• The real target of the law, however, was teachers. The proof was in the pudding. Walker exempted police, firefighters, and state troopers from the collective bargaining changes, leaving teachers as the primary group to see its rights change. 
• Governor Chris Christie took a similarly combative stance. He said teachers’ unions deserved a “punch in the face” and were the “single most destructive force in public education.” They just don’t care about children, he claimed.  
• Gouge education and look for silver bullet alternatives.   
• The work of Brown, both practically and in hearts and minds, ended too soon. There is no other way of saying it: we left the job undone.   
• It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and CEO’s children. …We know that the idea has never been fully true in our schools, but we need to believe in that idea. That idea is part of what makes us America. …Pursuing that idea still captures the American imagination today. It involves 10,000 school districts serving 50 million students for the lion’s share of their waking lives between the ages of five and eighteen.   
• In the end, public education settles for a few islands of opportunity rather than the common good of all. 
• While the future is by no means certain, America’s aspirations have followed a consistent trajectory. Two steps forward. One step back.
• The question is whether America’s public schools can take a few steps forward after immediately having been pulled back. That I don’t know.
• Right now, public education is in uncharted territory.

After I share important excerpts, I then share the points and insights I pull from the books that I present.  Here are a number of key points from this book: 

  • The clear and simple premise of this book is:
  • (don’t get sidetracked – this is not just a “charter school” vs. “public school” issue; although, it includes that…)
  • our government knew that education was critical to building and being the kind of democracy that we wanted. So, it championed education. States to enter (and re-enter) the union had to put education in their state constitutions. And, such education was to be education for all! (i.e., all; black, and white, and…)_
  • From the beginning…
  • George Washington:  no “duty [is] more pressing on [the national] legislature” than “the common education of a portion of our youth from every quarter.”
  • John Adams: government had a responsibility to provide education to “every rank and class of people, down to the lowest and the poorest” and pay for it at “public expense.”
  • Thomas Jefferson was similarly convinced that public education is “necessary to prepare citizens to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system [and] to preserve freedom and independence.” As president, he boldly proposed committing the nation’s financial treasure and future surpluses to education. Education was so important that he urged Congress, if necessary, to amend the Constitution to allow for education’s support. 
  • The Northwest Ordinance shaped what would become thirty-one states.
  • Education was embedded into the very structure of these new lands. The Northwest Ordinance required that every town be divided into thirty-six lots. Four of those lots and one-third of each township’s natural resources would be used to generate resources for public education.
  • Education for all was mandated!
  • As a condition for rejoining the Union after the war, Congress forced Southern states to rewrite their state constitutions and embed the right to education in them. …No state would ever again enter the Union without guaranteeing education in its constitution.
  • A stark reminder; we can go forward, and then we can go backward…
  • My first conclusion should worry you: The last decade aligns better with the darker periods of our history than the brighter ones. The trend is alarming not just for public education. It is alarming for democracy itself. But my second conclusion is that the power of the idea of public education remains strong enough to persevere. In fact, public education may be the one institution that helps rebind this nation’s wounds, just as it has in the past, and moves us once again closer to our democratic aspirations.
  • …And the Northwest Ordinance chose a specific lot in every township on which to build a public school—the sixteenth lot.
  • It provided that “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
  • My mistake was in thinking that democracy’s triumphs were irreversible or settled.
  • states—aided and sometimes prodded by top federal officials—are now trying to take the gift of public education back. It should come as no surprise that they are doing so at the same time that some are restricting access to the ballot box. 
  • A sad reminder – there are bigger villains, yes; but there are also many villains
  • Betsy Devos AND Arne Duncan (during the Obama Administration)
  • Both Trump and DeVos ironically speak of private school vouchers — not equal and adequate public schools — as a “right.” 
  • …Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, while surely more well intentioned, spurred enormous charter school growth during the recession.
  • Duncan also helped fuel a war on public school teachers, requiring states to hire, fire, and retain teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores. Regardless of his intent, it was his, not DeVos’s, policies that first helped drive teacher morale to a historic low and dry up the pipeline of new teachers.
  • Democrat versus Republican; vouchers versus the status quo; more money versus more reform—all along failing to acknowledge that both sides have good ideas and good intentions. …Either way, the department took a serious turn on charters and teachers under Duncan.
  • THE “issue”
  • For the first time in our history, states would shirk their education obligations and transition public education from a constitutional right to a policy option. As such, public education would cease to be the foundational commitment of our state government.
  • Education “reformers,” of course, do not state their agenda as an attack on public education or student rights. Their pitch is gentler. …This line of argument rests on a radical idea—that public education does not hold a special place in our democracy, and government has no business providing it. 
  • We should think about racist elements in this discussion…
  • Plantation and property owners resisted the cost of public education during Reconstruction. Segregationists considered dissolving public schools before they integrated in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • The assault on public education today is broader than that of the past. Past assaults were foremost about race, and although race remains part of today’s story, the primary rallying cry is against public education itself.
  • Yet money alone cannot solve what has long been a root of education’s ills—segregation. Racial and socioeconomic school segregation harm the entire public education system and society as a whole.
  • segregated schools deny privileged students the diverse learning opportunities they also need to succeed in higher education and employment, and as future citizens and leaders. 
  • But… we have to face the reality of the discontent of families with education
  •  The first step toward redemption is to take seriously the reasons why families have grown discontented.
  • It is not enough to respond that we owe fidelity to the public education system and its ideas. We know that families’ fidelity will be to their own children first.
  • Parents also need to know that the classrooms they put their children in will not be overcrowded or short on basic supplies. They need to know the teachers are qualified. Those things take money. 
  • It is going to take money!
  • The collective weight of the research is as conclusive as it gets: money matters.
  • But the fact remains that about half of our schools are grossly underfunded, and no amount of efficiency can cure the problems these schools face.
  • Fifty years ago, the effect of money on student outcomes was uncertain—largely due to data and analytical limits. Today it is not—at least not among scholars.
  • States do not need to experiment with public education; they need to fund it. 
  • We really do need more teachers
  • the pipeline of new teachers virtually dried up in 2015.
  • the teacher pipeline, even if we acted immediately, could take a decade or more to reestablish.
  • Between 2009 and 2012, schools lost 300,000 teaching positions.
  • The Courts got it…wrong…
  • That simple idea — that school desegregation remedies could not cross school district boundaries — sealed desegregation’s future before it ever began in earnest in much of the country.
  • The Court was, in effect, telling families who did not want to be part of desegregation that they could just move to a new neighborhood, maybe just a mile away in the same county. The school district line would protect them. All too soon this possibility became reality and earned the name “white flight.”
  • Rodriguez made the picture even bleaker: schools could once again be racially separate (so long as there was no proof of intentional action) and financially unequal (even if it was intentional).
  • In other words, the Court, as a practical matter, had moved the bar below Plessy. Plessy, at least, said that separate should be equal.
  • The time had come for courts to release school districts from desegregation.
  • …The Court was as much a sign as a cause of the times.

And here are my 5 Lessons and takeaways:

#1 – To be true to the essence and spirit of the Constitution and our founding principles, education must be provided for all.
#2 – Any “educational reform” that in any way leads to a lesser education for the some in service to better education for others must be rejected as untrue to our founding values and principles.
#3 – A word about “Restoration Movements.” – By nature, we seem to drift away from original purposes and intentions.  The task of restoring what is essential — of returning to what is essential — is a never-ending task.
• If those who care about public education concede the war over the fundamental concept of public education or make their war about something other than its fundamental values, they will wake up one day with nothing left to fight for. They may even wake up without a democracy.
#4 – Public education is under assault!  There will be people who work tirelessly to undermine public education.  We must identify them; not be swayed by their good intentions when, whether they intend to do so or not, they seek to undermine public education; warn against them; and stand against them.
#5 – Maybe public education needs some cheerleaders.  Some history cheerleaders, who seek to tell the history of public education.  And some testimonial cheerleaders, who describe what they gained through the public education that they received.

I think that there are many “assaults” on American democracy these days.  This book opened my eyes about one I had not fully grasped.  I came away with a deeper appreciation for public education, and a pretty deep worry that we need to do a much better job defending and supporting and championing a robust public education system.

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