Sunday, May 27, 2018

Conservative Antipathy To American Public Education

therealnews |  So 64 years ago, Brown vs. Board of Education found that separate and unequal education systems for African Americans was unconstitutional. You argue that many Virginians initially actually accepted this decision, but a public campaign was launched to sway public opinion against it. Can you talk about that? You start off the first chapter of your book with this history, talking about how students and teachers in Virginia, led by students, weren’t organized to be part of Brown. And then the public response against it.

NANCY MACLEAN: Yeah, in the state of Virginia in 1951 there was an extraordinarily inspiring event that is really, in a way, a precursor to some of what we’re seeing now with the teachers strikes, and student and teacher mobilizations for good public education. In that strike in 1951 in Prince Edward County, Virginia, a young woman named Barbara Rose Johns joined with her favorite teacher, and the two of them worked together, kind of strategized for a strike, a student strike, to demand a better high school for the black children of Prince Edward County. At that point many of the students were taking classes in tar paper shacks. They did not have indoor plumbing, in many cases, while the white school was the extraordinary state of the art facility. And so the 200 students in this high school went out on a 100 percent solid students strike for a better high school.

It was an incredibly inspiring event with the support of over 90 percent of their parents, the local black clergy, and NAACP. And what they wanted was a chance to learn, to grow, to have the same opportunities as other children in their cohort and their era and their community. And they only went back to school when the NAACP agreed to take their course. I’m sorry, to take their case against discrimination to the courts. And at that point the students went back to school, and this case from Prince Edward County became one of the five eventually folded into Brown vs. Board of Education.

Fast forward a bit, and after the Brown decision was issued by the court, Virginia’s extremely conservative white elite began in 1955 and ’56 to do everything it could to undermine the success of that decision, and to deny black children and communities the constitutional rights that had just been recognized by the court. The way that they did this was through a program called massive resistance, and they led the program of massive resistance and goaded the wider white South onto it. And one element of that massive resistance was state-funded tuition grants, what we today would call vouchers, to enable white parents to pull their children from public schools to private schools that would be beyond the reach of the Federal Court’s ruling that segregation was unconstitutional.

So that’s actually how I got into this story, and it was a story that led me to the surprising discovery that essentially the entire American right, and particularly of interest, this free market fundamentalist right that was just beginning to get organized in those years, supported these tax-funded school vouchers. And even, in many cases, supported the school closures in Prince Edward County to prevent the Brown decision from being implemented.

So that was fascinating to me. And I discovered that Milton Friedman, the Chicago school free market economist, had issued his first manifesto for such vouchers in 1955 in the full knowledge of how it could be used by the white segregationists of the South. And then I also stumbled onto a report by this James McGill Buchanan that we were discussing earlier, who essentially tried to pull the segregationist chestnuts out of the fire in early 1959, when a massive mobilization of moderate white parents had come together to try to save the schools from these school closures, and the bleeding of these tax monies out to private schools. And after the courts had ruled against school closures of schools that were planning to desegregate in Virginia. So that’s how Buchanan got on my radar. But what I realized was that this was a much deeper story about the right’s radical antipathy to public education precisely because it was public.

And here I think it’s important to point out that when this was happening in the late 1950s, American schools were the envy of the developed world. We lead the world in the efficacy of our public education system. Our schools were a model for the wider world. And yet this right was attacking public education even then. And as important, teachers were not organized then. There were no recognized teachers unions. There was no collective bargaining structure for teachers in those years. The right was attacking public education as a monopoly, saying that it denied choice, all the kinds of things that they say now against public education, and they were doing this at a time when teachers had no collective power.

So the antipathy that we see on the right toward teachers unions today, toward public education, is not really because of any failing on their part. It is ideological. It is dogmatic. It is an antipathy to public education precisely because it is public.