From the Archives: School a la Carte

In newspapers from the early 1800s, they are everywhere. Individual proprietors advertised their services to the population of cities. Parents and children could slap together as much education as they could afford, with rates published up front. It might sound like a purely private, market-driven system, but the fine print shows it wasn’t that simple.

a la carte education

From Freedom’s Journal (New York), October 17, 1828

In this case the school was for African-American kids in Philadelphia, c. 1828. As I’ve argued recently in the Washington Post, I think conservatives who dream of injecting more market forces into public education don’t really understand how things worked back when the market WAS in control. As I dig through the newspapers and records of African-American schools in the early 1800s, it is obvious that tuition payments alone could not provide the schools kids needed.

Sure, some families likely thrived with schools like these, but even these “private” academies relied on public funding. As you can see in this advertisement, Philadelphia’s Academy didn’t survive on tuition alone. It also received

liberal patronage from a generous public.

Over time, that patronage evolved into reliable, secure tax funding. Then and only then were schools able to flourish, for both white and black students. When people these days yearn for public schools that don’t rely entirely on tax funding, they don’t seem to realize what they are asking for.

In the bad old days of early public schooling, schools like the Morris’ Alley Academy were forced to cobble together funding from all over the place. I think if Gloucester and Jones could sit down with DeVos and Friedman, they would set them straight.

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It’s Really All Over for Charter Schools

Although some smart people apparently didn’t see it coming, the writing has been on the wall for charter schools for about two years now. The final nail in its coffin might have come yesterday when former President Barack Obama endorsed a mea culpa from the “ed-reform” movement.obama tweet

As SAGLRROILLYBYGTH are sick of hearing, the remarkable success of charter schools resulted, in large part, from the diverse political coalition that backed them. Conservative evangelicals liked the idea of a refuge from the supposedly secularized public schools. White segregationists hoped charters could stave off school integration. Urban African-American activists liked the notion of a better option for low-income youth. Secular free-marketeers wanted to break the monopoly of the teachers’ unions. Ambitious young overachievers liked the idea of entrepreneurship in education, instead of slogging up the teacher-career ladder.

To be sure, the so-called “reform” movement wasn’t only about charter schools. It also included a heavy emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing. The goal was to make sure lazy teachers and underresourced schools could no longer ignore children who didn’t sparkle. Reformers dreamed of displacing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and making sure no child was left behind.

All laudable goals, and all goals that attracted support from across the political spectrum. Until, that is, Hurricane Betsy swept into town. As we’ve discussed in these pages, Secretary DeVos’s reign as educational Trumpist has changed the nature of the ed-reform discussion. Instead of a broad movement open to both Democrats and Republicans, charter schools and the rest of the “reform” movement have now become the signature ed policy of Trump-wingers.

Democrats have fallen over one another rushing for the exits. Leading 2020 contenders such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke all have significant histories as charter supporters and they’re all scrambling to find ways to deny it.

Yesterday, when St. Obama tweeted his agreement with a recent Atlantic article, the handwriting on the wall received its final punctuation. As President Obama wrote,

This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all. As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.

By throwing his enormous party prestige into the mix, President Obama has surely spelled the doom of charter-schools and other “reform” measures among the Democratic Party. And when any reform becomes the signature issue of only one political party, it is surely doomed to deadlock, decline, and defeat.

Betsy DeVos Has Saved Public Education

No one expected it. When Queen Betsy first took her position, her Dolores-Umbridge-style floundering was painful to watch and frightening for those of us who care about public education. Two years in, however, it is plain as day: DeVos’s sheer terribleness has forced a political realignment on the issue of charter schools. Charter schools used to be seen by both parties as the next great hope for public education. Now they are seen as a GOP stalking horse.

We’re used to it by now, but think back to DeVos’s shockingly inept interview on 60 Minutes in 2018. She evinced scant understanding or even interest in key educational issues. As Chris Cillizza wrote at the time,

DEVOS: Well, in places where there have been — where there is — a lot of choice that’s been introduced — Florida, for example, the — studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually — the results get better, as well.

STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.

DeVOS: Michi — Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.

STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?

DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I — I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.

STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.

DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this — the students are doing well and —

If I was a boxing referee, I would have stopped this exchange about halfway through. If you are the secretary of education, you have to know you are going to be asked about the effects of school choice — particularly in your home state. So, if you’re going to argue that school choice has made public schools better, you had had better find a whole hell of a lot better spin that “I don’t know.”

And here’s Colbert’s take:

DeVos’s theory is that if you take money away from public schools and give it to charter schools, that will somehow help the public schools. It’s a system called . . . Stupid.

Before the DeVos era, politicians and pundits of both major parties tended to embrace charter schools as our most promising school-reform idea. No longer. Democratic 2020 hopefuls are scrambling to distance themselves from charter schools. Those who have the closest ties to the charter movement, like Senator Cory Booker, have the most work to do. As The (charter-loving) Economist put it,

Mr Booker is trying to navigate these treacherous waters. His proposed education manifesto for 2020 is to increase funding for educating special-needs children and to pay teachers more. These proposals are fine. Yet Mr Booker is the only candidate with a serious educational achievement under his belt—and the essential ingredients of that turnaround are not what he is promising now. His campaign replies that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for education reform.

It’s not only about charter schools. Other market-y style education reforms have become similarly tainted with DeVosite. Teach For America, another reform plan long despised by progressives but embraced by both major parties, has come under increasing fire. California is considering ditching the program and cities such as Houston already have.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

All Hufflepuffed up.

In a way, it’s a shame. The smart answer when it comes to TFA, charter schools, or any other reform plan is always “It depends.” Some charter schools have offered great educations to low-income students. Some TFA teachers have done great jobs, and sacrificed a lot to do it.

Because of Queen Betsy’s Trumpish cloud, however, charter schools have reached Chernobyl-level toxicity for Democratic politicians. And that means the idea of charter schools will no longer carry the day as it has done for the past thirty years. In the long run, that’s good news for public education as a whole.

WaPo Needs to Get Its Ears Checked on Charter Schools

Everyone else heard it. Even way up here in the woods of upstate New York we heard it. Every political person except for the editors of the Washington Post seems to have gotten the message loud and clear. As a bi-partisan program, charter schools are dead. There’s no need for Democrats to hug the corpse. Maybe a medical analogy that invokes the late great Gene Wilder will help get the message across.

Here’s what we’re talking about: Today the editors of the Post issued a rebuke to Democratic politicians like Bernie who have turned their collective backs against charter schools. As they wrote,

We hope candidates keep in mind the polls that consistently show support for charters among black and Hispanic voters. It’s easy to oppose charters if you are well-off and live in a suburb with good schools.

The editors make a strong point. For students with no decent public schools nearby, the promise of higher-quality charter schools has always been appealing. And for that reason, political progressives have long supported the charter movement.

But no longer. The WaPo editorial team seems to have missed the changes that have swept the education-reform community over the past three years. Leading Democratic contenders like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke had close ties with charter schools in the past, but they have all backpedaled furiously. (Well, maybe not Senator Booker.)

It’s not just that. Recent teacher strikes in Chicago have driven a broad-shouldered stake through the heart of the charter idea. Similarly, other ambitious school plans from the 1990s have died a shuddering death. There’s one big obvious reason for all this, and I think a medical analogy might help make sense of it.

When the charter-school movement took off in the 1990s, it had amazing success because it managed to do what very few political ideas can do. Namely, it attracted support from left, right, and center. The idea of publicly funded schools without all the red tape of regular public schools appealed to everyone who thought that regular public schools weren’t doing the job. And that’s a lot of people.support-for-charter-scools by raceNevertheless, historically speaking the idea of siphoning tax money away from the public-school network is a radical one, and it only held appeal as long as two factors remained true. First, large numbers of people needed to believe that public schools were in a state of desperate dysfunction. Second, people needed to believe that charters were a shared endeavor, still part of the broader vision of public education for all.

The first part is still true. At least, the WaPo editors continue to believe it. As they wrote this morning,

The most enduring — and unforgivable — civil rights offense in our country today is the consigning of so many poor, often minority children to failing schools.

The second part isn’t. At least, people don’t believe it. The obvious reason for that is the new educational sheriff in town, Betsy DeVos. Queen Betsy has become the public face of the charter school movement. Not Howard Fuller. Not Cory Booker. Not even Arne Duncan. Betsy DeVos.

And when Betsy DeVos becomes the face of charter schools, then the idea of charters takes on all the baggage of Team Trump. No Democrat wants to go to bat for charter schools anymore, you sillies, because they don’t want to buy a ticket on the Trump Train.

Consider this gruesome analogy: When would you agree to let doctors amputate your leg? Things would have to be pretty desperate, right? But if it seemed like the only way to prevent an even bigger health catastrophe, you’d go along with it. Before you did, though, you’d want to hear from a bunch of doctors and surgeons. You’d want to be convinced that the radical procedure was really necessary.

The idea of charter schools is just like that. It is a radical change to America’s public schools, and one with serious negative consequences. Funneling scarce dollars away from low-resource public schools and into charter schools is obviously no one’s first choice, but people were willing to risk it in order to get some students into better schools.

They were willing to try it, in large part, because all the experts lined up behind it. From Howard Fuller to Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee to Cory Booker, it seemed as if leaders from both parties agreed that the radical plan was the least-worst idea.

Not anymore. Secretary DeVos has managed to combine a striking ignorance about public education with a patent disregard for pressing educational issues. She has managed to unite left and right in opposition to her country-club blundering. And she has associated all her efforts with her fervent pro-charter agenda.

To drive the analogy home, it is like you are considering a radical amputation, and there’s only one doctor who tells you it’s a good idea: Dr. Frankenstein.

When the editors of the Washington Post urge Bernie and the other Democratic contenders to stay true to the charter dream, they are giving terrible advice. They are asking Democrats to stick their necks out for President Trump. They are asking Democrats to ignore the changes in ed-reform thinking of the past two years and pretend not to know which way the wind is blowing.

Should Bernie and the rest continue to support high-quality public schools for low-income people? Absolutely! But there are other ways to do it–ways besides the dead dream of charter schools. For the editors of WaPo to ask Bernie to support charter schools is like asking him to show up at a campaign rally wearing a MAGA hat.

The Unfair Way These Democrats Will Lose on Schools in 2020

The charter-school window is closing fast and many 2020 Democratic hopefuls will likely get hurt as it snaps shut. Part of the phenomenal success of the charter-school movement since 1991 has come from its ideological flexibility. As Queen Betsy stiffens that ideology into a sour blend of Jesus, Koch, and Trump, it looks as if Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker will all face awkward questions.

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing, Washington DC, USA - 17 Jan 2017

Kneel before the charter-school Queen!!!

Like many changes in America’s culture-war landscape, this one happened fast. Since 2016, charter schools have been seen more and more as a conservative scam, a way to rob public schools of needed funding. Why? The honors should go to Queen Betsy. Her single-minded focus on increasing “choice” has made it difficult for anyone else to agree.

It wasn’t always this way. Of course, some on the left have always abhorred charter schools. But others haven’t. The unique appeal of charter schools between the 1990s and 2016 was that they appealed to everyone who thought public schools were lacking. And lots of progressive folks have always found big problems with public schools.

Exhibit A: My student-teaching mentor back in the 1990s. He was the best teacher I’ve ever seen, and he was chomping at the bit to start a charter school as soon as Missouri passed its charter law. For him, it was all about cutting red tape and getting educational resources into the hands of underserved kids. He and a small group of fellow progressives had outlined their plan for a wrap-around progressive school, one that would use truly child-centered teaching methods and provide a host of other services for families such as day care, medical care, and meals.

Beto_El_Paso_IVP_TT_PLACEHOLDER

I LOVE–erm…I mean I HATE charter schools.

Or consider activists such as Milwaukee’s Howard Fuller. Though prominent civil-rights groups such as the NAACP oppose charters, Fuller has always seen them as the best hope of low-income African American families. For families trapped in dysfunctional school districts, Fuller argues, charters and vouchers provide a desperately needed escape hatch.

In the past, then, charters and “choice” were embraced by both the left and the right. Anyone who thought the current public-school system was failing could jump on the charter-school bandwagon. For politicians who wanted to be seen as “doing something,” charter schools were the thing to do. That has changed, though, and today’s leading Democrats will find themselves hard pressed to explain their pro-charter pasts.

booker on oprah

…here’s Superman.

President Obama got out in time to avoid tough questions, but his administration pushed hard for charters. Many other Democratic politicians did the same. Beto O’Rourke now tells crowds,

We will not allow our public tax dollars to be taken from our classrooms and sent to private schools.

However, back when it was fashionable for hyper-educated dilettantes to open charter schools, his wife did just that.

Cory Booker might be in an even worse position. Backed by Facebook and Oprah, then-Mayor Booker endorsed a huge expansion of charter schools in Newark.

warren two income

What did you know and when did you know it?

And Elizabeth Warren has recently bashed charters, but until recently she was a huge supporter. Nothing exacerbated the social divides in America, Warren argued in her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap, as much as did the brutal economic and racial segregation of the public-school system. The solution? Charters, vouchers, and “choice.” As Warren argued back in 2003,

The crisis in education is not only a crisis of reading and arithmetic; it is also a crisis in middle-class family economics. At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school. . . . A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly.

Unfortunately for these Democratic hopefuls, the tide has turned and they will be left high and dry. It’s not fair, of course. Back when Booker, O’Rourke, and Warren touted “choice,” they had every reason to think they were on the side of the progressive angels. Thanks to Queen Betsy, however, supporting charter schools these days feels like a deal with the devil.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week, another reminder of how education really works. The rich get embarrassed but they still get into Stanford…

The ugliest story everyone was talking about: Admissions scandal rocks elite higher ed, at IHE.

The story more people SHOULD be talking about: Queen Betsy loosens restrictions on ties between religious private schools and public ones, at NYT.

Conservative defense of a conservative professor, at NR.

  • Are these student demands “crazed?”:

We demand that Samuel Abrams’ position at the College be put up to tenure review to a panel of the Diaspora Coalition and at least three faculty members of color. In addition, the College must issue a statement condemning the harm that Abrams has caused to the college community, specifically queer, Black, and female students, whilst apologizing for its refusal to protect marginalized students wounded by his op-ed and the ignorant dialogue that followed. Abrams must issue a public apology to the broader SLC community and cease to target Black people, queer people, and women. (Emphasis in original.)

If you needed any further encouragement to avoid self-flagellation

Why are Catholics and Anglicans so over-represented in Congress? A new Pew poll finds that the religion of the public doesn’t match the religion of the leaders.

Pew congress faithFL pushes vouchers, at AP.

What does it take for good Christian to also be a good American? At Providence.

Be rigid and stodgy and faithful to the dictates of your church. And demand your fellow Christians do the same. Remember that we can only afford to be liberal in our politics so long as we are steady in our inner lives. So avoid cliché like the devil. And be the best Christian you can be. Only then will you find, incidentally, that you also make a good American.

A century of American anti-Semitism: the legacy of Madison Grant’s ‘scientific racism,’ at The Atlantic.

Remembering the My Lai Massacre, at VQR. Mass psychosis, brutal policy, or both?

This picture of actual reward for atrocity and cover-up of war crime leads us to the largest supposition frequently ventured about the massacre and its continuing moral centrality to American memory of the Vietnamese war: that, despite its astonishing and horrifying magnitude, it was in a many ways a microcosm, an abstract or epitome, of the American way of war in Vietnam.

Why Queen Betsy’s Rule about Religious Schools Is a Very Big Deal

If life gives you Lemons…change fifty years of SCOTUS precedent. That might be the new motto of Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos, as she pushes through a change in the relationship between private religious schools and public ones.

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing, Washington DC, USA - 17 Jan 2017

…I’ll make Lemon-ade.

Now, I’ve been accused by very smart SAGLRROILYBYGTH of being hyperbolic when it comes to interpreting DeVos’s recent moves, so I’ll try to be careful in my hysteria here. Here’s what we know: This week DeVos introduced a change in enforcement of federal law regarding the interaction between public schools and private religious ones. It may sound like a snoozer, but it has enormous implications for those interactions. And those interactions, in turn, have huge implications for the presumed boundaries between religion and government in these United States.

Some facts in the case:

  • Queen Betsy’s proposed change would cease enforcement of a rule banning religious groups from providing secular services to students in private religious schools.
  • So, for example, if a student in a Catholic school needed speech therapy, the law requires the public school district to provide those services.
  • In the past, the district had to provide the services itself, or hire a non-religious contractor to do it.
  • Now, the public school district can hire a religious organization—not the private religious school itself—to provide those services.
  • The services are only supposed to be “secular, neutral and nonideological” in nature. In other words, things like speech therapy and literacy coaching, not religious instruction.

Clear as mud?

To understand why these changes are such a big deal, we need to revisit the SCOTUS ruling that has laid the foundation for the past half-century of policy regarding public aid to religious schools. One of the outcomes of that case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, was the famous “Lemon test.” This three-prong guideline helped Americans find the proper line when it came to public funding of religious education. Since 1970, when deciding if relations were too close between a religious school and the government, we could check these three guidelines:

  1. Does the statute have a “secular legislative purpose?”
  2. Is the “principal or primary effect . . . one that neither advances nor inhibits religion?”
  3. Does the rule “foster an excessive government entanglement with religion?”

In the original case, SCOTUS considered laws that helped pay the salaries of religious-school teachers. They found that those laws did indeed have a secular purpose—states wanted all children to get good educations. They punted on the second part—they didn’t rule on what the primary effect of the laws were. But the justices agreed that the laws violated the third rule. By putting government in charge of part of the school day of teachers at religious schools, the laws hopelessly entangled government with a religious institution.

To this reporter, it seems DeVos’s new rule would throw the Lemon Test out the window. Imagine the likely outcomes. A public school district would be able to hire a speech therapist (for example) who is employed by the Catholic Church, or by Focus on the Family, or by any other of a million religious organizations. The school district would not be able to pay for any type of religious instruction, but only the secular services provided.

In practice, the school district would have to monitor the goings-on in the speech-therapy sessions themselves. The “entanglement” of the public school district and the religious service provider would be beyond “excessive.”

Furthermore, if any religious service provider were able to capture the market for, say, speech therapy in religious schools, it would be able to earn a huge payday from the public tax coffers. I can’t see how that is anything other than a rule that “advances . . . religion.”

Is it a done deal? Not yet. As Americans United protested,

Betsy DeVos is neither the Supreme Court nor Congress. She does not get to unilaterally declare that a statute is unconstitutional, especially with a provision that is designed to protect church-state separation, a bedrock of our democracy.

An administrative decision not to enforce certain provisions of existing legislation is not at all permanent. Just ask Obama. If DeVos’s plan survives, however, it will reverse the past fifty years of church-state guidelines when it comes to private religious schools.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another big week. Rough weather outside and culture-war storms on the interwebs. Here are a few of the biggest stories that caught our ILYBYGTH attention:

Queen Betsy proposes federal support for tax-credit scholarships, at AP.

Trump announces plans to force universities to welcome conservative speakers, at IHE.

When it comes to the evangelical vote, geography matters, at RIP.Geography of GOP evangelicalism

What happened with the Methodists? Board meeting votes against allowing full LGBTQ recognition.

Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.”

Meanwhile, Trump also threatened to sue his colleges if they released his grades or SAT scores, at IHE.

What is going on in Florida? A new batch of bills hopes to restrict science teaching, at NCSE.

How to Kill Public Schools

Well, we had a good run. For the past hundred-fifty years or so—depending on where you live—Americans have had public schools. I don’t mean to be Chicken Little here, but from an historical perspective, it looks like Queen Betsy has figured out a way to get rid of em.

simpsons school

Who will pay to educate Mr. Burns’s doctor?

In some senses, of course, the United States has always had schools FOR the public. Even before the Revolution, there were schools that students without tuition money could attend. I’m finding out way more than I want to about the funding of early American “public” schools in my current research. As I’m finding, these “charity” schools had a wild mix of financial backers. Churches, taxpayers, wealthy individuals, and even not-so-wealthy people gave a lot or a little to educate impecunious children.

At different times in different places, a funding revolution swept the world of American education in the 1800s. Basically, this revolution replaced schools that were FOR the public with schools that were BY and FOR the public. That is, instead of parents, charities, philanthropists, churches, and governments all kicking in here and there to fund worthy students and schools, local and state governments committed to provided tax-funded educations to children. Those governments took tax money from everyone—whether or not they sent kids to the public schools—and in return promised to run schools for the benefit of the entire community.

There were big problems with this funding revolution. Not all children were included. Most egregiously, African-American students were often segregated out of public schools, or shunted off to lower-quality schools. And not all states participated equally. New England and the Northeast jumped early to the new model, while other regions hesitated. Plus, people without children and people who chose not to send their children to the public schools ended up paying for schools they didn’t personally use.

The heart and soul of public education, however, was that the public schools would be administered as a public good, like fire departments and roads. Everyone paid for them, everyone could use them, and everyone could in theory claim a right to co-control them. Even if your house didn’t catch fire, in other words, you paid taxes to support the firefighters. And even if you didn’t drive a car, you paid to maintain the public roads. And those firefighters and road crews were under the supervision of publicly elected officials, answerable in the end to taxpayers. Public schools would be the same way.

This funding arrangement has always been the heart and soul of public education. And it is on the chopping block. Queen Betsy recently proposed a five-billion dollar federal tax-credit scholarship scheme. Like the tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in eighteen states, this plan would allow taxpayers to claim a credit for donations to certain non-profit organizations that would then send the money to private schools.

In some cases, donors can claim up to 100% of their donations back. For every dollar they “donate,” that is, they get a full dollar rebated from their tax bills. Tax-credit scholarship schemes serve to divert tax money from public education—administered by the public—to private schools without any public oversight.

[Confused? Me, too. For more on the ins and outs of tax-credit scholarships, check out this episode of Have You Heard, featuring the explanations of Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.]

lancaster friend of the poor

Back to this future?

What’s the big deal? In essence, these schemes return us to the world before the public-education $$$ revolution. They return us to the world Joseph Lancaster knew so well in the first decades of the 1800s, where funding for schools was an impossibly tangled mess. Back then, parents who could afford it could send their kids to great schools. Parents who couldn’t had to hope their kids might get lucky and attract the attention of a wealthy philanthropist or a church-run charity program. They had to hope that a mix of government money, private tuition, church support, and philanthropist largesse could support their kids’ educations.

By allowing taxpayers to pick and choose whether or not to support public education, Queen Betsy’s proposal takes us back to those bad old days. Are we really ready to throw in the towel on public education? Ready to return to the old system, with “charity” schools run FOR the public by wealthy benefactors who wouldn’t send their own kids there?

The Brave New World of “Workforce Preparation”

You almost feel bad for her. Queen Betsy’s ideas about ed history seem so rudimentary that it is almost too easy for historians such as Jack Schneider to tee off on her. Prof. Schneider pointed out recently how shoddy DeVos’s ideas about “workforce preparation” are. If we wanted to, though—if some sort of culture-war mercy rule didn’t kick in—we could take the critique one step creepier.

system show slates

When the whistle blows, Show Slates!

As Prof. Schneider notes, Sec’y DeVos has long asserted that today’s schools are trapped in an outdated “factory” mindset, that schools today were created to train assembly line workers. Instead, DeVos likes to say, we need schools that prepare students for today’s workforce. As Prof. Schneider writes,

DeVos’s solution is misguided in part because it’s based on a fabricated story. The actual history of workplace training in American schools is far less convenient for her reform agenda.

Nineteenth-century public education, Prof. Schneider says, was always about much more than just training factory workers. As Schneider puts it,

schools were intended to foster civic virtue, Americanize immigrants, and inculcate dominant values. But vocational preparation was not a common objective.

True enough. But as Prof. Schneider is well aware, there has been a long tradition of public schooling that makes Queen Betsy’s promise of “workforce preparation” sound even worse. In a sense, Sec’y DeVos isn’t wrong about nineteenth-century schooling. There WAS an element of vocational training to it, but that history doesn’t make her promises of “workforce preparation” any more enticing.

These days, I’m studying Joseph Lancaster and the earliest roots of America’s public school systems. His vision of “Workforce Preparation” is no one’s idea of good schooling, not even Queen Betsy.

system boys one through four

“Workforce Preparation,” c. 1812

For example, one of Lancaster’s biggest admirers in Europe was Robert Owen. Owen is best known in the US as a starry-eyed socialist, but his education schemes weren’t particularly naïve. Among the mill’s children, Owen implemented some of Lancaster’s school reform ideas. Did they work? In 1811, Owen wrote breathlessly to Lancaster that his educated workers made

by far the most valuable Servants.

From the get-go, “Workforce Preparation” has been about taming disobedient poor children, coercing them into accepting timetables and efficiency goals. It has been about turning “worthless” “despicable” “benighted” children into “valuable Servants.”

It wasn’t just Robert Owen. Consider the testimony of another enthusiastic Lancasterian teacher in 1812:

When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children. [Emphasis added.]

What was this “cradle” he referred to? The “cradle” was one of the names Lancasterians gave to their trademark disciplinary device. It was also called a “birdcage” or a “sack” or the “basket.” Students were put into a kind of cage, then suspended by a rope above the large classroom. Often, a sign would prominently display the student’s alleged misdeeds. Other students were positively encouraged to mock and tease the caged student.

A ha, Queen Betsy might say, this history makes my point. These outdated factory-style teaching methods are exactly what we are trying to “disrupt.” And that is where she misses the boat most egregiously. Between roughly 1810 and 1840, Lancaster’s reform ideas were the biggest thing going in American reform thinking. They were all about “workforce preparation.” And they were based squarely on the idea that poor children could be non-violently coerced into being better factory workers, more “valuable Servants.”

As Prof. Schneider points out, by the later nineteenth century reformers had recognized some of the shortcomings of thinking about schools as sites of “workforce preparation.” They had moved away from the coercion and punch-clock discipline of Lancaster’s factory schools. By calling for a return to the days when schools focused on squeezing students to fit the needs of the economy, Queen Betsy is calling—seemingly blithely unaware—for a return to the very factory model she claims to want to disrupt.