Required Reading: Public vs. Private

[Editor’s Note: We are happy to include an interview with Robert Gross about his new book Public vs. Private. In his book, Dr. Gross explores questions near and dear to the hearts of SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Private schools, public schools, religion, government, and the politics of education. His new book examines the early history of these questions and we’re delighted Dr. Gross has agreed to share some of his thoughts with us.]

1.) In the introduction to Public vs Private, you write,

American conceptions of public and private . . . are impossible to fully understand without placing education at the center of the regulatory state.

Could you please expand on that idea a little? Why is it so important to understand educational history in this area if we want to understand American concepts of “public” and “private?”

There are three main reasons that I think education needs to be placed at the center of our understanding of the history of the regulatory state. The first is simply that, by the early twentieth century, there was perhaps no other sphere of American life that was more heavily regulated. When focusing exclusively on private schools you see the scope of American market regulation in a way that is more hidden in other areas. States regulated almost the entirety of the private school sector: what classes they could teach, what credentials their teachers needed, what language they could speak in the classroom, and so forth. Private schools had to open their doors to inspectors and turn over their attendance rosters. And of course the state reached into the homes of private school parents—paying visits to them if their child was truant or not assigned to a schools.

public v private

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The second way that education matters to understanding American government power is that court cases about public regulation of private schools have served as major precedents to define the broader scope of market regulation over business. I discuss a range of major supreme court cases in the book—from Dartmouth College v. Woodward to Berea College v. Kentucky to Pierce v. Society of Sisters—that centered on state regulation of private schools, but that also had a tremendous impact on how state governments could regulate to private enterprise more generally. Private schools have thus frequently been the sites over our most important legal contestations over the role of state power.

Finally, I was struck when researching and writing the book how much state officials relied on private schools to accomplish a crucial public goal: of providing mass education at no cost to taxpayers. I don’t think we can understand American government without seeing how it often uses private corporations to achieve public ends—we see that in health care, of course, but it was very much there in the 19th century with schooling.

2.) In the era you focus on in Public vs. Private, religion and religious arguments played a huge role in debates about funding for schools. How were those earlier debates different from today’s fights about religion in public schools? How were they similar?

Religious arguments were indeed used to prevent the vast majority of (religious) private schools from receiving direct state funding. But we have to remember that Catholic school systems, in particular, benefited immensely from a range of financial subsidies, especially property tax exemptions. While this is not something I explicitly write about in the book, my sense is that religious arguments historically have been less successful in obtaining funds than broader, more secular claims from religious schools about the “quasi-public” nature of their work. For example, in the 19th century legislatures and courts allowed Catholic parochial schools to have property-tax exemptions not solely (or even chiefly) because they were religious institutions, but rather because they served an important “public” purpose of educating masses of children. You see a somewhat similar dynamic in the middle of the 20th century over whether private schools that engage in various forms of discrimination can maintain their tax-exempt status. Courts ruled that private schools excluding African Americans, for example, were violating an important area of public policy, and so had no constitutional protections, nor claims to a tax deduction, in doing so. In the Hobby Lobby era we may see a shift in this general trend, of course.

3.) At the heart of the story you tell is an idea that seems foreign to a lot of people today. Can you explain the ways some leading 19th-century school reformers considered all private education to be a threat? Why did they think private schools were dangerous to American liberty?

Horace Mann and other public school reformers wrote extensively in the middle of the nineteenth century about how public school systems not only would eliminate private schooling but should do so. Public schools, they argued, were created precisely to destroy the balkanized provision of education that had existed beforehand—where Americans attended schools on the basis of their religious denomination, their class, or their ethnic heritage. Private schools thus represented an inherent challenge to the public school’s ability to be the assimilationist institution their founders envisioned. And because the vast majority of private schools by the late nineteenth century were run by Catholic organizations and, often, immigrant Catholics, they became enmeshed in deeper American traditions of anti-Catholicism and nativism.

There were a variety of other arguments for why private schools were seen as threatening that I think are worth mentioning as well. Many state public school leaders used economic arguments to suggest that private schools were inefficient, that schooling itself was a “natural monopoly” best operated by the government, without private competition—similar to how the government was increasingly providing other public utilities like water, gas, rail transportation, and so forth.

4.) What do you wish Betsy Devos knew about the history of the line between public and private schools?

I cannot speak to what Secretary Devos knows or does not know, but there is an important lesson in this book that I would want any public official to understand. The first is that we spend too much time in our debates about educational policy over whether one “supports” charter schools, voucher programs, school choice, or doesn’t support these initiatives. I think we would be better off if we talked about school choice in less Manichean terms, and instead posed the question that the communities in Public vs. Private had to contend with: “If we have school choice, how do we want to regulate it?” To what standards should we hold schools that receive public subsidies but are privately governed? How should we hold them accountable? Public regulation, as I argue in the book, is what allowed us to have robust school choice in the first place a century ago, and yet too often we ignore it in our contemporary debates.

Author bio: Robert N. Gross is a history teacher and assistant academic dean at Sidwell Friends School. He holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and writes about the social and educational history of the United States.


Let My Children Go

Even the smartest conservatives don’t get it. There’s a big win for conservatives buried in the Senate’s tax plan. If it goes through, though, it will not prove the strength of conservative ideas, but rather the desperate strait they are in.

Before we dig into that, let me back up a little bit and tell a story. When my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did an interview with National Review’s John Miller. He wanted to know how twentieth-century conservatives had pushed for charters and vouchers.


Things are not always what they seem…

The problem was…they hadn’t. As I have argued elsewhere, when Milton Friedman first proposed charter schools in the 1950s, no one listened. The conservative push for charters and vouchers only gained real steam at the very tail end of the century.

By and large, conservatives didn’t want to escape from public schools in the twentieth century. Why not? It’s obvious: They still hoped to control them.

There were exceptions. After Brown v. Board in 1954, whites in the South massively resisted by privatizing public schools. And yes, the evangelical exodus from public schools took off in the 1970s. Then the second-stage flight from fundamentalist schools to fundamentalist homeschools began in the 1990s.

In the big picture, though, conservatives generally considered public schools their schools throughout the twentieth century. In the Reagan era, conservative intellectuals who cared about schools—most notably William J. Bennett—didn’t want to help conservative parents escape from public schools. Rather, Bennett thought the public schools themselves could be nudged in conservative directions. As we’ve seen lately, though, there’s a huge divide between today’s conservative thinking about public schools and Bennett’s. Most obviously, Bennett’s conservative dream for common state standards met with virulent conservative opposition.

What does any of this have to do with the Senate tax bill? The Senate version contains a clever sweetener for conservatives who want to remove their children from public schools. As reported in Quartz, their proposed tax bill will extend the use of 529 plans to K12 education. In the past, those programs allowed parents to squirrel money away for their children’s college expenses. Any earnings weren’t taxed, as long as the money was spent on tuition.

The new tax bill allows parents to do the same thing with private and charter schools. In effect, the new bill is a modest tax break for conservatives who want to keep their children out of the hands of the public schools.

I should add the usual clarification: SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again. I am no conservative myself. I am deeply concerned about the two terrible tax bills currently under debate. The push to reduce and reroute funding for public education is a cruel and shortsighted effort. IMHO.

As a historian, though, I can’t help but notice that this is yet another example of the ways conservative dreams have deflated in the past century. In the 1920s, as I argued in my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives hoped for nothing less than to legislate the theocratic control of public education.

These days, as this tax plan demonstrates, conservatives no longer hope to push public schools in conservative directions. Rather, conservative strategy consists of sneaking in tax breaks and incentives for parents who are trying to flee.

Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

Jesus Increases Graduation Rates

In Christianity Today we find a story about Detroit’s Cornerstone Schools.

Founded in 1991, today these schools serve 1,500 students, 97% of whom graduate from high school and 90% of whom go on to college or the military.

These statistics have attracted national attention.  In one profile for CNN, the schools’ success was credited to “three Cs:” a Culture of education, Commitment to learning, and Community.  (See video clip, 2:28, right at the end.)

The profile in Christianity Today, not surprisingly, focused on another C: Christ.  In an interview with the schools’ leaders Ernestine Sanders and Clark Durant, CT‘s Dwight Gibson concluded that the schools’ success comes from one simple fact: Cornerstone represents “a school whose culture is centered on the person of Jesus.”

Chairman Durant framed the schools’ success this way:

“We have fabulous statistics. Most of our kids graduate from high school in a city where maybe 30 or 35 percent do. More than 90 percent go onto college, the military, or some other kind of learning. But those are not the measurements that really determine a fulfilling life. Sure, it’s important, but is it the measurement we use for our own children? Is it the measurement that God uses for us?”

President Sanders did not credit the schools’ academic successes with innovations such as an 11-month school year, mandatory Mandarin classes, or mandatory parental commitment.  Instead, Sanders explained Cornerstone’s success this way:

“It’s our people, whether it’s our maintenance man, Mr. Cole, or a teacher. In Mr. Cole finding his place in this community, the kids see him as valuable. He has wisdom.  That’s why Cornerstone is excellent—we try so hard even as imperfect as we are to lift up a Christ-centered culture.

“And in lifting up that culture, the education is coming along. So you keep aspiring to that excellence. What we try to do here is not to be daunted by the circumstances. Rather than being daunted by it, we try to be as strategic as we possibly can. I see us trying to build that broad and beloved community that Clark referenced.”

The story raises some key questions about the proper relationship between religion and education.

  • Can public-funded schools use religion to boost graduation rates?
  • Is it enough justification to have religion in public-funded schools if those schools produce academic success?
  • And why didn’t the CNN story mention the religious nature of these schools?