Education Under Fire

A conversation with Derek W. Black, author of Schoolhouse Burning

By Barrett Goodwin Last Updated: August 23, 2021

If you feel like school board meetings have been a little more contentious than usual lately, you’re not alone. A worldwide pandemic, a divisive election cycle, and a renewed national dialogue around social justice have all contributed to increased tension.

But even as we get further away from the tumult of the past year, division and controversy are actually increasing in public education. School boards are becoming politicized in a way we haven’t seen before. While conflicts have always emerged over districts’ financial situations or academic offerings, they have usually stayed within familiar bounds: an emphasis on student learning outcomes and on the health and success of schools.

Today, there is much less consensus around these boundaries of debate. Distrust of local school districts—and public education in general—is growing. Board members who’ve recently seen public meetings and forums go off the rails have learned this firsthand. Oftentimes it’s not just their character being called into question, but their very motives as part of the larger public education system.

Social media and the internet—avenues that have frequently fueled controversy in school districts—are now amplifying grievances against the state of schooling in America. With the click of a mouse and the stroke of a keyboard, a misunderstanding or mischaracterization at the local level can go from grumbling in the town diner to national headlines.

What’s more, it’s becoming easy for nominal gripes with curriculum choices or administrative policies to serve as stand-ins for larger, more closely held beliefs within today’s complex culture wars. Over the past year, the line between substantive debates over education and outright political conflict seems to have blurred to a significant degree.

Few people have followed these challenges—and championed the value of public education—more than Derek W. Black, the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Black is the
founder of the Education Rights Center at Howard University School of Law and a former litigator for the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Over the course of his career, he’s both challenged school leaders and worked alongside them on important issues such as school funding and desegregation. In addition to his law review articles and appellate briefs, his work has appeared in publications such as Education Week and USA Today.

In his 2020 book Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, Black chronicles the role of public schools throughout our nation’s past, emphasizing the historical importance of a strong universal education system as the bedrock of our democracy. He argues that efforts to weaken or undermine support for public education threaten our governance structures just as much as they harm our schools.

We recently featured Professor Black on our podcast, SchoolCEO Conversations. The following is taken from our discussion on the state of education in a time of growing political pressure and ever-shifting public discourse.

How did you get into education law?

Growing up, I went to a lot of different schools. It wasn’t until middle school that I finally stuck at one school system: the public schools of Clinton, Tennessee. Clinton High School was the first in the South to integrate after Brown v. Board or to graduate an African American student. This was before my time, but that sleepy little town had a lot of history. I think that influenced me.

But as I reflect back, I fully appreciate that I wouldn’t be a professor if it weren’t for the public school teachers who didn’t let me fail—even when I wanted to. Even when I tried to undermine myself, I had people who kept me on track. As I point out in the book, public education is the intergenerational inheritance that we give to one another, that we pass on, that we’ve been passing on for 200 years—and it is the only inheritance that disadvantaged children really receive in America. I got
my inheritance, and I feel obligated to pass that on to others.

In your book, you approach the history of American public education through the lens of value choices. How can this approach reshape the way we talk about education policy?

The Founding Fathers were quite adamant that if we’re going to create a democracy as our form of government, we have to make sure people cast their votes intelligently. The only way to make that happen is through the education of all the people, and the only way we can hope to have that level of education is for the government to take responsibility as part of the self-preservation of democracy—to make sure the people who show up to vote are well educated.

Detractors of the right to education say, Well, the word education doesn’t appear in the Constitution, so states should be able to do whatever they want. My response is that, actually, the federal government made a commitment and mandate for public education before we even had a constitution. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 required that the land outside the existing states be carved up into lots, and that in the center lot of every town be placed a public school. That is a plan that predates the United States Constitution.

What we have today is an attack on the theory of public education itself. We have people saying, This is the nanny state; these are government schools; they’re depriving people of freedom; and on and on. I’m not going to tell you there aren’t any flaws in public education, but if we go back to the original founding, the idea is that the nation must do this to preserve itself. Otherwise, we’re going to have vast disparities. John Adams reasoned that it’s actually in the interest of the elites that we have public schools. Public education is the common experience of the highest ranks of society with the lowest. Education lifts everyone to an equal plane, and that will ensure that this democratic project doesn’t devolve into pitchforks and chaos.

Although you’ve never shied away from discussing the shortcomings of American education, you’ve also been clear about the value of public schools. Has our current discourse surrounding education lost this nuance?

Right now, we have what I might call the dueling frameworks of the 1619 Project and President Trump’s 1776 Commission—different perceptions of history. Both of them are quite often talking about the same underlying facts but attributing different meanings to them.

Here’s the reality that I think exists in the middle: America began as an incredibly ambitious and wonderful idea, and at no point in its history has it ever lived up to that idea. But the story that I tell in this book—and the one I think we need to
tell in our schools—is about an America that’s been forever reaching for that great idea.

That may often mean oppressed people reaching for the idea of America and oppressors trying to stop them. Abraham Lincoln once pointed out that even when the Founders wrote that all men are created equal, they knew very well that at that very moment, men and women were in chains. They knew there wasn’t going to be full freedom in America anytime soon. But Lincoln is saying that the Founders wrote those words not because they were true at that moment, but because they could be at some point in the distant future.

In my career, I try to point out that while these old guys weren’t perfect, they really did have a great idea—so great an idea that they themselves were not willing to live up to it. We say the same things with our state education clauses; they’re fantastic ideas that call upon the government to do more than it’s ever done in its history.

What do you make of public education becoming a new flashpoint in our national culture wars?

I think this is coming from a very dangerous place because, if we look at history, we see that public education as an institution is the most bipartisan public project that we have. You look at local school boards—they’re nonpartisan. The idea is that you’ve got a job to do and it’s not a political one. Historically, public opinion about education hasn’t diverged that much between parties. Even in the South, a recent study found that there were only three or four percentage points separating Democrats from Republicans on questions of school funding and teacher shortages. This is just what America does—we support public schools.

What’s dangerous about the critical race theory conversation is that it’s trying to politicize the public education project, to divide people and their commitment to public education based upon ideology. That really has nothing to do with public education at all. My understanding is that these folks are pushing this issue not because they’re actually worried about what’s being taught in schools, but because they want to rack up more wins in the upcoming midterm elections.

That has nothing whatsoever to do with what’s taught on a day-to-day basis. But as a side effect, whether they’re making a mountain out of a molehill or promoting a bold-faced lie, they’re creating and expanding this anti-public education rhetoric. Either way, it divides people in a very problematic way. That scares me.

At the local level, these current debates over education issues seem to have really struck a nerve. What do you think is going on?

People who cannot have their way in the real world tend to try to have their way in the microcosms of schools. You don’t like the way society’s morals are going? Well, rather than trying to convince your friends or family or neighbors or elected officials to see things your way, you try to shove it down some kid’s throat or make life hell for the superintendent or the teachers. It’s a lot easier sometimes to push educators around because schools don’t want controversy. People think if they go down there and raise a big stink, maybe they’ll get their way. At the same time, there’s also this issue of hypersensitivity: They weren’t having a debate in class—they were indoctrinating my child.

I do think there are groups trying to achieve their overarching political objectives. But there are also people who are just worried about the direction of our culture, who are very susceptible to taking their fears out on their local schools.

What advice would you give school leaders trying to navigate protests at board meetings or questions about critical race theory?

Unfortunately, I think they have to carve out some time in their calendars for relationship building. I say at the end of the book that we need to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations. We’re not necessarily going to change our policies as a result, but we need to understand and appreciate the fact that people have anxieties and different opinions. We need to bring those people into the schoolhouse for town hall meetings, individual talks, whatever it is, so that we as a community can deal with this.

One challenge I have found is that teachers, principals, and superintendents are moving to new school districts so frequently now. That makes it tougher to build trust. But that’s the good, earnest work we have to do—on top of the 101 other bureaucratic things superintendents are tasked with doing every day.

When I think about public schools, we really are a community. We are a family, and we cannot close the door on our family members. Now, if we have politically motivated outsiders trying to interfere with our community, I think it’s appropriate to shut those people out. But within our school community, we need to have conversations. Maybe we leave that meeting just as upset with one another, and in just as much disagreement, as when we walked through the door. But if we understand one another a little bit better, if we respect each other a little bit more when we leave that room, hopefully we can agree to disagree about some issues—or at least give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Do you have any additional advice for superintendents navigating this contentious moment in education?

As they find themselves in these incredibly tricky situations around false claims of critical race theory and ineffective teaching, my advice is to just put your best foot forward. I think we take for granted what brings us together. Talk about the values that we all hold common, and focus more on what brings us together than what separates us.

No matter what complaints show up on your doorstep, the public survey data shows that there’s a very deep well of support for public education and for public school teachers. Public school is the singular experience that 90% of America has shared together. It’s part of our roots. We should strive to come together on that common ground.


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