Public Enemy


If my father were alive, there are many questions that I would like to ask him. Although it is certainly not the first, one of those questions has to do with his education.

Like most sons of Irish immigrants, he attended Catholic schools until he was 14, then enrolled at a large, urban public high school. After the war, he went to a private, secular university on the G.I. Bill.

I would like to ask him what the differences were among the three different models that he experienced. Is one clearly better than the others, or do they each have their strengths and weaknesses?

You may be thinking that the answer should be obvious, simply by looking at what my father did with his own kids, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. After college he became a teacher and later a school administrator, and I’m sure he felt it would be hypocritical to send his kids to private or parochial schools. The idea was never discussed at our house.

So I attended public schools, K-6 in one district and high school in another. Although I liked one district a lot better than the other, I can’t complain about the quality of education I received in either one. All of us probably ran into one or two incompetent teachers somewhere along the way, and I could name a couple, but in general they were dedicated, knowledgeable professionals who genuinely cared about kids.

That’s not to say that I’m entirely happy with the results. If I had it to do over again, there are several things I would do differently, but I can’t blame the teachers or the schools. There were critical junctures at which I simply made some poor choices.

If you look back at the history of public education in America, the first thing you will notice is the link between education and religion. In the 17th century, Massachusetts Bay colonists established schools in order to ensure that future citizens would be able to read the Bible.

The Catholic Church has always been a huge proponent and purveyor of education, having kept learning alive throughout the Dark Ages in Europe. In much of the new world, the first schools and colleges were operated by one order of Catholic brothers or another. In places where other Christian sects dominated, they generally ran the schools as well.

Lately I’ve heard a lot of talk about the people who designed the federal government and wrote our founding documents. It’s popular now to refer to them as the “framers,” I guess because “founding fathers” sounds too paternalistic for our politically correct ears, but whatever we call them they are almost universally venerated, and for good reason.

They were smart guys, to be sure, and they led complicated lives. More to the point, they were far-sighted, honorable, and remarkably altruistic. It’s no wonder we miss them.

Through their wisdom the Consti- tution forbade the establishment of a state religion, which eventually came to mean that church and state should be entirely separate. Religion was not immediately withdrawn from public education, nor did church-run schools disappear, but the arc of history has bent toward secular education.

That brings me to our current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Over the past year, I have been trying to figure out what effect, if any, she was likely to have on American academics. Her public comments have seemed vague and short on specifics, giving me the impression that she was well intentioned but not well informed. Other critics have been more harsh, finding her lack of knowledge alarming.

There is one particular phrase that she tends to rely upon, as though it were an answer to every question, and that phrase is “school choice.” I recently went to the Department of Education website and found Ms. DeVos’s agenda, under the title “Secretary’s Proposed Supplemental Priorities and Definitions for Discretionary Grant Programs.” Sure enough, school choice was number one.

The other 10 priorities, by the way, are a series of platitudes that would make Captain Obvious blush. The secretary believes, for example, that we should promote innovation and efficiency, foster knowledge, promote literacy, promote economic opportunity, and encourage an improved school climate. Who knew?

At any rate, it’s the first priority which is clearly closest to the secretary’s heart. According to the document, “The secretary believes that every child, regardless of his or her zip code or family income, should have access to a high-quality education. A family should have the chance to select the educational path that best meets a child’s needs, regardless of where or how instruction is delivered.”

I had to dig deep into the 23-page report to find an explanation of what those educational paths might be. Buried in the definition of terms is the list of alternatives, one of which is schools operated by faith-based organizations.

Betsy DeVos was born into a rich family and married into an ultra-rich family. She and her husband, who is heir to the Amway fortune, attended private Christian schools themselves, and believe passionately in Christian education. They have donated tens of millions of dollars in support of that belief, and Betsy has described her advocacy as an effort to “extend God’s kingdom.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I fully believe that kids should be able to attend religious schools if that’s what their parents want. The problem, as usual, gets back to money. Ms. DeVos wants students who leave public schools to take their public funding with them in the form of vouchers, which means that money is deducted from state remuneration to the local public school districts, or “repurposed” from other programs.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5 to 4) that public vouchers can go to religious schools without violating the separation of church and state, provided that students have nonreligious options as well. Nonetheless, a number of states have so-called Blaine amendments, which specifically prohibit such a process, and do not allow vouchers.

The Trump administration has announced that it hopes to divert $20 billion of federal education expenditures to a grant program to fund vouchers, and that it wants the states to come up with another $100 billion. Religious schools would be the primary beneficiary.

I understand that we’re all frustrated by the lack of progress in American education, and the fact that a number of other nations are doing better on standardized tests than we are, but I don’t think the answer is to give up on public schools. There is no clear evidence that alternative schools would do any better.

Those nations at the top of the list got there via public education. I think we can, too.

You can e-mail Kevin at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *