At the conclusion of their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire lay out the heart of their concern:
The threat to public education...is grave. A radical vision for unmaking the very idea of public schools has moved from the realm of ideological pipe dream to legitimate policy.
What was once a fringe notion of privatizing public education is now a mainstream policy goal. A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door shows how that change occurred.
Berkshire is a freelance journalist whose byline has appeared in numerous outlets. Schneider is an education scholar whose previous works include Beyond Test Scores, a book that lays out his work on an alternative to current test-centric accountability policies. Together they host the popular Have You Heard podcast that examines current issues in education. Both are gifted, deft interviewers with a talent for eliciting honest answers from folks on all sides of education policy debates.
The subheading for this book announces their concern: “The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School.” The motivations and methods of the decades-long attempt to unmake public education in the U.S. may have become more widely visible under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but the roots of the movement are old and, spurred by recent successes, the movement will certainly not end with DeVos’s tenure. She’s just one wolf in a very large pack.
Schneider and Berkshire lay out the four underlying principles animating the movement.
First, the notion that education is a personal good, not a collective one. Reformers have suggested that public education is not a public service to society, but an individual consumer good, like toasters and automobiles. Therefor, schools “belong in the domain of the free market, not the government.” And while society should bear a minimal cost for minimal education for the poor, education “consumers” should mostly pay their own way. Finally, collective groups like teachers unions need to be quashed, both to allow more “efficiency” in the marketplace and to nullify their political weight.
From there, Schneider and Berkshire move on to chapter by chapter discussions of the various policies and tactics that proponents have used to empower these four principles.
The rise of vouchers and neo-vouchers, the development of techniques to make education profitable, the rise of computer-centered education, deregulation of the education sector (both directly and via charter schools), the development of reductive school ratings, edvertising, breaking teaching into fast food style Uberized gig work, and the “unbundling” of education so that school itself is no longer even necessary—Schneider and Berkshire trace all of these developments through the various tactics used and successes or failures achieved.
The result is a stark and alarming picture of the movement to dismantle public education (currently getting a further boost from the nation’s pandemic response). But the writers handle all sides fairly and clearly; this is not a book that paints the ed reform crowd as evil monsters, and readers will come away understanding the rationales and beliefs behind various wings of the movement to disrupt public education. These are old ideas, but they have neither gone away nor tired to trying.
This book is critical reading for anyone hoping to understand the complex of forces joining to “disrupt” education, as well as understanding where they came from, how they got here, and why this moment in history is different from all those that came before. It’s clear, concise, thoroughly researched and impeccably explained. It is the book that everyone you know who’s even remotely interested in education policy needs to read; consider it an excellent choice for Christmas gifting.