Ep 296: Redefining Public Education

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host. Andy Earle.

We're here today with Cara Fitzpatrick talking about school choice.

As more states adopt programs allowing parents to take their children out of public school and spend government dollars on private schools and charter schools, we are redefining what a public education really is.

This issue has deep implications for our communities, for our teachers, and for our children.

How'd we get here, and what does it mean for you?

Cara Fitzpatrick is an editor at Chalkbeat.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2016 for a series about school segregation.

And she's the author of The Death of Public School.

Cara, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Cara Fitzpatrick: Thank you for having me.

Andy Earle: I am super excited. I've been reading through your book, The Death of Public School. and really curious to dive into this. This is very well researched. And really quite a fascinating story that you found here.

Can you talk a little about what inspired the book or why do you think that this was such an important topic to research and write about?

Cara Fitzpatrick: I was an education journalist in Florida for about 10 years. And if you're familiar with Florida, it's been a laboratory for school choice for charter schools and school vouchers and various forms of choice for a long time.

I covered some of that just as part of covering education. I became interested in the origin story of it, because you often hear two different stories, depending on who you're talking to I also was just interested in whether or not it was a solution to some of the problems that we see in public education, or if it was more of a solution for individual families, rather than a systemic one.

And I had some of those questions and started researching and had a vague notion that I would write a book and then it turned into five years of research and writing

Andy Earle: So at the core level what we're talking about is being like charter schools, like getting some public money to help educate kids, but that are run as not a public school.

Cara Fitzpatrick: Yeah, that's the idea of school choice at its most basic level is that wherever the child goes, the money follows or it should follow. And so if you're in an area where you have charter schools, then those are schools that receive public funding, but they're run outside of school districts.

They have some autonomy and then there's different private school choice options. the most popular ones are school vouchers, which is basically the government gives a family a check to pay for private schools, including religious schools.

And very popular right now, which is called an education savings account, and that is the most flexible option. And basically, if you take your child out of a traditional public school, you get an account with a set amount of money in it. And you can use that to pay for a variety of things like online.

School options private school, tuition therapies, if maybe you need occupational therapy and then in some cases, even homeschooling, you can pay for materials for homeschooling in some states. It's very flexible and that's the most popular option right now.

Andy Earle: How much of the country is able to utilize them?

Cara Fitzpatrick: So charter schools are the most common. That's in most states and D. C. Private school choice options vary. There's a lot of different types of programs, but they're in more than half of the states now.

And actually, there's been a really big push in the last year or 2 to have universal programs where every child in the state, regardless of income or disability, or any of that qualifies for the education savings account. And that's now in about 10 states.

Andy Earle: It's been really a twisting and turning road to get to this point.

You take us back in the book to really early on in our country and Thomas Jefferson and the, we need a public school system to the beginnings to splintering of the public school system and really trace the journey. Why do you think it's so helpful to understand the history of how this came to be?

Cara Fitzpatrick: I think at the core of it, it's about how we define public education and this sort of longstanding battle over what that means in our country. And really the effort. In the last 70 or so years by Republicans, by conservatives to change that definition to broaden it to include more things.

And I, when I started it, I didn't really understand where the beginning was. So that's why you have Thomas Jefferson and some of these different things in there, because if you start looking back at public education you have to go back to the very beginning of the country and say what was intended, what did the founding fathers intend, if anything so there's that question and then looking at how it developed over time. And then I actually started the book in the 1950s, because that's when I felt like you really had the 1st. Cohesive proposals for school vouchers, and that sort of started us off on the 70 years that I mostly trace in the book.

There's some ways of calling back to, the 1700s and the 1800s, but most of the story is from 1950 onwards. But I did feel like when I was researching it. That I had to go down all of these little rabbit holes to understand. What was intended? And it's interesting because some of that when you're researching, you don't really know what you're going to do with it.

Is it going to matter? What Thomas Jefferson thought? And all these questions, but then, there was just a couple of weeks ago, the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, Said and I don't know if it was a press conference, but he basically said that what he was doing in Florida with school choice was what the founding fathers intended.

But, yeah, it was an interesting research journey.

Andy Earle: What did the founding fathers intend in terms of public education?

Cara Fitzpatrick: They didn't agree. There were different views on how it should be set up. It's not in the constitution. The U S constitution does not say anything about education. It's very much a local issue and always has been. So Thomas Jefferson made a proposal for something that is very similar to what we have now in Virginia.

And that actually failed at the time. Different people thought, that they should pay for low income children to have an education, which is somewhat similar to the modern concept of school vouchers, but there was no consensus. And also, I think it's important to remember when you're talking about that time period, and you're talking about the 1800s, that there was not necessarily.

An agreement that every child deserve the same type of education wealthy children often were educated at home and had tutors, there was just not this understanding that every single child, regardless of race and religion and sex should be educated in the same way, there were disputes about how to educate girls.

Efforts to not educate Black people. So all of that idea that we have now of every child deserves an education that formed over time and it's always been a little imperfect.

Andy Earle: Interesting. Yeah, is education a privilege? Is it a right? Is it mandatory to be need to educate kids? And it's fascinating to think about how some of these things we take for granted or just accept about the way that we think about things can change so much over time.

I found that interesting in your book, just looking at some of these shifts and actually pinning them down.

And a lot of this Reshaping how we think about public schooling seems to, like you say really veer off or start branching off more during the fifties related to integrating schools and people resisting integration. You talk a lot about things happening in Arkansas.

Cara Fitzpatrick: I focus on Virginia and Louisiana a lot Arkansas a little bit, but Virginia and Louisiana are the places where, School vouchers took off as a way to avoid integration.

And so I looked at those specifically as test cases for how that worked at the time. But it is the sort of uglier side of the history of school choice that in the 1950s and 60s, segregationists in the South. Created these programs to get around desegregating the schools after brown versus board.

They also created actually some of the same things we see today. Interesting enough, some of it was like gifted programs or designing school boundaries in such a way as to exclude children all kinds of different techniques.

That segregationists tried to avoid just desegregating the schools and school vouchers was one piece of that. They were called tuition grants and the idea was basically to use public money to pay for primarily white children to go to all white private schools and it was actually viewed as an opt out.

For families that they could take this public money and then go pay for private education and then private schools opened as a result. all of these segregation academies opened across the south as a result. But what I thought was really interesting about that time period, and part of the reason I started the book there, was that it wasn't the only idea happening at that time. You also had Milton Friedman, who's an economist, well known conservative at the same time. But in a very different manner, he wanted school vouchers for everyone.

Every kid should qualify for a voucher. And for him, it was really a market idea.

Andy Earle: Yes.

Cara Fitzpatrick: He thought public education was a monopoly and competition was inherently good. And then at the same time that he had that idea, you also had Virgil Bloom, who was a priest in Milwaukee Who was looking at school vouchers, but because of religious reasons, he thought that public education was basically discriminating against religious families because they're paying taxes to support public schools, and then they're also, in many cases, paying tuition.

To go to a private school that matched their religious values. So I just thought that was so fascinating that in that same time period, you would have these very different ideas for the same basic tool in a way. And then I also like the fact that all of that still is playing out today.

All of those threads, religion discrimination, and the idea of the market that's still playing out today in school choice battles.

Andy Earle: Yeah, it's interesting. It's like it's this solution for three totally different kind of problems that different groups of people are latching on to but coming together all at the same time that helps really propel this idea or get backing behind it. How did it go in the first waves that we see of this happening in the 50s?

Was it a successful experiment?

Cara Fitzpatrick: The school choice programs that arose in the South some of them went on for a while. Virginia had school vouchers for, basically racist reasons for about 10 years. And then the courts got involved.

The courts were very involved in that. And so the courts pretty quickly and all of those states that did pass those programs said, you can't use school vouchers. And so those programs, some of them went on for a while, but they eventually all were shut down by the courts.

And then it really, for a while was Milton Friedman sort of keeping the, his idea for vouchers alive. And he was very clear that he was opposed to using them for segregation or for discrimination, but his idea of the market, he really kept that alive. And then, there was for quite a while this idea of states trying to basically use vouchers or some kind of public aid to help Catholic schools because the Catholic schools were struggling financially in that time period.

And so there was an effort in a lot of places to try to do that. And those were also largely unsuccessful because the Supreme Court basically said you can't give public money to religious schools in different cases. And so for a long time it became almost theoretical, because the different efforts to try it failed.

And then there's 1 other strand that's interesting in the 60s. Which was also just theoretical at the time, but it's interesting because at the same time that the courts are striking down racist school voucher programs, there were a number of progressive voices that started saying, you could actually use this to empower low income black and Latino families and that didn't really go anywhere.

I thought that overlap was really interesting because it's such, there's such nuance there that the same time, all these people are talking about this same idea, but in very different ways.

Andy Earle: Yeah. On the one hand, it's like a tool to keep black and brown people out of certain schools and another one, it's a tool to empower and create opportunities.

Cara Fitzpatrick: Yeah, which is crazy to think about that you would have the same idea, but just completely opposite.

Andy Earle: And so what needs to be different for it to be empowering or helpful or good versus for it to be a tool that's used to exclude people.

Cara Fitzpatrick: And I think, often when people have the conversation about school choice, It's not nuanced. It's just, is it good? Is it bad? Yes or no?

Am I for or am I opposed to this thing? It's very polarizing. It's a very partisan issue, particularly right now, but a lot of the details of how it could work or should work change the intention of the program. There's ways to make it small. There's ways to make it big. There's ways to try to prevent it from discriminating either intentionally or inadvertently.

You can design these things in a lot of different ways.

Andy Earle: Yeah, I hear that.

And the economic idea is pretty interesting to me, as an entrepreneur, the idea of having competition sounds nice, that if someone can find a way to educate kids at a better value or provide more education for the same money, then there's something cool about that, or creating more innovation in the space.

Cara Fitzpatrick: Yeah, that's what he believed would happen. And that comes up with charter schools as well, which are not something that he was particularly interested in. Other people are interested in charter schools and those don't come up really until the 90s, but it's the same idea that maybe there's some innovative practices that could arise from having competition from creating different types of schools.

Andy Earle: But you're looking at some data in here that's showing it doesn't really seem to be getting much better results in charter schools versus public schools.

Cara Fitzpatrick: Yeah, it's interesting because when you're going through the history, At a certain point, no one knows, which I think it's interesting to look back at when it was theoretical, because I think to some extent people assumed that it would be better.

There was an assumption made that the public schools in some ways are failing and that competition will make them better. There's also, I think, an assumption that private schools are somehow inherently better. And so by allowing kids to have especially low income kids to have access to those things that their outcomes, their academic outcomes will be better. And so you go on for 30 years or so, and you start to have research and people start to try to figure out. Is it better or outcomes better? And actually, a lot of the research on school vouchers in particular has. As far as test scores go show that kids do about the same or in some cases actually worse in math, which is not a good argument.

Then for school vouchers as public policy, if there's some research showing that life outcomes are better for some kids, maybe they're more likely to graduate from high school. Parental satisfaction is high, but just as far as test scores go, they don't actually do much better. And in some cases they do worse.

Charter schools are tricky because the whole idea is that charter schools are supposed to be different. They're supposed to be innovative. And so it's somewhat hard to compare a sector of schools that are supposed to be different from traditional, to traditional public schools.

People have tried, and for a long time it was The research basically said there's not much difference here. In some places, some states, there have been more successful charter schools. Some of that has to do with how they regulate them and who they allow to open them. And then there's been pretty good research showing that urban charter schools.

Do a very successful job at raising test scores and a lot of the kids that tend to go to those schools are black and brown. And so that's been a positive in the charter school movement. There was a study showing that charter schools as a whole had a slight test score edge over traditional public schools, but it's very tiny.

It's like the difference between the 50th percentile in a traditional public school and the 50. 4 in a charter. So not a huge difference.

Andy Earle: Yeah, it opens up all kind of questions as to how do you evaluate which, whether a school is good or bad.

And then the pressures for the school become I need to market to parents essentially, or make them wanna send their kids to my school. And then at the same time, we need to gain the test scores as much as possible so that we can be having good results. And do we really want that to be the pressures that our schools are trying to optimize for?

Cara Fitzpatrick: Yeah, it's inherently complicated and it's interesting too, because I think there's a difference between how you evaluate a school for yourself, for your child and how you evaluate. Something on a systemic level and say is this helping the public school system? Is it supposed to help the public school system?

Is it helping kids? All the different ways that you can look at that. 1 of the interesting things in the research. Is that school vouchers don't necessarily help.

The kids that are using them in terms of test scores, but competition actually does seem to drive some level of improvement in the public school system and public schools do respond to competition.

So it's how do you square those things? What is the goal of those programs? Are we trying to help the public schools? Are we most focused on the kids going to use the voucher? And, I don't know. It's up for debate.

Andy Earle: I can see that as a public school. I don't want to lose kids because then they walk away with their funding, and that makes it a lot harder to keep the school running.

Cara Fitzpatrick: Yeah, and school systems in places where there's a lot of school choice are grappling with that. Do we create new programs to try to attract kids, which is often what they do? It's all very complicated.

Andy Earle: How does that factor in to the area? Isn't a lot of school funding based on property taxes and what area school is in? And if so, is the value of your voucher dependent on how much property taxes you're paying or is it standardized in your state?

Cara Fitzpatrick: It's usually standardized in the state typically runs the programs and they'll set the value of the voucher.

In a lot of cases, they've made the vouchers worth more money. It depends on the program in some states, the vouchers are worth a fair amount and in other states, they're worth very little. And that, of course, then affects. What you can pay for what school you might be able to select with that but public schools tend to be.

The enrollment is what the budgets are based on, how many kids are there, but property taxes factor into it, but it's not the only thing that factors in. You get a certain amount, a small amount of money from the federal government, and then states do this in different ways. Some states have done a better job of trying to equalize funding based so that it's not, I live in this town that's wealthy and I get better schools than this town over here.

Some states have tried to address that other states not so much and it actually really does vary based on where you live, which is a whole other education issue of, just the equity of that.

Andy Earle: You talked about in the book one of the early programs that actually didn't work, I think, because it was just all the different options were made by the school district.

But there was an idea that low income students would actually be worth more, would get a higher voucher. And then to encourage the school to be competing over lower income kids, which seems.

Cara Fitzpatrick: That's alum rock, which was basically an experiment in vouchers by the federal government. And it was largely considered to be a failure or not even really an experiment in true vouchers because there was no market. Because at the time the Supreme Court was very much saying that we're not in favor of public aid to private religious schools.

And so they were very limited in what they could do with that experiment. And so it ended up being almost more like an open enrollment plan in a school district where they create all of these different programs and then the families get to select from them. But that's not actually a voucher system, which is what it was intended to do.

Try to do an experiment and see would this work? And so what they did was interesting, but it wasn't really testing vouchers because there was no real market. It was like, if your school district created 30 programs, and then you looked into what families were choosing and in that case, families did choose a lot of different things.

But the teachers didn't want to compete against each other. It, it doesn't quite work. Would you all work for the same school district? But for whatever reason, the teachers didn't want to compete against each other and no one wanted to close an unpopular program. It wasn't really any kind of test of a market system because in a real market system, some schools are probably going to close some programs that are not popular are going to fail.

That's the whole idea. But in a school district. The teachers, in that case, just didn't want to do that. it was interesting that families had more choices, but at the end of the day, it wasn't really a test of much of anything that comes later. The 1st sort of modern voucher program is in Milwaukee and it starts in 1990, but Alamrock was quite a bit earlier than that.

Andy Earle: Cara, thank you so much for coming on the show today and speaking with us about all of this. I would highly encourage people to check out a copy of the book, The Death of Public School. Can you talk at all about what people can do to find out more about this, maybe to follow you or keep tabs on what you're working on?

Cara Fitzpatrick: Oh, don't follow me. I've gotten off of social media recently. But, I think if you're interested in issues around education and school choice I'm an editor at Chalkbeat, which covers. It's just purely education news across the country. And so that's always a good resource.

And then, if you're interested in these programs, then one of the things I always tell people is, pay attention to what your local school board is doing and show up to some of those meetings because that's actually where a lot of really interesting stuff happens. And they sometimes have three people there.

So go and be like the fourth person.

Andy Earle: I love that. Yeah. Getting involved and keeping up on the conversation that's happening.

Amazing. The book was the death of public school, how conservative won the war over education in America. Thanks again for coming on the podcast today. It's been a really enlightening and fascinating conversation.

Cara Fitzpatrick: Thank you for having me.

Andy Earle: We're here with Cara Fitzpatrick. Talking about school choice and what this issue means for the public school system in our country. And here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Cara Fitzpatrick: There's always been a lot of controversy around using public dollars for religious schools. And then the other piece of it, of course, is whether or not it's constitutional. Can you do that?

Republicans have been extremely successful at pushing these programs and in blurring the lines between private and public in ways that I think a lot of people aren't actually familiar with. I think a lot of people don't understand quite how far this has gone.

But the big case where they won on this was in 2002 in Zelman. Basically, yeah, what the court said was, if you give dollars to a parent and none of the parents choose a religious school, then the government is not giving any money to religious schools. It entirely is based on the parent's choice.

And so the parent almost is like a middleman between government funding and religious education.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now sign up directly through Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Cara Fitzpatrick
Cara Fitzpatrick
Editor @Chalkbeat. Author of “The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America.”
Ep 296: Redefining Public Education
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