Our Public Schools Are under Attack

Edd Doerr

While nine out of ten K–12 students attend our public schools, too few Americans know a lot about those schools. And too few grasp the seriousness of clericalists’ and privatizers’ growing attacks on them. Much of this reflects the poor job that media, print and broadcast, have done in reporting on school matters (aside from headline-grabbing school shootings). Most of the rest reflects the Right’s unending propaganda campaigns against public schools and for privatization. Let’s shed some light on the situation.

Public education in America is really a big deal. More than 50,000,000 of our kids attend public schools. The whole enterprise costs state, local, and national taxpayers more than $500 billion per year. Over 90 percent of the funding comes from state and local taxes; less than 10 percent comes from the federal government for special programs. Public schools employ more than three million teachers, plus administrators, secretaries, counselors, librarians, nurses, food handlers, janitors, crossing guards, security guards, and drivers of all those big yellow school buses that transport about half of the kids.

The term “government schools” is tossed around by those attacking public education to obscure the fact that our public education enterprise actually comprises over 13,500 local school districts, nearly all of them responsible to school boards elected by local voters and parents. But it seems that our schools are far too often just taken for granted—like fire departments, highways, Social Security, and Medicare. Voter turnout for school board elections tends to be low.

It is beyond dispute that our public schools are underfunded. And it’s getting worse: Over the past decade, thirty-five states have cut per-student spending by an average of 7 percent. The worst state is Arizona, where there will be a referendum on the state’s damaging school voucher plan in November. Teachers are paid only about 60 percent of what is earned by comparably educated professionals, and many of them burn out after a few years in overcrowded classrooms. Further, the average teacher spends nearly $500 per year out of her or his own pocket to procure school supplies and sometimes even clothing items for students. The overwhelming majority of public school teachers are professionally trained and certified, far more than teachers in the private and charter schools. About half of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. (The percentage of American students living below the poverty line exceeds that of any country in western Europe.)

For forty years or so, reputable opinion polls have shown that about 70 percent of parents give an A or B grade to the local public school attended by their oldest child. Yet only about 25 percent give an A or B to public schools nationally. This would seem to suggest that many parents think well of the public school with which they are most familiar but fall for the endless propaganda dished out for decades by public education’s opponents with regard to public schools nationally. These opponents, in turn, are of two varieties:

  • Those who for fifty years or more have pushed schemes to divert public funds to special-interest private schools—the vast majority of them run by religious organizations—through voucher or tax-credit plans; and
  • Those who since the early 1990s have pushed for presumably non-religious charter schools.

Educators Chris and Sarah Lubienski’s 2014 book The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (University of Chicago Press) makes that point quite well. As for charters, a Stanford University study has shown that nearly 40 percent of them are worse than public schools, while fewer than 20 percent are any better—and that is mainly because of their various forms of selectivity. In addition, a great number of charter schools are for-profit outfits of dubious value, and many are “online” schools of even less value.

Serious educators know what needs to be done. We need more adequate and more equitably distributed funding for public schools. We need smaller classes, wraparound social and medical services, and an end to the diversion of public funds to private and charter schools, which means that voters have to get off their duffs and give priority to public education.

What about keeping well informed on education issues? Fortunately that is easy and also free. Google Diane Ravitch’s Blog and sign up. Ravitch, one of the country’s leading educators, sends out half a dozen or more messages daily on her blog covering just about every aspect of education news and controversies, plus other relevant issues. There is no better or more comprehensive source of education news. Also check out the daily blogs of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding and the Texas Freedom Network.

And this brings us to:

Susan Jacoby Thumps Trump

“The White House Is Tearing Down the Wall Between Church and State” is the title of the eloquent July 5 New York Times op-ed by writer and Center for Inquiry honorary board member Susan Jacoby. She makes it very clear that from Trump on down, this whole administration and its toadies in Congress are committed to destroying the constitutional wall of separation between church and state that our country pioneered to protect everyone’s religious liberty. Trump and his minions want to pack the Supreme Court with guys such as Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas who will support their horrifying agenda of wrecking public education, undermining judicial precedents, curtailing women’s rights of conscience on reproductive-health issues, and molding our society to reflect the ultraconservative pseudo-Christian ideologies of Jerry Falwell and his ideological progeny.

What is needed is for Americans to stiffen their spines and heed and apply the wisdom of:

  • Roger Williams, Baptist minister and mid-seventeenth century pioneer of church-state separation: “That cannot be a true religion which needs carnal weapons to uphold it. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.”
  • Benjamin Franklin: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its adherents are obliged to call for help of the government, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
  • James Madison’s magnificent 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, which led to passage of Jefferson’s 1786 section of the Virginia constitution that reads: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.”
  • Madison’s “Advice to My Country,” historian Adrienne Koch’s summary of Madison’s thought in her 1966 book.
  • Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 superb letter to the Danbury Baptists: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
  • The U.S. Supreme Court in Reynolds v. U.S. (1879) on Jefferson’s 1802 letter: “Coming as it does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.”
  • The U.S. Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education (1947): “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breech.” (See also the Court’s rulings in McCollum [1948], Engel [1962], Lemon [1971], and other rulings through the end of the twentieth century.)
  • The millions of voters from Massachusetts to California and from Florida to Alaska, between 1966 and 2014, who defeated all efforts to divert public funds to private schools by (on average) 2 to 1.
  • Varying majorities of Americans who for years have opposed the voiding of Roe v. Wade. Relevant also is the 2-to-1 win for abortion rights by voters in predominantly Catholic Ireland on May 25.

Trump, Pence, and DeVos are all products of private schools and do not hide their disdain for public education. They have all made it clear that they despise the very notion of church-state separation and do not understand what religious liberty is all about. They, and the party they lead around by the nose, wear their Taliban-like misogyny proudly on their sleeves and yearn to force it on all Americans. They do not represent the majority of Americans but will get away with their pernicious plans if the rest of us do not stand up to them at the polls—and in every other forum.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


While nine out of ten K–12 students attend our public schools, too few Americans know a lot about those schools. And too few grasp the seriousness of clericalists’ and privatizers’ growing attacks on them. Much of this reflects the poor job that media, print and broadcast, have done in reporting on school matters (aside from …

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