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Public Schools Were Never Just For The Kids

Noliwe Rooks, author of the new book "Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public School," explains how education and big business have always gone hand-in-hand.

About a decade ago, when she was teaching at Princeton University, Noliwe Rooks began to notice a lot of students thinking about the education of our country’s most vulnerable populations. The students — mostly white, mostly well educated — were organizing forums and trips to go to inner cities to go visit schools, going so far as to invite the Secretary of Education to campus. “It happened all of a sudden and it was great,” says Rooks, who has since moved north to Cornell University. But, she began to wonder, what is it about education right now that’s attracting so much attention from these students? It wasn’t as though schools had all of a sudden become less successful. So Rooks to a deeper look and came to a surprising conclusion. It was about business. The public education landscape had become fertile ground for entrepreneurial young people looking to secure good jobs or create their own companies.

Wanting to contextualize this unexpected but not totally unencouraging development, Rooks decided to do more historical research on the dovetailing connections of business and education. Her investigation led her all the way back to the reconstruction era and the beginning of state-supported education. She found precursors to today’s charter schools, vouchers programs, and virtual classrooms. She also found evidence that profit motive, not concern for the wellbeing of children, had drive the development of much of the modern education system. She came to believe that money — who has it, who wants it, how much parents are willing to fork over — was responsible for the continued and deepening segregation of both races and classes.

The result of her decade-plus of research is the stunning and profound new book Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education. It’s a deep, important look at the flaws in our public education system and demonstrates how modern solutions exacerbate lingering problems of racial and economic segregation.

Rooks spoke to Fatherly about her research, the flawed logic behind charter schools and cyber education, and what the way forward might be. 

What did you learn from the start of state-supported education system about the ways schools and businesses were intertwined?

At the beginning, you had a group of business people — the Carnegies, the Rockefellers —a wave of wealthy multinational corporations. At the time, their interest was having a stable workforce, given that the South was the economic engine of the country at the time of the Civil War. Post-Civil War, the nation wasn’t benefiting from an unpaid labor force so they came up with this idea of vocational education. If you were white and poor they wanted to teach you how to farm. That was their main focus and we’re going to give you the tools to be the best farmer possible. If you were of color and poor, it was vocational. You need to learn to be a nurse or how to make bricks or something that’s a skill.

At the time, the wealthy would basically just have a classical education. You could pay somebody to educate your kid if you were upper middle class or rich, that kids would be learning Latin and Greek, learning how to listen to music and the things that bespoke your social station.

One of the big picture discussions taking place around education is that these new privatized educational platforms offer more choices for students. Do you really believe that all students actually choices?

This idea of choice is overwhelmingly aimed at the most vulnerable kind of students because wealthy people already have a choice. The ideas around choice are often offered as a way to ameliorate that economic difference such as charter schools or doing virtual education or vouchers. These don’t actually reproduce the quality of education that the students are getting. What they generally are based on is, we can get your kid to have good test scores.

With charter schools and vouchers and virtual classes, you have choice, but if your choices are not of the highest performing quality, you’re not actually fixing the problem that you’re saying you’re fixing. You’re moving things around but you’re not solving the educational inequality issues. It’s a false choice. It’s a mirage. It sounds good, though.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is an obvious champion of charter schools. After your research, what do you think of them?

The basic idea of charter schools really did come about because of a bunch of white parents in the South who didn’t want to deal with Brown v. Board of Education who were really just like, ‘We will not under any circumstances be sending our white children to school with black people. Let’s figure out a way around that. But we don’t also want to pay for private school, because we can’t afford it, so what are we supposed to do?’ The idea was, let’s come up with an educational vehicle that’s publicly financed but privately run. We can get the tax dollars that come along from federal and state education resources, but we don’t have to bow down to any of the social or legal requirements that generally are put on public education. That’s literally the model that we’re looking at today.

I think it’s the funding mechanism underneath it that’s a problem. Look at vouchers, which on the surface sound great. The really high performing private schools have waiting lists and admissions procedures and interviews. They’re not just sitting around waiting for the voucher. The voucher money is not the thing that they most need in order to function. You’ve still got to get in the school, and often what you get for a voucher is not going to pay the full tuition. The kind of school that your voucher money of $15,000 to $20,000 a year will get you into isn’t necessary for a better school.

The big argument is that charter schools destabilize public schools. Do you think this is true?

Of course they financially destabilize the schools. There’s a finite amount of money, and if you’re talking about poor schools and you’re pulling some out. It’s not really a conversation. Just say, ‘We don’t particularly care because we like charter schools.’ Just stand up and own it, is what I think.

After you get to that, the next problem is the fact that charter schools are so lightly regulated that you see jaw-dropping kinds of abuses and liberties taken, where people get to get charters and they don’t have to consistently perform higher. They say the market competition is going to ensure that a charter school can’t stay open if they’re not doing better. But you have a bunch of administrators who consistently have their finger on the scale.

There’s a hostility towards public schools when you enter into the charter school conversation.

But in doing the research for this book, I found all kinds of examples of traditional public schools and community schools that are doing amazing stuff. For example, there’s a school in D.C. that’s a traditional public school where the students all got together and decided “we are all, our graduating class, we are all 100 percent going to college, and we are going to work hard with each other.” And it became a whole project of the school, a traditional public school, not a charter school, and 100 percent did in fact go to college. That got almost no press. But if it’s a school that’s a charter school that does it, it’s on the front page of everything. It’s that kind of inequality that leads you to believe there’s only one successful way. You’d think that all traditional public schools are failing and that there’s only one way to fix them, and that’s with charter schools.

This echoes a bit about what you’ve spoken about before, which is how, when you’re trying to privatize public schools, you want to create a crisis around the funding of public schools. Do you think that resonates or trickles down to funding getting cut? 

There’s this whole elected class of officials, governors and various state-level officials who don’t like the idea of unions because they thought it impeded businesses and the largest unions are teachers’ unions. The funding crisis in public education was completely manufactured by the choices of governors and state legislatures about what they wanted to do with their money. As they cut more and more money from public schools, of course it began to destabilize them. And then it’s a crisis and it has to be solved and you look to private interests and private capital to solve it.

How does privatized schooling effect this?

If you have a product, a financial product or an education delivery product that is focused on facing toward the educational system, you’re in a growth area up there with healthcare. Once you start having entities talk about education like that, talk about it in the same way they’re talking about the tech industry, it becomes more about business than it is about education. And if you’re talking about vulnerable students, poorer students, they’re not a constituency, they don’t have lobbyists. There’s not going to be big consequences for defunding schools in poor neighborhoods. Who’s going to stand up and fight you back?

Obviously, there are no easy answers for any of this, but from what your work shows, what is the way forward right now? 

You first have to notice what’s happening. It seems like so many people know what’s happening in their backyard. But one of the things that I’m trying to show with the book is what this looks like on a national level. It’s not just what you know in Massachusetts or California or New York, or your personal experiences with this. This is taking place in a larger context and when you see the context you really recognize that you’re kind of in a fight for having public schools continue. And it’s part of a much bigger thing about the role of privatization and big money.

People are talking about how lobbyists are supplanting electoral politics. But it’s not the electorate as much as how much the lobbyists are swaying policies. This one, that touches all of our kids, or many of our kids, a majority of our kids, is worth paying attention to. It’s worth noticing. It’s worth caring about. Because I really do think that there’s an aspect of democracy that’s at stake right now, like very fundamental ideas of what a democratic nation looks like.

This is a conversation about the larger part of who we are as a country. 

And if we can get beyond the rhetoric and actually start to hold people accountable for the research and the data, if you’re going to start experimenting with people’s kids, because it really is a lot of educational experimentation going on, people are like, “yes, charter schools are better, let’s do that. Teachers who only have two months of training are better, let’s try that.” People are just coming up with stuff and angling let’s just try it. I think that we have got to start saying that you have got to base it on some data that doesn’t just seem intuitively true.

Right now, people are just going, “intuitively, it makes sense to me that we should do that.” Or, “that’s what I did so that’s what they should do.” We have to stop running away from the fact that a big part of the issue is what has worked in the past is integration, and we have no interest in that, in racial and economic integration, not so much. But we have to replace that with something that actually works and not keep coming up with these idiosyncratic educational forms.