The Right Wing in America Has Long Tried to Destroy 'Government Schools'
Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, is one of the most buzzed-about books of the summer. But her book is also about public education, and the right’s long crusade to privatize what they call “government schools.” In the latest episode of the Have You Heard Podcast, AlterNet education editor Jennifer Berkshire talks to MacLean about why public education is in the crosshairs of the radical right, and how the history of private school vouchers, a passion of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is inextricably linked to efforts by Southern white elites to resist desegregation.
Jennifer Berkshire: There’s a fierce debate right now about the racist history of school vouchers. But as you chronicle in Democracy in Chains, the segregationist South was really the testing ground for conservative libertarian plans for privatizing what they called “government schools.”
Nancy MacLean: This was the moment, the crucible of the modern period in which these ultra free market property supremacist ideas got their first test, and it is in the situation of the most conservative whites' reaction to Brown. What was interesting to me, in finding this story and seeing it through new eyes, is that Milton Friedman, I learned, had written his first manifesto for school vouchers in 1955 as the news was coming out of the south. That was after several years of reports on these arch segregationists, saying they were going to destroy public education and send kids off to private schools. Friedman wrote this piece, advocating school vouchers in that context. He and others who were part of this libertarian movement at the time, I was shocked to discover, really rallied in excitement over what was happening in the south. They were thrilled that southern state governments were talking about privatizing schools. They were applauding this massive resistance to the federal government and to the federal courts because they thought it would advance their agenda.
JB: The economist James McGill Buchanan, who is the subject of your book, was the architect of a plan to privatize Virginia’s schools, including selling off its school buildings and even altering the constitution to eliminate the words “public education.” He was basically making the same argument that school choice proponents continue to make today, that public schools were a “monopoly.”
NM: Two students from the economics department at the University of Chicago, James McGill Buchanan, who is my focus, and a man named Warren Nutter, who was Milton Friedman's first student, started pushing these voucher programs in the South and pushing them very opportunistically. They wanted to take away the requirement that there be public education in the constitution, which would then enable mass privatization. Friedman himself actually came down to University of North Carolina in 1957 to a conference designed to train these new arch free market economists, and he actually made schools the case in point, so he was really pushing for this in the South at the moment that it's happening.
Ten days after the courts ruled that Virginia couldn't shut down schools in some localities while leaving them open in others, Buchanan and Nutter issue this report calling for, essentially using the tools of their discipline to argue that it would be fine for Virginia to privatize its schools and sell off these public resources to private providers. In other words, what they were doing is using this crisis to advance their what some people would call neo-liberal politics or ultra free market politics or breaking down the democratic state. There's many ways of describing this, but whether they were or were not consciously racist or most motivated by racism, I don't know, and it's kind of almost not relevant. The thing is, they did not care at what they could tell would be the impact on black students of their pushing this agenda, and they capture that in saying, "Letting the chips fall where they may."
JB: Much of your book centers on Virginia at mid-century, in the years leading up to and following the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. Yet the story you tell feels so relevant to today. You argue, for example, that what we’ve long viewed as a battle over segregation was also a fight over who pays for public education.
NM: Actually, what the white leaders always said is that black residents weren't paying enough taxes to have better schools in this situation of segregation, which was, of course, a total source of frustration to the black parents, because they said, "How can we make bricks without straw? If you don't give us education, how can we get better jobs in order to pay more taxes?" I just raise that, because the way that I look at Brown and the fight over schools in this book is a little different from what we've heard over the years, in that it draws attention to the public finance aspect of racial equality in the schools, and shows how even back in the time of the cases that led up to Brown vs Board of Education, these issues of taxes were always foremost. These white property holders, these very conservative white elites in Virginia, who suppressed the vote of all other citizens, really did not want to pay taxes to support the education of any but their own children. In that sense, I think it's a really contemporary story. It has such echoes of what we're hearing now.
JB: I’m a devoted chronicler of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is an heiress to the right-wing libertarian vision that your book is about. One of my great frustrations is that people decided early on that DeVos is a dimwit and so they don’t challenge her ideas, where they come from or how extreme they are.
NM: I have to say I think that intellectual condescension is the Achilles heel of the left, particularly right now with the Trump administration and DeVos. There's a sense that, "Oh, these people are stupid," rather than, "No, these people are working with a completely different ethical system than the rest of us and a different philosophy, but it's a coherent one and they are pursuing their goals with very strategic, calculating tools.” That's also why the right is so focused on the teachers' unions. It’s not because they are only concerned about the quality of education and think that teachers are blocking that. First of all, this is a cause that hated public education—what they would call government schools; they don’t even want to say public education—before there were teachers' unions. We can go back and trace the lineage of that. Today, with so many industrial jobs destroyed or outsourced or automated, our main labor unions are teachers' unions, and teachers' unions are really important forces for defending liberal policy in general, things like social security and Medicare as well as defending public education. In targeting teachers' unions, they're really trying to take out their most important opponents to the plans, the kind of radical plans that they're pushing through.
JB: DeVos actually spoke to the conservative group ALEC a few weeks ago and she quoted Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement “there is no society” to make her case for a libertarian vision of education that consists of individual students and families vs schools and school systems. Universal free public education, paid for by tax dollars, is among our most “collectivist” enterprises when you think about it.
NM: They hate the idea of collectives they would call them, whether it's labor union, civil rights, women's groups, all these things they see as terrible, and any kind of government provision for people's needs. Instead, they think that ultimately, each individual, and then they sneak in the family because of course no individual could live free of being raised by a mother and parents. In their dream society, every one of us is solely responsible for ourselves and our needs, whether it's for education or it's for retirement security or it's for healthcare, just all these things, we should just do ourselves. They think it's a terrible, coercive injustice that we together over the 20th century have looked to government to do these things and have called on and persuaded government to provide things like social security or Medicare, Medicaid, or college tuition support or any of these things.
JB: Unlike some of the other causes that you just mention, the push to privatize public education has support among Democrats too. What do you make of this?
NM: Part of what’s happened with the Democrats that's very sad I think is that once the spigots of corporate finance of elections opened and democrats are trying to stay competitive with republicans in this, they have gone overwhelmingly to the financial sector for contributions. There are so many hedge fund billionaires who are interested in transforming the education industry because it is such a vastly huge potential source of cash, right, that could go into new, private schools. There's this whole education industry that's developed, and a lot of democrats are really connected to that agenda. Corey Booker would be a case in point, and I'm sure you know about his work, but many other democrats. Obama and Arnie Duncan and all these other folks I think are destroying their party's own base and capacity to fight back against this horrible, anti-democratic agenda by attacking public education and teachers' unions as they have.
Nancy MacLean is author of Democracy in Chains, and the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and the author of Democracy in Chains. This is an edited transcript.