Journalist Jennifer Berkshire on Challenges to Public Education

Journalist Jennifer Berkshire on Challenges to Public Education

When I’m confused about all of the currents swirling around our K-12 education system, I know Jennifer Berkshire is someone I can go to in order to cut through the clutter and show me what’s happening underneath the headlines. A freelance journalist focusing on education, Berkshire is the co-host (with Jack Schneider) of the Have You Heard podcast, and also co-author (again with Schneider) of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School.

She answered our questions over email.


John Warner, EE staff writer: You’re talking to a lot of people on the ground. How are students doing two years into the pandemic? How worried should we be? What should we be worried about? Learning loss? Mental health? The impact of masking on development?

Jennifer Berkshire: The students I’ve been talking to are very aware of all of the noise and fury that’s being directed at public education right now. I’ve also interviewed students who are pushing back against book bans and organizing walkouts to demand more stringent COVID mitigation responses in schools, a perspective that we hear very little about. The places where the parent voices are the loudest are often school districts where students have been pushing for change for years now. I’m thinking of a place like Southlake, TX where a student-led campaign to do something about a culture of casual racism in the schools finally prompted the school board to act, which ushered in the incredible backlash that is still playing out. Those students are now having to reckon with whether their activism has ended up making things worse for kids who attend school in Southlake. That’s a heavy load for a young person to bear. While so much of the education culture wars revolves around parents, it’s important to remember that students are the real target. Jamelle Bouie had a great column recently where he described the education gag orders that now limit what one third of students in the country can learn as a “rear guard action.” The attempts to keep discussions of race and racism out of the classroom demonstrate that the GOP understands that the world has changed and that they’re on the losing end of that change. If you look at polls on the attitudes of young people, it isn’t just race that the GOP is on the losing edge of, but LGBTQ issues, climate change. That’s why the attempts to try to use the schools to reengineer kids into young conservatives are such a lost cause.


JW: And how about teachers? I hear a lot of anecdotal information about how difficult it’s been, and there’s an anticipation that we may be looking at a teacher shortage with people either leaving or not joining the profession? What does your reporting say?

JB: While the data around whether teachers are leaving is all over the place, teachers themselves are reporting that they’ve got an eye on the door in much higher numbers than we’ve seen in the past. That doesn’t mean that they’ll all end up leaving, but it’s still something to be concerned about. The reporting on the likelihood of a teacher exodus has largely defined the issue as fallout from the pandemic. But just as the decision by low-wage workers to join the ‘great resignation’ reflected decades of degradation of those jobs, teachers are rebelling against policies and structures that long predated the pandemic. I’m thinking, for example, of the Obama Administration’s extraordinary push to get states to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. We know now that it produced virtually nothing in terms of student achievement, but it did succeed in demoralizing a generation of teachers. 

When I interviewed teachers across the country for a recent piece for the Nation, they painted a very bleak picture of the future of the profession. They can already see that the present-day staff shortage, combined with the absence of trained candidates for jobs, is transforming teaching into a job that’s more like proctoring, where the kids learn online while the “teacher” hovers around, answering questions, troubleshooting. It’s such a diminished vision, not just of teaching as a profession, but of what schools do and what students are entitled to. When you diminish what teachers do, you diminish how much you have to pay them, while making teaching more like a “gig” job will eviscerate teachers unions. And that’s really what’s at the heart of so many of the issues and conflicts we’ve been talking about. The right sees a new opportunity here to advance an age-old goal. 


JW: This past weekend at the CPAC conference, Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State and likely future presidential contender said, “There is no threat greater to the United States than that which emanates within our republic; specifically within our school systems.” What are your thoughts on his comments’s going on here?

JB: What’s so striking about Pompeo’s language is that it basically passes as mainstream within the GOP right now. At the root of this war mongering vs. the public schools is a very old, very unresolved debate: who gets to decide what and where kids learn. Is it the parents or the state? After several decades of bipartisanship around accountability, “excellence,” and choice, issues of parents’ rights have now roared back to the fore. And what’s interesting about the case that Pompeo, DeSantis and others on the right are making against the schools right now is how contradictory it is. On the one hand, they’re pushing to make parents the ultimate arbiters of how their kids are educated, including letting them decide how to spend public funds. But on the other hand, they’ve developed a new fondness for using state power to enforce a very particular vision of patriotism and morality. You could really see this contradiction in Florida Senator Rick Scott’s recent plan to “rescue America.” The first plank of his education plan is that kids will say the pledge of allegiance, salute the flag and learn that America is the greatest. But also they can choose any school they want.


JW: Maybe this is an impossible question, but I’m curious to hear your perspective on it. How much of these things like the criticism of CRT and the book bans over LGBTQ content are fueled by a genuine sincerity of belief , and how much of it is a political project finding a wedge issue from which to claim advantageous electoral standing?

JB: If we go back and look at similar culture war flare ups from previous periods, you always see this same mix of genuine anger and political opportunism. In 1974, for example, when conservatives in Kanawha County, WV protested the adoption of textbooks they believed were anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-White, they regularly cited the behavior of local kids—they smoked pot, they disrespected their elders—as the cause of their concern. The Heritage Foundation, which was then just getting off the ground, immediately smelled an opportunity to advance its cause of getting rid of public schools. You saw the same dynamic in the 90s when a parents’ rights movement emerged in response to profound anxiety about the pace of social change, but then became a political project for conservative and religious groups whose specific policy recommendations were really unpopular with the public. I’d argue that we’re seeing something similar happening right now. Parents have a million reasons to be anxious and unhappy as we enter the third year of a pandemic during which they’ve basically been told by leaders at every level: “Here, you deal with it.” But does that anxiety translate into wanting to see specific books banned from the library or having state officials in Texas investigate the parents of trans kids? What we’ve seen in the past is that a cause like parents’ rights can win a lot of support in the abstract but then run out of steam as the demands get more specific and more explicitly about imposing a particular vision of morality that is simply out of step with where most Americans are.

I think what makes this moment different and potentially much more dangerous than previous culture war flare ups is that you see two very different groups of parents being animated by these appeals. The conservative populists who are enraged over CRT in the schools are the direct descendants of the folks who were furious about the teaching of evolution. But you also have affluent parents who see efforts to make education more equitable as a threat to their own kids’ advantages. So you have the elites and people who feel sneered at by the elites on the same side of an issue. My sense is that Republicans have figured that out while Democrats really haven’t.


JW: Where are we going with this? How and where will these disputes come to a head? Will we see some kind of resolution where conservatives achieve their ultimate goal of education vouchers usable at any school (or even as tax credits for homeschoolers), or is this a flare-up that will damage public schooling, but not result in that kind of end?

JB: I’m going to go to a dark place here and predict that there are several states that will begin to essentially phase out public education in the near term. And at the top of my list is a state that might surprise you: California. The future of the state’s public schools is essentially going to be put up for a vote this year. Voucher proponents are planning to put a question on the ballot—it looks like they’ll be successful—asking voters to approve giving students up to $14,000 to attend private schools. In the past, voters have voted down voucher initiatives whenever they’ve been given the chance, but this year feels different to me. There is deep resentment about the fact that public schools in California were closed while private schools, including the one where the governor sends his own kids, stayed open. Then you have that alliance between conservative populists, enraged over masks in schools, CRT, etc, and parents who are furious about, say, efforts to overhaul the state math standards in the name of equity. If voucher proponents are able to convince both of those groups that privatizing education is the solution, they could see a major win at the polls. 

It’s interesting to think back to 1993 when another voucher measure was on the California ballot, and in many ways it spurred the sort of resolution that you’re referring to. Democrats and Republicans coalesced around charter schools, and we really didn’t hear much in the ensuing decades about vouchers or religious education, or education savings accounts. But all of these are now back with a vengeance, thanks to the pandemic and the moral panic over CRT. I think that conservatives really believe that this is their opportunity to convince their constituents to turn on their own schools. 

The question is, are they right?