Catastrophizing the Classroom

Picture via Getty Images.

Cara Fitzpatrick’s new book, The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America, is challenging to summarize. It’s really two books, or at least two projects, in one. One book presents an interesting, deeply researched history of the school choice movement. It focuses closely on key moments from the late 1980s to early 2000s that led to the inauguration of both school vouchers and charter schools, the court cases that ultimately affirmed their constitutionality, and their early years of growth.

But that careful, diligent research is awkwardly forced into a second book, a larger critique of the school choice movement and how it’s harmed American education in general—a critique that doesn’t fit the facts.

Fitzpatrick’s story relies on a link between three early voucher advocates: Milton Friedman, Virgil Blum, and James Kilpatrick. Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, supported school vouchers due to his belief in the power of the free market to improve the provision of services. Blum, a Jesuit priest, believed they advanced religious freedom and pluralism in education. And Kilpatrick, a newspaper columnist and staunch segregationist, supported vouchers after his other plans to educate white children separately from black children were thwarted by the courts, the federal government, or the electorates of Southern states.

Fitzpatrick’s own evidence shows that Southern segregationists did not want school choice in any meaningful sense of the term. Rather, they wanted to enforce the South’s crumbling racial apartheid. Put another way, they did not want to allow white and black kids the choice of integrated schools. 

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