When President Trump proposed his budget for “school choice” [providing $1.4 billion in FY 2018], he promised to take a sledge-hammer to what he has called “failing government schools.” That is harsh language for what most of us call public schools, where nearly 90 percent of American children are educated. But in some conservative circles, the phrase “government schools” has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous.
What most people probably hear in this is a refrain of American libertarianism, for which all government is big and bad. “Government schools” thus conjures the specter of pathologically inefficient, power-mad bureaucrats.
The libertarian tradition is indebted, above all, to Chicago economist Milton Friedman.… A true believer in free markets, Friedman argued that “government schools” were inherently inefficient. He proposed that taxpayers give money to parents to spend in a marketplace of competing education providers—the intellectual foundation of Betsy DeVos’s voucher proposals.
The critique of “government schools” underwent a defining moment in the aftermath of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education SCOTUS decision, when orders to desegregate schools in the South faced heavy resistance from white Americans. Some districts—as in Virginia— shut down public schools rather than integrate; others promoted private “segregation academies” for whites only, often with religious programming and subsidized by voucher schemes.
Many of Friedman’s successors in the libertarian tradition have forgotten or distanced themselves from the mid-century moment when they made common cause with the Christian right. Friedman himself insisted that he abhorred racism and opposed segregationist laws—though he also opposed federal laws that prohibited discrimination.
Among the supporters of the Trump administration, the rhetoric of “government schools” has less to do with economic libertarianism than with religious fundamentalism. The president of the group Liberty Counsel, Anita Staver, couldn’t bring herself to call them “schools,” instead bemoaning “government indoctrination camps.”
When these people talk about “government schools,” they want you to think of an alien force, not an expression of democratic purpose. When they say “freedom,” they mean freedom from democracy itself.
—Katherine Stewart, OpEd, The New York Times, July 31, 2018.