Review: Schneider and Berkshire’s 'A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door' Is a Missed Opportunity

“A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,” the new book from education professor Jack Schneider and writer Jennifer Berkshire, purports to tell the story of the dismantling of public education. Although I share some of their concerns, I would like this book much more if the authors had been less partisan and more honest about the realities of the public education system they are so eager to defend.

Among their broad-brush assertions, you can find some real head-spinners. Here’s one: because Massachusetts passed a compulsory school attendance law in 1852, the state has more authority over children’s education than parents do. Thus, efforts to ensure parental choice inevitably undermine the public nature of the enterprise.

What is gaining traction is the even more radical notion that parents, not the state, should control their children’s education.

Wait, what? Since when is it radical to suggest that parents have the ultimate responsibility to ensure their children are educated?

Millions of parents across the country also strongly disagree with their essential premise: that public education would be just fine if billionaires would stop forcing their whims upon us by funding the school choice movement. I read a number of reviews of this book, and only Kirkus nodded to the fundamental problem here:

Curiously, the authors do not consider in much depth the roles of bigotry and classism within the traditions of local control, taxpayer support, and open access…

That’s putting it mildly.

Schneider and Berkshire know their history well when it comes to vouchers and the rise of teacher unions. But in their haste to ascribe all of education’s problems to the influence of moneyed right-wing libertarians, they overlook the real flaws in the system that have sparked workarounds like charter schools and yes, vouchers.

Their discussion of the origin and growth of charter schools falls somewhere between “slanted” and “historical fiction.” Nowhere is there any mention of people like Howard Fuller or Margaret Fortune. Their one reference to Milwaukee’s choice system condescends to the families who availed themselves of choice. They write,

Black families were not simply pawns in a conservative scheme. Some, no doubt, were drawn to voucher programs because they preferred a religious education for their children. Many more, it would seem, opted into voucher programs because they were simply concerned with the welfare of their children and sought alternatives to Milwaukee’s struggling schools. Whatever their motives, the result was a window of opportunity for market advocates.

In other words, sorry, Black families, we know you were trying to do right for your kids, but you opened the door to the big, bad wolf. We have no solutions for your “struggling schools.” But we’ll defend our notions of public education—which we’ve learned in Massachusetts, not Milwaukee--with our last breath. 

When a system built on inequity isn’t working for kids, folks will jump to workarounds, like vouchers, to help the least advantaged students escape our current Hunger Games system of public education. 

Until we see the bigger picture, we’re stuck fighting about scraps like vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. (An aside: one of my personal problems with vouchers is that no per-pupil allocation alone will ever be enough to give disadvantaged kids the opportunity to attend the top private schools in the nation.)

Public schools need both more resources and wise stewardship of those resources to steer funds to the kids who need them most. Right now, most systems are set up to shift resources—in the form of experienced teachers—away from the highest-need schools. That’s a problem the authors of this broadside have nothing to say about.

While the authors continue to fight a misguided rearguard action over “privatization,” the war for strong public schools has moved on to an entirely different front. A new generation of education reformers, including school funding equity advocates like Rebecca Sibilia, make the case that our locality-based methods of funding public schools have baked injustice into the system from the get-go. 

Because we fund schools through local property taxes, buying a home inevitably becomes a largely-invisible, universally-accepted form of school choice. Those able to buy rather than rent, and buy in the most affluent neighborhoods, are guaranteed the best schools available. Families who live in poorer communities are redlined out of those choices from the start. The authors completely ignore this reality in their haste to defend a mediocre, inequitable status quo from the left’s favorite bogeymen. Yes, billionaires are a problem, but, when it comes to schools, they’re not the only problem.

Schneider and Berkshire’s energy would have been better spent writing a book calling on the public to rise up and demand we return to the tax policies of the 1970s. It would be more honest and direct to say the way to win against billionaires is to reinstate taxes on the rich—like the recent fight in Illinois to permit a graduated income tax, which billionaire Ken Griffin defeated with a multi-million-dollar disinformation campaign.

But that’s boring and hard to explain. It’s so much easier to demonize charter schools and subtly accuse Black parents of being in bed with the Koch brothers. It’s easier to preach to the choir than it is to find common cause with people whose experiences are different from your own.

What a missed opportunity.

Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an ...

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