The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Too many White parents don’t understand the true purpose of public schools

Public education is the linchpin of democracy

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a crowd before publicly signing HB7, also dubbed the "stop woke" bill, during a news conference at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on April 22. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/AP)
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In March, students from Lincoln Park High School in Newark, part of the North Star Academy charter network, walked out of school to protest the “frequent mistreatment of Black students and faculty.” They peacefully marched to City Hall, and when they returned to school, they found themselves locked out of the building. School officials told some student organizers that they couldn’t return in the coming days, either, and would have to study remotely.

School districts and states across the country, enabled by big dollars from far-right political organizations, have moved to make teaching about racism illegal.

While these stories are dominating headlines in 2022, the tactics on display are nothing new. Children of color and the families and communities that support and advocate for them have faced efforts to literally and figuratively lock them out of the nation’s schools for more than a century. In their fight for access to the same education White children receive, children of color and the adults who rally behind them have been the staunchest protectors of public education, defending a system that not only benefits Americans of all races, but our democracy itself.

Municipally-supported public school systems first emerged in cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia in the late 1840s as a way to Americanize newly arrived Irish immigrants and offer social stability to urban areas that lacked the infrastructure to support population growth. In 1848, Horace Mann shared proponents’ vision for this schooling. “Beyond all other devices of human origin,” he explained, public education “is the equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

Yet the rise of these schools was limited to the northeast. In the South, anti-literacy laws threatened steep fines, imprisonment and even physical punishment for people of color — enslaved and free — seeking education, as well as for the people, regardless of race, offering it. These laws thwarted the spread of formal educational institutions before the Civil War, leaving Black Americans to teach and learn in secret.

With the close of the war and the dawn of Reconstruction, formerly enslaved Black Americans led the charge for public education. Due to newfound Black influence, biracial Reconstruction governments created state laws that historian James Anderson characterized as “elaborate legal frameworks for universal public schooling.” These laws catalyzed school systems sprouting up with amazing speed. In 1881, The Washington Post noted that during the prior school year, there were 3,057 public schools across South Carolina, whereas before the war there had been none. Black children accounted for nearly 55 percent of the school-attending population and teachers of color accounted for more than a third of the 3,240 teachers in the state.

Black leaders and community members banded together to fight for and support universal schooling, recognizing the entwined nature of education, equality and full inclusion in American democracy. In 1894, Frederick Douglass explained, “To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature.” Education, he argued, was “liberty.”

Yet even as formerly enslaved Black Americans served as the founding mothers and fathers of the modern public education movement, children of color continually found themselves pressed to the margins of school systems by White politicians and parents who wanted to claim public schools as their own.

With the end of the Reconstruction era and dawn of Jim Crow in the late-19th century, this was especially true in the South, where the disparity in the quality of school facilities for Black and White children was massive. But it was true elsewhere as well.

Black Americans refused to accept these disparities. They pushed for the development and democratization of public education. And beginning in the 1940s, they began to score historic victories, most significantly, the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that bolstered the legal framework for public schooling and mandated racial equality.

Even so, White politicians and parents continued to marginalize their Black counterparts.

In August of 1957, William and Daisy Myers purchased a three-bedroom house in Levittown, Pa. In a documentary titled “Crisis in Levittown, Pa.,” the narrator explained that the Myers were “close to the Levittown norm” — except for race. They were “Negros in an all-White community.” As soon as the Myers moved into their new home, their neighbors began to protest their presence. One White woman revealed that her family moved to the suburban community for the advantages it offered and because “we understood that it was going to be all White.” Standing in her front yard as her children played nearby, the woman said, “the whole trouble with this integration business is that in the end it will probably end with mixing socially.” She wanted no part of sending her children to school with the Myers’s children.

And she was not alone. Five years after the Brown decision, equitable access to public schools remained elusive for Americans of color. After two separate court rulings ordered officials in Prince Edward County, Va., to integrate its public schools, leaders there instead shuttered the system entirely. They created a private school alternative available only to White families, but supported by public tax dollars through vouchers and tax credits — not all that different from the sort of system some policymakers advocate for today. In Prince Edward County, this system meant that until 1963 the community’s Black children had no formal schools that they could attend.

Black Americans continued to fight for access to the public school systems their forebears had created. They said that public education and democracy fit hand to glove, but their arguments did not sway the White politicians and parents who said that the schools they had worked just fine — for them.

In 1970, a U.S. District Court ordered Los Angeles City to integrate its schools. One White parent said to a reporter from the Los Angeles Sentinel, “I don’t like it because Negroes are Negroes and White people are White people. I don’t like my children playing with Negro children.” Other White parents were more selfish than overtly racist in their arguments. A mother who wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times claimed to want “racial justice,” but opposed busing. She said, “I cannot see how hurting one child today balances on the scale of justice the hurt of another child yesterday or today.” Her priority was clear: “I do not want my own child hurt in racial changes.”

A national Gallup Poll from 1970 found that by a margin of 8 to 1, people opposed busing plans designed to “achieve racial balance in schools,” and that 25 percent of surveyed White parents opposed “sending their children to schools where half the pupils” were children of color.

White parents’ attitudes toward public schools have not changed much over the ensuing five decades — as witnessed at school board meetings across the country in recent months. Many of them view public education as an individual benefit rather than a public good.

But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of why every state in this country has a system of publicly supported education and why every child in this country has the right to a free education. From early White proponents of public schooling looking to assimilate Irish immigrants in the Northeast, to early Black proponents after the Civil War who saw public education as a crucial foundational piece of an inclusive democracy, the vision for public education was always far broader than instructing individual children. Public education was viewed as a social good, one that could foster the educated citizenry necessary to steer a country — and this argument proved persuasive, fueling the rise of public school systems.

Yet White Americans have also continuously fought against equal schooling based on what they perceived to be good for their own children. Again, today some of the arguments against teaching painful chapters of the past center on the discomfort such lessons might cause White children. But the truth is that while laws banning this teaching might shield children from potential unease, they also will help to dismantle American democracy.