The 74 Interview: Cara Fitzpatrick on ‘The Death of Public School’

The acclaimed reporter’s new book offers a history of the school choice movement — and an origin story for our current K–12 debates.

Cara Fitzpatrick (Hachette Book Group)

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The landscape of American education has undergone an unmistakable change since the emergence of COVID-19, with building closures and virtual instruction giving way to a sizable, national disenrollment from schools. As many parents began searching for private and homeschool alternatives to the traditional K–12 experience, conservatives seized the opportunity to enact or expand sweeping school choice programs in a slew of states, achieving a breakthrough that had eluded them for decades.

Few could have foreseen a shift of this magnitude. But the theory and framework for a truly choice-based school system, in which families receive subsidies from the government to attend the private institutions they prefer rather than being assigned to the school nearest their homes, were laid long ago. Cara Fitzpatrick’s The Death of Public School, which will be published September 12 by Hachette Book Group, offers a comprehensive and unblinkered history of the half-century campaign for school choice — and a kind of origin story of the moment we’re living through.

Beginning in the early 1950s, the book explores the hodgepodge of intellectual influences on the fight for school choice, ranging from conservatives like Milton Friedman to liberals like the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, whose research was cited by the Supreme Court in the Brown V. Board of Education case. An editor at the education site Chalkbeat who won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting at the Tampa Bay Times, Fitzpatrick gives careful consideration to familiar vignettes from the history of the movement, including Southern efforts to undermine the Court’s blow against segregation in schools. 

She also reintroduces obscure, but critical, players from the years-long push for school vouchers. One of them is Virgil Blum, a Jesuit priest and civil rights activist who insisted that taxpayer support for religious education was not only desirable, but entirely necessary under the U.S. Constitution. Though he died just before Milwaukee established its pioneering voucher system, Blum’s arguments can sound strikingly similar to those advanced in Carson v. Makin, the landmark 2022 litigation that disallowed prohibitions on state assistance for parochial institutions.

Though it took years to move from theory to action, the diverse and resilient coalition eventually proved stunningly successful. Closing in on the present, Fitzpatrick gives close consideration to how some of the movement’s biggest victories grew larger and faster than their advocates ever anticipated. One of the most compelling policymakers she follows, Polly Williams — a Wisconsin Democrat who entered what she deemed an “unholy alliance” with Republicans to pass a municipal voucher law — later broke forcefully with her signature accomplishment and its supporters.

“What’s so intriguing about this topic is watching what happens to someone’s ideas 30 or 40 years on, after other people have picked them up with different intentions,” Fitzpatrick said.

In a discussion with The 74’s Kevin Mahnken, Fitzpatrick talked about the widening political divide on education policy, the endless debate over whose values are reflected in education, and the pandemic’s continuing impact on families’ school decisions.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: The book is called The Death of Public School. But something like 50 million American kids attend public schools. What did you intend by choosing this title?

Cara Fitzpatrick: Everyone loves to ask me about the title! It’s provocative, that’s for sure. 

Originally, the book was called Unholy Alliance: The History of School Choice, which is a partial quote that I loved from Polly Williams. But unless you know about that quote, it was possible for people to think it was specifically about the Catholic Church or something. It didn’t say enough about education. And since people define school choice in very different ways, we couldn’t really go with that either. 

Reporter Cara Fitzpatrick’s book, The Death of Public School, will be released on Sept. 12. (Hachette Book Group)

As a reporter, this book was my way of asking whether you can have the traditional public school system alongside everything that comes with school choice. Charter schools have probably been the most successful school choice reform; they enroll 7 or 8 percent of kids around the country, and in some cities, they’ve had a huge, huge impact.

For me, it all raises some questions: Are these things compatible? Does this expansion of choice inevitably mean the end of the traditional public school system? 

An even wonkier question that I was also thinking about was how we define a public school. Our country has defined it a certain way for a long time. But if you start having private schools where every student receives a voucher, and most of the money essentially comes from the state, at what point does that become a public school? 

The narrative part of the book really kicks off in the 1950s, with desegregation and the first voucher programs on the horizon. But you also periodically allude to the debates over parochial education in the 19th century, when a huge, alternative system emerged to serve Catholic families. Would it be fair to say that the seeds of the present moment were sown from the beginning of public schooling?

Going back 150 years, there were “town tuitioning programs” in a couple of New England states that were essentially a model for school vouchers, and the Catholic school system was forming at the same time. You could say that was the earliest movement for school choice because it represented a group of people who were not well served by “common schools,” which had a distinctive Protestant bent to them. There were huge fights over which Bible to use in class, for example. 

So figuring out where to start the book was tricky. The Founding Fathers had debates about how to educate kids and which kids should even be educated. One of the ways I addressed it was to mention that history in my introduction and then introduce Virgil Blum, this mostly forgotten priest who was interested in vouchers for religious liberty. I thought his background could open the door to the big themes without the book being 500 pages long and extending back to the American Revolution. You don’t want your book to be an encyclopedia of school choice that no one will read.

From one point of view, the seeds were there all along, as you say. But there’s an essential difference between what developed in the late 1800s and what we had a century later: a public school system that’s secular, that’s compulsory, that’s for everyone. You could say there was such a thing as a choice system earlier than that, but this also wasn’t a country that was interested in educating women or Native Americans or African Americans during that period. That makes it hard to compare.

“It’s been hard to know how [the book] would be received on either side because we’re not super interested in nuance right now.”

I ended up starting in 1950 for a few reasons. You had what was going on in the South during the lead-up to Brown v. Board of Education, and you had segregationists looking to privatize the school system to avoid Brown. But at the same time, there were other threads that I thought were really compelling, like Milton Friedman making an economic argument for vouchers. The way a lot of people tell the story, school choice begins with Milton Friedman, and then nothing happens for 40 years, and then you get vouchers in Milwaukee. That’s kind of the stylized version I’d often heard as a reporter.

Friedman did make his economic argument for choice in the ’50s, and there were also segregationists essentially using choice for exclusion. But you also have Virgil Blum advancing an argument based on religious liberty. I thought it was fascinating to have these voices emerging and previewing where this movement could go, for good or bad uses. They set up so much of what we’re still seeing now. 

As a longtime education journalist, do you think the complexities of the debate around school choice have been flattened somewhat in the public conversation?

As a reporter, we so often cover the school choice issue as this yes-or-no, pro-or-anti phenomenon. There are traditional public school advocates who are very opposed to anything involved with private school choice, and they are increasingly opposed to charters as well. Of course, there’s an energetic lobby in favor of choice on the other side.

When I started digging into the research, I found the history much more nuanced than that. For instance, it’s pretty hard to say, “Here’s the date and time when we had a public school system that was available to everyone as we know it today.” The regions of the U.S. developed public schooling at different paces, such that the South was a bit further behind, and New England was a bit further ahead. There have always been voices and debates about how we educate kids, and whose values are reflected in education, but they’ve been sort of lost in some of the yes-or-no, for-or-against debate. My fascination with those debates kept me going through five years of research.

I also found it interesting that even among school choice advocates, there wasn’t universal agreement about how it should work. Should it be a means-tested program for low-income kids? Is it a tool of empowerment for African American and Latino kids? Should all schools exist within a choice system, as Milton Friedman said? In some of his letters, Virgil Blum argued that Catholic schools would need to adopt some of the same accountability measures as public schools under a voucher system, whether those included elected boards or public audits.

You can see those fault lines now in the way some choice programs have evolved. Milwaukee’s system started out with less accountability and had more and more added to it over time. Kids who receive vouchers in Florida take a norm-referenced test — it’s not the same as the state test, but it’s a measure of accountability. 

Of the three school choice strands that you listed, a lot of people have heard of Milton Friedman, and many are familiar with the story of segregation academies by now. But Virgil Blum is going to be a new name to most readers. 

You’re right that people are probably familiar with the segregation element. But the treatment of that is sometimes used by opponents of choice to just invalidate the whole thing. 

I don’t think that’s entirely right or fair because even as the courts were striking down school voucher programs, there were already overlapping figures who were interested in school choice as a mechanism to help low-income kids. You had [journalist and academic] Christopher Jencks and Kenneth Clark active in that time period as well. It wasn’t just that segregationists were trying to thwart desegregation. Other people were looking at the same mechanism and thinking of uses for it that were quite different. That aspect of the segregation story can get lost at times.

But you asked about Blum. He and his organization, the Catholic League, were hugely influential during this period. He was making arguments about religious liberty — legal arguments — 50 years too soon. The Milwaukee voucher program hadn’t happened yet, and obviously neither had the Supreme Court cases that have since shaped the way vouchers can be used. But he was already advancing the case that they would someday be allowed under the First Amendment because this was an issue of religious liberty and discrimination against people who wanted to choose a religious education. 

It is incredible to read Blum’s early writing, which you can find at the Marquette University archives, and think about how ahead of his time he was. Some of these federal cases were happening while I was doing my research. I’d watched the arguments for Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue at the Supreme Court, and this guy made some of the same arguments in a book published in 1958. 

It sounds so dorky, but one of the coolest things for me was to read the correspondence between Blum and Friedman. They exchanged a few letters, and you could see that they were coming at school choice from different angles — both in support, but from different motivations. Friedman was very candid with Blum in arguing that school choice could actually be bad for Catholic schools; he was anticipating that if vouchers came about, there would be many more private schools entering the market, and Catholic schools would face more competition. 

You can see how that dynamic is playing out now. Catholic schools may, in fact, benefit from the recent explosion in voucher legislation, but other schools will as well. But it was all forecasting at the time, and Blum didn’t even live to see the Milwaukee system enacted.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman was the chief intellectual proponent of school vouchers. (Getty Images)

Do you think Friedman’s predictions proved accurate? It seems like urban charters, more so than private competitors, have played the biggest role in shrinking the Catholic sector. Vis a vis the South, he also noted that vouchers might not succeed in maintaining segregation. While there is some research on vouchers and segregation, I think the jury is still out on that question. 

Friedman wrote an essay in ’55 laying out his view of how vouchers would work, and it’s not exactly a barn burner. I hear people refer to it as a manifesto or something, and I’m like, “Have you read it closely?” He was making an economic argument, with no fiery language, about what he saw as a better way to run education. 

He lived a long time, unlike Blum, and he actually got to see his theory become policy in Milwaukee and Cleveland. That included litigation, and the Supreme Court signing off on Cleveland’s program. And I think some of the things he thought would happen were pretty close to right. He never really changed his mind that a voucher system was more likely to end segregation than create it. When he was interviewed even 50 years later, he kept arguing that school choice would help deal with segregation.

We don’t know yet how the spread of vouchers will affect Catholic schools, which have been on the decline for a long time. A Catholic school recently closed in my neighborhood in New York, just a couple of years after another one closed. But Catholic schools in Florida might end up benefiting from private school choice. I’m not sure if Friedman was really making the point that vouchers would hurt Catholic education, or if he was just trying to be honest with Blum that things might not go in the direction he hoped. Even at that time, Catholic education wasn’t necessarily doing that well, which is partially why Blum was leading this movement to get aid from the state.

I think Friedman was right about the idea’s potential, and right now, we’re obviously seeing kind of a wildfire spread. It’s still small numbers compared with traditional public schools, but this proliferation of choice laws over the last few years would have probably pleased Friedman — especially the universal legislation. He didn’t think voucher programs that were solely targeted at low-income children were a good idea.

One thing the book shows is how diverse the school choice movement has been, including not just religious figures like Blum and conservatives like Friedman, but also Cold War-era liberals like Kenneth Clark and the sociologist Christopher Jencks. Do you think any of that heterogeneity remains? Vouchers today are as polarizing as any other political issue.

It seemed like it was headed in that direction even when I started doing this research. There was always a tension between African American Democrats like [Wisconsin legislator] Polly Williams, who were in favor of school choice to help low-income children, and their white conservative allies. I think that when President Trump was elected and Betsy DeVos was at the helm of the Education Department, it definitely increased that polarization. 

One of the ways we really saw that unfold was with respect to charter schools. Until that point, there had been a longtime, bipartisan consensus around charters as an education reform that people were comfortable with and that seemed somewhat successful. But a lot of Democrats started backing away from them when DeVos became education secretary, that fissure is widening now with the push toward religious charters, which goes against the original intent of the policy. All the school voucher legislation, especially the push for universal programs, comes much more from a Friedman place than a progressive or bipartisan place.

The appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education coincided with a period of heightened polarization around school choice that hasn’t yet subsided. (Getty Images)

I’m terrible at making predictions, but it does feel extremely polarized at this point. It’s why I come back to the question of whether these two ideas can coexist, universal school choice and traditional public schools. At the same time we’re seeing the wave of choice legislation, we’re also seeing fairly aggressive attacks on public education from Republican lawmakers. That makes it very hard to look for consensus.

I’ve now spent a long time researching and writing a book that would give a fair look at the complexity of these debates and not take an ideological position. It’s been hard to know how it would be received on either side because we’re not super interested in nuance right now. 

My sense is that this debate has split the Left more than the Right. As you mentioned, Democrats are somewhat torn on charters, where most of the gains for school choice have actually been made over the last 30 years. Maybe I’m wrong, but it feels as though there’s no opposition in the GOP to universal vouchers, by contrast.

There are definitely people [on the Right] who got into school choice and school vouchers with a Polly Williams mindset, just aiming to help kids who had access to fewer choices. I’ve spoken with people who are uneasy with how things have gone the last few years. Some of them have voted Democrat before, and maybe they’re feeling some discomfort seeing where universal vouchers are going. But I don’t know if that means there’s no place in the movement for those people anymore.

“There’s not a lot of space right now for a Democratic lawmaker who’s interested in school choice of any kind.”

There’s always been a sense within the school choice community that it should be a big tent. That’s supposed to be the nature of choice. On the flip side, I’ve recently heard this argument play out on Twitter and elsewhere: Can we use the culture war to rack up wins for school choice legislation? We’ve got people like Chris Rufo talking about how distrust in public school could lead to more demands for school choice. 

There’s been pushback to that line from other advocates within the movement. That said, I think the Friedman side has won. What the book broadly describes are the competing arguments within the movement, and the Friedman side is ascendant right now. The question is whether the other folks are disgusted and walking away, or whether they’ll find a way to navigate the new landscape.

And the Democrats? Few of them will talk much about school choice anymore.

There’s not a lot of space right now for a Democratic lawmaker who’s interested in school choice of any kind. 

That was on display in Pennsylvania, where [Democratic Gov. Josh] Shapiro stuck his neck out on school vouchers. I was astonished by that because it definitely didn’t feel like the moment for a Democratic governor to support a voucher program. I had to double-check his party affiliation because I was like, “This can’t be!” And as we saw, there was a backlash to that, and a backlash to the backlash, and he’s backed away from that commitment for now. 

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shaprio indicated an openness to enacting a school voucher program before making an about-face this summer. (Getty Images)

There was a backlash to charter schools from Democratic lawmakers during the Trump administration, and since that time, the interesting turn of events has been the push in some quarters for religious charters. For the traditional public education defenders who were always opposed to charter schools, they feel like this is what they’ve always warned against: Charters aren’t truly public schools, they’re just masquerading as such. But for the early charter advocates, it’s so far from what most of them intended, almost like a bomb going off in the charter movement.

What’s so intriguing about this topic is watching what happens to someone’s ideas 30 or 40 years on, after other people have picked them up with different intentions. You see that throughout the history of vouchers, and the same thing is happening now with charters. 

What’s your assessment of the educational effects of this blossoming of school choice? Stanford’s CREDO institute released a report this summer showing that charters now slightly outperform district public schools, and lots of other research point to beneficial competitive effects from the charter sector. I’d say that studies on voucher programs have been mixed-to-negative, however.

Research was one of the more difficult things to handle while I was writing this book. When school choice policies got off the ground, there really was no research other than this sense that Catholic schools were pretty good. I also didn’t want to write a book about research studies, any more than I wanted to write an encyclopedia of school choice. 

But you can’t ignore the research, especially now that we have pretty good findings on the existing school choice programs. We don’t know much at all about how universal programs work because they’re still too new, but there are studies on charter schools and on some of the voucher programs that have been around a while. 

Early on in the writing process, I had a brief fellowship at the Russell Sage Foundation as a visiting journalist. As part of that, I presented to some researchers about my book, and by an incredible coincidence, Christopher Jencks — who makes several appearances in the book — happened to sit in on my presentation. And after listening to me go back and forth with an economist who was really pushing me to focus more on research, he suggested that I look at how the research has influenced the narrative around school choice. 

As an example, one of the arguments for the earliest voucher program in Milwaukee was that it was actually going to be better than the existing public schools; after all, why else would we be spending money to send kids to school that aren’t better? But the very early research on Milwaukee didn’t show that. Parents were very happy and satisfied about being able to choose, but test scores were about the same as they had been. 

Eventually, though, that changed. [Harvard Professor] Paul Peterson and a couple other folks conducted a study in Milwaukee that showed increases in test scores. This argument over the program’s effectiveness was happening while it was being litigated in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. You could see that the research mattered a lot in that moment, as part of the argument about whether private school choice was worth replicating. 

Beyond that, I had the feeling that after three decades, I had to be able to say something about whether school choice works. If someone picks up the book who knows nothing about school choice, that is the obvious question: Does it work? And, if so, how does it work? 

In the end, I don’t think any of the results have turned out as well as early advocates believed. Vouchers show some good life effects for their students, including an increase in high school graduation for some of these programs. Those are good. But there have also been multiple studies showing declines in test scores for some of these programs. Certainly, advocates did not anticipate the private schools actually performing worse than public schools. 

As you mentioned, CREDO’s most recent report shows that, on average, charters now have an edge over traditional public schools with respect to test scores. But with most charter studies, the effects tend to vary depending on the different charter markets. Some cities have much better charter schools than others, and they’ve varied over time. For a while, there were certain states that were seen as problems in the charter school movement because they kind of let anybody into the market. The reverse was Boston, which was much more selective about letting people open schools, and they saw really good outcomes. Urban charters in general have done really well raising test scores for disadvantaged kids.

No one study is the end-all, be-all, and with this research, people cherry pick the findings they like best. But it’s worth trying to look at the cumulative picture over time.

Given how harsh the debate around charters and vouchers, do you think a truly public system of choice — like open-enrollment, which allows families to cross district lines — could be a reasonable area for compromise? It’s been widely embraced in Michigan, though with the unintended side effect that districts are now racing to poach one another’s kids.

For various reasons, there’s even opposition to the idea of inter-district choice. There are clear limitations, like how you move kids from a really rural district to go to school somewhere else. A lot of bigger districts, where that issue is easier to manage, already offer a bit of choice in their student assignments, and things like magnet schools. It’s an area that was pretty instrumental in establishing the idea that your kids didn’t necessarily have to go to their neighborhood school, but I don’t know that it offers a compromise in the current argument.

That’s even more true now that so much of the argument revolves around values and the Virgil Blum side of the debate. Being able to switch from the New York City school district to somewhere in Westchester might be useful for a family that’s trying to escape a particular zoned school, but what if you really want a religious education for your children?

You write about that question in an early passage about parochial schools that might not admit gay students or hire a gay teacher: “These reflect religious beliefs but perhaps not the views that all Americans want supported by tax dollars.” But of course, all Americans have never agreed about what they want schools to teach. The pivot is that courts are now taking a much more open view of what the state can support.

That’s right, all Americans don’t have much of a consensus on anything. To go back to the beginning of our conversation, this idea of which values to express in American education has been there going back to the 1700s. If you’re using a Protestant Bible, then the values of Catholics aren’t reflected.

“In Texas and Oklahoma, some conservatives actually oppose school voucher proposals. I think that’s because they believe they already see their values reflected in public schools.”

The idea of a public school system has been to avoid those really personal considerations and try to find a landing place that works for most people. And there’s a whole legal history in this country to do something else if they want that. The Supreme Court famously ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that “the child is not the mere creature of the state.” The practice was to have a system and then let people go outside the system to reflect their values.

What’s also important in our country is that we don’t have one, standardized system of K–12 schools. Local control has been the hallmark of American education from the start, and local values tend to differ a lot by region. We’re seeing really tense political battles in Texas and Oklahoma, where some conservatives actually oppose school voucher proposals. I think that’s because they believe they already see their values reflected in public schools, and public schools are a huge part of their rural communities.

My public education, which I experienced in a conservative corner of Washington State, was probably rather different than one experienced by a coworker of mine who was raised in New York City. You could argue that degree of localism is good or bad. I spent a good bit of high school learning the history of the Pacific Northwest. [Laughs.] We got a lot of Lewis and Clark because at some point, someone decided that was really important for kids in my part of the country. If you live in Gettysburg, you probably take a field trip to Gettysburg every year.

That kind of variation is already possible in American schooling, and your local district probably does incorporate the identity of the community in some way. What’s interesting now is watching Republicans, who tend to be in favor of local control and small government, taking a statewide approach to the issue of how we teach history and gender and race. 

K–12 enrollment has fallen quite a bit since the pandemic, and early signs don’t indicate that the rebound will make up for what was lost. Do you think that movement, along with steadily declining birth rates, could further fuel school choice and perhaps provoke some kind of death spiral for a number of public school districts?

COVID was happening as I was writing. I signed a book contract right before having my third child, and the pandemic started when he was nine months old. So he never went into childcare, and I lost in-person school for my older kids at the same time.

I could see, both as a journalist covering the pandemic and a parent living through it, that this was going to have a lasting effect on schools. I’ve heard historians say that you can’t write about something until 10 years after it happens, and I didn’t choose that. But I ended the book in 2019 because there was a moment there that I thought tied everything together nicely.

“For a lot of kids, there’s been a disconnect from the idea that you have to go to school; the pandemic showed that they really didn’t have to go to school.”

Despite the book’s title, I think the idea of a death spiral is a little much. You could say that the pandemic has opened up a moment when it’s been easier for Republicans to justify and pass school choice legislation. Given the nature of how parents had to get through the school closures, people’s lives were changed so significantly that they were willing to try forms of education that they hadn’t before. We saw a big lift in homeschooling among African American families, for example. 

A lot of parents got a closer look inside classrooms through Zoom — not that that was necessarily a fair representation of what normally happens inside schools — and it set some families on a fundamentally different path. Other families made short-term choices that got them through the crisis, and then they returned to what they were doing before. We homeschooled my older kids for a year, and it was a really interesting experience, but they’re now back in a public school full-time. 

Some of the enrollment decline obviously comes from people leaving big, expensive cities like New York. Some of it comes from people making different school choices. Catholic schools had an increase for a year, but they’re still in decline. In the end, the biggest questions leftover from COVID have less to do with choice and more to do with academic recovery and mental health. For a lot of kids, there’s been a disconnect from the idea that you have to go to school; the pandemic showed that they really didn’t have to go to school.

That said, I’m very curious to see how many people actually take up the states on some of these voucher programs. How many Floridians will use these vouchers? And how many were ever enrolled in the public school system? We’re going to see it happen in real time.

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