The causes of failure in America’s public education system are several and are widely known, but public school defenders refuse to take note of them.
In 2020 the American educational system was attacked by two viruses: Covid-19 and an unusually virulent strain of hyper-progressive ideology. Many parents and educators have been shocked and disoriented to find that institutions they trusted appear to have been taken over by zombie Marxists, filled with self-righteous anger. Unless they are from “URMs” (under-represented minorities), their children are likely to be told that their heritage makes them racist, the spawn of oppressors, and that they need to renounce their “white privilege” or be made outcasts in their own schools. They are being taught to despise their own country as well as the literature, philosophy, and arts of the Western tradition. Even mathematics teaching now has to be filtered through a social justice lens.
But every crisis is also an opportunity, as activists on the left frequently remind us. There are even grounds, dare one say it, to have hope for the future. Both the health crisis and the ideological crisis of American education have left the radical progressives’ near-monopoly of K-12 schooling considerably weaker than in pre-Covid times. It is now exposed as never before to competition from innovators who are introducing new ways to learn. Some of these innovators are giving us new ways to connect with older and sounder educational traditions, the very traditions hyper-progressives have been aiming to poison or supplant.
There is no doubt that the part of K-12 public education controlled by the teacher’s unions—the schools directly supervised by public school districts—took a serious hit after 2019. Exact numbers are hard to verify, but the trend is clear. According to figures supplied by National Center for Education Statistics, run by the Department of Education, the total enrollment in K-12 public education grew gradually from about 47 million in 2000-01 to more than 50.33 million in 2019. Since 2019 it has dropped by over two million. The actual number of students lost by unionized public schools is probably closer to 2.5 million, since public charter schools have markedly increased their share of enrollments since 2019—the only part of the public system to experience growth. Public charters are also the one part of the public school system that has demonstrated a commitment to in-person teaching during the pandemic. In the last fourteen years (the only period for which statistics are available), public charter school enrollment increased by more than three times, growing from less than 2.1% of all public school students in 2005 to 6.5% in 2019. For the school year 2020-21, the National Alliance for Public Charters (NAPC) reports an increase of about 240,000 new students, a year-over-year increase of about 7%. This represents a doubling of the rate of increase over the previous period.
Most of the two million students who exited unionized public schools—about 4% of all public school students— seemed to have moved to home-schooling or to hybrid forms of education that combine both home-schooling and online private schooling. Since 2020, the number of home-schoolers has increased dramatically in every state, and in some states (like North Carolina) by more than 10%. By contrast, in brick-and-mortar private schools, whose tuition charges are ordinarily much higher than low and middle-income parents can afford, enrollment remained stable. NCES tracking shows that in the period from 2005 to 2018, overall private school enrollment fell slightly, from 11% to 10.3%. According to statistics compiled by the National Association of Independent Schools that slight decline seems to have stabilized in 2021 for the approximately 1,600 private schools they survey, which enroll around 700,000 students.
The move to home-schooling is by no means a phenomenon restricted to white families. Quite the opposite. According to Jeremy Tate, CEO of the Classical Learning Test, black families now homeschool at a higher rate than any other demographic in the U.S.: 16.1%. In 2019 that figure stood at 3.3%. The scale of the black exit from public schools is hardly a surprise, since children in heavily urbanized areas were the population that suffered most from Covid restrictions and the zero-risk policies dictated by teachers’ unions.
The one-year loss of 4% of students attending district public schools has not disturbed so far the complacency of teachers’ unions. Why should it? The percentage of K-12 students in America has hardly varied for at least thirty years: it oscillates somewhere between 88% and 90% of the total. Union schools expect that most of their students will return to them after the relaxation of Covid restrictions. According to some observers, however, this expectation may be overly sanguine. It may also fail to take into account the increased likelihood that district public schools will shut down during future viral threats, real or imagined. It surely underestimates the long-simmering disgust of Americans with the public school system, which has also spiked as a result of the twin viruses of 2020.
Affordable Private Education
The most important factor keeping most American schoolchildren in unionized public schools is undoubtedly cost. Public schools, after all, are free, and it’s hard to beat free. Of course they are not really free; they are paid from tax revenues, mostly property taxes, which is to say they are in effect subsidized by wealthier property owners. Property-tax-paying parents understandably do not want to pay twice to school their children. To be sure, some public schools are highly rated. Precisely for that reason, many parents have been willing to pay a premium for homes in townships with good public schools. While it is true that the “awokening” of public schools has made even the best of them unpopular with most Americans, many parents, for now, will have to stick with their local public schools. It’s a question of path-dependence: for many Americans, to go private would mean radically altering college funding plans and perhaps push retirement several years further out. It could mean leaving beloved homes and communities for others with less burdensome property taxes.
What is clear is that a huge proportion of parents with children currently in K-12 public schools would go private if they could afford it. That much is revealed by the polling data compiled by EdChoice, a non-partisan organization committed to giving American parents more power over their children’s education. According to EdChoice’s Polling Dashboard, of current K-12 school parents, 83% have actually enrolled their children in district public schools, but only 39% would do so if they had the freedom to choose other kinds of school. 50% would like to send their children to private or charter schools, but only 14% are able to do so. 78% of the general population and 84% of current school parents favor Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) once informed of how these accounts would work. Similar numbers favor some kind of public voucher system which would allow parents to decide which schools will receive the public funds allocated for their own child’s education. EdChoice’s polling data also shows that the last two years have seen a considerable jump in public support for educational choice in general, from the mid-70th percentile in 2018 to the mid-80s in 2020-21.
All this adds up, I believe, to a historic opportunity to set a new direction for American K-12 education. This means, at least for the present, exiting our broken public school system. It will take serious reform for unionized school districts to regain the confidence of the public, given the entrenched economic and political interests that protect mediocrity and encourage political zealotry. That will not be easy, and there are only a few signs of any willingness to defer to the concerns of American parents.
This is not to dismiss the ideals that gave rise to the public school system more than a century ago. The creation of America’s public school system was surely one of the great triumphs of the Progressive movement, and for a long time that system represented a vast improvement on the educational resources previously available to Americans. For most of the twentieth century, the public schools were egalitarian, public spirited, and helped integrate waves of immigrants from all over the world into a common American culture. In their original form, they provided well-trained teachers who respected American and Western traditions. They taught civics without trying to use the classroom to force radical change on American society—despite efforts from the followers of John Dewey to do just that. With the help of the Supreme Court, public schools for over sixty years have been able to exclude religious instruction from schools, but without, for the most part, adopting policies openly antagonistic to Americans’ faith traditions.
But all things human are subject to decay. The decline in both the quality and sanity of public schools in recent decades has now, thanks to the experiences of 2020-21, become obvious to many more parents and concerned citizens. The Justice Department’s recent attempt to intimidate parents who dare to protest the spread of Critical Race Theory has raised the potential cost of trying to reform public schools. You could find yourself in an FBI database if you cross your local school district. You can be smeared and even arrested for questioning transgender bathroom policies. It’s time to organize a major exit from unionized public schools. It’s time for Edexit.
One positive result of public schools refusing to allow in-person teaching during 2020—creating major headaches for parents in two-career families—is that the market for low-cost alternatives to public schools has exploded. A large number of the 6,000 or so Catholic parochial schools, far less expensive than most private schools, reported an influx of new students last year. Many still have waiting lists in 2021. Many parents were forced into home-schooling their children, and some discovered that the experience was more rewarding than they expected. Some found that their families grew closer and more affectionate when parents spent time teaching their children. Some parents are now opting for “hybrid” models that give some educational role to parents but allow for several days a week with other children in classroom settings. Entrepreneurs have been building new learning platforms like schoolhouse.org or outschool.com where parents can buy low-cost courses designed for K-12 pupils, many of them far higher in quality than classes offered in unionized public schools. Children can learn about subjects that the public schools refuse to teach, such as personal finance and entrepreneurship. Or they can learn ancient and modern languages that the public schools have abandoned by going onto platforms like the one maintained by the Paideia Institute for learning Greek and Latin. They are able to enroll their kids in highly effective, supervised learning programs geared specifically to the appropriate level of K-12 education.
It is only a matter of time before some considerable portion of these parents move to towns where the real estate is less expensive and they don’t have to worry about the politicization of public schools. States that offer vouchers or back school choice with public funding will become more attractive. Those parents will in effect be self-subsidizing private education for their children. One can imagine townships that want to improve their finances attracting parents by offering vouchers for private education in lieu of building and maintaining expensive (and increasingly controversial) public schools. Such an arrangement already exists in ninety-three “tuition towns” in Vermont. One interesting effect in Vermont is that home values have risen in tuition towns—a further inducement to exit district schools. In tuition towns parents of all income groups are able to enjoy the advantages of going private, a privilege long restricted to the wealthy. Competition for education dollars puts schools under pressure to please parents rather than treating them as unwanted nuisances, as so often happens today in the case of district public schools.
The Explosion of Classical Education
Not only have parents discovered that getting a high-quality private education for their children is much less expensive than they had imagined. They are also discovering schools that teach a traditional curriculum much more in harmony with their own values. Some parents who themselves began in high school to love great art, literature and music don’t want their own children to miss out on these experiences. Yet now they have learned that the public schools no longer teach such things, or are banning classics once seen as vital to a liberal curriculum and a tolerant society. Parents have come to realize that CRT curricula and their surrogates have poisoned the well of our inherited civilization and are teaching their children to regard the things they themselves love as tainted by racism and sexism. They are being taught to read woke.
Parents who want a traditional education for their children, unblighted by woke political activism, are most likely to be drawn to the kind of public charter schools that offer “classical education.” Classical education here is not to be understood in its older sense of an education in the Latin and Greek classics in the original languages—the sort of education, in other words, an English gentlemen might have enjoyed in one of Britain’s great public schools in the last century. Classical education in contemporary America looks back to that earlier age for inspiration, but employs a much broader definition of what a “classic” is. This includes classical books from the modern world and from Hindu, Muslim, and Chinese civilizations as well as from the old Graeco-Roman canon. Modern American classical education is also more explicit about the transformative effects it hopes to have on the character of students who experience it. The Institute for Classical Education offers a fine statement of the movement’s goals:
Classical education takes a unifying approach to intellectual and moral formation by developing both the mind and the heart. Through the study of languages, the sciences, history, mathematics, literature, and fine arts, classical education helps students recover a sense of wonder in their search for knowledge, alongside a deeper purpose—namely, the pursuit of wisdom and development of virtue.
The contrast with the current ethos of unionized public schools could not be starker.
But the classical education movement goes far beyond public charters. Parents who would like to move from public schools to private education now have numerous options, many of them low-cost. The whole classical school ecosystem has been anatomized by Ian Lindquist in an illuminating article for National Affairs. According to Lindquist, there are three broad categories of classical schools. There are the public charters that embrace classical education and operate outside any religious framework; these he puts into the category of “democratic classicism,” which focuses on delivering an education informed not so much by faith tradition as by the conviction that tradition can and ought to be employed to cultivate excellent citizens. The civic-minded dimension is the primary one. In this view, liberal education means cultivating the habits and dispositions of citizenship.
Two other strains of classical education are associated respectively with Roman Catholic and Protestant religious schools. Despite their denominational commitments, these schools are often happy to enroll the children of orthodox Jewish, Muslim, and even agnostic parents who prefer the values of explicitly Christian schools to those of the public schools.
All of these schools have experienced extraordinary growth in the last few years, and especially in the 2020-21 school years. According to Dr. Robert L. Jackson, Founding Director of the Institute for Classical Education, there are about 220 classical charter schools, including the thirty-three in his own network, the Great Hearts academies, which currently educates some 22,000 students. These can be described as democratic classical schools, to use Lindquist’s vocabulary. Then there are the schools that have an explicitly Christian framework.
Of the approximately 6,000 Catholic parochial schools in America, about 250 count as classical schools and fall under the umbrella of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. Also in the Catholic tradition are thirty Chesterton Academy schools. The Association of Christian Classical Schools, largely but not exclusively Protestant, includes some 300 schools and educates around 40,000 K-12 students. There are at least 85 schools in National Association of University Model Schools, a hybrid-style international school network that allows parents to direct the religious education of their children. The total figure for brick-and-mortar classical schools in America currently stands at about 885, educating approximately 250,000 students (a figure based on average school sizes).
Then there are the home-schoolers, a category that has been increasing for many years and which exploded in the pandemic year. Home-schoolers may now number as many as five million, some 10% of all K-12 children. It is much harder to know, naturally, what percentage of home-schoolers are following a classical curriculum. An online platform that caters to classical homeschoolers, Classical Conversations, has about 2,500 communities and involves some 125,000 students. According to Dr. Jackson, a reasonable estimate is that Classical Conversations covers 25% of the classical homeschool market. If this is accurate, something like half a million homeschooling students are involved in Christian classical education. That would mean that the total number of students in America involved in some form of classical education today is upwards of 750,000.
Building out Classical School Networks
The spread of racialized and identity-based indoctrination in K-12 schools in the last two years has been astonishingly rapid, leading many to conclude, not without reason, that this transformation had been planned long in advance. It was merely waiting for a trigger, and the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 provided it. With millions marching on the streets all over America, vast numbers of public schools and elite private schools granted themselves permission to unleash all their most radical political beliefs on every student under their control, no matter how young. But in doing so they revealed to the American public as never before the reality of what these schools have become.
Fortunately, the movement for classical education has also—and for decades—been laying foundations for educational renewal. It too has the potential to change American education. It is surely the movement now best situated to take advantage of the cultural moment and to offer American parents an escape from the iron quadrangle of publicly-funded school districts, woke teachers’ colleges, progressive teacher’s unions, and the politicians who love them. If there is going to be a counter-revolution in American K-12 schools, a renaissance that can restore America to its founding principles of ordered freedom and civic virtue, that renaissance will have to start with classical schools. If any readers are in doubt about that, spend a few minutes reading the mission statements of classical school networks such as Thales Academy, Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, and the Great Hearts Academies. If you are not already aware of the classical school movement, it will be the most heartening thing you have read in a long time about American education.
What can be done to help this movement succeed? The place to begin is surely with the classical charter schools, where—if parents can win the state entrance lotteries—their children can be educated free of charge. In most if not all states there are many more parents who would like to send their children to classical charters, especially at the primary level, than there are places available. There are currently around 7,000 public charter schools in the United States. (Their numbers have increased by 600% since 2000.) Originally the public charters were meant to challenge the monopoly of district public schools and foster intellectual excellence by introducing competition into K-12 education. Most still do that, but increasingly many suffer from the same pathologies that infect unionized public schools. Anyone who has read Thomas Sowell’s important book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies, will be aware of the political challenges facing public charters and the pressures brought upon them to conform to the philosophy of hyper-progressive educators. Recently, with the spread of DEI enforcement mechanisms, some with state mandates behind them, many public charters have been slipping down the same ideological slope as district publics and elite private schools.
In my conversation with Dr. Jackson, a true visionary, he sketched out one potential solution to this problem. Public charters for a long time have been supported by the Charter School Growth Fund, a non-profit with many wealthy backers that has funded over 1,200 public charters in thirty-one states. It picks out schools that have a proven track record of quality and durability and helps them to improve and expand. If a classical school growth fund could be created to help the best existing schools to flourish and replicate themselves, one could anticipate that the light they cast might in the coming years begin to brighten the dark landscape of contemporary American education.
The second great need is to find the right kind of teachers: teachers who know and love the subjects they teach, love the students they teach, and have the good character and personal skills needed to discipline and inspire young children and adolescents. Such teachers are in short supply and their scarcity represents a serious limitation on growth. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers few. Training classical teachers is often done now in the form of apprenticeships, and that method has real advantages. But more formal teacher training, if designed in the spirit of classical education, would solve many problems.
A few universities with good values, such as the University of Dallas and the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, have started programs to train classical teachers. But the need for qualified teachers is still far greater than the supply. Dr. Jackson suggests that a classical version of Teach for America might be established by some visionary philanthropists: a two-year program that would pay college graduates to work in classical schools. Such a program would provide an entryway for young teachers committed to the values of classical education. As the experience of Teach for America shows, even those who do not go on to have careers in teaching can provide a sympathetic support group for classical schools throughout their lives.
A final need is for leadership. Classical schools pride themselves on their minimalism when it comes to school administration, but leaders of their schools must be able to articulate a mission for the school based on serious historical and philosophical understanding. Both headmasters and teachers must be aware of the opportunities and pitfalls of designing classical curricula. Above all, they need to develop strategies for imparting a sound forma mentis to children growing up in a corrupt culture. Fortunately there exist already a few institutions of higher education committed to virtue education, and a network of such institutions is in place in the U.K under the umbrella of the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Center. Great Hearts Academy created its Institute for Classical Education (ICE) specifically to train the leadership of classical schools and provide academic resources and conferencing for those in the movement.
The work of the ICE or a similar institution could be strengthened by adding legal and policy wings that might help open doors in American state governments. Currently, charter schools are legal in all fifty states but the political environment for them is by no means uniformly welcoming. New York is particularly hostile: Thomas Sowell reports that there are over 50,000 students on waitlists to get into New York charter schools, yet city and state officials refuse to greenlight new charters, even from highly successful networks. Hence charter schools tend to cluster in states such as Minnesota, Arizona, Texas, California, and a few others. The environment for classical charters is even more forbidding, and there are many hurdles such as teacher certification that must be surmounted. The political opposition can be fierce, and some states have laws that make it impossible to discipline students or that force noxious curricular requirements on schools, like California’s new ethnic studies curriculum. Having a classical education institute with a policy shop that could act as an advocate with state governments could remove barriers that currently inhibit the movement’s spread.
There is a certain irony in the circumstance that classical charter schools are now the best hope to fight political radicalization in K-12 education. The chief impulse behind the viral spread of “anti-racist” education in 2020 came from the demonstrations led by Black Lives Matter, an organization that denounced American schools for harboring “systemic racism” in their curricula and demanded radical change. Yet the real “systemic racism” in American education is the public school system in the inner cities that denies black and minority children a quality education. As Thomas Sowell writes,
Propagandists in the classroom are a luxury that the poor can afford least of all. While a mastery of mathematics and English can be a ticket out of poverty, a highly cultivated sense of grievance and resentment is not. The merits or demerits of a particular ideology are irrelevant to the urgent task of educating young people in the skills that will determine what kind of future they will have available as adults.
As the experience of charter schools shows, if given a good K-12 education, black students, even from the inner cities, are fully capable of competing at a high level with other demographic groups. Instead of forcing universities to lower or abandon merit standards in order to achieve “equity,” wouldn’t it be better to send poor and minority students to the type of schools that allow them to achieve self-respect and success? Isn’t it better for our future as a society to teach them in schools that promote virtue and a love for our traditions rather than ones that stoke the fires of hatred and resentment?
Olivia Glunz contributed research for this article.