A Modern History of Education Reform in America – Mackinac Center

Editor’s note: Corey DeAngelis, Ph.D., will speak and sign books at a Mackinac Center event on Tuesday, May 21.

Most authors choose to dedicate their book to their spouse, their children, or at least their agent. But Corey DeAngelis dedicates his book “The Parent Revolution: Rescuing Your Kids from the Radicals Ruining Our Schools” to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and to teachers unions more broadly. DeAngelis, “public enemy No. 1 of the teachers unions,” writes of them: “You are doing more to advance freedom in education than anyone could have ever imagined. Thank you for overplaying your hand, showing your true colors, and sparking the parent revolution. ”

The book mentions some distant history, but also some long-standing problems in the public education system. But most of it focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of unions and their allies (in schools and legislatures), and the resulting response from parents.

The COVID-19 pandemic and officials’ responses to it have been disastrous for children. Research shows that learning levels are dropping dramatically across the board, but especially among low-income students. Taxpayers were also defrauded. Spending on public schools skyrocketed, with little evidence that it helped stem the spread of the virus or helped students recover academically.

However, according to DeAngelis, the pandemic may be the best thing to ever happen to public education in America. Why? Because it blew open the Overton window for education policy and led to a dramatic increase in school choice.

Test scores in public schools have plummeted during the pandemic, and schools have faced many other challenges. However, private schools have not been affected to nearly the same extent. Because they were responsive to parents, they were much more likely to weigh the risks and tradeoffs of closing classrooms during the pandemic. They stayed open as much as possible.

Why did public schools become less responsive to parents? Many schools, DeAngelis argues, were not beholden to the students in the system, to their parents, or to the taxpayers. Rather, their primary concern was with the adults running things—teachers unions and their elected political allies at the state and local level.

The evidence is vast and DeAngelis is doing his job well. As his fans might say, “He has the receipts.” One of the worst:

  • Chicago Teachers Union leaders took a vacation to Puerto Rico as they fought to keep the district closed. (This came after they tweeted that “the push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.”)

  • AFT President Weingarten oversaw local unions that repeatedly fought to keep schools closed, but during testimony before Congress in 2023 she claimed, “We’ve been trying every day… to get schools open.” (The reality was that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention often followed the union’s lead in urging schools to limit themselves to in-person learning).

  • Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe not only ordered all public and private schools closed during the pandemic, but he also closed online charter schools that served 37,000 students. Why? To “protect public schools from competition,” DeAngelis says.

  • Districts and regions with stronger teachers unions remained closed longer than those elsewhere. But even more politically conservative states were overrun by unions and their allies. Arizona, North Carolina and Virginia closed their doors to education, while ironically remaining open for child care.

“Parent Revolution” provides a bit of a history lesson on education, but the focus is on the era from the start of the pandemic to now. School choice advocates had made small victories in recent decades, but the pandemic and the years since have vastly expanded educational opportunities.

States’ and schools’ responses to the pandemic have highlighted the extreme positions of teachers unions, state and federal bureaucrats, and many school administrators. Parents saw firsthand how the public school system is often run in the interests of adults, rather than children. This realization brought about a groundswell of opposition, both conservative and liberal. The result was major policy changes, both at local and national policy levels.

Three years into the pandemic, in 2023, school choice programs expanded in twenty states. Fourteen states now have nearly universal school choice programs. In these states, almost all parents can receive financial assistance, such as a voucher or a tax credit, while choosing from a variety of private and public schools.

DeAngelis finds the opposition to school choice confusing and hypocritical. Opponents of this choice make a big deal about allowing students to take a voucher or tax credit and spend it on any school option they want. DeAngelis points out that this has been allowed without controversy in many other parallel situations: Pell grants and the GI Bill; Head Start and state-funded pre-K programs; food stamps and housing subsidies; and numerous other public programs. In all these cases, the government picks up the tab but allows the beneficiary to spend the money with private entities.

What then drives the resistance to school choice for primary and secondary education? The same thing, DeAngelis surmises, that drove the opposition to school reopening: The system has long been built to benefit adults rather than children. These adults are supported by public sector unions, which finance the campaigns of the officials who then pass the rules. Unions’ efforts often result in higher wages, more benefits, and contracts that benefit themselves, not taxpayers or children.

DeAngelis grew up in public schools, just like me. Like me, he had a parent who worked in public schools. Like me, he had a mixed experience. And like me, he discovered that the United States runs its education system in a nonsensical way. So we are both in favor of reforms to that system. He writes, “I came to the conclusion that nowhere in America was the problem of monopoly power more pronounced—and more damaging to our society—than the nation’s government-run school system.”

My wife and I received a public school education, from kindergarten through high school graduation. Our school-aged children attend local public schools. My mother and father, sister and brother all work or worked in the public school system. Still, I agree with DeAngelis and support school choice. Families and individual children differ greatly and need a variety of options to suit their needs. The pandemic has shown the full extent of the problem. Competition and choice will prevent this from happening again.

Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.