The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 228

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

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GONZALEZ: At first glance, the notion of school choice is a no-brainer. Obviously, a parent should be allowed to choose the best school for their child. The appeal of this idea can be backed up with data: A 2023 poll asked this question:

School choice gives parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs. Generally speaking, would you say you support or oppose the concept of school choice?

Over 70 percent of the registered voters who responded — from both major political parties — answered that they supported school choice.

But notice the wording of the question: Generally speaking, it says. The concept of school choice, it says. That’s important. Because when it’s put that way, who could argue with it? Why would anyone say they opposed it? Every parent wants their child to have the best education they can get, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Educating a group of children requires well-trained teachers, a robust collection of academic materials, expertise about differentiation and accommodations, a safe and well-equipped facility, secure technology that’s relatively up-to-date, reliable transportation, healthy food, clean water, recreational and athletic space and equipment, art and music supplies, a good clerical and administrative staff, interpreters for dozens of languages, first-aid supplies, behavior specialists, and so much more. Acquiring and maintaining all of these things takes a lot of money, management, and skill, and putting it all together, and doing that consistently year after year, is a major undertaking. It’s no wonder so many schools fall short in some way or another. The allure of school choice seems to rest heavily on the belief that in most communities, at least one school is already checking all of those boxes well, and from there it’s just a matter of parents saying, “Yes, I’d like that one please.”

But this is rarely the case. And that’s where things get complicated.

My own understanding of school choice has been heavily informed by Diane Ravitch’s 2013 book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. In the book, Ravitch makes a case for strong, well-funded public schools, giving every student a good education, regardless of family income. She details how the school choice movement, fueled largely by for-profit interests, has systematically pulled families away from public schools with the promise of better options. Far too often, they are unable to fulfill this promise, and families are left to choose between inadequate private options and public schools that have been drained of resources.

It’s been over a decade since I read Ravitch’s book, and the question of school choice is still being tossed around. We’re heading into another big election season, so I thought it would be worth our time to unpack this topic — to look at where the movement started, how it has evolved over time, and how it could potentially impact anyone who teaches, whether it’s in a public, charter, private, or home-based school. As professionals, our opinion on this issue should be well-informed, so today we’re going to spend some time building our background knowledge.

To help with that is my guest, Cara Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has been a journalist for over two decades and now serves as Story Editor for Chalkbeat, an independent, nonprofit news organization that exclusively covers education issues. Last year, she published an extensively researched book about the school choice movement called The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America (Amazon | When I read this book, I learned some fascinating and frankly ugly things about the history of school choice in the U.S. I was also surprised to find out that despite the title of the book, it’s not just conservatives who want school choice, and the reasons behind why some people are in favor of it are pretty varied. Despite those complications, it’s still clear that there is a well-organized movement happening right now to take down public schools, and whether you’re a public school teacher or not, this is something that should concern us all. Fitzpatrick and I talk about why school choice isn’t a simple concept at all, we dig into some of the key groups that have historically pushed for it, and we explore some things concerned citizens can do to ensure that families can still get their children the best education possible.

Before I play our conversation, I’d like to thank our sponsor, WeVideo, a cloud-based interactive video platform used by millions of educators and students. With WeVideo, educators have everything they need to create dynamic learning opportunities in the classroom. Easily assign pre-made video projects in just a few clicks and collaborate with learners in real-time. Embed interactive elements like multiple choice questions, free responses, and discussion prompts into new or existing video content, and watch engagement soar. Meet students where they are, in a medium they love, and develop crucial 21st-century skills like creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration. WeVideo makes it easy to create videos, podcasts, GIFs, and more — no matter who you are. Try WeVideo today and maximize engagement, retention, and performance in the classroom. Visit to learn more.

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Now here’s my conversation with Cara Fitzpatrick about school choice.

GONZALEZ: We’re going to tackle this big issue of school choice. You have just written a book published earlier this year or last year, it was last year. 

FITZPATRICK: Last year. 

GONZALEZ: Yes. The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America. And you were recommended to me by Jenn Binis who wrote a post for me a little while back about standardized testing, and I said who, who knows a lot about school choice? Because it’s been in the news a lot again lately, and I feel like teachers should know exactly what is, you know, what is at stake or what it is that people are sort of trying to do. And she pointed me to you because you’ve got this really well researched book on the whole history of it. So you’re covering in this book over 70 years’ worth of the history of the school choice movement. And, you know, clearly this required a lot of research and time, so what got you interested in doing this project? 

FITZPATRICK: Well, I had been a reporter, an education journalist in Florida for about 10 years. And if you’re a little bit familiar with Florida right now then you know that it’s a place that has had school choice, you know, for a long time, for 20 years. And so just as being a reporter there, I spent some time at least covering charter schools and school vouchers and how choice sort of intersected with the school district that I was covering. And I was interested in basically the origin story for it because I knew the Florida story fairly well, but I didn’t know sort of where this was coming from. And I didn’t know, the big question I had going in was is this a systemic reform for some of the problems in public education or is it something that is more helpful to perhaps individual families. And so I just kind of had all these questions about what this is, what it means, and that, that sent me down five to six years of research and writing. 

GONZALEZ: Mm. Wow. Okay. So we’re going to just sort of start, by, you know, getting the basics down. You know, I think when people hear this concept of school choice for families, this is, you know, parents’ freedom to choose the right school for their kid, it really sounds harmless on the surface. You know, it’d be hard to imagine any reasonable person would be like, no, I don’t think a parent should be able to choose, you know, where their child goes to school. However, the fact that it is so contentious and there are, there’s so much, like, argument on both sides about it, I think it’s really important for, especially schoolteachers, to understand exactly what are the problems that are associated with school choice. Why is it, basically, not as simple as it sounds?

FITZPATRICK: Well, I think, you know, school choice on the surface is an incredibly appealing concept, I think, particularly for Americans. This idea of freedom and individuality is appealing, and I think that’s part of the reason that it has been a really powerful concept for Republicans, because it’s very easy to explain and understand. You know, and there’s popular slogans that go with that. You know, “fund students and not systems” is one that I hear oftentimes. But I think one of the things that people have to understand is that school choice programs actually vary quite a lot. There’s a number of existing choice options within school districts. So this idea that there’s not choice within the existing system is sort of wrong. You know, there’s magnet schools which are giving seats to kids outside of a zone neighborhood school. They were originally meant as a tool of integration, but that’s a popular choice. There’s special admissions schools, which, you know, often have criteria like certain test scores or auditions or portfolios, if it’s an art school or, you know, if it’s a more, like, drama-based school. And then there’s charter schools, which are intended to be a public school but they’re, they’re publicly funded but privately managed, so they are outside of the school district. And then you have sort of an assortment of private school choice programs, which are vouchers and education savings accounts, which have become very popular now. And that basically just gives families tax dollars to pay for maybe a religious school and sometimes now even homeschooling. And so I just want to kind of make clear what the landscape of this looks like because it is actually very complicated. And, so with that understanding, I think there’s some, some major issues that arise. One of the biggest ones is sort of this idea of accountability. And there’s different ways of being accountable. Financial accountability, and then also just are these programs actually helping students, you know. Because if we’re investing money into an educational option, generally speaking, we want students to do well. And so there’s this question of, well, how are they doing? And it’s interesting but with all of these different programs across the country, some of them have a lot of accountability built in, where you can start to sort of answer that question of how students are doing. You know, maybe students using a voucher, for instance, take the same standardized test as the kids in the public schools. But actually there’s, there’s programs where there’s very little accountability, and it’s kind of left up to the parents to decide if their children are being well-served, and it’s very hard for the public to decide, you know, is this working? And then on the accountability for, for just the financial picture, you know, there have been a lot of cases of fraud and misuse of tax dollars, not only with private school choice programs but with charter schools. And then there’s also what I find really interesting right now with this rise of ESAs. 

GONZALEZ: That’s education savings accounts? 


GONZALEZ: Where people can, can use basically government money to spend on their kid’s education. 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, where you could, you could pay for, like, online classes or tutoring or tuition. It’s very, very flexible. One of the things I think is interesting with that right now is that you have states like Florida and Arizona where these things are quite popular where it’s not actually fraud. It’s an allowable expense to use some of that money for things like karate lessons or paddle boards or TVs. In Florida, you can actually buy Disney tickets and, and that’s a really, I mean that’s just a really sort of shocking use of public money that’s intended for education. And, and that made the news this year, I think, because it was such a surprise to so many people. 


FITZPATRICK: You know, and there was, there was some debate this year from Republican lawmakers about perhaps pulling that back a little bit. 


FITZPATRICK: And they actually, they actually chose not to do that because there was backlash from families who want to use the money that way. And that’s, that’s not fraud. That’s allowed under the program. 

GONZALEZ: Right. It’s, it’s built in as a feature right now. 


GONZALEZ: And this is, you know, as somebody who worked in public schools for a long time, and that’s the system I’m familiar with, with my own kids and as a student myself, you know. There’s a ton of accountability in public schools. It’s one of the things that makes teaching in a public school so hard is all the documentation, all the redcap around making any kind of changes. You know, if I want to buy a new whiteboard for my classroom, I have to go through a list of approved vendors. I mean, it’s extremely loaded with all kinds of accountability. The schools get scored and rated publicly. And then all of the other places in most states, if I’m understanding this right, none of them have that level of accountability that the public schools have. 

FITZPATRICK: Not, no. I mean, nothing comes close to what, what the public schools go through as far as both financial and, you know, the sort of test score, No Child Left Behind style accountability that we still have today. Nothing comes close to that. There’s definitely states where over time they have increased the amount of accountability for some of these programs because of some of those issues of fraud and misuse. And so lawmakers have come back and said, you know, we really need to have some tighter controls. And so, like, Wisconsin is one where they’ve increased it over time. Florida actually is one where they increased it over time. It’s still just not even close to what the traditional public schools go through. 

GONZALEZ: And so, you know, the point of all this too is that the messaging is if you’re not happy with the public schools as a parent, you should be able to choose some other better option. But what a lot of parents who are in favor of that idea may not realize is that those other options, you don’t actually know, there’s really not a way of telling, in a lot of cases, whether they are better or not. 

FITZPATRICK: No, and I think that’s one of the pieces that’s missing with that accountability is that it’s, I mean, it would be difficult to create a system where you could really, really compare because, you know, private schools often are serving different populations than public schools because they’re not under any legal obligation to serve, say, children with disabilities. So already it would be difficult. But at least if you had some greater level of information you could try. Because it’s very hard I think as a parent to know precisely what’s going on in a school. You know, some of it you’re taking a little bit on trust. And then what you do find with these programs is a somewhat high level of turnover in some cases where a family does try something out, and then, you know, maybe midway through the year they realize this is not, this doesn’t seem to be working, or we’re not seeing the results or this school actually can’t provide or won’t provide the same level of services that perhaps they had experienced in the public schools. 


FITZPATRICK: And maybe they didn’t know that going in. And so you see people try something for maybe a year, and then a lot of them end up back in public schools, and that’s a real, a real issue with some of those programs. 


FITZPATRICK: And so a lot of it is just parents kind of trying to feel their way through and find something that works. And that can be, that can be tough. 

GONZALEZ: I think just anecdotally I have heard a lot of stories of families that went into, you know, school systems and just weren’t, it made them so much more aware of what public schools provided, everything from lunch in the cafeteria to bus transportation to much more significant things like special ed services, which is a big, usually a big sticking point between your public school system and almost any other system in terms of what they’re able to provide. And it’s, you know, I’ve heard about parents having to work in the cafeteria at some charter schools because they don’t have what we sort of take for granted as a given, you know, in a public school. And I guess the other big question here, in terms of what is the problem with school choice, is that the basic fundamental concept here is taking public money away, that would normally go to a public school and then funneling it to some other option which will ultimately harm the public school, it’ll make it worse than it already is. Is that, is that a fair assessment of the math there? 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, I mean I think just from a, from a purely financial perspective, it’s not true of every single program, but oftentimes the way schools are funded, you know, we know is that it’s based on enrollment. And so when you have students leave and try something else, then the dollars often follow them. It’s not true for every private school choice program, but it is true for most. It’s certainly true for charter schools. And so you do have this kind of basic financial problem of, okay, you know, if you have an existing traditional public school and you’re paying for the building and keeping the lights on and the principal and the staffing, if you lose a class of children, probably it’s not going to close the school, but it does create a financial challenge because you’re losing some of those dollars. And when you start doing that on a larger and larger scale, you know, what we’ve seen in some places, especially with charter schools in cities where they’re popular, they’ve started to close some of the traditional public schools because of declining enrollment. And that, that is one of the, the sort of natural consequences of competition. 

GONZALEZ: When you say that’s not the case in every place, can you help me understand that? Because I’ve always understood school choice as a concept to be, “this is going to be government money that will follow the student to whatever they go to.” Are there other setups that fund school choice differently? 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah. Not to get deeply into the weeds, but some places, because of concerns about those types of effects on the school district, some places have put in different ways to fund it where, like I’ve seen this with, with charter schools, where they’ve said, “Okay, if a student leaves the traditional public school for a charter school, we’re not going to take away all of the money.” You know, so maybe the public school will, will retain some amount, some percentage of it, kind of as a, like to slow down the effect, you know, to make it a little bit easier. 


FITZPATRICK: And then there’s a few private school choice programs where the state has said we’re going to pay for this out of a different, you know, sort of fund. It’s not going to come directly from. 


FITZPATRICK: But in most cases, it’s fair to say if a student leaves, the money follows them. 

GONZALEZ: Okay, okay. So one of the last things that you mentioned before I asked that question was just about this whole idea of the competition aspect of it, which we’re going to get to in a minute. Before we do though, I think one of the biggest takeaways that I got from your book was a better understanding of all of the different groups historically, in this country anyway, that have pushed for school choice because I always had one specific idea about it, about who wanted school choice. And even the title of the book, you know, suggests that it has been largely conservatives that have wanted school choice, but then when we actually look at the history back into the 1950s, there definitely are people who are on the conservative side of things but then there’s a whole bunch of other groups that also wanted school choice for different reasons, sometimes opposing reasons. And there’s also kind of a dark, ugly history of school choice that I’m also not sure many people are aware of, where it originated. So if you could just give, give us like a four- or five-minute rundown of the entire history of all the competing groups. 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah. The CliffsNotes version. 


FITZPATRICK: This is one area I will say that I was really deeply fascinated by when I was doing the research because what I understood sort of at the start of, of tackling this was that there were two sort of origin stories that I often heard from very different perspectives. So if you were a person who was in favor of school choice, which has tended to be, you know, really driven by conservatives, those advocates for choices would talk to me about Milton Friedman who was, you know, Nobel prize winning economist, a really, really big conservative figure in the 20th century, and someone who had made an early proposal for vouchers really along sort of market-driven lines. And he just thought it was a better system than having what he viewed as a monopoly, which is how he viewed public education. So I would hear that from conservatives, and then progressives or people who opposed school choice programs, would tell me, well, this has its roots in segregation in the South in the 1950s as a response to Brown v. Board, which said that we need to integrate the schools. And I just, I had a hard time trying to figure out how do these stories, how can they both be true? Are they both true? And how can that be, they’re just so different. And so I started from trying to sort that out, and really found that both stories are true, it’s almost, it’s more interesting than that. They overlap and they intersect in really interesting ways. You did have Milton Friedman write this essay in 1955 proposing a voucher system to basically replace our traditional public education system. And then before he even did that actually, a few years before in the lead-up to Brown when Southern states and their lawmakers started seeing kind of the writing on the wall that segregation was going to end in the public schools because it was starting to be attacked successfully through the courts at the university level. They started essentially preparing to privatize the public school system. You know, rather than share equally in public education with Black students, these white lawmakers wanted to basically end public education in the South. And one of the tools that they looked at was the school voucher. They called it, they called it tuition grants, but it was a school voucher, and the idea was that they would use public money to pay for white students to get a private education at an all-white private school. And it’s interesting because when Milton was writing his essay, he actually was made aware of this by his editor who kind of, kind of tried to say, maybe you don’t want to make this proposal right now because it’s being used by segregationists. And his response was basically, you know, that’s unfortunate, it’s definitely a mark against it, but I still believe that this is a better system. So you had these two groups. And then at the same time actually, again with this kind of interesting overlap, there was a priest named Virgil Bloom in Milwaukee who was making a case for school vouchers or some kind of public support for private religious schools. And he was really arguing that religious families were being discriminated against. He felt very strongly that religious families were being discriminated against because they would pay taxes to support public schools and then they would also have to pay tuition to, you know, to a religious school to basically get their children an education that matched their values. And I thought, you know, I ultimately started the book here in the ‘50s because I thought, this is so interesting that these three arguments are being made, and that actually all of those arguments are still really relevant today. You still have the religious piece. You still have this idea of competition and the market. And you really still have this question about who is this for, who is it not for, who is it serving, you know, all of this, this remaining issue about racism, basically, you know, of what this might do. 

GONZALEZ: That’s, you know, that’s the thing that struck me right away was how much origins of school choice came down to racism and discrimination, and that there was one group, and I couldn’t, I didn’t know this story about the lost year in Little Rock. That Little Rock schools literally just closed their public schools to all students for a year because they did not want to integrate. So no kids got a public education that year. Is that correct? 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, yeah. 

GONZALEZ: That’s wild. 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, I mean —

GONZALEZ: In 1958, ’59? 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, right around there. And Virginia, Virginia did the same thing. They closed down schools in multiple cities because it, you know, it was basically a massive resistance. It was saying, we’re just, we’re not going to comply with the court order, and so we’re just going to shut schools down. And then there were efforts made to, you know, through school vouchers to direct funding to private segregation academies, you know, which sprung up as a result. But a lot of kids didn’t get an education. Black children of course were hit the hardest, but some white children also didn’t receive an education, and it was some of those parents who started pushing back. 

GONZALEZ: To say we need some, we need school. 


GONZALEZ: Like, if we’re going to do integration, let’s just do it so our kids can get an education. 



FITZPATRICK: And it was, it was really interesting to me because I was writing this during the pandemic when we had a period of time where schools were closed. And I think to some extent there was that similar sentiment of hey, these public schools are actually really important in a lot of ways to society. 


FITZPATRICK: And maybe we overlook that a little bit, you know. And the, just the level of feeling and emotion that people have for public education. 


FITZPATRICK: I thought that was really interesting. But I wanted to mention in my, my CliffsNotes version here, an important thread that also overlaps with the three kind of main groups that I mentioned is that the courts, you know, they started dismantling the racist school voucher programs in the South. Right away, the federal courts in particular were, were saying no, you can’t do this. You know, it’s obviously discrimination. But, so those programs started to go away and even as they did start to go away, there were some progressive voices that came out and started talking about school vouchers as a tool of empowerment for Black children in particular but for low-income children. And I thought, again, what an interesting overlap, you know. Because you’re, you’re literally having programs shut down because they’re racist, you know, because they’re excluding Black children and in the same moment, you have some, some sort of progressive voices saying, hey, wait a minute. We might use that same school voucher to try to help low income Black and Latino children. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Right. 

FITZPATRICK: And that’s just such a strange, and some of the people making that case kind of just in their writing about it wanted to overlook what was going on in the South. Like, no one really wanted to address that sort of more, you know, ugly, deeper issue that was literally happening at the same time while they’re making this argument. And I thought that was really interesting. It was like there was just very little acknowledgment of that, even though it was present time for them. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And well, and it seems like, and I was reading in this section where we’re kind of like in the ‘80s and the ‘90s where there’s more charter school movement going, and it is that, that, those groups in the urban areas in particular that were very dissatisfied with the quality of education their kids were getting through the public schools. So it seems like those were leaning more toward Friedman saying, hey, you’re going to get better quality if you have more competition and we get to choose between, you know, other schools because we want better quality for our kids. 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah. In the ‘90s, which is really when I think our modern school choice programs really took off because between the end of the, the Southern segregationist ones and then to the ‘90s, there’s a period of time where choice is sort of more theoretical, you know. And really Milton Friedman is the one sort of keeping alive the idea. In the ‘90s, it’s kind of a blend of those things because it’s, it’s a lot of Black activists who are, especially in Milwaukee and in Cleveland but particularly Milwaukee where they’re basically saying, you know, the school system, the public school system is segregated. It’s not providing the better, you know, academic outcomes that we were promised via integration. That’s not really what’s happening for us. And, you know, it seems like this is more about shuffling kids around. That was some of the sentiment. And so it was this idea of perhaps competition would push the school system to do better for these children, but also the idea of sort of the progressive model. Of if we target school vouchers at low-income children who can’t, you know, their families don’t have the means to choose something else, and especially at the children that we think have been failed by the system, which in Milwaukee was definitely Black children. It’s kind of that blending of the two ideas. Because one key difference with Friedman is that he very much opposed targeted programs. He, he was never in favor of a program that was just for low-income children. His idea was this is good for everybody. 

GONZALEZ: Just free market, you know, yeah. 

FITZPATRICK: Yep. Complete free market. Every single child in the country regardless of income should have a voucher. And he actually thought, I mean it was kind of a radical idea. He even said it was a radical idea. But over time he really felt that parents of some, you know, means, more affluent parents should really be taking on the, the cost, you know. And so over time, he kind of viewed, he viewed vouchers as a beginning, in a way. And so a very, very different understanding of, of public education. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So let’s, let’s go back then to this idea that Friedman kind of launched. But, you know, it’s, you talked about Milwaukee. Polly Williams was a big figure — correct? — in that whole movement. 


GONZALEZ: And she was a Black woman, and she was pushing real hard for vouchers for low-income families. One of the things she says, this is from page 121 in your book, she’s talking to employees of public schools that were opposed to her push for vouchers. She said, if you all are worried about your jobs, try doing them better. And this line of thinking, this sentiment, has been a talking point for a long time in, in terms of arguing for school choice against people who are saying, hey, you’re going to take kids away from the public schools and then, you know, response is, well, if you make your schools better, then you won’t have a problem. What do you, what do you think about that? 

FITZPATRICK: Well, it is a common talking point. You hear this a lot. It’s, it’s, it’s sort of a simplistic talking point, but often those are the ones that, that gain traction, I think when it’s covered in the media. I do think it’s, it’s true that there’s really no power in any school choice program if people don’t want to choose them. You know, if, if there’s a new charter school that opens up next to the traditional public school, and it doesn’t offer something that appeals to someone, then it’s not going to stay in business. And that’s really true for any, any choice option. It’s true when school districts try different magnet programs or different special admissions programs. But I think when you’re talking about what we have seen now today, where we’ve opened this thing up in a lot of states to religious schools, to online schools, to even paying, in some cases, for homeschooling, which, which Florida is doing now, and some other places are doing. Then, you know, the choice that any given family might make actually might have very little to do with how the traditional public school is doing. Because one of the things that we’ve really seen with the enrollment data from some of these programs is that a lot of the kids that are signing up for these things were already in private schools. They’re not making a choice. They already had made it. They’re now just actually shifting the tuition cost from the family to the state. The state is now paying for this because when you say every child in the state is eligible, a lot of those kids already were in private schools, and their families were paying for that. And so, you know, if you tell those families hey, we’re willing to pay for your private school tuition, I mean, I’m sure for a lot of families that’s extremely appealing. Why wouldn’t you take the state up on that? And so to some extent, you’re not even talking about someone making a choice. They already made that choice. And I also think you’re not really comparing like an apples-to-apples situation. It doesn’t really have much to do with the quality of a public school if what you’re interested in is, say, a Catholic education. For your children, that’s just not, you know, that has really very little to do with the public school. You’re not choosing between two things that are the same. So there’s that aspect of it. And then I also just think so much in education is systemic, and it’s so complicated, and it’s so much more complicated than some of the slogans and talking points. And I think most people who have some interaction with the public school system or some familiarity with it, you know, are aware of that. Because public schools have to serve every child, you know. Every child that comes in has to be served, and private schools often can’t do that. A lot of families aren’t going to have the ability to homeschool or the desire to homeschool. And so sometimes what you see, you know, is places where, say, charter schools are, are really ascendent in the system, sometimes you see a difference between who the public schools are serving, say the percentage of students with disabilities, and who the charter schools are serving. Sometimes you see the charter schools are a little more segregated than the public schools and acknowledging that public school systems are often quite segregated to begin with. But you know, you start to see this kind of thing that’s, that’s less about really are these people over here in the public school doing their jobs and more about all of these other factors. And you know, and I’ll just say, my sister is a special ed teacher. My mom’s a retired special ed teacher. And some of the things that, that teachers in those classes are dealing with and doing are so complicated and so difficult. And, you know, they’re, some of those students are not going to be well served outside of the public schools. Those private schools don’t have the services for them. And so I just think it’s really hard to compare what maybe is going on at, say, like my sister’s school versus the private school down the road that doesn’t even have the ability to offer those services. You know, and just comparing, that’s really hard. 

GONZALEZ: It sounds like after all of this research, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it sort of sounds like you don’t really think that the school choice movement is as big of a threat to the health of public schools that it’s made out to be sometimes. 

FITZPATRICK: Well, you know, I think it, it’s interesting because a lot of times school choice people will say we’ve had school choice for a very long time, and like the sky hasn’t fallen on, on public education. And in fact, there’s some research showing that public schools do improve in various ways via competition. And you hear that, and that is true that there’s studies out there showing that there’s some positive effects from competition. Not going to get into all of the weeds of that. But, you know, I think, I think that the, the threat to me right now is not so much the existence of programs, you know, though they are growing very rapidly right now. Because there’s different ways that you can set those programs up to sort of mitigate the effect it might have on a school district. There’s different ways to set it up so that you can try to avoid discrimination, you know. There’s financial controls. You can do a lot of things if you want to have these programs. But one thing I think is concerning right now is, is that you’ve seen this really, really notable shift in the way that school choice advocates are trying to pass programs. And it used to be that they, they talked a lot about civil rights, that school choice is a civil rights issue. They talked a lot about empowering low-income children, empowering Black and brown children. And now, it’s, it’s this really, really aggressive attack on public education, you know, these accusations about teachers indoctrinating students and what are the schools really teaching your kids. And this sort of, you know, insinuation that bad things are occurring in public schools. 


FITZPATRICK: And that’s been a really notable change in the way people are talking about it. And it’s not even like a subtle one. It’s not. It’s not like a conspiracy theory. Places like the Heritage Foundation have literally published papers saying, you know, we should use culture war issues to win legislatively on choice, that we should attack public education. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I’m remembering the Christopher Rufo quote a couple years ago. 


GONZALEZ: Saying, hey, we’re going to introduce this idea, CRT. It’s this kind of obscure thing, and we’re going to make it a thing. And they have worked. 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah. He’s been very, very successful in those efforts. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. He’s said it publicly. 

FITZPATRICK: Yes, yes. And he’s, you know, Rufo is very transparent. He’s very just open and honest about strategies and, and plans. And he in a speech maybe a couple years ago now said very clearly to win, you know, to have universal private school choice, you know, that we need to have universal public school distrust. And it was just very clear that the strategy was going to be attacking public education. And, you know, I think you could debate whether or not that’s been successful or whether or not that’s a, a good strategy. I mean it’s not really my role to, to debate whether that’s a good way to go. But I do think it’s fair to say that that’s, that’s a concerning strategy, you know, that it’s concerning because most American kids are still going to public schools and what is sort of the, like what’s the end game there if we’re trying to discredit public education? Like, what, what purpose does that serve? I mean it might pass some, some school choice programs. It might steer some people out of public schools, but it’s just, you know, what is kind of the larger consequence of that? You know, and I think it’s safe to say that that puts public education in some danger when we have lawmakers making those kinds of statements about indoctrination. You know, and so I think it is fair to say that that’s concerning, and I, I also think that there’s not sort of enough conversation about what the common purpose of public education is meant to be. You know, when you’re talking about people making choices and families and empowerment and all of these things, there’s not very much conversation about how this is a very different view of public ed. You know, if public education is supposed to be that there’s this common system where the children of the country learn sort of our shared history and our shared values and some of these larger purposes of public schools, what are we getting when we sort of tear that down? 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. That’s a good question. And that, I mean, I think that’s, that’s almost more provocative than coming out with a statement saying, “This is good, this is bad.” But really asking the people who are making those provocative statements to finish the thought and take it down the road a little further. What is your end goal? 

FITZPATRICK: Right. And I think that’s where, you know, the title of the book, sometimes that upsets people on both sides, interestingly enough, but it, but it’s not so much that there’s not going to be any public schools or that they’re all gone. I mean we know that to not be true. It’s more about this sort of death of an idea of what the public school really is. And, and some, some readers have gotten mad, and some have sent me nasty messages because they didn’t get that, and okay, that’s fine. That’s fine. But it was, it was sort of meant to provoke this, like, this larger thought of, you know, what is a public school? 


FITZPATRICK: What do we mean when we call something public education? 


FITZPATRICK: Because there’s really a debate right now about what that is. And Republicans are really pushing and saying it’s something quite different than we have traditionally understood. 

GONZALEZ: If, if somebody is concerned about this issue, and, and wants to play a more active role or maybe they work in a public school and they’re thinking, yeah, I don’t really want this movement to take up more steam or whatever it is. What are some things people can do with this information to make this situation not go way off track? 

FITZPATRICK: Well, I have to be careful because I’m not, you know, I’m not necessarily advocating for something. I was kind of hoping that people would read the book and, and understand more about where this has come from and why it’s in all of these headlines and what’s, what’s happening. But the one thing I, you know, I tell people, if you are interested in, you know, the future of public education as we’ve traditionally understood it or if you’re interested in public schools thriving, you know, or you’re concerned not that these private school choice programs exist but that maybe they need more, more accountability that’s more similar to public schools, you know, I think that there’s a few things you can do. You know, you can advocate for, for tighter controls and stricter accountability. You know, there’s really nothing to say that you can’t have a school voucher program where the kids take the same test, and you really get at least some data about how children are doing. There’s nothing to say that you couldn’t have those programs and have background checks or, you know, have requirements about what teachers who teach in those programs, you know, the education that they have, the certifications that they have. You can, you can attach a lot of those same things to these programs that are attached to public schools. So, you know, when people are concerned about fraud, that’s one thing I say is I don’t think you’re necessarily going to be successful at trying to just get rid of the program, but there are things that one could advocate for to increase some of the accountability of those programs. And then for public schools, you know, if you’re a parent, I think one of the best ways to advocate for public education is to actually use public education. You know? Because I hear from people who will tell me, I really wanted to send my child to the public school, but the class sizes are large or the art program’s been cut or they don’t have band, you know, all of these kinds of day-to-day concerns that are, are important to families. But it’s sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, because the public school is not going to be able to pay for band or art if everyone leaves it, you know. There has to be some level of engagement with, with that. Of saying, well, it doesn’t have art, but it does have these other things that are important to me. And then, you know, we have with public education a built-in democratic process where you can go to school board meetings, you know, and you can be involved that way. And as someone who used to sit through a lot of school board meetings, they didn’t used to have very many people attend, you know. For various reasons, I mean I don’t often go to school board meetings now as a parent because they’re often in, in difficult hours, right. But, but you know, there’s ways to engage with, with that system. If you don’t have children still in the schools, you can volunteer in the schools. You know, there’s a lot of different ways to, to advocate around that issue. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. You know, and I think too that there’s that, it’s a really well-known, I think, statistic. And I don’t know what the numbers are, but that whenever people talk about public education in general, they’re very negative, but when they’re asked about their own school, they say, “Oh, our schools are great.” 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah. That is a real thing. 

GONZALEZ: It’s like, everyone says that. Yeah. 

FITZPATRICK: Yeah. I find that really interesting because I do think some of that, that rhetoric from Republicans right now really attacking public schools is a lot more effective with people who don’t have children in public schools. Because then they, they don’t necessarily know, right? 


FITZPATRICK: But if you’re someone who does, I think that’s part of why we see that is. You know, I’m, I’m very willing to give my child’s school the benefit of the doubt because I interact with it. I know the teachers, you know. I see how they treat my children, and I see the work they’re doing. And so there is, I think, that, that sort of divide of, of whether or not you interact with the schools or you don’t and then how you, how you feel about it. 

GONZALEZ: Cara, if people wanted to learn more from you, where would they go online? 

FITZPATRICK: So I don’t have like a personal professional website or anything like that, although people do find me at my professional email. 

GONZALEZ: We don’t need to give that out. 

FITZPATRICK: I was going to say, but I, I prefer they try to have to work for that a little bit. 


FITZPATRICK: But, but I’m, I’m an editor at Chalkbeat, which is a nonprofit news organization that’s focused entirely on education, which I think is a, a wonderful service in a lot of communities out there. 


FITZPATRICK: And it’s, it’s a, you know, just in general, it’s a great resource for anyone who’s interested in education issues. Not just school choice, all education issues. 

GONZALEZ: Yes. Okay, well then I will make sure that I link over to where you are on Chalkbeat. So again, the book is called The Death of Public School. Thanks so much for the work you did on the book and for spending time with me to help us kind of like dig through some of these issues. 


GONZALEZ: For links to Cara Fitzpatrick’s book and to read a full transcript of our conversation, visit, click Podcast, and choose episode 228. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.