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Steve Hinnefeld Reviews “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” by Schneider and Berkshire

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Steve Hinnefeld, an Indiana blogger, reviews Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire’s new book A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door and finds that it resonates with his own experience in Indiana.

He writes:

“A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” focuses on a fundamental debate on the nature of schools. Education, the authors argue, is best treated as a public good that belongs to everyone.

“Like clean air, a well-educated populace is something with wide-reaching benefits,” Berkshire and Schneider write. “That’s why we treat public education more like a park than a country club. We tax ourselves to pay for it, and we open it to everyone.”

The alternative: education as a private good that benefits and belongs to those who consume it. In that increasingly influential view, families should choose schools – or other education products and services — the same way they choose restaurants or where to buy their shoes, with little concern for anyone else.

The threats they describe are not a wolf but a veritable wolfpack: conservative ideologues who want to reduce taxes and shrink government, anti-union zealots, marketers bent on “selling” schools, self-dealers making money from ineffective virtual-school schemes and technology enthusiasts who envision a future in which algorithms replace teachers.

That may make the book sound like a polemic; it’s not, at least in my reading. The authors offer a fair and accurate reading of opposing views and acknowledge that public schools aren’t perfect. All too often, they admit, public schools have excluded or failed students of color, immigrants, religious minorities, students with disabilities and others…

I remember, in the late 1990s, being surprised when the Indiana Chamber of Commerce said it planned to push for vouchers. Democrats controlled the governor’s office and the Indiana House. Just a few years earlier, a well-organized voucher push led by prominent business officials fizzled out.

But, as Schneider and Berkshire document, voucher supporters have played a long game, carried forward by groups like Indianapolis-based EdChoice and the American Legislative Exchange Council. In 2011, with a GOP supermajority in the legislature and Mitch Daniels in the governor’s office, Indiana approved vouchers. The program started small but grew to include over 300 private schools, nearly all of them religious, and over 36,000 students. Now there’s talk of expanding it further – or possibly of adopting education savings accounts, one of the “neo-voucher” programs that Schneider and Berkshire describe.

There is reason to hope, he writes, but also reason to be alarmed and vigilant.

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