Keep the faith in public education


Before we sign off completely for 2023, I have a short message: Our public schools are under attack, but they are stronger and more resilient than their enemies assume, and more effective than you are being told. 

The crusade against public education: Unfortunately, the right-wing, anti-public-education crusade has been effective, as witnessed by a recent Gallup poll showing that just 36 percent of the general public report being “satisfied” with public schools. However, those who know the schools best — the parents — give their own children’s schools and their teachers high marks: 76 percent say they are “completely or somewhat satisfied” with their oldest child’s education. That’s similar to prepandemic poll results. The crusaders appear to be reaching more Republicans than Democrats or independents, because Gallup reports a particularly steep decline in satisfaction among the GOP: It fell from 49 percent in 2020 to only 25 percent this year.

The crusade is multifaceted and highly charged, with anti-transgender, anti-”woke,” and anti–critical race theory language spewing from every crusader’s mouth. As Politics NYU noted recently, “With newer, more progressive ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and overall societal dynamics becoming more prevalent in the academic space, conservative sects of society, including the GOP, feel attacked. The symbolic figurehead of the modern Republican Party, Donald Trump, put it quite succinctly when he stated in Iowa this past March that he would “prohibit the teaching of ‘critical race theory,’ ‘transgender insanity,’ and ‘any other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content.’” Previous Republican presidents focused on educational outcomes, choice, and “bureaucracy,” but not today.

The crusaders: So how large is the army of crusaders? Not so big, it turns out. Earlier this year, the Washington Post analyzed the data regarding attempts to ban books, and found that just 11 (eleven!) “hyperactive adults” were responsible for the majority of the challenges. “Each of these people brought 10 or more challenges against books in their school district; one man filed 92 challenges. Together, these serial filers constituted 6 percent of all book challengers — but were responsible for 60 percent of all filings.” 

There’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy here. Most of the books being challenged dealt with all aspects of human sexuality, and many of the challengers were associated with Moms for Liberty, whose co-founder was just outed for her participation in a three-way sexual affair with her husband and another woman.

It’s actually a ragtag army marching under many different banners. Some crusaders are motivated by a desire for dollars. The U.S. spends close to $800 billion a year on pre-K-12 public education, money that’s available to those running for-profit charter schools, expensive tutoring programs, and private schools in states with voucher programs, to name only three of the ways to turn a buck.

Some crusaders are motivated by libertarian ideology — nothing that is “public” makes sense to them. Others believe that children “belong to their parents,” who may not want them vaccinated, tested, or exposed to any ideas and beliefs counter to their own. And some — most of them politicians — are opportunists. For instance, the COVID pandemic shutdowns, prolonged in some places, brought out the naysayers in full force; the failure of “virtual learning” in many places created a tidal wave on our teaching force. 

There are two ways to defeat this ragtag but highly motivated army of crusaders: 1) Shout from the rooftops the good news about public schools; and 2) Work even harder to make them better.

Let’s start with the good news about our schools: David Wallace-Wells, writing in the New York Times, recently wrote a thoughtful analysis of American public education. He did a deep dive into the results of the Programme in International Assessment (PISA) test, pre- and post-COVID, testing 15-year-olds around the globe. Because the essay is behind a paywall, I will quote from it at some length here.

“What it shows is quite eye-opening. American students improved their standing among their international peers in all three areas during the pandemic, the data say. Some countries did better than the United States, and the American results do show some areas of concern. But U.S. school policies do not seem to have pushed American kids into their own academic black hole. In fact, Americans did better in relation to their peers in the aftermath of school closures than they did before the pandemic.

“The performance looks even stronger once you get into the weeds a bit. In reading, the average U.S. score dropped just one point, from 505 in 2018 to just 504 in 2022. Across the rest of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average loss was 11 times as large. In Germany, which looked early in the pandemic to have mounted an enviable good-government response, the average reading score fell 18 points; in Britain, the country most often compared with the U.S., it fell 10 points. In Iceland, which had, by many metrics, the best pandemic performance in Europe, it fell 38 points. In Sweden, the darling of mitigation skeptics, it fell 19 points.”

Tell this to the crusaders, and anyone else who seems inclined to believe them!

Elsewhere in his essay, Wallace-Wells makes two telling points about absenteeism and mental health: “Chronic absenteeism, for instance, is up significantly since before the pandemic and may prove a far more lasting and concerning legacy of school closure than learning loss. And the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national mental health emergency — language that has been echoed by the American Medical Association.” 

One conclusion: If you are serious about improving public schools, find out why so many kids skip school regularly — and do something about it. Hint: Absenteeism and mental health are directly connected, the through line being bullying, cyberbully, and cellphones.

2) Making schools better: I’ve been writing throughout the fall about ways to improve public schools. You can find those suggestions on my blog, I learned only recently that the American Federation of Teachers has been at this throughout 2023, in an impressive campaign called “Real Solutions for Real Kids and Communities.” Some of our ideas overlap, and some of what they have already suggested is on my drawing board. I urge you to take a deep dive, because it’s good stuff.

Happy Holidays, and keep the faith.


John Merrow is a former education correspondent for “PBS NewsHour.”


  1. To suggest public schools are under attack is laughable. They are entrenched with lots of money and rage against home schools and private schools and charters. Randi Weingarten is always asking for money and US Education is declining on world stage. It is the Public School system that is the attacker and all the DEI and Critical Race and Trans BS is satanic.

    • Should all public education eradicated?
      Leave the education of all of the children to their parents?
      Stop putting the burden on people with out school age children?

    • andy– I think that perhaps the devil
      is here, but she’s not in the school system.
      I get it —-
      Some people certainly wouldn’t want any
      diversity, equity
      or inclusion in the schools.
      Why tolerate that kind of stuff ?
      And CRT ? yeah, really… why have more
      than one race, or religion, or anything
      that doesn’t fit some peoples’
      definition of what their
      god wants.
      Satanic indeed.

  2. Oh please. Enlighten us with what you think the definition of Critical Race Theory is, why you think it’s satanic, and which public secondary schools use Critical Race Theory. Trans is satanic? What do you think, should we burn them all at the stake? Maybe we can get Merrin and Karras do an exorcism? Just curious, but the most damning thing against our public school system would be if you were a product of it. But I’m guessing no. Some private school will have to take the blame.

    • Critical race theory is the current excuse for those who desire omniscient government control of society. They used to use Marx’s ideas about class exploitation, and now they’ve chosen to rely on CRT, which substitutes race for class. Leftists are pushing its poisonous ideas in education at all levels. Critical pedagogy that teaches that racism is overarching attempts to make black people think of themselves as inferior. The oppressed and the oppressors are the only two classes of people in the eyes of CRT. Whatever the age should be at which students grapple with narratives about a so called racist society, it should be after they’ve properly matured into free thinkers and won’t internalize the teachings into their own sense of self-worth. I attended public schools when we didn’t have such nonsense. My universities were all private. University of San Francisco, NYU and Harvard so that is where I must have been contaminated.

  3. Funny, I’ve worked in almost every school on this island at almost every level, not a single time in the last 10 years has CRT been a subject. Not even a hint of this is of a subject that becomes CRT. There’s no ounce of it being anything but a huge talking point for angry people. Never once has CRT been proposed in the curriculum. This anger is equivalent to someone raging on a street corner that the sky is falling cause it’s raining. It’s incredibly ridiculous, not a single person under college age has seen this subject. The only reason any child would hear of this is from an angry parent or relative

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