What ‘government schools’ critics really mean by Katherine Stewart

Roots of the phrase lie not in libertarianism economics but in Confederate rebellion

This op-ed first appeared in The New York Times on July 31 and is reprinted with permission.

By Katherine Stewart

When President Trump proposed his budget for “school choice,” which would cut more than $9 billion in overall education spending but put more resources into charter schools and voucher programs, he promised to take a sledgehammer to what he has called “failing government schools.”

That is harsh language for the places most of us call public schools, and where nearly 90 percent of American children get their education. But in certain conservative circles, the phrase “government schools” has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous.

What most people probably hear in this is the unmistakable refrain of American libertarianism, for which all government is big and bad. The point of calling public schools “government schools” is to conjure the specter of pathologically inefficient, power-mad bureaucrats. Accordingly, right-wing think tanks like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Heartland Institute and the Acton Institute have in recent years published screeds denouncing “the command and control mentality” of “government schools” that are “prisons for poor children.” All of these have received major funding from the family of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, either directly or via a donor group.

Friedman’s legacy

The libertarian tradition is indebted, above all, to the Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who published a hugely influential 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education.” A true believer in the power of free markets to solve all of humanity’s problems, Friedman argued that “government schools” are intrinsically inefficient and unjustified. He proposed that taxpayers should give money to parents and allow them to choose where to spend education dollars in a marketplace of freely competing private providers. This is the intellectual foundation of DeVos’s voucher proposals.

But the attacks on “government schools” have a much older, darker heritage. They have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism — and those roots are still visible today.

Before the Civil War, the South was largely free of public schools. That changed during Reconstruction, and when it did, a former Confederate Army chaplain and a leader of the Southern Presbyterian Church, Robert Lewis Dabney, was not happy about it. An avid defender of the biblical “righteousness” of slavery, Dabney railed against the new public schools. In the 1870s, he inveighed against the unrighteousness of taxing his “oppressed” white brethren to provide “pretended education to the brats of black paupers.” For Dabney, the root of the evil in “the Yankee theory of popular state education” was democratic government itself, which interfered with the liberty of the slaver South.

Secular culture

One of the first usages of the phrase “government schools” occurs in the work of an avid admirer of Dabney’s, the Presbyterian theologian A. A. Hodge. Less concerned with black paupers than with immigrant papist hordes, Hodge decided that the problem lay with public schools’ secular culture. In 1887, he published an influential essay painting “government schools” as “the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of antisocial nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.”

But it would be a mistake to see this strand of critique of “government schools” as a curiosity of America’s sectarian religious history. In fact, it was present at the creation of the modern conservative movement, when opponents of the New Deal welded free-market economics onto bible-based hostility to the secular-democratic state. The key figure was an enterprising Congregationalist minister, James W. Fifield Jr., who resolved during the Depression to show that Christianity itself proved “big government” was the enemy of progress.

Drawing heavily on donations from oil, chemical and automotive tycoons, Fifield was a founder of a conservative free-market organization, Spiritual Mobilization, that brought together right-wing economists and conservative religious voices — created a template for conservative think tanks. Fifield published the work of midcentury libertarian thinkers Ludwig von Mises and his disciple Murray Rothbard and set about convincing America’s Protestant clergy that America was a Christian nation in which government must be kept from interfering with the expression of God’s will in market economics.


Someone who found great inspiration in Fifield’s work, and who contributed to his flagship publication, Faith and Freedom, was the Calvinist theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony. An admirer, too, of both Hodge and Dabney, Rushdoony began to advocate a return to “biblical” law in America, or “theonomy,” in which power would rest only on a spiritual aristocracy with a direct line to God — and a clear understanding of God’s libertarian economic vision.

Rushdoony took the attack on modern democratic government right to the schoolhouse door. His 1963 book, The Messianic Character of American Education, argued that the “government school” represented “primitivism” and “chaos.” Public education, he said, “basically trains women to be men” and “has leveled its guns at God and family.”

These were not merely abstract academic debates. The critique of “government schools” passed through a defining moment in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, when orders to desegregate schools in the South encountered heavy resistance from white Americans. Some districts shut down public schools altogether; others promoted private “segregation academies” for whites, often with religious programming, to be subsidized with tuition grants and voucher schemes. Dabney would surely have approved.

Many of Friedman’s successors in the libertarian tradition have forgotten or distanced themselves from the midcentury moment when they formed common cause with the Christian right. As for Friedman himself, the great theoretician of vouchers, he took pains to insist that he abhorred racism and opposed race-based segregation laws — though he also opposed federal laws that prohibited discrimination.

Rearmed Christian right

Among the supporters of the Trump administration, the rhetoric of “government schools” has less to do with economic libertarianism than with religious fundamentalism. It is about the empowerment of a rearmed Christian right by the election of a man whom the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. calls evangelicals’ “dream president.” We owe the new currency of the phrase to the likes of Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council — also bankrolled in its early years by the DeVos family — who, in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing same-sex marriage, accused “government schools” of indoctrinating students “in immoral sexuality.” Or the president of the group Liberty Counsel, Anita Staver, who couldn’t even bring herself to call them “schools,” preferring instead to bemoan “government indoctrination camps” that “threaten our nation’s very survival.”

When these people talk about “government schools,” they want you to think of an alien force, and not an expression of democratic purpose. And when they say “freedom,” they mean freedom from democracy itself.

Katherine Stewart is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.

Freedom From Religion Foundation