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Can We Stop the Republican War on Public Schools?
There is no more powerful urge humans can experience than to protect and defend our children. For most people it beats hunger, sex, and money…
“Those who control the present, control the past; and those who
control the past control the future.” —George Orwell, 1984
I remember when the USSR launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth. It was the fall of 1957, I was six years old, and my dad and I watched it arc over our house from our back yard one clear October night. My best friend’s father, a ham radio operator, let us listen on his shortwave radio to the “beep beep beep” it was emitting when it was over North America. I’d never seen my dad so rattled.
That dramatic technological achievement lit a major fire under the Eisenhower administration and Congress. In his January 27, 1958 State of the Union address, Republican President Eisenhower pointed to Sputnik and demanded Congress fund a dramatic transformation of America’s educational system:
“With this kind of all-inclusive campaign, I have no doubt that we can create the intellectual capital we need for the years ahead, invest it in the right places--and do all this, not as regimented pawns, but as free men and women!”
In less than a year Congress wrote and passed the National Defense Education Act that poured piles of money into our schools and rolled out programs for gifted kids.
I was lucky enough to be enrolled in one of those in 1959: by the time I left elementary school I was functioning at high school and college levels in math, science, and English. I’d had two years of foreign language and two years of experimental music instruction. IQ tests were all the rage: mine was 141 and my best friend, Terry, was 142, something he never let me forget.
Most all of those programs died over the following decades as a result of Reagan’s war on public schools, which began with his bringing private religious school moguls like Jerry Falwell and bigots like Bill Bennett into the White House.
Repudiating Eisenhower’s embrace of public education, Reagan put Bennett in charge of the Department of Education, which Reagan had campaigned on shutting down altogether. Bennett is probably best known for defending his proclamation that:
“If you wanted to reduce crime you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every Black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”
Much like Bennett back in the day, the catch phrase among white supremacists and their fellow travelers today is that “Western Civilization” is either under attack or at risk because we teach history, tolerance, and critical thinking skills in our public schools, which are often racially integrated. The answer, Republicans will tell you, is to defund our public schools.
When Reagan was elected in 1980, the federal share of total education spending in America was 12 percent; when he left office in disgrace in 1989 amid “Iran/Contra” rumors he’d cut a deal with the Iranians to keep the American hostages to screw Jimmy Carter, that share had collapsed to a mere 6 percent. (It’s 3 percent today.)
Reagan also wanted to amend the Constitution to allow mandatory school prayer, and unsuccessfully proposed a national tax credit — a sort of tax-system-based national voucher system — that parents could use to send their kids to religious schools like Falwell’s.
Ever since Reagan’s presidency, the core of Republican positions on public education have been five-fold:
1. Let white students attend schools that are islands of white privilege where they don’t have to confront the true racial history of America,
2. Use public money to support private, for-profit, and religious schools that can accomplish this (and cycle some of that money back to Republican politicians),
3. Destroy public schools’ teachers’ unions,
4. End the teaching of science, critical thinking, evolution, and sex ed, and,
5. Bring fundamentalist Christianity into the classroom.
Earlier this year, Republican Senator Marco Rubio called America’s public school system a “cesspool of Marxist indoctrination.”
“Dangerous academic constructs like critical race theory and radical gender theory are being forced on elementary school children,” Rubio wrote for the American Conservative magazine, adding, “We need to ensure no federal funding is ever used to promote these radical ideas in schools.”
There is no more powerful urge humans can experience than to protect and defend our children. For most people it beats hunger, sex, and money. So if you’re a politician looking for an issue to motivate voters, just tell them their children are under attack. It’s cynical, but effective.
In an interview for Semafor, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid it out:
“I tell the story often — I get asked ‘Who’s the most dangerous person in the world? Is it Chairman Kim, is it Xi Jinping?’ The most dangerous person in the world is [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten. It’s not a close call. If you ask, ‘Who’s the most likely to take this republic down?’ It would be the teacher’s unions, and the filth that they’re teaching our kids…”
Just a few months ago, Donald Trump laid out his plan to deal with the “major problem” America is facing: “[W]e have ‘pink-haired communists teaching our kids.’”
Turning the Constitution upside down and arguing the Founders intended to protect teaching schoolchildren religion, Trump elaborated, arguing that mixing religion, politics, and education was the intention of that document:
“The Marxism being preached in our schools is also totally hostile to Judeo-Christian teachings, and in many ways it’s resembling an established new religion. We can’t let that happen. For this reason, my administration will aggressively pursue intentional violations to the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the Constitution.”
As Jonathan Chait wrote for New York magazine:
“More ominously, at every level of government, Republicans have begun to act on these beliefs. Over the past three years, legislators in 28 states have passed at least 71 bills controlling what teachers and students can say and do at school. A wave of library purges, subject-matter restrictions, and potential legal threats against educators has followed.”
This isn’t the first time elected officials have used public education as a political weapon. In 1844, 25 people died and over 100 were severely injured in riots in Philadelphia over whether there should be daily Bible readings in that city’s schools. Two churches and several city blocks of homes were burned to the ground.
The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 didn’t provoke riots, but was a major event in the history of public education. Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was charged and convicted of the crime of teaching evolution. Mississippi and Arkansas joined Tennessee in passing laws making such instruction a crime that stood until the 1967 repeal of the Butler Act.
While Republican Glen Youngkin successfully rode a wave of white outrage about Critical Race Theory to the governor’s office in Virginia, polls suggest the issue is really only meaningful to a fragment of the American electorate: a subset of Republican voters.
The annual PRRI American Values Survey found:
“Americans overwhelmingly favor teaching children history that includes both the good and bad aspects of our history so that they can learn from the past, versus refraining from teaching aspects of history that could make them feel uncomfortable or guilty about what their ancestors did in the past (92% vs. 5%).
“There are no substantial partisan differences, though Republicans favor excluding aspects of history slightly more (7%) than Democrats and Independents (both 4%). There are few differences across religious traditions or demographics. This consensus holds up across different levels of exposure to critical race theory: 92% of those who have heard a lot about critical race theory, 94% of those who have heard a little, and 93% of those who have heard nothing about it state that we should teach children the good and bad of history.”
Nonetheless, they note:
“[A] majority of Republicans (54%), compared with 27% of independents and only 7% of Democrats, believe that teachers and librarians are indoctrinating children.”
America spent $794.7 billion on primary education last year. For-profit private schools and churches that run schools look at that pile of money and drool. Republicans are committed to delivering as much of it to them as possible, regardless of the damage it does to our nation’s schoolchildren.
Their strategy for privatizing our public schools is pretty straightforward, and echoes the plan of action Republicans are using right now to replace real Medicare with the privatized Medicare Advantage scam.
First, they falsely claim that they’ll deliver a better product at a lower cost. In the education realm, we see this with Florida and several other Red states now offering vouchers that can be used at private or religious schools to every student in the state.
(Nearly 2,300 private schools in Florida accept vouchers, but “69 percent are unaccredited, 58 percent are religious, and nearly one-third are for-profit.”)
As more and more students use the vouchers to flee public schools, the public schools sink into deeper and deeper financial troubles. Those cut the quality of teaching and upkeep of the school buildings, causing even more students to use the vouchers.
Because the vouchers never cover the full cost of private school tuition (typically they pay for half to two-thirds), the truly poor can’t use them: the result is the public school system becomes ghettoized, leading to even more flight by middle- and upper-class (white) people.
Once the public schools are dead and the state has transitioned entirely to private schools, the state will claim budget problems and begin to dial back the amounts available for vouchers. (The same will happen with Medicare Advantage once real Medicare is dead.)
This will widen the relationship between the educational and wealth divides; the racial and class cleavage will become so great that the state will have effectively gone back to a “separate but equal” educational system. Which, of course, is the GOP’s goal.
Republicans are generally convinced that when people have a good, well-rounded education they will vote for Democrats, who explicitly value science and egalitarian social values. Thus, keeping our kids ignorant and destroying one of America’s largest unions, all while helping their education and religion industry friends get rich, is a complete win-win.
As conservative commentator Benjamin Weingarten writes:
“Red states are increasingly engaging in a broad push to purge public institutions of a Wokeness antithetical to the values and principles of their constituents…
“Yet at root, it is the schools — where our children spend much of their waking hours — that have disproportionate influence over American society, seeding every other institution that has succumbed to left-wing ideological capture. …
“It is incumbent on lawmakers and their appointees to use every lever of power they can, within every educational institution under their purview, to combat the divisiveness and forcible conformity engendered by DEI, CRT, and the like and to replace it with a system rooted in the values and principles on which Western civilization is based.”
Much of this battle is playing out in state houses around the country, but there’s a huge and well-funded effort to take control of local school boards as well. David Pepper has a great post in his Pepperspectives Substack newsletter about how to spot the extremists and GOP shills at election time.
Bottom line: the Republican war on public education is real, and if we want to stop it we must get involved.
Lobby your state legislators and either run for your local school board or support good people who are.
Our children’s and grandchildren’s futures are literally at stake.