Escalating right-wing attacks on public education: economic, political, and racist implications

Bob Sheak, February 13, 2022

bsheak983@gmail.com

Introduction

Public education has been under attack for decades. The attacks are now accelerating. They are rooted in a neoliberal economic policy, long-standing systemic or structural racism, and the stoked fears of many white people about their relative status and the content of education. They interlock. They are yet another assault from the Right on democracy, along with moves to eliminate legal abortion, limit voting and subvert elections, reject the advice of health experts,  deregulate gun laws, and virtually eliminate immigration from South America, the Middle East, and Africa.

There is no doubt that the public education system is already marked by great difficulties. Investigative journalist Laura Meckler states the problem confronting public education as one of “epic proportions” (https://washingtonpost.com/education/2022/01/30/public-education-crisis-enrollment-violence). She identifies the problems as reflecting an anti-public school, racist-infused bias in American government and a long-history of racial discrimination and segregation. She writes:

“For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. Enrollment is down. Absenteeism is up. There aren’t enough teachers, substitutes or bus drivers. Each phase of the pandemic brings new logistics to manage, and Republicans are planning political campaigns this year aimed squarely at failings of public schools.”

In this post, I’ll focus on identifying (1) who generally are represented in the anti-public-school movement; (2) the meaning of structural racism, and (3) current examples of the strategies and tactics utilized by the anti-public-school movement to undermine public education.

#1 – The opposition to public education

Powerful economic forces

Profits first in a “free market”

The interests of many corporations, shareholders, the rich, are opposed to policies that funnel taxpayer money into programs aimed at benefitting the public. They support privatization of public functions whenever there is a potential profit to be made. For example – and the focus of this post – they look for and support policies and programs that open up opportunities to divert funding away from public education to alternative profit-making educational ventures in the private sector.

Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy, Duke University, delves into the economic roots of the school choice or school privatization movement, which is at the heart of the opposition to public education. She presents the highlights from a longer article she wrote that appeared in the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Sept 27, 2021

MacLean traces the roots of the choice and privatization movements back to neoliberal and libertarian ideas in the mid-1950s and the broad defiance in the white South against the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (https://ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/how-milton-friedman-aided-and-abetted-segregationists-in-his-quest-to-privatize-public-education).

The opposition “aimed to block the choice of equal, integrated education for Black families.” Famed right-wing economist Milton Friedman, who in the latter 1950s was “soon to become the best-known neoliberal economist in the world, abetted the push for private schooling that states in the U.S. South used to evade the reach of the ruling, which only applied to public schools.” The opposition also included “other libertarians” such as, “Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Robert Lefevre, Isabel Patterson, Felix Morley, Henry Regnery, trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and the William Volker Fund, which helped underwrite the American wing of the Mont Pelerin Society, the nerve center of neoliberalism.”

According to MacLean, “Friedman and his allies saw in the backlash to the desegregation decree an opportunity they could leverage to advance their goal of privatizing government services and resources. Whatever their personal beliefs about race and racism, they helped Jim Crow survive in America by providing ostensibly race-neutral arguments for tax subsidies to the private schools sought by white supremacists.”

Author Diane Ravitch documents the involvements of rich and powerful people in her articles and books, including in her just published book titled Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Schools. She refers to the big money groups as “disrupters,” including many billionaires, who “are masters of chaos, which they inflict on other peoples’ children, without a twinge of remorse.” They represent a powerful movement of the higher circles “to privatize America’s public schools, to break teachers’ unions, to tear apart communities, and to attack teacher professionalism” (pp. 5-6).

Specifically, there are a host of corporations, shareholders, the rich, and the think-tanks, big banks, hedge funds, private equity firms, foundations, their lobbyists, faux grassroots groups, the right-wing media that support policies aimed at the privatization of public schools through vouchers and charter schools, that give parents “choices” beyond the public schools, and funnel money into the hands of private investors.

They justify such positions by claiming that it gives parents the freedom to chose what schools to send their children, assuming falsely that there are typically viable educational alternatives outside of the public schools. Ravitch writes that “none of their promises and claims” have come true (p. 5). That is, overall, charter schools and other educational options to public schools have failed to improve educational outcomes. For example, “In Ohio, the state spends $1 billion each year on charter schools, which collectively have a dismal academic record. In 2017, Ohio’s charters have a graduation rate of 45 percent, half of the rate in the state’s traditional public schools and 28 percentage points behind the state’s urban districts. Two thirds of Ohio’s charter schools were given grades of D or F by the state in 2018” (p. 136).

In an article published in The New Republic on February 25, 2021, Ravitch writes “those ‘intent on eliminating public schools ‘built donor networks, cultivated political alliances, and churned out ready-made legislation”

(https://newrepublic.com/article/161481/bipartisan-assault-public-schools-betsy-devos-education).

She continues: “A key element in this network-building was the enlistment of billionaires who were enamored of free-market solutions and who opened their wallets to persuade national and state elected officials to inject competition and private-sector solutions into the public education system.” 

In her commentary on a book by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School (2020), Ravitch writes on how free-market ideologues “have kept up a steady stream of ‘reforms’ whose intent is to advance their assault on the schools.”

She continues: “They have demanded cost-cutting and pointed out that the biggest expense in education is teachers’ salaries. Through right-wing think tanks and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by right-wing billionaires like Betsy DeVos and Charles Koch, they have attacked teachers’ unions, professional colleges of education, and the teaching profession. They favor groups like Teach for America that recruit recent [inexperienced] college graduates who promise to stay in the classroom for two years. ALEC is the favorite tool of the free-marketeers. It counts some 2,000 state legislators among its members and invites them to posh destinations, where they get copies of model legislation to introduce in their states on behalf of vouchers, charter schools, and lower standards for teachers.”

“The attack on the legitimacy of public schools seems to be coming from many directions, but the reality is that the same small group of far-right billionaires is in the wings, calling the shots.”

They blame bad choices rather than social structure or systems

They promote the false notion that failed or under-performing schools are caused by lazy and incompetent teachers, poorly designed curricula, and unruly students. They pay no attention to the actual situations of teachers or students, and refuse to acknowledge that many public schools are under-resourced, reflecting the effects of historical and structural inequalities, with some managing to do well anyway.

King’s message is ignored

There is no place for the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. in this narrative. Lesley Henton interviews Texas A&M’s the Ella C. McFadden Professor in Sociology and Distinguished Professor Joe Feagin on this topic. Feagin reminds us that King often discussed how racial equality cannot be achieved without structural change (https://today.tamu.edu/2022/01/15/what-martin-luther-king-jr-said-about-systemic-racism). Feagin puts it this way: “Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke about institutional and systemic racism, saying that true racial equality cannot be reached without ‘radical’ structural changes in society.” He quotes from King’s essay, “A Testament of Hope,” which was included the his1958 book Stride Toward Freedom.”(The topic of structural racism will be taken up later in this post.)

The grassroots critics

So, some tens of millions of the public end up believing that failing schools are, in Social Darwinist terms, the result of the bad decisions by some parents and students and/or the irresponsible life styles and values rather than of larger political and economic forces. Throw in the wild attacks on so-called “incompetent” teachers and teachers’ unions as serving to round out their antipathy and actions against public education. (See the article by Alyssa Bowen and her colleagues on how “dark money” funds many parent groups that oppose critical race theory at: https://truthout.org/articles/many-parent-groups-opposing-masks-and-crt-are-actually-driven-by-dark-monty, and the article by Jasmine Banks who

reports on August 31, 2021 for The Nation on the role of billionaires Charles Koch and his now deceased brother David Koch in the attacks on public education

(https://thenation.com/article/politics/charles-koch-crt-backlash).

But there are also other reasons for why so many whites support and now engage in attacks on the public schools.

The great replacement theory

Many have demographically-connected concerns that soon whites will become a minority in the United States, actually by about 2045, and this development will result in the loss of their privileged standing in the society. From this angle, the attacks on public education convey a long-existent racist animus that goes back to the founding of the country. (There are many books documenting this reality. One excellent source is the edited book by Nicole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein, titled “A New Origin Story: The 1619 Project,” published in 2021.)

Boosting identities in the culture wars

There are also political motives. The attack on public education is part of right-wing efforts to reinvigorate the cultural wars, making public education a political wedge issue that shores up support among mostly whites for the Republican Party, for Trump, for state and local right-wing officials.

This is, in part, accomplished by identifying teachers and schools for punishment that use books or discuss topics that have anything to do with the history of racial oppression in the U.S. – or with sexuality or non-traditional gender roles. So, they are mounting efforts to control school boards, ban topics and books they find offensive, and offer parents and anyone else financial rewards for turning in teachers and school librarians who violate such dubious state laws. (Author and columnist Thomas B. Edsall asks experts about how “Republicans Are Once Again Heating Up the Culture Wars, https://nytimes.com/2021/11/10/opinion/republicans-democrats-crt.html.)

The Religious Right

The religious right also is part of the movement attacking public schools and public education. They want the government to divert “education” money to parochial schools, religiously-oriented charter schools, vouchers that can be used by parents for their children to attend such schools, or for parents to home school their children.

Author Anthea Butler documents how white evangelicals have advanced racist policies going back to pre-Civil War days. The title of her 2021 book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. These efforts violate the constitutional requirement that the state and religion remain separate. The implication is that citizens should be free to choose what they believe about religious and theological questions, and the state should support public, not religiously-oriented, education. (On the separation of church and state, see https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/885/establishment-clause-separation-of-church-and-state.)

The efforts of the multifaceted movement attacking public education have served to undermine the viability of large segments of public education.

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#2 – The meaning of structural racism, one of the central propositions of CRT

In an article for the New England Journal of Medicine, Zinzi D. Bailey, Sc.D., M.S.P.H., Justin M. Feldman, Sc.D., and Mary T. Bassett, M.D., M.P.H. examine how “structural racism” works and consider specifically the health inequities that structural racism produces (https://nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMms2025396).

They point out that there is no “official” definition of structural racism, or of the “closely related concepts of systemic and institutional racism – although multiple definitions have been offered.” At the same time, all definitions “make clear that racism is not simply the result of private prejudices held by individuals,8 but is also produced and reproduced by laws, rules, and practices, sanctioned and even implemented by various levels of government, and embedded in the economic system as well as in cultural and societal norms.3,8 Confronting racism, therefore, requires not only changing individual attitudes, but also, more importantly, transforming and dismantling the policies and institutions that undergird the U.S. racial hierarchy.”

The authors identify, as examples, “three interrelated domains” that are a “legacy of African enslavement and subsequent racial policies, systems, and discrimination, namely: “redlining and racialized residential segregation, mass incarceration and police violence, and unequal medical care.” These domains “share certain cardinal features: harms are historically grounded, involve multiple institutions, and rely on racist cultural tropes.” Bailey and her colleagues review evidence on each of the three “domains.” This is precisely the kind of evidence that the Right wants expunged from public education.

For example, in their examination of “redlining and racialized residential segregation, the authors write:

“Redlining required the cooperation of government; the banking, credit, and real estate industries and private developers; as well as homeowners. Together, these parties helped stoke cultural beliefs that Blacks made bad neighbors whose presence would lower real-estate values and increase crime. Bailey and her colleagues go back to the 1930’s to identify the origin of government-approved racial housing segregation. Here is part of what they write about it.

“The 1933 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a program introduced early in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration “to expand homeownership as a part of recovery from the Great Depression.”8 The program facilitated the continuation of residential segregation by creating maps of at least 239 U.S. cities and “literally drew red lines (hence “redlining”) around communities with large Black populations, flagging them as hazardous investment areas whose residents would not receive HOLC loans. Redlining made mortgages less accessible, rendering prospective Black homebuyers vulnerable to predatory terms, thereby increasing lender profits, reducing access to home ownership, and depriving these communities of an asset that is central to intergenerational wealth transfer. Federal mortgages were declined regardless of home loan officers’ racial views; it was not personal.”

The authors emphasize that connection between residential racial segregation and health outcomes, which “remains a powerful predictor of Black disadvantage.3,5,9 

There is a direct legacy of redlining in health and well-being — preterm birth, cancer, tuberculosis, maternal depression, and other mental health issues occur at higher rates among residents of once-redlined areas.3-5 Plausible mechanisms for the continued health impact of redlining deserve further study, taking into account exposure to environmental toxins (teratogens, carcinogens, air pollutants, etc.) and the sustained physical impact of concentrated psychosocial stressors.5,9-11 Better HOLC neighborhood grades are associated with lower levels of airborne carcinogens and higher levels of tree-canopy coverage (which mitigates air pollutants and heat).12 Predominantly White neighborhoods generally have lower air-pollution levels,13 while higher exposures contribute to asthma and low-birth-weight outcomes in Black communities.14

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#3 – Example of the strategies and tactics to undermine public education

The attacks come mainly from Republicans, including elected officials, appointees to state election-related positions, candidates running for office at all levels of government, at boards of election, and from parents’ groups. Trump’s influence is also apparent. And dark money fuels a lot of it.

Most of these efforts, including the furious and growing opposition to CRT, are aimed at whittling away at the viability and independence of public education. However, there is currently a GOP bill in Alabama that calls for a transformative change in the way education is funded.  

A proposal for the wholesale reduction in financial support for public education

Kenny Stancil reports on a pending Alabama bill that would, if passed, “decapitate public education (https://commondreams.org/news/2022/02/03/critics-say-gop-bill-alabama-would-decapitate-public-education).

Progressive critics are warning that Alabama Republican Sen. Del Marsh’s so-called ‘Parents’ Choice Act’ [S.B. 140], which advanced out of committee on Wednesday, would ‘end state support of public education.’” The bill has now advanced from the Senate Education Policy Committee on February 3 to the full state Senate.

The core component of the bill creates an Education Savings Account (ESA), which “in its fully realized form” gives every child about $6,300 a year which their parent or parents can use “to pay for educational whatever—public school, home school, private school, tutoring, online classes, whatever.” The passage of the Parents’ Choice Act “would siphon off at least $420 million from the state’s Education Trust Fund to pay for the ESAs” – each year, rising with inflation.

Retired teacher Peter Greene posted on his Curmudgucation blog the legislation would throw to the wayside “the egalitarian ideals that have animated public education…in favor of a libertarian fantasy destined to exacerbate inequality.”

The “first ESAs would be available at the start of the 2022-23 school year. It would allow any students who are currently enrolled in public school or in a home school to sign up for an ESA. Applications would be made available May 1 according to the bill.” In 2023-24 the eligible student pool grows to include “students in private schools whose family income does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty level.”  Then in 2024-25, all students become eligible.

Alabama Education Association (AEA) executive director Amy Marlowe called the bill a “mind-blowing” effort to ram through a bill that would transfer public resources to private hands before ‘every line… is properly reviewed and scrutinized.’” She went on to say in a statement shared with the Alabama Political Reporter the following.

“There is a complete lack of transparency regarding this egregious bill by rushing it through committee this week… A bill of this magnitude that would result in more than $420 million cut from the Education Trust Fund rushed through committee without the opportunity for at least a week of scrutiny by the public and the media makes you wonder why Sen. Marsh is in such a hurry to move this bill. By moving this legislation so soon, it does not give time for education leaders and the community to provide their input.”

There is fear that the legislation, if eventually passed, would exacerbate inequality and turn over educational decisions to often uninformed parents. Green is quoted by Stancil, who stresses that the bill would end the state’s involvement with and support of its children.” Here are some of Greene’s concerns.

“We’ve given you a check, and we hereby wash our hands of the whole education thing.” The ultimate form of voucher is not about empowering parents. It’s not even about making vendors a bunch of money. It’s about getting the state out of the education business, about cutting parents and children loose. It’s about ending the collective commitment to and responsibility for educating the next generations.

“Don’t [dismantle education] with this notion of helping people when in fact, it will absolutely decapitate public education.”

As far as the legislation is written, there will be no state oversight or safeguards on how the money is to be spent. There are no supports for families that don’t have the time or resources to search for the right venders or to assure parents about the reliability of vendors. There are other concerns. “What if a parent’s money runs out? What if parents find their choices severely limited because the various edu-vendors won’t accept their child? What if one of their vendors closes shop mid-year, leaving the child stranded? What if the vendor turns out to be a big scam because the state hasn’t properly vetted the eligible vendors? What happens if parents find that the Marketplace is not for them, but in the meantime the local public school has collapsed from the money gutted from it?” 

AEA’s Marlowe argues that “instead of this venture to divert funding from public education, Sen. Marsh’s focus should be on the growing number of educator shortages within Alabama schools and the need for substantial pay raises for current educators who are already going beyond their normal call of duty.”

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Aggressive chipping away to undermine the integrity and independence of public education

ONE – banning critical race theory

Jacy Fortin presents a brief history of critical race theory in an article on November 8, 2021, for the New York Times (https://nytimes.com/article/what-is-critical-race-theory). The theory was developed during the 1980s but it has only recently become a “hot-button political issue.” Before 2021, most Americans had never heard the phrase. But now the term is making news everywhere, despite how little substantively is known about it. 

“It makes national and international headlines and is a target for talking heads. Culture wars over critical race theory have turned school boards into battlegrounds, and in higher education, the term has been tangled up in tenure battles. Dozens of United States [Republican] senators have branded it ‘activist indoctrination.’”

Why is the uproar occurring now? Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at the U.C.L.A. School of Law and Columbia Law School, is the person credited with coining the term. Her answer to this question is that some Republicans have made it controversial by claiming it represents “a subversive set of ideas” by a “well-resourced, highly mobilized coalition of forces.” She points out that “critical race theorists say they are mainly concerned with institutions and systems,” while critics interpret it as casting “racism as a personal characteristic, involving [only] people who practice overt discrimination.”

Fortin also quotes Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii who was an early developer of critical race theory. Matsuda said, “The problem is not bad people. “The problem is a system that reproduces bad outcomes. It is both humane and inclusive to say, ‘We have done things that have hurt all of us, and we need to find a way out.’”

Critical race theorists acknowledge “the stark racial disparities that have persisted

in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms, and they raise structural questions about how racist hierarchies are enforced, even among people with good intentions.”

As Professor Crenshaw puts it, “C.R.T. is more a verb than a noun.”

“‘It is a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced,’ she said, ‘the ways that racial inequality is facilitated, and the ways that our history has created these inequalities that now can be almost effortlessly reproduced unless we attend to the existence of these inequalities.”

Why is this coming up now?

“Last year, after protests over the police killing of George Floyd prompted new conversations about structural racism in the United States, President Donald J. Trump issued a memo to federal agencies that warned against critical race theory, labeling it as ‘divisive,’ followed by an executive order barring any training [in government agencies] that suggested the United States was fundamentally racist.”

Trump’s concern with C.R.T. “seemed to have originated with an interview he saw on Fox News, when Christopher F. Rufo, a conservative scholar now at the Manhattan Institute, [who] told Tucker Carlson about the ‘cult indoctrination’ of critical race theory.” Use of the term and the controversy around it then skyrocketed.

“The Biden administration rescinded Mr. Trump’s order, but by then it had already been made into a wedge issue. Republican-dominated state legislatures have tried to implement similar bans with support from conservative groups, many of whom have chosen public schools as a battleground.”

“According to Professor Crenshaw, opponents of C.R.T. are using a decades-old tactic: insisting that acknowledging racism is itself racist.”

“‘The rhetoric allows for racial equity laws, demands and movements to be framed as aggression and discrimination against white people,’ she said. That, she added, is at odds with what critical race theorists have been saying for four decades.”

In the current debate, the critics of C.R.T. argue that the “theory” accuses all white Americans of being racist and is being used to divide the country. But, as already noted, critical race theorists say they are mainly concerned with understanding the racial disparities that have persisted in institutions and systems.

The debate has turned school boards into battlegrounds as some Republicans say the theory is invading classrooms. Education leaders counter, including the National School Boards Association, say that C.R.T. is not being taught in K-12 schools. However, if it is not, it should be.

Evidence on the poorly informed opposition to CRT

Sociologist Rashawn Ray delves into the question of why states are banning critical race theory (https://brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/07/02/why-are-states-banning-critical-race-theory). He open an article with this fact: “Fox News has mentioned “critical race theory” 1,300 times in less than four months [during the spring of 2021].

He offers his view on what accounts for this upswing, arguing that “critical race theory (CRT) has become a new bogeyman for people unwilling to acknowledge our country’s racist history and how it impacts the present.” Some of the opposition to CRT is based on the unfounded “fear that CRT admonishes all white people for being oppressors while classifying all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims.” It is such fears that “have spurred school boards and state legislatures from Tennessee to Idaho to ban teachings about racism in classrooms.” But, contrary to this “fear,” “CRT does not attribute racism to white people as individuals or even to entire groups of people.”

Ray continues.

“Simply put, critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race. Sociologists and other scholars have long noted that racism can exist without racists.” And: “Scholars and activists who discuss CRT are not arguing that white people living now are to blame for what people did in the past. They are saying that white people living now have a moral responsibility to do something about how racism still impacts all of our lives today.”

Nonetheless, Ray points out, “many Americans are not able to separate their individual identity as an American from the social institutions that govern us—these people perceive themselves as the system. Consequently, they interpret calling social institutions racist as calling them racist personally. It speaks to how normative racial ideology is to American identity that some people just cannot separate the two. There are also people who may recognize America’s racist past but have bought into the false narrative that the U.S. is now an equitable democracy. They are simply unwilling to remove the blind spot obscuring the fact that America is still not great for everyone.”

Ray did an assessment of anti-CRT state legislation to “better understand how widespread these efforts are to ban critical race theory from U.S. classrooms. Here’s some of what they found. (He includes an appendix that provides detailed information.)

“Nine states (Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, and North Dakota) have passed legislation. Arizona’s legislation was overturned in November by the Arizona Supreme Court.

None of the state bills that have passed even actually mention the words “critical race theory” explicitly, with the exception of Idaho and North Dakota.

“The legislations mostly ban the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression. These parameters also extend beyond race to include gender lectures and discussions.

“State actors in Montana and South Dakota have denounced teaching concepts associated with CRT. The state school boards in Florida, Georgia, Utah, and Alabama introduced new guidelines barring CRT-related discussions. Local school boards in Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia also criticized CRT.

“Nearly 20 additional states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation.”

The implications are foreboding.

“Laws forbidding any teacher or lesson from mentioning race/racism, and even gender/sexism, would put a chilling effect on what educators are willing to discuss in the classroom and provide cover for those who are not comfortable hearing or telling the truth about the history and state of race relations in the United States.”

Ray concludes: “Ultimately, we cannot employ colorblind ideology in a society that is far from colorblind. Everyone sees it, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not. As I [Ray] wrote in a previous Brookings article on whether the U.S. is a racist country, systemic racism can explain racial disparities in police killings, COVID-19, and the devaluing of homes in Black neighborhoods. If we love America, we should want it to be the best it can be. Rather than run from the issue of racism in America, we should confront it head on. Our kids and country will be better for it.”

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The backlash against C.R.T. may show that Republicans are losing ground

Columnist Jamelle Bouie adds to the coverage of the attacks on “critical race theory” and also refers to evidence that Republicans are losing ground in the controversy in an article published in the  New York Times on Feb 4, 2022 (https://nytimes.com/2022/01/04/opinion/crt-backlash-du-bois.html).

Bouie refers to the evidence of such attacks from an analysis by Education Week, which evidenced how, since January 2021, “Republican lawmakers in 37 states have introduced dozens of bills to restrict teaching on the subject of race and racism under the guise of opposition to ‘critical race theory.’” He continues: “In 14 states, restrictions have either passed into law or been imposed through either executive action or on the authority of a state education commission. One such law, passed in Texas, prohibits teaching that ‘slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.’”

The evidence of this “frenzy,” which includes state lawmakers, is that “any attempt to teach an accurate history of racism in the United States is placed under hostile scrutiny. Educators accused of indoctrinating students with ‘critical race theory’ have reported threats and physical harassment, and some schools — in Alabama, for example — are now defending their Black History Month programs from similar accusations of subversion.”

Bouie’s major point, though, is positive. He thinks that the “urgency” with which the anti-CRT groups are acting is “an admission, however tacit, that something has changed, and conservatives are on the losing end of that transformation. Where once they were an establishment…now they are on the defensive.” He adds:

“Put simply, the people and institutions behind the bans on critical race theory’ are fighting a rear-guard action, and they know it.”

We’ll have a better idea of whether Bouie’s analysis is correct when we have the results of the 2022 and 2024 elections.

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Two – Banning “divisive” topics from being discussed in the public-school classroom and banning what right-wingers view as objectionable books.

Sarah Schwartz and Eesha Pendharkar compile a growing list of the topics that Republican officials and activists want banned from the classroom. They published their evidence on Education Weekly on February 2, 2022 (https://edweek.org/policy-politics/heres-the-long-list-of-topics-republicans-want-banned-from-the-classroom/2022/02).

The bans began accelerating in early 2021, “as a conservative effort to prohibit teachers from talking about diversity and inequality in so-called ‘divisive’ ways or taking sides on ‘controversial’ issues has now expanded to include proposed restrictions on teaching that the United States is a racist country, that certain economic or political systems are racist, or that multiple gender identities exist.” The documentation of these right-wing efforts is based on “an Education Week analysis of 61 new bills and other state-level actions.”

They continue: “At least 10 state have proposed bills that would require administrators to list every book, reading, and activity that teachers use in their lessons, a process that educators argue would be cumbersome and expensive. Some of these bills also require districts to give parents prior right of review for new curriculum adoptions or library additions.” Moreover, “These laws and orders, combined with local actions to restrict certain types of instruction, now impact more than one out of every three children in the country, according to a recent study from UCLA.”

Many of the bills “propose withholding funding from school districts that don’t comply with these regulations.” Some, though, would go further and allow parents to sue individual educators who provide banned material to students, potentially collecting thousands of dollars.

In interviews with Education Week, state representatives said these new bills are designed to prevent teachers from telling children what to think, encouraging them to see divisions, or asking them to adopt perspectives that are different from those of their parents on issues like policing, Black Lives Matter, gender identity, and human sexuality.”

Schwartz and Pendharkar report further that “[i]n some cases, these bills would allow parents to challenge school districts and individual educators directly in court and collect damages.” For example, “A bill in Oklahoma would require individual educators to personally pay up to $10,000 in damages if parents find them to be teaching ‘critical race theory.’”

A proposed bill in Missouri, would allow parents to “collect up to $5,000 from a school district per violation, if the district doesn’t provide lists of all materials used and honor parents’ requests to review materials or opt out their children.”

Heather Fleming, the founder of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership, “worries that this bill and others like it could have a chilling effect on teachers if signed into law. The proposed legislation suggests that teachers are spreading messages in public schools that families should object to.” It also gives preference to the views of white parents over others. Fleming, who is black, continues: “They’re packaging some of these laws as ‘parents’ bill of rights.’ What parents? Because my daughter is entitled to see her culture and her heroes, people who look like her, in the curriculum, too.’”

Schwartz and Pendharkar report that many schools already have procedures that give parents information about what is being taught and what books are in the library.  “Most school libraries also have a procedure in place for parents who want certain materials reconsidered, she said. The ALA recommends that libraries put such a policy in place, she added, and provides a toolkit that can help them craft one.”

Regarding in-class reading, “teachers usually share the outlines of a course, but they’re less likely to post a list of every worksheet a student might do or every in-class reading they might assign, said Marc Turner, the president-elect of the South Carolina Council for the Social Studies, and a high school teacher. But, he added, there’s a reason why this isn’t common practice.

“Most teachers aren’t just using a textbook, [but] instead pulling from a lot of different sources to craft their lessons. And these plans often change day to day and week to week, especially during the pandemic when school schedules are so often disrupted.”

The downside: “A requirement that teachers post all of the materials they use could encourage district leaders to standardize teachers’ lessons out of caution, potentially sacrificing the opportunities for critical thinking that students gain when they can compare the perspective of multiple sources, Turner said.”

Such restrictions also ignore “the professional training and judgment of librarians and educators, who have detailed protocols for selecting resources,” and give any parent the right to make decisions for school libraries that serve entire, diverse communities,” and not only the biased or uninformed grievances of some parents, some of whom may be motivated only by the potential “reward” money.

In an article published in The New York Times, journalists Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter also report on how book ban efforts related to racial and gender issues are spreading across the U.S. (https://nytimes.com/2022/01/30/books-ban-us-school.html). They cite evidence from a preliminary report last fall by the American Library Association: “it had received an ‘unprecedented’ 330 reports of book challenges, each of which can include multiple books.” Harris and Alter quote Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of the free-speech organization PEN America, “It’s a pretty startling phenomenon here in the United States to see book bans back in style, to see efforts to press criminal charges against school librarians.”

Book issues “have long been a staple of school board meetings,” they write, “but it isn’t just their frequency that has changed, according to educators, librarians and free-speech advocates — it is also the tactics behind them and the venues where they play out.” Now, “Conservative groups in particular, fueled by social media, are…pushing the challenges into statehouses, law enforcement and political races.”

The issue has been politicized, according to “Britten Follett, the chief executive of content at Follett School Solutions, one of the country’s largest providers of books to K-12 schools. He told Harris and Alter, “It’s being driven by legislation, it’s being driven by politicians aligning with one side or the other.

As the book- and topic-banning movement gains momentum, the end result is that the librarian, teacher or educator is under additional, often unfounded and arbitrary pressure, conversation and learning in the classroom is severely limited, and the right-wing is given another issue on which to challenge – and undermine – a critically important societal institution. On the latter point, Harris and Alter give examples of political leaders on the right who have seized on the controversies over books. For example, “The newly elected governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, rallied his supporters by framing book bans as an issue of parental control.”

Despite the book and topic banning efforts of the Right, no criminal charges against librarians and educators have succeeded in court, “as law enforcement officials in Florida, Wyoming and elsewhere have found no basis for criminal investigations. And courts have generally [so far] taken the position that libraries should not remove books from circulation.”

When all is said and done, however, “the threat of having to defend against charges is enough to get many educators to censor themselves by not stocking the books to begin with. Even just the public spectacle of an accusation can be enough.”

On the site Find Law, Richard Dahl considers what the law has to say about the rise in book banning efforts (https://findlaw.com/legalblogs/law-and-life/book-banning-efforts-are-on-the-rise-what-does-the-law-say). The article was published on January 6, 2022. He writes: “What began as a debate last year over the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ expanded to include a broader examination of school curricula and the library books available to students.” Dahl gives some examples.

“In Texas, Republican state Rep. Matt Krause asked state school districts to report whether they have any of 850 books that he compiled on a list, including the number of copies, where they are located, and how much the school district paid for them. He also asked that the school districts go further and identify any other books on their shelves that contain ‘material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.’”

———————

Three – Rewarding parents or others for identifying teachers who teach lessons contradicting a student’s religion or anything else

The assault by lawmakers on teachers keeps on expanding their attacks, as reported by Chris Walker for Truthout on February 3, 2022 (https://truthout.org/articles/lawmaker-wants-teachers-punished-for-lessons-contradicting-students-religion). Walker refers to how Oklahoma Sen. Rob Standridge (R) is proposing a new bill, Senate Bill 1470, “that could levy fines on teachers whose lessons promote positions that are in opposition to a student’s religious beliefs.” Walker goes on.

“The bill would allow parents and guardians of students in Oklahoma’s public schools to file complaints against teachers whose lessons are ‘in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students.’ Because the language of the legislation is incredibly vague, it essentially allows parents to file complaints if they disagree with a lesson’s content for any reason.”

The bill would give teachers and schools the chance to respond to parental complaints, but if a teacher chooses not to adjust the curriculum according to the complaint, they could be fined $10,000 for every objectionable lesson they teach. And the fines are to be paid out of the teacher’s “personal resources. “If that teacher receives outside help to pay the fine — say, from a crowdfunding campaign, or from a family member or friend — it would violate the terms of the statute, resulting in the teacher automatically being fired from their position. The teacher would also be barred from teaching in the state for the next five years.”

Walker refers to how author and journalist Hemant Mehta responds to the Oklahoma bill.

“A biology teacher who explains evolution could be ratted out by a Creationist who’s failing science class. A health teacher who educates students about different forms of birth control won’t be in that classroom for very long if an abstinence-promoting teenager is on the roster. A history teacher who correctly describes the Founding Fathers as a mix of religious and non-religious individuals could be a target of conservative evangelicals.”

Under a previous bill introduced by Standridge in late 2021, public school libraries in Oklahoma would be banned from carrying any books that a parent might complain about and “schools would be fined $10,000 per day if they failed to act after a complaint was made. The school librarian would also be fired and prohibited from working in a public-school setting for the next two years.”

Concluding thoughts

Right-wing forces in government, politics, and the higher circles of big business, want to weaken all aspects of public education and support policies that would reduce or divert public education funds away from public education to private educational ventures. For example, author Derek W. Black, the Ernest F. Hollings Chair of Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina, writes this about the money being spent in his 2020 book titled School House Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.

“The amount of money they [opponents/critics of public education] are pumping into political campaigns and lobbying efforts to ‘fundamentally transform’ American education is unheard of – hundreds of millions of dollars from the Koch brothers’ political network alone. From governors’ races and statewide referenda to school board races and local policies, they have made decreased public education funding and increasing charters and vouchers their top issues” (p. 19)

The Republican Party is significantly dependent on Trump’s mass following, so Trump and his base have significant, if not determinative, influence on the Party and the policy stands they advance.

Many parts of the Base are anxious about the potential lose of relative status as the demographics of the country favor the growth of non-white people. They have also become a force against public education, as they aggressively agitate for parental rights over teacher’s professional training and experience, including the elimination of classroom discussions of any disturbing aspects of “race” and “gender” topics, as well as the parental rights to decide which books are suitable to have in school libraries or classrooms.

It’s not all grim. Consider two points.

First, the concern that we should strive to have good public schools goes back the founders of the country. Derek W. Black’s research finds that public education was embedded in the ideal image of the nation our founders hoped to create. “Before the United States had a constitution, our founders believed the nation needed a public education system” (p. 54). Why?

“From the first days, the nation’s theory of governance depended on educated citizens. The founders feared that democracy without education would devolve into mob rule, open doors to unscrupulous politicians, and encourage hucksters to take advantage of citizens even as they stood in line to vote” (p. 12).

John Adams served as the nation’s first vice president and second president. But as early as 1765, he had “begun making the case for public education and tying it to independence – a decade prior to the Declaration of Independence” (p. 55). Adams also wrote: “The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of the rich men in the country” (p. 55).

This idea of the desirability of public education is deeply rooted in the U.S. history and culture. Black recounts the subsequent history of public education’s ups and downs through his book. We are now in a decidedly downward phase that may or may not be stoppable.

Second, there is “resistance” against the attacks on public education and for a viable, equitable, and equal public school system. Education expert Diane Ravitch (cited earlier) identifies who makes up the resistance and what its’ central ideas and goals are in her book, Slaying Goliath: Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Schools.

She answers the question of who belongs to the resistance as follows.

“Members of the Resistance have some genuine connection to education as teachers, administrators, students, parents or grandparents of students, graduates of public schools, scholars, religious leaders who believe in the separation of church and state, citizens who recognize that public schools are an essential foundation stone of a democracy society” (p. 52).

There are also teachers who are willing to join unions, strike for better salaries and working conditions. Legal scholar and teacher Derek W. Black gives an example in his book, School House Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, of the rising militancy of some teachers. Here’s a bit of what Black writes.

“In the spring of 2018, teachers across the nation wages a full-scale revolt, shutting down public schools and marching to state capitals in the reddest of red states. From West Virginia and Kentucky to Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers went on strike over the condition of public education. Stagnant and depressed teacher salaries were the initial focal point, but as the protests spread, it became clear that teachers were marching for far more than their own salaries. They were marching for school supplies, school services, class sizes, and more. They were marching for states to reverse the massive budget cuts of the past decade and stop funneling more resources into charters and vouchers. Families and students were right beside them, both in body and spirit. Deep in the heart of red country, three out of four voters said they saw quality gaps between schools, and wanted states to close them, Nationally, only 6 percent said teachers’ salaries are too high, and 73 percent said they would support their teachers if they went on strike” (pp. 23-24)

Their central ideas

Ravitch refers to “several central ideas of the resistance. First, it opposes the privatization of schools. Second, it opposes the misuse and overuse of standardized testing. Third, it respects the teaching profession and believes that teachers and other school staff should have appropriate professional compensation. Fourth, it wants public schools to have the resources for the children they enroll. Fifth, it wants public schools to cultivate the job of learning and teaching. Sixth, it places the needs of children and the value of knowledge above the whims and theories of politicians and philanthropists. Last, it understands that students’ lives are influenced by conditions outside the control of the schools, including their access to good housing, medical care, nutrition, and safe neighborhoods” (p. 52).

In closing, let us be grateful for those who work in the public schools to educate our children and to provide other important services.

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