Republican politicians and the rightwing billionaires who fund them want a nation of uneducated, compliant serfs in their workforce, not a nation of well-educated union-conscious people who are willing to strike to get better pay and benefits.
Which means Job One is to get America’s kids out of the clutches of those evil unionized teachers. Education, after all, is a liberal value. The conservative vision is “quality education for the children of the wealthy, while ending child labor laws for all the rest.”
And they’re getting their way.
Florida and Arizona are well on the way to destroying their entire systems of public education with statewide private school voucher programs available to every child.
This June, Oklahoma approved the use of public-school taxpayer funds to pay for kids’ attendance at a private Catholic charter school: it’s the first explicitly taxpayer-funded religious school in modern America and a clear violation of America’s founding principle of the separation of church and state.
Meanwhile, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed legislation gutting that state’s prohibition on child labor. Now 14-year-olds can skip school and go straight to work at their local slaughterhouse.
Eight other Republican-controlled states have similar legislation pending.
Florida and Texas have approved animated cartoons produced by a hate radio talk-show host (with big bucks from fossil fuel billionaires) that reinvent Frederick Douglass as an opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement and downplay the role of fossil fuels in our climate emergency.
Last year, DeSantis’ Florida moved an estimated $1.3 billion in taxpayer money originally destined for public schools to pay for private school vouchers. This gutted public school budgets across the state by roughly 10 percent.
Florida is not unique in this: it’s happening in Red states all across the nation. Public education in about half of America is in a crisis and has been for some time. It’s a crisis Republicans across the country are doing everything they can to make worse.
In many ways today’s conservative war on public education dates back to the 1950s when, in 1954’s Brown v Board decision, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must allow Black children to sit in the same classrooms with white children.
This so outraged white conservatives that public schools were shut down altogether in some states and counties, and private, all-white “academies“ were opened, many by religious figures, across the nation.
It was the beginning of a concerted, 75-year-long assault on public education that has now expanded from “whites only” schools to “rich and whites only.”
Because public education is the number-one driver of social and economic mobility, it has become the archenemy of conservatives who believe the “lower classes” should know their place and stay there.
The Republican war against public education moved from being purely about race to incorporating an ideological rationalization with the 1980 effort by billionaire David Koch to run for vice president on the Libertarian ticket.
Koch’s platform said of public schools:
“We advocate the complete separation of education and State. Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”
Thus was set the formula that billionaires from David Koch in that era to Betsy DeVos in this day use to push for the destruction of public education. It works this way:
— Privatize public schools through charter schools and by offering vouchers to pay private school tuition.
— Withhold funding from public schools while pouring voucher cash into these new, private entities.
— Expand the nationwide propaganda campaign that public education is failing and/or is an instrument of an oppressive state.
— As public schools become starved of cash, use that crisis to destroy their teachers’ unions and ultimately to shut many of them down altogether.
— Once most primary and secondary schools have collapsed and the teachers’ unions are broken, begin to dial back money available through vouchers, so poor people must use special “cheaper” schools designed just for them.
— Over time cut back voucher funding so, just as Reaganomics has done with our colleges, low-income people have to borrow from banks to send their kids to good schools.
This is not a new model: Reagan began the process with colleges, from substandard junior colleges for low-income people to throwing average Americans who wanted to attend a good college into a $1.8 trillion debt hole.
It’s not even a unique conservative model just for education: we’re halfway through it with Medicare. George W. Bush introduced the Medicare Advantage scam in 2003, and now half of American seniors are routinely having their medical payments denied by these private plans.
Once they’ve destroyed Medicare altogether (probably within a decade) the “good deals” with things like dental and vision coverage available to people buying into the private Advantage plans will evaporate and America’s elderly will be right back where they were before Medicare was created by LBJ in 1965: on their own with private, for-profit insurance companies routinely denying healthcare.
There have been attempts to block GOP efforts to destroy public schools, but in most cases the billionaires got out ahead of them and shut them down.
In 2018, for example, in an effort to stop the GOP’s creeping privatization of public education in their state, parents in Arizona got a measure to save their schools on the ballot. Voters statewide overwhelmingly rejected an expansion of vouchers and charter schools in that state.
In response, Republicans in control of Arizona’s legislature passed the nation’s first statewide voucher program, rejecting the will of the voters and shoving privatized education down the state’s parents’ throats. DeSantis did the same in Florida last year. It’s a cruel scam but an effective one.
The strategy is simple and Republicans have been running it in Red states since the 1980s. Once public education is destroyed, over time the vouchers will be cut back to represent a smaller and smaller fraction of the cost of private education. Parents will have to cough up more and more, just like what happened with college tuition between 1980 and today.
And because most parents won’t be able to pay for private schools, they’ll send their kids to the remaining public schools that have been essentially ghettoized: starved of resources and barely limping along.
This, in turn, will further stratify and rigidify the class structure of American society, cementing the generational advantages of the morbidly rich and the generational disadvantages of the poor and working classes.
This is intentional: a core tenet of conservative ideology is the belief that society must be structured with “classes and orders.” Russell Kirk kicked it off in 1952 with his book The Conservative Mind, as I detail at length in my book on the American oligarchy.
Reflecting the neo-Calvinist belief that great wealth is a sign of their god’s blessing, wealthy conservatives have argued for centuries that society should be run by the rich and virtuous — and the rest of us should shut up and quietly do our jobs in the rich men’s stores and factories.
Republican President Dwight Eisenhower issued a direct challenge to that belief when he built thousands of brand-new schools across America and rolled out programs in elementary grades for gifted working class kids (I was in one in the 1950s).
After FDR laid the foundation for America’s first great middle class, Eisenhower’s promotion of quality primary education was rocket fuel to blast that middle class to two-thirds majority status in America by 1980 (it’s now been whittled down to 43 percent, the result of Reaganomics). He even invoked the national defense to get money for public schools: the 1958 National Defense Education Act provided billions to fund public school math and science programs.
Now, using loaded and deceptive language about “Critical Race Theory” and a “gay agenda,” conservatives have hit their groove. The GOP has picked up on the trend: multimillionaire and former Carlyle Group CEO Glen Youngkin was elected Virginia governor, polls show, mostly on the strength of his attacks on public education and unionized teachers.
They’re joined in this effort by religious fanatics who argue that public schools are teaching “the secular religion of big government.” The Washington Post yesterday ran a lengthy profile of a religious fanatic, Michael Farris, who’s spent decades trying to gut public schools:
“Now, speaking on a confidential conference call to a secretive group of Christian millionaires seeking, in the words of one member, to ‘take down the education system as we know it today,’ Farris made the same points he had made in courtrooms since the 1980s. Public schools were indoctrinating children with a secular worldview that amounted to a godless religion, he said.
“The solution: lawsuits alleging that schools’ teachings about gender identity and race are unconstitutional, leading to a Supreme Court decision that would mandate the right of parents to claim billions of tax dollars for private education or home schooling.”
So now we have the perfect storm.
The conservative white supremacists who’ve fought integrated public education since 1954 have found common cause with nationalist religious hucksters who want our children indoctrinated with their own brutal form of what they cynically call “Christianity.”
These two groups have been joined by billionaires committed to reducing social and economic mobility, along with a handful of hustlers (like the phony “university” producing rightwing cartoons for Florida and Texas schools) who want to make a buck off private education.
The good news is that most public schools in America are still largely controlled by local school boards, and anybody can generally run for those boards or simply show up for every meeting and offer their opinions.
Republicans have spent the past three years trying to exploit this, with considerable success: some school boards have even been taken over by local neofascist militia members. The Proud Boys have been particularly active in this space.
But average parents supportive of public education and progressive groups are stepping up. Red Wine & Blue, Defense of Democracy, and the Florida Freedom to Read Project, among others, are endorsing candidates, helping with the campaigns of pro-public education candidates, and training parents in how to show up and speak out at school board meetings.
They’re outspent by the massive, billionaire-funded effort to destroy our public education system, but they also represent the vast majority of American parents.
An NPR/Ipsos poll from last year found 88 percent of respondents said, “My child’s teacher(s) have done the best they could, given the circumstances around the pandemic.”
Seventy-six percent agreed with the statement, “My child’s school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.”
Fully 80 percent of parents say they are either completely or somewhat satisfied with their child’s education in public schools.
Last year’s annual PRRI American Values Survey reported that 92 percent of Americans “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.”
America, in other words, is on the side of quality public education. And there’s a growing movement to stop and ultimately reverse the damage this billionaire-funded rightwing effort has done to our public school systems.
You can help, whether you have children in public school or not.
Show up for school board meetings and, if you have the time and inclination, run for your local school board.
Ask every candidate, from city council to the US Senate and the White House, their position on public education and vote accordingly. Write letters to the editor and speak out on social media. Make waves.
After all, our public schools are literally where America’s future is being created.
We can’t abandon them just because a bunch of well-funded bigots, militia bullies, and religious cranks are enjoying their moment in the media.
The stakes are just too high.
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