Why Do Republican Politicians Hate Public Schools?

Why do so many Republican politicians hate public education and the idea of ‘the common school’?  It’s a reasonable question, given that many GOP leaders are actively working to undercut or sabotage public education.  For a detailed explanation of the Republican anti-public school war, see this New York Times article by Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider or my recent blog post, “Saving Public Schools, One State at a Time.” 

Want names?  OK, the Generals in this war on public education include Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Greg Abbott of Texas, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Brad Little of Idaho, Eric Holcomb of Indiana, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa. Former Florida Governor (and failed Presidential candidate) Jeb Bush, who has been trying to break up public education for years, hasn’t stopped.  In the US Senate, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Braun, and Joni Ernst, all Republicans, are vocal critics of public education.

At the end of the day, exactly why these men and women are hostile to ‘the common school’ is a matter of conjecture.  Some, with their fingers to the wind, are trying to get out in front of what they think is a winning issue.  That is, they are craven politicians in the worst sense of the word.

Others are anti-union, plain and simple.  Teachers are, after all, the most heavily unionized of all workers, and they vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

But I suspect that most of these Republicans are anti-public schools because they are anti just about everything that’s ‘public.’  They oppose anything that smacks of community, but especially common experiences in secular institutions.  They don’t like the idea of shared values, an adequate ‘social safety net,’ welfare, Social Security, national service, the draft, a living wage, unions, worker solidarity, or any semblance of a ‘national dialogue’ about what it means to be an American.

(The notable exceptions, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland and Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, who has been drummed out of his party, prove the rule.)

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” is an alien concept that would fall on their deaf ears. Their basic  buzzwords are ‘liberty‘ and ‘religious freedom.’  In education, they support  ‘choice’ and ‘vouchers.’  That means diverting public money from public schools and into alternatives, including religious schools.  

These Republicans, who were already winning their war on public education, now they have the US Supreme Court on their side. As Sam Abrams of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education noted recently, “In tandem with its reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court stands to substantially alter everyday life in America with its recent decisions of ­Carson v. Makin, amplifying its support for public funding of religious schools, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, allowing prayer in public schools.

The significance of Kennedy is blunt. With the Court ruling 6-3 along party lines that the dismissal of a football coach at a public high school in the state of Washington for holding post-game prayer meetings violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, we can expect similar meetings as well as Bible study sessions, nativity pageants, and the like in public schools across the country. Such events will surely lead some students to feel coerced into participating for fear of disappointing peers and authority figures. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor indeed noted that a lower court had determined that some players said they joined the coach’s prayer meetings “because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates.”

The significance of Carson is more subtle but equally profound. In Carson, the same justices ruled 6-3—as forecasted on this site following oral arguments in December—that Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from partaking in its Town Tuitioning Program likewise violated the right to free exercise of religion. This program covers all or part of the cost for students in rural districts without high schools to attend either public or nonsectarian private high schools in nearby districts or beyond (if the school is public, the total cost is covered; if it is private, coverage is pegged to per-pupil statewide average spending). With this decision, we can expect religious groups in considerably rural states across the country to lobby legislators to create programs similar to Maine’s.”

Abrams concludes, “The public school as a neutral common ground is over.”  I urge you to read his full analysis. 

A Supreme Court dominated by radical Christians plus opportunistic politicians determined to undermine public education by choking off funding and driving out teachers.  That sounds hopeless, but it’s not.  As I wrote recently, these battles will be fought state-by-state.  Most parents support public education, but that’s not enough.  Rather than defending the common school, teachers, their unions, and all with the power to influence schools ought to be championing ‘uncommon’ education.

I’ve written about this elsewhere so suffice it to say here that we desperately need a paradigm shift. Away from public schools that ask about each child ‘How Smart Are You?’ and then trust standardized tests to provide the answer.  Toward schools and educators who seek to know “How Is This Child Smart?” and then build on every child’s interests and curiosity to help them reach their fullest potential.  

That’s not pie-in-the-sky; it’s what many parents and the best teachers have always done……..but it won’t just happen by itself.  It’s not enough to play defense.  Yes, fight back against the DeSantises of the world, but also work for and demand positive change.

One thought on “Why Do Republican Politicians Hate Public Schools?

  1. As a 51 year urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president and activist (as well as a newspaper columnist), I agree with John about the importance of shifting away from the “how smart are you” and toward “how are you smart” orientation.

    Unfortunately it appears that the Democratic approach to schooling has shifted in many places, to a focus on students’ deficits. This leads to constant insistence that kids need more counselors, social workers and tutoring. Yes, more of that can be helpful.

    However, wise policy-makers and educators also promote education that identifies and builds on students’ strengths. The research about service-learning, which recognizes and encourages students’ insights, creativity and passion, is overwhelming (and often ignored). Some of us have tried to influence the US Dept of Education efforts in this area. We’ve failed.

    We have made progress with some Minnesota officials. For example, There was a hugely successful high school student led effort to challenge the Democratic governor and his bureaucracy, which was mistakenly denying students’ unemployment assistance. See for example,


    I see little interest among teacher unions or the USDE in promoting John’s recommendations about shifting from how smart are you to how are you smart?

    Does John or anyone else have advice about how we can advance this agenda?


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