Anyone paying attention is aware that Republicans are waging open war on public schools. What’s less clear are the root causes of the war, the reasons Republicans are implacably hostile to public education.
I believe there are three: 1) The GOP’s animosity toward unions; 2) Seething resentment of years of ‘social engineering’ by the Federal Government, which has often used education policy to try to remake other parts of American society; and 3) Anger at the Democrats’ broken promise that ‘education is the ticket to the middle class.’
The anger has bubbled over and has put public education squarely in the sights of many Republican politicians, who are now engaged in open warfare against public schools. Waving the flag of “Parents’ Rights,” they have jumped on hot-button issues like transgender bathrooms and Critical Race Theory, even though these iissues have little or nothing to do with what actually happens in classrooms. Why these ambitious politicians are going after public schools is not complicated. They’re trying to enhance their status with the conservative wing of the GOP and perhaps position themselves to run for President in 2024. At the local level, some Republican activists have embraced the same issues (plus mask mandates) and have been disrupting school board meetings and threatening elected school board officials.
The Generals in this war 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 in Idaho, Eric Holcomb in Indiana, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa. Former Florida Governor (and failed Presidential candidate) Jeb Bush has been trying to break up public education for years, and he hasn’t stopped.
If public education is to be saved, other governors will have to step up, and soon.
FALSE PROMISES: Is education the gateway to the middle class? Ask the 46 million Americans whose college loan debt approaches $1.75 trillion! $1,750,000,000,000 is enough to pay for four years at Harvard for 23 million students. While some who took out student loans are now enjoying successful careers, many more former students are still deeply in debt–with little to show for it.
For 70 years Democrats preached a powerful message: Education is the highway to upward mobility and economic success. They won elections by telling voters that public schools were, in Barack Obama’s words, “ladders of opportunity.” Work hard in school, Democrats promised, and you can achieve the American Dream. But for the past 40 or so years, that promise, sadly, has been largely an empty one, because social mobility has been elusive for most Americans since the late 1970’s. In other words, for about 40 years Democrats have been making false promises that schools have not been able to keep.
A study published in 2008 showed that, while economic mobility in the U.S. increased from 1950 to 1980, it has declined sharply since then; another study by the Brookings Institution in 2013 found that income inequality was becoming more permanent, thus sharply reducing social mobility. In other words, if you begin school today as a low income student and work your tail off to achieve academically, the odds are that you are more likely to become a low income adult than to be a thriving member of America’s middle class.
Although it’s not the school system’s fault that the American social structure is rigidly stratified, it is irresponsible and hypocritical to make false promises to millions of young people. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party hasn’t changed its basic message. Democrats haven’t accepted the reality that today’s public schools are more likely to ratify the existing social order, rather than provide those “ladders of opportunity” that President Obama talked about.
So what about the millions who bought that line and worked hard in school but still haven’t climbed the social and economic ladder? What about the millions who are saddled with crippling debt? Instead of questioning the validity of their own assumptions about school as a ladder to success, some Democrats seem to blame the victims (“I guess they just didn’t work hard enough”). That’s a sure-fire recipe for stoking anger and resentment among voters, which savvy Republicans have capitalized on.
“SOCIAL ENGINEERING:” Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing school segregation, the Federal Government has been using the schools to try to change other aspects of American society, in hopes of making life more fair for all citizens. The logic was straightforward: If we can change the attitudes of children, they will grow up to be broad-minded adults. However, the attempts at what opponents called ‘social engineering’ upset a large swath of American society, including white conservatives, evangelical Christians, and proponents of state’s rights. This was ‘federal intrusion’ for many Republicans, whose suspicion of–and hostility toward–the federal government seems to be in their DNA. It was President Ronald Reagan, the Republican icon, who proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
Education is a particular flash point. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the states are reserved to the states respectively or to the people.” Because the Constitution never specifically mentions education, it is, by default, a state function. However, 49 states (all except Hawaii) have ceded most authority over schools to local communities, hence the hallowed notion of “Local Control.”
Despite the 10th Amendment, well-intentioned Democrats (especially President Lyndon Johnson) wanted to use public schools as a lever to change not just schools but the larger society: Make life fairer for all Americans, end racial discrimination, and make the American economy more competitive. But this ‘social engineering’ to improve society required spending more money on the education of poor and minority students; it meant supporting court-ordered school integration. And it upset the white status quo and its hallowed “Local Control” of public schools.
“Local Control” has enabled schools to evolve into a mechanism to identify, label, and sort children from a very young age, a system that often perpetuates bias. Even though tracking has long since fallen out of favor, “Local Control” allows most schools still have subtle, or not-so-subtle, tracking systems. They ask one question about a student–“How Smart Are You?”–and then use standardized test scores to provide the answer. Because scores correlate closely with parental income and education levels, by third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else. “Local Control” also helps maintain the status quo. Because school characteristics are nearly always a function of a community’s wealth, some schools are decrepit to the point of being unsafe, which has the effect of ‘tracking’ those students downward. Schools in wealthy communities have modern facilities, the most experienced teachers, the latest technology, and perhaps even climbing walls in the gym. That is the track for ‘winners’.
Throughout the second half of the 20th Century, Washington increased its presence in and influence over public education. In 1965, President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act(ESEA) increased the federal presence in local schools. In 1975 Congress passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country, but this essential law was widely seen by Republicans (including President Gerald Ford) as an ‘unfunded mandate’ requiring schools to spend money they didn’t have. Jimmy Carter’s decision to create a federal Cabinet-level Department of Education in 1979 further enraged conservatives and states-righters, and in 1983, “A Nation at Risk” warned us that our schools were ‘drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.’ The ensuing clamor raised standards and tightened academic requirements but also kicked started high-stakes testing.
Make no mistake, federal involvement in education has improved the lives of millions of American children. Title One of ESEA created educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids, as did Head Start. The handicapped legislation brought hundreds of thousands of disabled children out of attics and institutions and into public schools.
Eventually and inevitably, however, Washington went ‘a bridge too far,’ notably with George W. Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind Act’(NCLB) in 2001. Pre-NCLB, federal programs like those created by ESEA targeted specific groups of students, such as the disadvantaged or the disabled, but NCLB went well beyond that. It stipulated that, if a school accepted even one dollar in federal funds, then every one of its students had to meet federal standards. And failure to meet those standards meant drastic, even draconian penalties, such as firing the school’s entire staff.
And since virtually all of our nearly 100,000 public schools accept money to support one federal program or another, it was game over: the federal presence was everywhere, challenging, overruling, and riding roughshod over ‘Local Control.’
NCLB relied on one measure–standardized test scores–to determine whether a school was making what it called “Adequate Yearly Progress,” and before long recess, art, music, physical education, drama, and every other ‘non-essential’ aspect of school disappeared from schools everywhere, replaced by test prep and drill.
Bush’s NCLB was followed by Barack Obama’s “Race to The Top,” which prioritized charter schools and the evaluation of teachers and schools based on the standardized test scores of students. Sixteen consecutive years of a punitive ‘drill and kill’ approach to education never produced higher test scores and saw a decline in student performance on the well-regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Quite naturally, public education’s critics pounced. Demands for vouchers, charter schools, and other schemes to divert money away from public schools increased. Some blamed poor test scores on teachers, leading some districts to hire (expensive) supervisors to spy on teachers in their classrooms. School districts spent millions to create ‘teacher-proof’ curricula and to bring in untrained Teach for America volunteers, whose idealism and academic credentials from top colleges were supposed to be enough to leave career educators in the dust.
One parent, a Floridian, said it well: “I began to wake up during my daughter’s first grade year, when she no longer had recess. … For example, my daughter spent 180 minutes on English Language Arts and a certain amount of time on science and math, instructional time which, as we were told, was critical to prepare children for testing.”
REPUBLICANS AND UNIONS: Republicans dislike unions in general, but they specifically despise teacher unions. Of course, the party of unfettered capitalism has always been suspicious of organized labor, but the GOP took a hard right turn in 2012, when the party platform dropped explicit support of the right of workers to be in a union and encouraged states to pass right-to-work laws and supported a national right-to-work law.
Teacher unions are a favorite target for at least two reasons: Teachers are the most heavily unionized part of the workforce, and their unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, contribute millions of dollars to politicians, with an estimated 95% of the money going to Democrats for at least 30 years.
It’s not difficult to connect the dots: Republicans are attacking public schools, accusing them of ‘grooming’ their children to be gay, of making white children ashamed of their race, of undermining American patriotism and pride, and more. Their goal is to persuade more parents to home-school their children, or enroll them in non-union Charter Schools, or use vouchers to pay non-public school tuition. Public school enrollment will drop, teachers will be laid off, teacher union revenue will decline, and less money will flow to Democrats.
REPORT FROM THE BATTLEFIELD: Republicans are winning the war on public education, as Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider argued in The New York Times. Teacher morale is low, and teachers are leaving the field in droves, forcing one state, New Mexico, to call in the National Guard to serve as substitutes. Enrollment is declining at institutions that train their replacements, and in at least three large school districts, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, student enrollment in public schools has dropped for the second consecutive year.
Republicans are winning by focusing on these four headline-grabbing issues: Critical Race Theory, Parents’ Rights, Transgender Students, and “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY is not a K-12 issue, as every Republican politician knows. It’s an academic theory studied in colleges and universities that views much of America history through the lens of race and racism. Despite its being a non-issue, Republican Governors are in a frenzy. Florida’s Ron DeSantis put it this way: “Our tax dollars should not be used to teach our kids to hate our country or to hate each other.” And Florida has now banned a number of math textbooks, accusing the publishers of trying to indoctrinate children with Critical Race Theory.
In the name of defeating CRT, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee has invited Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution based in Michigan, to create 50 charter schools in Tennessee with public funds, including $32 million for facilities. As the New York Times reported, Governor Lee believes these schools will develop “informed patriotism” in Tennessee’s children. The Hillsdale curriculum also presents a negative take on FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, the Civil Rights movement, affirmative action, and climate change. Professor Bruce Fuller of UC Berkeley told The Times, “I’ve been following charter schools over the last 25 years, and I’ve never seen a governor use charters in such an overtly political way.”
PARENTS’ RIGHTS: At least 10 Republican governors say that Parents’ Rights should supersede and control teaching about race. They say parental objections to ‘inappropriate’ content in school libraries and curricular materials should lead to their removal. As Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said to his state’s lawmakers, “Let’s require all that a child is taught, all curriculum and academic materials, be put online and available to search and review by every parent, grandparent and interested citizen.” As the Associated Press reported: “Republican state lawmakers across the U.S. are trying to require schools to post all course materials online so parents can review them, part of a broader national push by the GOP for a sweeping parents bill of rights ahead of the midterm congressional elections.” Some GOP politicians want parents to be able to monitor their children’s classrooms, either in person or on video once cameras are set up in school classrooms.
TRANSGENDER STUDENTS: The Republican lies and distortions are dangerous. A columnist for the New York Post called the transgender curriculum “The Left’s new religion.” “Militant transgender advocates are imposing their agenda with uncompromising zeal on schoolchildren. That’s fine with President Joe Biden…. From the youngest age, students are being brainwashed with gender ideology. Children — as young as 5 — are being encouraged to disregard their anatomy and choose their gender based on their feelings.”
The Fox News personality Laura Ingraham also weighed in: “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender-identity radicals? As a mom, I think it’s appalling, it’s frightening, it’s disgusting, it’s despicable.”
The actual number of transgender students is small–less than 2% in high school–but their situation is precarious. In a 2019 study, one-third reported attempting suicide. But it’s a hot-button issue for Republican politicians bent on undermining public education–and winning re-election. NBC reported recently that “State lawmakers have proposed a record 238 bills that would limit the rights of LGBTQ Americans this year — or more than three per day — with about half of them targeting transgender people specifically. Nearly 670 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed since 2018, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, with nearly all of the country’s 50 state legislatures all having weighed at least one bill.”
Nearly all of these bills concentrate their attention on schools, by 1) restricting LGBTQ issues in school curriculums, 2) permiting religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBTQ people and 3) limiting trans students’ ability to play sports, to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, and to receive gender-affirming health care.
“DON’T SAY GAY” LEGISLATION: Most national attention has been on Florida, which has approved two controversial bills limiting conversations about race and racism and restricting younger students’ access to lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity. The newspaper Education Week reports that fifteen states have passed similar legislation over the past year, and 26 others have introduced bills attempting to restrict these lessons. Both bills—widely referred to as an anti-“woke” bill and a “Don’t Say Gay” bill—are part of a nationwide effort push to limit lessons on systemic racism, sexism, gender and sexuality, and LGBTQ+ topics.
The deluge of state legislation on these issues probably means that Congress will begin paying attention, according to political scientist Alex Garlick of the College of New Jersey. If Republicans win control over one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, as prognosticators expect, they will likely pass similar pieces of legislation — even though they would have “no chance” of being signed by President Biden, Garlick told The 74.
Republicans are winning other battles at the state level, according to The Network for Public Education, a left-leaning research and advocacy organization. Their new report, “Public Schooling in America,” awards only three states–Nebraska, North Dakota, and Vermont–a grade of A or A- for their support of public education. Twelve states received a grade of D, and 17 received an F. The NPE report examined state support for vouchers, education savings accounts, home schooling, and for-profit charter schools and concluded that most states with these programs are failing to protect vulnerable children while also turning a blind eye to deception and graft.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO SAVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS?
Saving public education will require far more than playing defense against the Republicans. GOP hostility toward teacher unions seems fixed in stone, but the oft-broken promise of education as a game-changer can become true for our children–if Washington and some individual state governors are willing to engage. It will require challenging and modifying ‘Local Control,’ which is certain to be a flash point for those invested in maintaining the status quo.
Saving public education makes economic sense, because strong public schools attract businesses and build strong communities. Remember that public schools serve the entire community, not just the children who attend them and their parents. About 90% of all children attend public schools, but it is in everyone’s interest–not just parents’–to see that all children have the opportunity to achieve their potential. Parents do not get to decide what children are taught in public school; that’s part of the social contract. Consider this: One day some of the graduates may monitor the IV drip and measure out the medications that are keeping your aging parent alive; others may tune up the jet engines on the plane your family will soon board, repair the gas main leak just down the street in your neighborhood, count the votes in the next elections, and so on.
So, for example, if we want adults to be able to work well with others, then schooling ought to include group project-based activities. If we want adults to be able to speak coherently in public, then schooling ought to include public speaking and debate. If we want adults to be able to read with understanding, then students ought to be reading a lot in school. And so on…..
Individual states have to develop a new vision and then implement aggressive, proactive strategies to make that vision a reality. Who among current Governors might be willing to act to save their public schools? I believe the process will be easier in relatively small states, so perhaps the Governors of Connecticut, Oregon, Rhode Island, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Maryland might be willing to engage in an open dialogue with all their citizens–not just parents–about what they want the state’s young people to become and to be able to do, as adults. Only then can schools be reimagined.
Some first steps: 1) Make it harder to become a teacher by raising admission standards at state-supported institutions that train teachers.
2) Encourage young people to enter the field by awarding full scholarships with one significant string attached: the recipients must teach for five years in the state….or repay the full amount.
3) Raise teacher salaries overall but provide an extra boost for those who are willing to teach in the state’s toughest schools.
4) Finally, if teachers are to be true professionals, then our system must learn to trust them. Right now, we do not. Many districts now spend big bucks on bureaucrats who spend their time hovering over classrooms. End that practice now. The goal here is to make it easier to be an effective teacher.
State leadership will have to work closely with local school boards, which should be allowed to maintain certain prerogatives like hiring and teacher evaluation. But other local practices like tracking and maldistribution of resources must be stopped.
Leadership matters. Governors like Ned Lamont of Connecticut (a Democrat) or Larry Hogan of Maryland (a Republican) need to encourage a wide-open and free-wheeling dialogue about the purposes of education. In fact, Maryland has started down this road with its remarkable Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which passed the legislature in 2021. The Blueprint calls for salaries commensurate with those in professions requiring the same amount of education, bonuses for those willing to teach in the toughest areas, and a $10,000 salary boost for teachers who meet the challenging National Board standards. It promises more resources for the most-challenged students, and, significantly, it insists that teachers should spend less time teaching full classrooms and more time in small groups and one-on-one situations.
More states have to do the hard work that Maryland has begun, but if education is to become a reliable route to achieving the American dream, we must do more than reimagining schooling. The entire playing field has to be level. In other words, the federal government must commit to raising taxes on the rich and then use those resources to strengthen the social safety net of housing, nutrition, and health care.
Florida’s governor is providing the model for how NOT to save public education. Ron DeSantis has sued local school boards and threatened to withhold funding over mask mandates, and recently he ordered all public schools to devote 45 minutes to teaching students about “the victims of Communism.” Bullying and heavy-handed interference won’t work.
The U. S. Department of Education has an important role to play. Because Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spent four years touting religious schools and promoting vouchers to enable children to ‘escape’ public schools, succeeding her should have been a slam dunk for Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s choice. Unfortunately, Secretary Cardona seems to be focused on “getting things back to normal.” This is a huge error because ‘normal’ school is no longer the path to the American Dream of higher social and economic status.
To be fair, reimagining public education is not Secretary Cardona’s role, because public education is the responsibility of individual states. Still, the Secretary could be calling on Americans to get involved in public education; he could be asking us to think about what we want our children to grow up to become…and how to make that happen. The Department should clamp down on for-profit charter schools and other scammers. Above all, the Department must continue to act to protect the civil rights of all students, particularly the most vulnerable.
We are not starting from scratch. About 5% of our public schools are what are known as ‘Community Schools,’ which feature partnerships between the school and community resources. In these 5,000 schools, an integrated focus on academics, health, social services, youth/community development, and community engagement has been shown to lead to improved learning, stronger families, and healthier communities. I’ve been impressed by Expeditionary Learning, whose 150 member schools stress group projects, outdoor activities, and a holistic view of each child.
There’s no quick fix, but there’s also no time to waste. The efforts of cynical, ambitious politicians like DeSantis, Abbott, Ducey et alia to destroy public schools must be stopped. Public schools that are genuinely responsive to the needs and talents of all children will once again make the American Dream a genuine possibility, and at the same time make our democracy stronger and more resilient.