Republican crusades against public education
Now that Virginia Governor elect Glen Youngkin survived Democratic challenger Terry McAuliffe by claiming parents have a right to participate and influence their children’s education (1) and Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick would have Texan school kids read books that comfort whites and provide cisgender renderings, aping a similar bill which passed in Florida (2), this is a good time to take stock of where America’s public education is heading.
Or not, as in being assaulted by the political right in the name of white, Christian families.
Not ‘values,’ families. There is a difference.
The back story to Sen. Mallory McMorrow’s retort delivered from the floor of the Michigan State Senate on April 23 began a week earlier during a meeting of lawmakers comprising the Education Committee of the Michigan Senate. McMorrow and two other Michigan Senators abruptly got up and walked out of the meeting.
The reason the lawmakers walked out is critical to an understanding of the road ahead for public education in Michigan and the country.
McMorrow was raised as a practicing Catholic. She attended the University of Notre Dame and is raising her children in the Catholic Church. As she eloquently recited to her colleagues, she is a “white, straight, married, Christian suburban mom.” So, it comes as a surprise as to why a prayer, an invocation before a meeting of lawmakers to discuss financing schemes for Michigan’s public education programs would prompt her and two other Michigan lawmakers to walkout.
The invoker at this session, Sen. Lana Theis, wasn’t just sharing a reflective moment; she was triggering a reaction, crossing a line, presuming and spewing hatred. Not exactly Christian stuff, but for Theis worth the effort, for she scored conspiratorial points with her base, for whom she provided a dog whistle attached to a crucifix.
Dear Lord, across the country we’re seeing in the news that our children are under attack. That there are forces that desire things for them other than what their parents would have them see and hear and know. Dear Lord, I pray for your guidance in this chamber to protect the most vulnerable among us…
-Sen. Lana Theis, Education Committee Chair, Invocation before the Michigan State Education Committee, April 13, 2022
Theis had cause to feel anxious. A Republican up for election in November, she was being primaried by a 45 follower for her acceptance of Biden’s electoral victory. Theis recognized that she needed Republican donor money fast and so she did what a Republican vote seeker does: to connect with donor money, she started throwing slurs at Democrats, notably McMorrow.
Expand this confrontation and one sees an invitation to disenfranchise public education in the name of Christianity, for the grail of political advantage: a crusade against the public education infidel.
“Every parent’s desire for their children to succeed is a belief in an environment of equal and sustained access to an education.” This McMorrow acknowledged in subsequent interviews: (to paraphrase) ‘educators help children and young adults manage the external world. Teachers are in a unique position of providing this opportunity.’
Republicans arguing in support of the former are offering the latter as political bait: ‘Really? We thought managing the external world was the purpose (read exclusive domain) of parenting.’
Hence, the malignant logic flows — ‘teachers usurp parental values; schools are telling parents how to parent, upending familial authority and sanctity.’
Implicit but not spoken in Theis’ invocation are racist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant undertones. Using invoking ‘forces,’ is an old ploy to weaponize bigotry:
That there are forces that desire things for them other than what their parents would have them see and hear and know.
Read, ‘they’ are taking over our schools. ‘There is no place for them, here.’ Not because the minority of public-school students are white, Christian and DAR descendants, but because the idea of public education was and is to ensure an open society, a level playing field, an equal opportunity opportunity.
A trans student on the girl’s middle school softball team becomes a flash point. ‘They’ are not just another player. ‘They’ are an outcast, a scourge, an infidel.
‘They’ are not ‘family.’
Continuing the ‘back story,’ the white Christian evangelical polis saw an opportunity for defunding public education. Witness the thirty-year growth of independent charter schools ‘based on ‘Christian values.’ With Republicans riding a nativist rage into state legislatures, this polis saw an opportunity for abusing the public trust — either by constraining education budgets or by providing school choice vouchers the political strategy is the same: move funding away from public education.
This movement reached a milestone in 2017 when Betsy DeVos, Amway heiress, champion of independent Christian charter schools and Republican Party mega donor from Michigan was appointed Secretary of Education, an office and cabinet seat overseeing the third largest federal budget (after Defense and Homeland Security).
And defund public education programs she did, or tried, through federal dollar cutbacks Congress nixed. Through diverting funds to vouchers, DeVos proposed using federal public dollars to sustain charter and independent schools. Congress also nixed these attempts.
Beyond budget rewrite proposals, DeVos era department policies are under scrutiny: DOE watchers are calculating what restoration of pre-DeVos education policies the Biden administration can achieve. (3)
Christian church attendance is faltering and ageing. This is a decades long trajectory. The obvious ‘fix’ to increase church attendance and religious affiliation is to tap into the newborn and the new families. And to expand these efforts by sanctifying the “private family.”
It was only a matter of time before the Christian affiliated independent school movement found a welcome audience in Republican ranks who needed a social-neglect political cover. ‘School choice’ and ‘local control’ became the call letters for abetting discriminatory practices: redlining social and professional access.
“There is simply not enough money to go around,” became the mantra.
“I need a school for my children,” became the slogan.
America doesn’t need a made-for-Netflix conspiracy script to follow what happened next. Christian churches needed worshippers and the Republican Party needed a defense of neglecting public welfare and protection programs. It would become a ‘garden-variety’ political confederacy whose intent was to gain control of who benefits from public funds.
Post ‘Inside Hollywood-grab their pussy’ sound bite, even Evangelical Christian leaders implausibly rallied to Trump’s defense: stopping the Republican Presidential candidate’s ascent was not in the cards. Trump was elected and DeVos was appointed DOE Secretary and confirmed narrowly — the Vice President had to cast his vote as Senate President to confirm her appointment.
Coinciding with the DeVos era at Education was a shift in rationalizing why public schools fail it’s students. During the Bush administration, Republican extremists pushed the idea that public schools were failing “our children,” not that their public financing options for poor communities -primarily of color -were failing to adequately provide the environment and stability for success. To support their claim, the ‘defund public education movement’ seized upon standardized test scores as a way of further disenfranchising public education.
What transpired was the obvious: no statistical conclusions could be drawn from a student’s test score ability independent of their learning environment. Kids in rich communities got better scores. So absent any quick test score fixes, (4) these crusaders moved onto the next citadel — freedom of expression.
Democrats didn’t assuage the anxiety of parents. Democrats simply stepped over themselves waving policy and position statement papers. Virginia Governor candidate McAuliffe gaffed his way to the polls by asserting that parents don’t have a say in their children’s education (not my experience— I am a former middle and high school teacher) and by inviting American Federation of Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten to join him on the political stage, literally.
But the real damage was propagated by the pandemic. Kids’ learning ability at home, and the ability to hook up with their learning community online favored rich communities. Biden in his pandemic relief speeches preferred ‘dumbing down’ the inequality learning issue to a lack of internet infrastructure, a bar he and his party could easily surpass. The truth, however, was uglier: during the pandemic, the lack of access to public education exacerbated the fault lines of class.
Michigan Sen. McMorrow cited in her April 23 retort that the hateful rhetoric and shaming hurled her way is deflecting attention and energy from the real problems affecting Michiganders — like road infrastructure, medical care, public education.
“Our public school teachers are leaving the profession,” she said.
In another state a Governor was thinking out loud about how to reverse a 1982 US Supreme Court decision forbidding school discrimination based on immigrant status. (5)
“There is simply not enough money to go around,“ the Governor said.
By stripping away the public financing of school programs and resources. Republicans are suppressing inclusivity, the life blood of public education. It’s a cultural chokehold on the public trust that education provides a viable opportunity for financial future.