The Anti-Democratic Movement Against Public Schools

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“The path to saving the nation is very simple—it’s going to go through the school boards.” – Steve Bannon

The workingmen’s parties of the nineteenth century pushed hard, very hard for public schools and were key to their creation. Yes, immediate economic concerns like wages and bankruptcy were important, but their platforms also called for free education for all. They maintained that through public schools children could acquire knowledge and skills essential to an enlightened citizenry, a citizenry capable of challenging the self-serving assertions of social elites.

In short, they maintained that public schools were fundamental to a functioning democracy, a perspective to necessarily keep in mind in the face of current concerted attacks on our schools.

Interests Behind the First-Wave Attacks on Public Schools

A contemporary wave of opponents attacking our schools fully understand the connections between democracy and public education. These opponents largely represent authoritarian and white Christian nationalist elements.

In the 1990s, the charter movement launched the first phase of recent efforts to undermine public education. Building upon discontent with underperforming elementary and secondary schools that was, in fact, rooted in long years of underfunding, right-wing interests promoted charter schools. Charters threatened public school systems by drawing money away from them and pumping cash into non-union, often faith-based, facilities which were usually exempt from government regulations.

Corporations and their allies found the union-free aspect of charters especially attractive. Teachers’ unions remain the largest in the country, often using their lobbying power to advance policy goals hostile to corporate interests. Funding support from Koch industries and other dark money groups for charters was substantial.

Faith-based interests supported charter schools for the obvious reason that their private institutions benefited directly by siphoning off public school funding. Also, extremist white Christian activists wanted to purge education of any potential threat posed to a worldview based on backward-looking Eurocentric values including submission to traditional hierarchies. Curriculum grounded in multi-culturalism and explicit or implicit critiques of a white Christian-dominated social order was anathema to them.

Interests Behind the Second Wave

With exceptions, the charter-school movement lost steam by 2000, given a record of dismal educational outcomes and cases of leadership corruption.

It was not until 2021 that a perfect storm of conditions initiated a second intensive wave of attacks on public schools. Here the overlapping interests of corporations, allied politicians, and white Christian extremists have become more tightly interconnected. Attacks take multiple forms, from legislative efforts to control course content, the substitution of curriculum encoding a conservative Eurocentric world view, the establishment of new charters, and the takeover of school boards by supporters of these trends.

As a tool in the assault being mounted, disruptions at school board meetings and violence against teachers and school board opponents have been on the rise.

The first battles in the second wave focused on school policies during COVID. Primed by Trump and conservative allies, many within evangelical circles, who preached doubts about COVID’s potency or even existence, parents fought against school closings and masking policies attempting to contain the virus.

Next came the attacks on teaching critical perspectives on US racial history and systemic racism, as well as any material viewed as presenting LGBTQ individuals in a positive light, especially to younger children. (See articles by Sundiata Cha-Jua and Al Kagan in the March and May 2022 issues of the Public i, respectively.) Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature were the first to ban such material in classrooms and libraries; other states have followed.

One lesser-known object of authoritarians’ ire is a pedagogical model called social-emotional learning. This model emphasizes critical thinking and decision-making teamwork. Such attributes are in opposition to authoritarian elevation of social hierarchies; interest in an uninformed populace vulnerable to a media stew of lies, distortions and conspiracy theories; and fear of collective action.

In these lines of attack, right-wing operatives and organizations are important behind-the-scenes catalysts. One example of the political advantages of attacking race-aware perspectives on US history became apparent in the recent upset win of the Republican candidate for Virginia governor. Helping Glenn Youngkin’s campaign and then extending its attacks on critical race theory in support of other Republican candidates was the Metric Media network. Sending out over five million copies of articles per month through 1300 affiliates, the network is run by Ian Prior. Prior, a longtime conservative Republican operative, was a staffer for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican PAC.

Groups like No Left Turn in Education (NLE) and Parents Defending Education (PDE), who fight for book banning, purport to be locally based but also receive significant support from national right-wing elements. PDE’s president, Nicole Neilly, previously worked at the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank. She is also close to Leonard Leo, former leader of the Federalist Society, who was instrumental in securing Supreme Court appointments for conservatives. Amy Coney Barrett is especially notable for her association with the Catholic People of Praise movement, a grouping whose philosophy embraces views openly hostile to or at best ambivalent about fundamental features of modernity, including democratic values and norms.

NLE provides free legal representation to parents who want to sue school districts. Most of NLE’s lawyers are affiliated with the Liberty Justice Center and Pacific Legal Foundation, which receive funding from the prominent GOP billionaire, Dick Uihlein.

It All Comes Together: The Case of Hillsdale College

The entity that truly mixes Republican Party and corporate advancement with a drive for white Christian nationalism is Hillsdale College.

Hillsdale is a private Christian college in Michigan seeking to “save” the public school system by creating charter schools nationally that will instill Christian values, offer a sanitized version of American history, and pay homage to Western civilization’s glories. It opposes progressive education reforms and contemporary scholarship on systemic racism, colonialism, and inequality. Tennessee has moved to build 50 new charter schools based on this curriculum.

Even where charters cannot be formed, Hillsdale’s leaders have successfully pushed for its license-free curriculum to be adopted in existing schools. In effecting this goal, they have recruited and trained individuals to become school board candidates, often advising them to keep their ultimate aims secret until after their election.

Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale, has long been close to Republican politicians and arch-conservative businessmen and activists who are leading funders of the college. He was a co-founder and later president of the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank famous as the home of John Eastman, author of the plan to subvert the results of the 2020 election. Hillsdale staff and alumni routinely received staff positions in the Trump White House and on Capitol Hill. Arnn once hired Ginni Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, to launch a Washington, DC campus. Trump tapped Arnn to lead the 1776 Commission, which offered a rebuttal to the 1619 Project, a New York Times series, that viewed American history through the lens of systemic racism.

Fighting Back

If Republicans sweep the 2022 midterms, to say nothing of capturing the Presidency in 2024, expect the Hillsdale model to expand its reach significantly.

In the meantime, counteroffensives against authoritarian attacks on public education have won multiple battles. Attempts by candidates aligned with groups like NLT and PDE to take over school boards have gone down in defeat in districts in Wisconsin, California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. In these efforts coalitions bringing together teacher unions and community activists are often critical to victory. Also, groups like Red, Wine and Blue and Run for Something have stepped forward to encourage and train people who disagree with the right wing’s line of attack to run for school boards.

Such efforts point the path forward to the preservation of public schools addressing the skills and learning needs of all our children and offering an accurate, honest portrayal of our past and present.

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