What if public schools were the target all along?


Maybe the point of stoking phony issues like “critical race theory” is to make the whole notion of a public education seem untenable.

Every now and then, conservative pundits give Democratic politicians “helpful” advice, a practice related to concern trolling. Democrats could have so much more success, they tell us, if only we’d stop acting like — you know — Democrats. Give up on unions. Stop annoying White people by talking about racism, or men by calling out sexism. Abortion rights, climate change, police reform, gender equality, universal health care … it’s all just so much baggage. If Democrats would dump it and stand for nothing-in-particular, then we could appeal to that broad segment of the electorate that also stands for nothing-in-particular.

Or so they tell us.

Such advice should not be confused with actual Democrats lobbying for their priorities. No single campaign can be about everything, so there are always going to be debates about whether to emphasize your issue or my issue. And there’s always going to be a messaging discussion between those who want to focus on the next step (universal background checks) and those who would rather talk about the ultimate goal (stopping gun violence). Or whether some widely misunderstood slogan (“defund the police”) needs to be better explained, or maybe replaced with something that doesn’t need so much explanation.

That’s all normal intramural jostling. The Helpful Conservative, on the other hand, is usually suggesting some issue where we should just surrender: Write off the gays or the trans folk or the rights of Muslims; they’re unpopular, so you’d be better off without them.

The Helpful Conservative may or may not have read Sun Tzu, but he’s practicing The Art of War‘s most potent advice: The supreme strategy is to win without fighting. If liberals can be tempted into abandoning some part of their agenda, that victory that costs conservatives nothing.

While you should never take the Helpful Conservative at face value, there is still one good reason to pay attention to him: Sometimes his advice can help you cut through the confusing rhetoric of the moment and understand what the other side really wants.

Imagine no public schools. Earlier this month, Discourse, a journal published by the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University, produced a classic piece of oh-so-helpful advice: “Dear Democrats: Here’s How to Save the Republic” by Robert Tracinski.

He sounds like such a nice man.

I am not one of you, but I would like to vote for you.

Of course you would, Robert. I believe you. I also believe that hot young babes want to be my Facebook friends. I’m sure they look just like the pictures they post.

More to the point, I would like independent voters—not to mention whole sections of the restive base of the two parties—to have a reasonable alternative to turn to, a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.

We need you to save the republic,

That’s great, Robert. Every night I drift off to sleep fantasizing about how I’m going to save the Republic. It’s so validating to hear that you also fantasize about me saving the Republic.

and here are my ideas for how to do it.

So by now the sugar-coating has dissolved in our stomachs and we start to digest the actual medicine.

His first suggestion is to get more housing built by eliminating environmental regulations, and I’ll just let that one pass without comment. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you can probably guess what I think.) But what caught my eye is the second suggestion: “End the School Wars”.

The “progressives” have tried to turn the schools into centers of indoctrination, pushing a tendentious narrative about “systemic racism.” The right has reacted with their own counter-attempt to control the schools, restricting discussion of certain ideas, policing school libraries and offering bounties to informants.

But most voters don’t want to be drafted into the culture wars. They want to be left alone, and they really want their kids to be left alone. The party that can offer a truce in the school wars will earn a lot of votes.

I have put forward one suggestion: school choice.

That “one suggestion” link goes to another Tracinski/Mercatus article that spells out what “school choice” means.

Imagine that instead of just shunting everyone into the public schools, your state government offered you a voucher or tax credit to spend on your child’s education. Do you want your kids to be inculcated with traditional values? Send them to a private religious school of the denomination of your choice. Do you want them to be so woke they can’t get to sleep at night? Fine, you can do that, too, and there are plenty of private schools that will accommodate you. Or, like the majority of us, do you want a school that will just teach the three R’s and leave you and your kids to iron out your political loyalties on your own? I suspect there will be quite a large market for this.

In other words: Do away with the public schools.

Just do that simple thing, and — poof! — all that bickering about Critical Race Theory and school mask mandates and book-banning and don’t-say-gay vanishes! All the right-wing demagogues will just have to go home! Fox News won’t know what to do with itself!

But on the other hand, maybe right-wingers will accept our surrendered territory and move on to the next battle, as Sun Tzu might suggest. The book-banning conflict, for example, could move on from the school library to the public library. (And look! There’s a plan to privatize all of them too.)

Once you start dissolving the ties that define a community, slowing transforming it into an atomized Ayn Rand sovereign-citizen utopia/dystopia, where do you stop? Managing any public resource leads to disagreement, and disagreement can lead to conflict. If someone fans that conflict to create division and hatred, they can always make a plausible case for disbanding the public resource so that we can all go our separate ways in peace. [1]

But what if that was the point of stoking the conflict to begin with? What if Mercatus isn’t making a helpful suggestion, but in fact is delivering the oligarchs’ ransom demand: Give up your public schools, and we’ll let the rest of your town live in peace.

The Siege of the Public Schools. I’m far from the first person to notice that the current conservative assault is taking its toll on public schools and their teachers. A week ago, a long Washington Post article detailed how confusing teachers in several states find the new anti-CRT laws.

Since the laws’ descriptions of what can’t be taught were written in terms of misconceptions spread by right-wing propaganda rather than by referencing actual curricula, it’s hard for teachers to know what they mean, or to be sure that tomorrow’s lesson plan won’t land them in a disciplinary hearing, or in court. Some bills vaguely prohibit teaching “divisive concepts“, while others set standards that are openly subjective: Students “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” [2]

Some new laws imitate the Texas abortion ban by authorizing parents to enforce curriculum bans through the courts.

“What we’ve seen recently is, you can legislate things, like the Parents’ Bill of Rights, and sometimes the school districts don’t always follow it,” [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis said. “We are going to be including in this legislation, giving parents private right of action to be able to enforce the prohibition on CRT and they get to recover attorney’s fees when they prevail.”

In New Hampshire, Moms For Liberty is offering a $500 reward to the first parent who catches a teacher breaking the state’s anti-CRT law, which could result in that teacher losing his or her license. There’s no wanted-dead-or-alive poster, and least not yet, but I’m sure teachers are picturing them.

Think about what this court-regulated system means in practice: There is no way to pre-clear your lesson plan or reading list. Because it doesn’t matter what your principal or superintendent or school board thinks “divisive concepts” means; you have to guess how some yet-to-be-assigned judge will interpret it.

So to be safe, teachers should teach nothing at all about race, or the history of racism in America. [3]

Ditto for sex and gender. A school board member in Flagler County, Florida filed a criminal complaint with the sheriff about the queer memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue being in high school libraries. Somebody, she thinks, should be prosecuted for that.

Florida’s Don’t-Say-Gay law, which is backed by Gov. DeSantis and seems on its way to passage, not only bans discussions of sex and gender that are not “age appropriate” (another concept that the law doesn’t define), but also requires teachers and school counselors to rat out kids who have confided in them about gender and sexual-preference thoughts they haven’t discussed with their parents. Parents can sue if they think the law is being violated.

Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, provides another example: Elementary school students are assigned to draw pictures of their families and present them to their class. If a child being raised by a same-sex couples draws a picture of their two dads, Gross says, their teacher may face a decision between allowing the child to participate—and opening themselves and their school up to lawsuits—or excluding them from the exercise.

Again, it’s safest just to avoid talking to students about their lives outside of school. Stick to drilling them about the multiplication tables and spelling, or making them memorize dates of historical events rather than considering how those events shape the world they see around them.

The end result is that if you want your children to engage with schoolwork, and to understand that education isn’t just a set of hurdles to jump, but actually means something about their lives, you’re going to want to pull them out of public school.

And maybe that’s the point.

Whose agenda? When you begin to suspect that the public schools themselves are the target, you need to take a step back and ask: Whose target?

Because it’s crazy to argue that every angry parent who denounces “critical race theory”, whatever he or she means by that, is part of the conspiracy. Most of them are probably exactly what they appear to be: relatively normal folks who have come to imagine that something nefarious is happening inside their children’s schools.

Even that McMinn County school board member, the one who argued to kick the Holocaust graphic novel Maus out of the curriculum with this bizarre conspiracy theory:

So, my problem is, it looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language. If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it.

probably does not intend to destroy the public schools. Quite the opposite: He thinks he’s saving the public schools from a vast conspiracy to “indoctrinate” kids and “normalize” sexuality, nudity, and vulgarity.

But where do people get ideas like that? And how did so many parents all over the country come to all get upset about the same things at the same time, and to label their bête noire with an obscure law-school phrase that appears nowhere in the curricula they’re protesting? How did legislatures all over the country so quickly put forward virtually identical bills to fight this scourge that hardly anybody had heard of a year ago?

There’s definitely a spontaneous element to this movement, but the overall shape of it is not spontaneous at all. There’s money behind this, and organization. Who are the funding-and-organizing people? What do they want?

I think they’re telling us what they want. They’ve whipped up a mob with lies and deception, and now they’re sending some pleasant well-mannered folks to tell us what we can do to make that mob go away.

Until they want the next thing, and then the mob will be back. Because the oligarchs never run out of dark fantasies they can spread, or gullible people who will believe them.

[1] Ignoring, of course, the Hobbesian war of all-against-all that is bound to follow, once we stop viewing each other as members of the same community.

[2] I suspect that in practice such laws will only protect White students. What if some Hispanic students are made uncomfortable by lessons about the Alamo or the Mexican/American War? Will their concerns get equal attention?

[3] Try to come up with an acceptable way to talk about slave-owners in the pre-Civil-War slave states. If you say that many of them were decent people doing the best they could inside an unjust system, you’re teaching “systemic racism”, which is banned. And the alternative view is what? That each one of them, individually, was an evil bastard? Might some descendants of slave-owners “feel discomfort” when they hear that?

The only option left, then, if decent White people were individually responsible for slavery, is to teach that enslaving people isn’t necessarily bad.

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  • nedhamson  On February 21, 2022 at 11:09 am

    Reblogged this on Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On February 21, 2022 at 11:58 am

    It’s been obvious for a long time that the goal behind school vouchers is to destroy the public school system. But once that’s accomplished, the next step will be to revoke the vouchers themselves, which, if used to fund religious schools, would be a violation of the Establishment Clause. The ultimate goal is to make sure that the only people who can get an education are the wealthy.

  • Thomas Paine  On February 21, 2022 at 12:06 pm

    These people aren’t “conservatives”. They don’t want to preserve the traditional order of things, one of which has been for two centuries in this country the foundational value of public schools as the method by which a community has an educated populace.

    No – these people are far-right reactionaries whose mission is to do to every aspect of society what Florida has done to neighborhoods: to wall them off in gated communities so those with the means to do so can stop contributing to public communities in general, and if the poors who can’t buy their way in want things like roads and schools and safety, well, they can go get a cushy job and pay for them themselves. Until then, fuck ’em.

    It used to be a non-controversial position that everyone contributed to the funding of the public school system, and if that wasn’t good enough for one’s kids, they also paid for the private school that was. But now, the mentality of “why should my money pay for someone else’s needs?” has these people stripping already-decimated state funding for education so they can have the political/religious madrasas they want without directly paying for them as well as achieving segregation by other means.

    Of course the strategy is to destroy public schools. It’s to destroy the concept of “public” wherever it rears its ugly head. Except, of course, when it’s time for corporations to suck more tax dollars out of the local and state tax base and socialize the costs of their private profits. The difference now is that the Plutocracy has figured out how to use rw mass and social media to incite the mob to demand their own demise.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On February 21, 2022 at 12:36 pm

      It’s a breakdown of community. If you view a populace with a basic level of education as a good thing in itself, then you see paying taxes to support it the same way you would view paying taxes to support law enforcement or the military. But if you view education as having no value beyond allowing the student to get a better job someday, then you wouldn’t see any reason to pay for something that benefits someone else, but has no effect on you.

      What these people are forgetting is that they do in fact benefit. For example, most business owners take it for granted that their prospective employees already know how to read and do basic math. So paying into a system that creates this is, in fact, a valuable investment.

  • MoodyStreetFan  On February 21, 2022 at 1:41 pm

    1. This is THE issue for which I would hope and expect the teachers’ unions to step up and say that “We’ve got your back – just teach.”
    2. I’m sure this type of involvement in their kids’ educations is NOT what teachers were thinking about in previous years. The teachers I know were hoping for: (a) know your kids’ teachers’ names; (b) show a modicum of interest in helping the kids complete and turn in assignments, and (c) stop whining when Johnnie or Janie brings back a grade less than an A, i.e., it’s not a negotiation.

  • Creigh Gordon  On February 21, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    Conservatives be like “If you can’t pay for it you don’t deserve it.”

  • Timothy Swanson  On February 22, 2022 at 1:37 pm

    As one of the kids from the early homeschooling movement, I can say that this is just the continuation of an old battle that dates back at least to Brown v. Board of Education, and the rise of Segregation Academies. Arguably, it dates even further back, to when Confederate chaplain and influential writer Robert Lewis Dabney argued against public education for non-whites. While I don’t discount the role of oligarchs in this, there has actually been a sustained campaign against public education for, well, 150 years, and what has always driven it is racism.


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