Far-right Republicans have been very candid about their war on higher education, as I have previously detailed. The party’s activists have been less open about their continuing effort to destroy American public education, and to re-direct public money to the private, mainly religious schools that teach from a perspective they prefer. (As with so many of the Right’s accusations, projection is obvious; claims that “government schools” are indoctrinating–“grooming”–children reflects their own intent.)
A recent article in the New Republic suggests that the Right is winning its war on public education. The article began with a report on the Congressional testimony of one Lindsey Burke.
Burke, an education policy program director at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, was responding to a question from Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman, after Burke had spoken in favor of “school choice.” Allowing parents to use public education funds to send their children to private schools—including religious schools—was, she argued, merely a way to enable families to “choose learning environments that are safe, and effective, and reflect their values.”
Heritage is one of a number of Rightwing “think tanks” and organizations dedicated to defunding public education–mostly through educational vouchers and similar mechanisms that they claim will “restore parental control” over education. Parental control is increasingly the “frame that contains both the typical free-market conservative argument against public education and the Christian right argument against exposing children to the immorality of “government schools.”
In 2021, Burke co-wrote a paper with a colleague for the American Enterprise Institute that argued for “allowing families an escape hatch from government schools pushing an agenda that runs counter to their values,” like critical race theory and “transgender ideology.”
This “values-based” coalition Burke said she was introducing in 2022 involved “not just education choice groups,” she explained, “but also groups like Moms for Liberty,” who helped force “parental rights” onto the agenda in school board elections while also aligning with the far right, and “partners” such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nationalist law project focused on anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion cases, which argued both the Dobbs case and a recent fake same-sex wedding website case. These groups, Burke said, “understand that the school choice movement is the solution to current cultural battles.” Conveniently, these groups also instigated these “battles.”
Think about the messaging: calling public schools “government schools.” Talking about “parental choice” and “Christian values.”
It isn’t just coincidence that these “Christian values” warriors focus inordinate attention on trans children (a vanishingly small percentage of the nation’s children, but an unfamiliar population and thus an excellent target for bigots). Rightwing activists are demanding that educators out trans students in the name of “parental rights.”
Nearly 90 bills forcing teachers to monitor students’ gender expression—including dress, pronouns, and names—and report trans and gender-nonconforming students to parents were recently introduced in state legislatures across the country, according to PEN America’s Index of Educational Intimidation Bills. At least five states have adopted these policies into law: North Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina, and Indiana. What we are seeing in places like Chino Valley reflects a coordinated national plan to push laws and policies that would penalize educators who don’t go along—inverting their roles as mandatory reporters of harassment, neglect, and abuse at home….
As a tool of gender conformity and as a moral panic about the content of public education, these policies hit a sweet spot for the right—which may explain why more established conservative groups are stepping up to promote and defend them.
The article noted what has become increasingly obvious– the Right’s effort to eradicate public education is “inseparable from their accelerating attacks on LGBTQ rights and racial justice.”
Perhaps there is no better symbol of that intersection than Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who has boasted about writing the playbook: moving from using critical race theory as a rallying cry for white grievance against schools, then similarly promoting accusations that LGBTQ-inclusive schools are “grooming” young people. Rufo revels in “laying siege to the institutions” as strategy, as he said in a 2022 speech at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. “We go in there and we defund things we don’t like, we fund things we do like.”
The linked article explores the effort to “defund” public education in much more depth, and I encourage you to click through and read it in its gloomy entirety.
In Indiana, the effort to help parents escape those nefarious “government schools” is succeeding; a growing number of children are using Hoosier tax dollars to attend voucher schools–over 90% of which are religious.
The next time you hear a self-proclaimed conservative bemoan “identity politics,” you might point out the way vouchers divide Americans.