Why Are Conservatives Still Paranoid about Teachers?

In South Dakota, they wouldn’t be able to support “the separation of church and state” or “family farmers and ranchers.” In Virginia, they couldn’t endorse “strong, sustained, shared economic growth.” In Arizona, if a bill became law, teachers wouldn’t be allowed to advocate for

individuals’ freedom to speak their mind, assemble without fear, have access to information, worship as they please, and be treated equally among all people; and to have equal access to a representative democracy and the fair and equitable administration of justice.

Batty, right? Of course it is. But unfounded suspicions about teachers and teacher-training colleges run deep.


Those ed school professors…c. 1949.

A batch of new bills in those states hopes to constrain teachers–in the words of the Virginia resolution–from

Advocat[ing] for any issue that is part of a political party platform at the national, state, or local level.

The platforms of the state Democratic parties of South Dakota and Arizona endorse such radical notions as family farms and freedom of assembly, and the national party platform, which the Virginia state party follows, comes out boldly in favor of economic growth. Now, no one really wants to keep teachers from supporting such mainstream notions.

So why these bills?

All of them are part of today’s conservative political theater surrounding public schools. Like Virginia’s resolution, they proceed from the premise that

many teachers in public elementary and secondary school classrooms are abusing taxpayer resources and abusing their ability to speak to captive audiences of students in an attempt to indoctrinate or influence students to adopt specific political and ideological positions on issues of social and political controversy.

In the eyes of the irate Virginians, the teachers themselves are not the only ones to blame. Teachers have been themselves brainwashed by

some teacher training institutions, teacher licensing agencies, state education agencies, and professional teacher organizations [that] have condoned such attempts to indoctrinate or influence students under the guise of “teaching for social justice” and other sectarian doctrines.

Rumors about radical leftist teachers, trained in subversive ivory towers, have a long and lamentable history. As I argued in The Other School Reformers, conservative activists have always been skeptical of teachers and positively paranoid about teacher-training programs.

In my experience, there is and has long been a grain of truth to these conservative suspicions. Schools like my alma mater really do try to teach teachers to embrace social-justice values. Ed professors like George Counts have long advocated for left-wing teacher activism.


Sneaky red teachers, c. 1949.

The kicker, though, is that those efforts have never been as successful as people like me have hoped. Most teachers share the values of their local communities, not the values of their left-leaning education professors. In the limited case of teaching creationism, for example, political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman found that teachers tend to teach what their communities want them to teach, because most teachers share those same ideas and values.

So why do conservatives  persist in pushing these impractical bills and resolutions? Partly for the same reason the Arizona Democratic Party supports “comprehensive and rigorous public schools”. It’s about goals, dreams, and intentions. These bills and platforms aren’t about political reality. They are about making a political statement.

I just wish the statements would avoid insulting and suspecting teachers.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  February 1, 2019

    “Most teachers share the values of their local communities, not the values of their left-leaning education professors.”

    OK, but what if your community is a liberal stronghold and you’re a conservative?(Or for that matter, the other way around?) The fact that local teachers share the values of the liberals I’m surrounded by is small comfort. I still don’t want them preaching liberalism to my kids on my dollar. (Though in fact, this doesn’t affect me since my kids are grown.)

  2. Patrick Halbrook

     /  February 1, 2019

    I recently met a family who is planning to pull their kids out of their current school because the kids come home frustrated about the derogatory remarks some of their teachers randomly make about conservatives (i.e. in science class), and they’re convinced that the teachers are pushing progressive ideas. I have no clue how widespread this is–it’s just an anecdote I thought of as I was reading this. Of course, it only takes a couple of anecdotes for people to conclude that a problem is systemic. (Ironically, the school they were telling me about is also a charter school; and to address Agellius’s point, it’s in a liberal community.)

    • Funny, I hear the same sorts of things from my more in-your-face progressive friends. Not about science class, but that their kids’ teachers aren’t anti-racist enough in English and History. I wonder if we should all take this as a win. Public-school teachers–with a few exceptions of course–tend to keep to the middle. If conservatives and progressives are both dissatisfied that teachers are not adequately endorsing their prog/cons views, maybe teachers are doing the right thing. …?

      • Agellius

         /  February 2, 2019

        For me, it’s not inadequately endorsing my views that would concern me, it would be endorsing views that are at odds with my values, or trying to sway my kids to their view and away from mine politically. I see no reason to doubt that progressive parents would feel the same about a teacher who tried to influence kids in the direction of the tenets of Trumpism.

      • Absolutely. From my perspective, it seems like (some) conservative parents and pundits assume that this kind of progressive indoctrination is more common than it really is. On the other side, (some) progressive parents and pundits think that it is a better goal than it is. My ILYBYGTH position–and it’s one that I think is pretty widely shared among teachers, but there’s not really a handy way to rally around it–is that teachers should not try to indoctrinate kids, even with the best of intentions. In the case of creationism, for example, I think science teachers need to take a principled hands-off attitude about student beliefs, even if they fret that YEC kids are holding on to a woefully anti-scientific way of thinking about human evolution and deep time. In history classes, I want students to get smarter about all the ideas out there, including their own default presumptions. I will even share my own biases and attitudes. But I never want to force students to agree with one way of thinking. There are some exceptions, such as if a student BELIEVES that s/he is justified in committing violent crimes.

      • Agellius

         /  February 2, 2019

        I’m with you.

        I started to say that I think progressives are more determined to influence other people’s kids than conservatives are (a blogger friend likes to say of them that they don’t have their own kids so they want ours); but then I realized that fundamentalists also are very interested in influencing kids, for the sake of saving their souls. And this led me to the thought that maybe progressives think of progressivism as fundamentalists think of fundamentalism: It’s something that people need in order to be saved, and therefore you should push it on them, even if they’re not interested, even if their parents don’t want you to, because it’s for their own good whether they realize it or not.

        Clearly it’s not fair to say this of all progressives since it’s evidently not true of you. But maybe you can say that it’s true of “fundamentalist” or closed-minded progressives.

      • I agree there are absolutely “fundamentalists” on both sides. As I found in my research for Fundamentalist U, non-pigheaded conservative evangelicals were always able to pull from Scripture to counter conservative fundamentalists at their institutions. For progressive fundamentalists, non-pigheaded progressives are able to pull from the prog tradition of inclusivity and small-d democracy to counter progressive fundamentalists. Doesn’t always work for either side, especially when both sides see things as “us-or-them” high-stakes battle.

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