Kids: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

If you have kids in public schools these days, you are likely hearing about lockdown drills and run-hide-fight training. What are we supposed to think about them? On one hand, we all want our kids to be safe. On the other, watching six-year-olds cower and tremble about a threat that they will (statistically) likely never encounter seems kooky. In the Atlantic last week, Joe Pinsker asked historian Paula Fass for some context of scaring kids straight. Prof. Fass offered two good examples, but we can come up with a lot more. And that fact points us to a central, odd truth about the nature of American schooling.

Pinsker ran through some of the central dilemmas of lockdown training. In actual fact, students are extremely unlikely to experience a school shooting. Yet the training for them can be deeply upsetting. As Pinsker wrote,

These lockdowns can be scarring, causing some kids to cry and wet themselves. Others have written letters bidding their family goodbye or drafted wills that specify what to do with their belongings. . . . children are being trained to anticipate an outcome that is both terrifying and extremely unlikely to happen to them.

Pinsker wondered if there had been similar scare tactics employed in schools in the twentieth century. Paula Fass pointed out two big ones: duck-and-cover drills and kidnapping scares. Like school shootings, both threats were terrifying, but statistically speaking, both were also extremely unlikely.

Like me, SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably now thinking the obvious: We could extend this list of unlikely-but-scary scenarios forever. Schools have always sought to terrify students into feeling an exaggerated anxiety.

Consider just a few examples:

1.) Sex. If you’ve experienced any sex-education curriculum lately, you know that they rely on a fear of STIs and unplanned pregnancies to get their points across.

2.) Drugs. It wasn’t only in the 1930s that school leaders warned students of “Reefer Madness.”

3.) Health. You might not be old enough to remember polio, but for those who lived through it, children were told not to go swimming for fear of contracting the disease. In the 1980s, too, children were warned that they could catch HIV merely from being near a positive person.

It seems to me we need to reverse Pinsker’s question. He asked,

In postwar America, have kids ever been so afraid and so regularly prompted to imagine their own suffering?

But we need to ask instead: Has there ever been a time when students were NOT regularly shocked and scared? When students were NOT shown clips of dope-smoking creeps or atomic devastation in an attempt to scare them into proper behavior?

And the big question: Why have schools always felt a need for such scare tactics?

I’ve got a couple of ideas. First, I think school leaders and parents tend to see scare tactics as developmentally appropriate. Like drivers-ed crash videos, scare tactics are thought to be necessary to pierce the adolescent fog surrounding students’ brains, to make them understand the real dangers of certain things. Also, I think school administrators and politicians understand that exaggerated fears are politically required, even if they are not practically relevant. No school leader could survive an election if she told parents she was doing nothing to prevent a threat because the actual threat was so miniscule.

Is there more? Are there other reasons you can think of why schools have always hoped to terrify children about highly unlikely dangers?

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Youth Gone Wild

It was a fluke, you might say. A rare event. You’d be right, but that won’t stop people from being terrified of packs of young people going on the rampage, as a group apparently did in my neighborhood this week. And, in fact, the history of schools has always been, in part, a history of adults trying to control the potential violent threat of youth going wild.

Here’s what we know: Here in sunny Binghamton, New York, a 76-year-old man was beaten into the hospital by a group of kids. Apparently, he said “hello” to them and they started a confrontation that escalated rapidly.  The group of four to seven children ages twelve to fifteen began shouting at the man, then punching, kicking, and biting him. The man ended up with bite wounds, cuts, and, according to his granddaughter, a neck injury.

On one hand, it’s a story that gets attention precisely because it’s so unusual. On the other hand, America’s fear of young people runs deep. And that fear has influenced America’s schools for centuries.

Consider comedian John Mulaney’s take. As Mulaney puts it,

Thirteen-year-olds are the meanest people in the world. They terrify me to this day.

For the founders of America’s public school systems, there was nothing funny about it.

As I’m discovering in the research for my new book, the dawn of the 1800s brought renewed fears of what wild children might do. Joseph Lancaster, founder of a new type of urban school for poor children, warned in 1807, left out of school, kids

will become the burden and pests of Society. . . .  It is in vain that laws are made for the punishment of crimes, or that good men attempt to stem the torrent of irreligion and vice, if the evil is not checked at its source; and the means of prevention, by the salutary discipline of early education, seasonably applied.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2019?

The kind of school Lancaster had in mind was all about teaching children to obey, obey, obey. Like students in today’s ‘no-excuses’ charter schools, Lancaster insisted that his students learn to behave in a submissive, docile way. As he put it in 1804,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Did it help? Back in 1804, when Lancaster promised to corral and control wild urban youth, did it work? Not really. Then and now, the promises of urban school reformers can’t keep up with the harsher realities of urban life.

I don’t think young people are really any more violent or explosive than adults, but for centuries Americans have been terrified of what might happen if more youth go wild. I can’t help but think that my 76-year-old neighbor will think twice before he says “hello” to any more kids on his block.

Long Island School of Doom

HT: SB

More proof: The suburbs are eating our children. It’s another terrible school-shooting story, this time from Long Island, New York. And this one has a twist that has me feeling distressed and mystified. What does this story tell us about the nature of American school and American childhood?

connetquot cache

What the cops found. Might they have found this is a thousand teenage bedrooms?

Here’s what we know. According to the local newspaper, three students at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, New York had plans to blow up their school. The kids were overheard making plans on the bus. When police searched their homes and lockers, they found a bunch of stuff, including

two laptops, three BB guns, a homemade ax and books about serial killers and forensics, along with “The Anarchist Cookbook,” which includes bomb-making instructions.

Now, I have to admit I am deeply biased. When I was a sulky suburban teen, I also owned a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook. I probably owned books about serial killers. If I could have I would have loved to own a BB gun. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I saw it as a kind of joke, nothing more.

The authorities in Bohemia weren’t predisposed to laugh it off. The kids were charged with felony conspiracy charges.

An alarming story, no? But here’s the kicker. This same high school has been the target of two more student attacks over the years. Back in 2010, two students attempted to buy guns and make bombs, presumably with a plan to destroy the school. One of the students, Christopher Franko, received a three-to-nine-year sentence.

Back in 2007, two students were arrested for planning a Columbine-style shooting spree at the very same school.

We’ve got to ask: What the hell is going on at Connetquot High School? These are students who have it all, relatively speaking. They are attending a nice school in a nice neighborhood with plenty of green grass and fresh air.

Yet instead of growing up healthy and happy, these Long Island teens keep wanting only to blow the whole thing sky high. What gives? Why do even privileged children of America—some of them, at least—feel such a deep and abiding violent resentment of the friendly school that Bohemia ‘shaped, made aware,/ Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam’?

I don’t think we can take bitter comfort that this teen violence is somehow restricted to Bohemia, New York. After all, the Connetquot shooters were merely copying generations of bomb-throwing schemes among privileged American youth.

So we have to ask the tougher version of the question: Is this town somehow merely the epitome of suburban teenage angst? Is there something rancid buried in the heart of the American suburban dream that is festering in the souls of its comfortable youth?

Gay Trump Card

Okay, folks, here’s another head-scratcher from the world of America’s educational culture wars. SAGLROILYBYGTH have probably already seen the latest expose of James Manning’s ATLAH school. So here’s the puzzle for this morning: In spite of long efforts on the Left to combat racism, is it really only on the fundamentalist Right that the war on racism has been won? Where white and black fundamentalists agree on the meanings of race and racism? I don’t know what to think.

manning atlah

Westboro, NYC.

First, a little background: If you haven’t seen the HuffPost expose, it’s worth your time. Pastor James Manning has attracted attention in the past for his fervent and ferocious anti-LBGTQ views. He made wild accusations that Starbucks was infusing lattes with semen. His church sign went into full Westboro mode at times, proclaiming “Jesus would stone homos” and “Obama is a Muslim. Muslims hate fags. They throw fags off buildings.”

Now Manning is facing accusations of abuse of his students and congregants. According to the HuffPost article, Manning locked a student in a dark basement, used sexually suggestive language with minors, and clamped down viciously on any murmur of dissent in his school and congregation.

The recent expose leaves lots of big questions unexamined. Most telling, the racial ideology/theology of Pastor Manning throws a monkey wrench into any simple culture-war divisions. For instance, according to HuffPost, his school uses both A Beka and Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) materials. ACE, at least, has been credibly outed as a congenitally racist and white supremacist outfit.

ACE MLK

What do white fundamentalist think about race and racism?

One might think that Manning simply didn’t care about the entrenched racist attitudes in the ACE materials because he was looking for fundamentalist schoolbooks and couldn’t find any that weren’t racist.

Maybe.

In other publications, though, Pastor Manning has insisted on some non-conventional racial attitudes. He furiously attacked President Obama. And in the clip below, he insists,

Not only am I not an African American, but I’m not a black man.

[Warning: Video below contains extremely offensive racial language.]

I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions, but I can’t help but wonder if Manning’s outside-the-box racial ideology makes him generally comfortable with the racial ideology of the Accelerated Christian Education materials. After all, fundamentalist curricular materials talk about more than just race.

When it comes to student learning and behavior, for example, Manning’s school touts its “memory/articulation/discipline” approach. It is a traditional approach that comports nicely with the classroom ideology of A Beka Book. As one of A Beka’s promoters promised, A Beka materials do more than just teach facts. At an A Beka school, one leader promised,

You learn the Bible.

You learn that God created.

You learn the worth of your soul.

You master the three R’s and other subjects.

You sit up straight and pay attention.

You learn that it is right not to cheat.

You learn to recite when called upon.

You learn honor and respect for your parents.
You learn respect for authority.

You learn that a man’s word is his bond.

You learn that a job worth doing is worth doing well.

You learn personal initiative.

You develop pride in America.

You learn that the free enterprise system is still the best system.

You learn that competition is healthy.

The goal of a school like this, according to A. A. “Buzz” Baker, is not only to teach a few fundamental religious truths. Rather, a good fundamentalist school will bundle those religious facts into a deeply conservative view of life and learning.

To this reader, Manning’s radically traditionalist, violently anti-LGBTQ school fits perfectly into this fundamentalist educational attitude. At first, we might think that the rest of the fundamentalist package—anti-gay, pro-discipline, pro-memorization, pro-Bible—allows African-American conservatives to overlook the racist component of fundamentalist textbooks.

I think the truth is more complicated than that. In the case of ATLAH schools, at least, the racial ideology/theology of white fundamentalism has leaped over the color line. In this one case, at least, both white and black fundamentalists embrace similar notions of race in these United States. I don’t think those notions are healthy, but like violent anti-LBGTQ rhetoric, they seem to have been taken to heart in some surprising quarters.

God, School, and Abuse

Try it. Ask someone what the government should do to restrict parents’ rights to send their kids to religious schools. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the same answer: Nuthin. But if you ask if the government has a duty to protect kids from horrific abuse, most people will say yes. And as this week’s news headlines confirm, that contrast leads to our endless confusion about the proper relationship between religious schools, parents, kids, and government.

turpins homeschool abusers

Whatever your religion, you don’t have a right to abuse your kids and call it “homeschooling.”

Exhibit A: The parents in the terrible Turpin case have been sentenced to life imprisonment. You may remember this horror-show case from last year. A family with a dozen kids was caught subjecting the kids to abuse—including starvation, sexual abuse, and neglect—under the guise of “homeschooling.”

Exhibit B: A New York judge has ruled that conservative religious schools do not have to comply with government orders. In this case, the city and state governments have been trying for a while to supervise the curriculum at some private Jewish schools. The accusation was that the religious schools had been teaching students only in Yiddish and Hebrew, neglecting their studies in English and science, and neglecting the education of girls as a whole.

Exhibit C: New York has also threatened to take away religious exemptions for measles vaccines. Lots of Orthodox Jewish families have abstained. Traditionally, they were given lots of wiggle room for religious claims. No longer.

Measles NYC orthodox

…but do parents have a right to teach only in Yiddish? …or to skip vaccines?

What does all of this tell us about the proper relationship between government, family, and private schools? Just this: The dividing line is not really about religion. Rather, it is about abuse. Parents and religious communities generally have lots of leeway when it comes to their kids’ educations.

If and when a kid is being abused, however, or hurt physically, the government tends to feel justified in stepping in. This is true when the harm is done only to the religious kids themselves—as in the case of the Turpins or the Jewish-school students—or to the wider public—as with the unvaccinated students.

The problem, of course, is that “abuse” is often in the eye of the beholder. What the Turpins did to their children was an obvious case. But, as Lawrence Krauss has accused, are ALL young-earth creationists guilty of abusing their kids by teaching them zombie science? Or, remembering the case of NFL legend Adrian Peterson, what about parents and schools who use corporal punishment?

No one knows. We don’t have a clear and universal definition of “abuse” that we can apply in every situation. For secular people like me, the idea of neglecting topics such as English and science seems abusive. It seems to harm the life chances of students. For people like me, too, it seems abusive to teach kids–for religious reasons–that only heterosexuality can be practiced morally.

But there’s the rub. I know that plenty of parents disagree. They want their kids to learn young-earth creationism because they love their kids. They want their kids to learn the (alleged) dangers of LGBTQ sexuality because they love their kids. Can that be abuse?

No one knows.

In the end, the reason it is so hard to build a convincing wall of separation between church, state, and school is not because of Jesus or Jehovah or Jefferson. Rather, it is because no one has a simple, universal definition of “abuse.”

Where Orthodox Meets Hippie

They don’t agree on much. But on this they do agree: MMR vaccines are not good for their kids. In my great home state of New York, Orthodox Jewish groups and rich hippies are uniting on this one issue (sort of). Why? As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, it’s not really about God or ethics or any of that stuff. It all comes down to Billy Joel.

Here’s what we know: In Rockland County, New York—just northwest of New York City—the government has taken drastic steps to ban unvaccinated children from all public places. A measles outbreak has led to this unusual measure. Traditionally, most states allowed parents pretty wide leeway in religious and moral exemptions to mandatory-vaccination laws. Today’s outbreak is forcing a re-think of those exemptions.

What does it have to do with Orthodox Judaism and hippie culture? In this case, a lot. The unvaccinated children are clustered in private schools, some of them Orthodox Jewish schools and others from a fancy-pants Waldorf school. In general, the cultural worlds of these two schools could not be further apart. In one thing, though, the parents agree, and this one thing is at the root of the measles problem.

From the Orthodox perspective, MMR vaccines have a complicated backstory. Some Orthodox leaders have counseled against vaccinations, but now leaders agree that vaccines are kosher. Parents, though, are still divided. As Forward described, many in the Orthodox community share

a feeling that their worldview is not in keeping with modern secular society, said Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor who has authored several books about Orthodox Jews.

“It’s about a view that we have our ways and they have their ways,” he said.

When it comes to measles vaccines, many parents in the Orthodox community simply do not trust the experts, and it is that distrust that brings Orthodox and hippies together.

Just down the street from Rockland’s Orthodox schools, but culturally a million miles away, parents at Green Meadow Waldorf School have also attempted to keep their kids from receiving the MMR vaccine. The lesson about distrusting vaccines is the same, but practically every other aspect of these schools is different. Green Meadow, for example, promises that their school will

create a social, cultural, and learning environment that recognizes the child’s spiritual freedom and growth. . . . Rather than teaching to the test or adhering to Common Core standards, the Waldorf curriculum fosters independent, critical thinking and problem solving, develops ethics and morality, and promotes true joy in learning.

The progressive, child-centered world of Green Meadow may be totally different from that of Orthodox schools, but the parents share one fundamental beef. Just like skeptical Orthodox parents, anxious Waldorf parents share a virulent distrust of the medical establishment. They feel it so strongly they are willing to put their children’s health on the line. They probably wouldn’t agree on much else, but they might agree with Billy Joel that it’s always been a matter of trust.

Why Queen Betsy’s Rule about Religious Schools Is a Very Big Deal

If life gives you Lemons…change fifty years of SCOTUS precedent. That might be the new motto of Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos, as she pushes through a change in the relationship between private religious schools and public ones.

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing, Washington DC, USA - 17 Jan 2017

…I’ll make Lemon-ade.

Now, I’ve been accused by very smart SAGLRROILYBYGTH of being hyperbolic when it comes to interpreting DeVos’s recent moves, so I’ll try to be careful in my hysteria here. Here’s what we know: This week DeVos introduced a change in enforcement of federal law regarding the interaction between public schools and private religious ones. It may sound like a snoozer, but it has enormous implications for those interactions. And those interactions, in turn, have huge implications for the presumed boundaries between religion and government in these United States.

Some facts in the case:

  • Queen Betsy’s proposed change would cease enforcement of a rule banning religious groups from providing secular services to students in private religious schools.
  • So, for example, if a student in a Catholic school needed speech therapy, the law requires the public school district to provide those services.
  • In the past, the district had to provide the services itself, or hire a non-religious contractor to do it.
  • Now, the public school district can hire a religious organization—not the private religious school itself—to provide those services.
  • The services are only supposed to be “secular, neutral and nonideological” in nature. In other words, things like speech therapy and literacy coaching, not religious instruction.

Clear as mud?

To understand why these changes are such a big deal, we need to revisit the SCOTUS ruling that has laid the foundation for the past half-century of policy regarding public aid to religious schools. One of the outcomes of that case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, was the famous “Lemon test.” This three-prong guideline helped Americans find the proper line when it came to public funding of religious education. Since 1970, when deciding if relations were too close between a religious school and the government, we could check these three guidelines:

  1. Does the statute have a “secular legislative purpose?”
  2. Is the “principal or primary effect . . . one that neither advances nor inhibits religion?”
  3. Does the rule “foster an excessive government entanglement with religion?”

In the original case, SCOTUS considered laws that helped pay the salaries of religious-school teachers. They found that those laws did indeed have a secular purpose—states wanted all children to get good educations. They punted on the second part—they didn’t rule on what the primary effect of the laws were. But the justices agreed that the laws violated the third rule. By putting government in charge of part of the school day of teachers at religious schools, the laws hopelessly entangled government with a religious institution.

To this reporter, it seems DeVos’s new rule would throw the Lemon Test out the window. Imagine the likely outcomes. A public school district would be able to hire a speech therapist (for example) who is employed by the Catholic Church, or by Focus on the Family, or by any other of a million religious organizations. The school district would not be able to pay for any type of religious instruction, but only the secular services provided.

In practice, the school district would have to monitor the goings-on in the speech-therapy sessions themselves. The “entanglement” of the public school district and the religious service provider would be beyond “excessive.”

Furthermore, if any religious service provider were able to capture the market for, say, speech therapy in religious schools, it would be able to earn a huge payday from the public tax coffers. I can’t see how that is anything other than a rule that “advances . . . religion.”

Is it a done deal? Not yet. As Americans United protested,

Betsy DeVos is neither the Supreme Court nor Congress. She does not get to unilaterally declare that a statute is unconstitutional, especially with a provision that is designed to protect church-state separation, a bedrock of our democracy.

An administrative decision not to enforce certain provisions of existing legislation is not at all permanent. Just ask Obama. If DeVos’s plan survives, however, it will reverse the past fifty years of church-state guidelines when it comes to private religious schools.

How to Kill Public Schools

Well, we had a good run. For the past hundred-fifty years or so—depending on where you live—Americans have had public schools. I don’t mean to be Chicken Little here, but from an historical perspective, it looks like Queen Betsy has figured out a way to get rid of em.

simpsons school

Who will pay to educate Mr. Burns’s doctor?

In some senses, of course, the United States has always had schools FOR the public. Even before the Revolution, there were schools that students without tuition money could attend. I’m finding out way more than I want to about the funding of early American “public” schools in my current research. As I’m finding, these “charity” schools had a wild mix of financial backers. Churches, taxpayers, wealthy individuals, and even not-so-wealthy people gave a lot or a little to educate impecunious children.

At different times in different places, a funding revolution swept the world of American education in the 1800s. Basically, this revolution replaced schools that were FOR the public with schools that were BY and FOR the public. That is, instead of parents, charities, philanthropists, churches, and governments all kicking in here and there to fund worthy students and schools, local and state governments committed to provided tax-funded educations to children. Those governments took tax money from everyone—whether or not they sent kids to the public schools—and in return promised to run schools for the benefit of the entire community.

There were big problems with this funding revolution. Not all children were included. Most egregiously, African-American students were often segregated out of public schools, or shunted off to lower-quality schools. And not all states participated equally. New England and the Northeast jumped early to the new model, while other regions hesitated. Plus, people without children and people who chose not to send their children to the public schools ended up paying for schools they didn’t personally use.

The heart and soul of public education, however, was that the public schools would be administered as a public good, like fire departments and roads. Everyone paid for them, everyone could use them, and everyone could in theory claim a right to co-control them. Even if your house didn’t catch fire, in other words, you paid taxes to support the firefighters. And even if you didn’t drive a car, you paid to maintain the public roads. And those firefighters and road crews were under the supervision of publicly elected officials, answerable in the end to taxpayers. Public schools would be the same way.

This funding arrangement has always been the heart and soul of public education. And it is on the chopping block. Queen Betsy recently proposed a five-billion dollar federal tax-credit scholarship scheme. Like the tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in eighteen states, this plan would allow taxpayers to claim a credit for donations to certain non-profit organizations that would then send the money to private schools.

In some cases, donors can claim up to 100% of their donations back. For every dollar they “donate,” that is, they get a full dollar rebated from their tax bills. Tax-credit scholarship schemes serve to divert tax money from public education—administered by the public—to private schools without any public oversight.

[Confused? Me, too. For more on the ins and outs of tax-credit scholarships, check out this episode of Have You Heard, featuring the explanations of Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.]

lancaster friend of the poor

Back to this future?

What’s the big deal? In essence, these schemes return us to the world before the public-education $$$ revolution. They return us to the world Joseph Lancaster knew so well in the first decades of the 1800s, where funding for schools was an impossibly tangled mess. Back then, parents who could afford it could send their kids to great schools. Parents who couldn’t had to hope their kids might get lucky and attract the attention of a wealthy philanthropist or a church-run charity program. They had to hope that a mix of government money, private tuition, church support, and philanthropist largesse could support their kids’ educations.

By allowing taxpayers to pick and choose whether or not to support public education, Queen Betsy’s proposal takes us back to those bad old days. Are we really ready to throw in the towel on public education? Ready to return to the old system, with “charity” schools run FOR the public by wealthy benefactors who wouldn’t send their own kids there?

Trump’s S-Word 2020 Gamble

Will it work? Personally, I hope not. As a historian of American conservatism, however, I think it could turn out to be a winning strategy. And I’ll hazard an easy prediction right now: Schools and rumors about schools will continue to play a key role.

Here’s what we know. In his SOTU speech this week, President Trump harped on the dangers of socialism. As he put it,

Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence—not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be scratching their heads and asking why Trump is taking on a dead issue. Who worries about socialism anymore? The Soviet Union collapsed, China is careening forward with its some-pigs-are-more-equal-than-others capitalism, and Cuba seems poised to renounce its long socialist practice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Unreasoning s-word school terror, c. 1949.

Indeed, the socialist pressure these days comes from a different direction, from the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both loud and proud democratic socialists.

Some lefties think Trump is making a big mistake by focusing on the s-word. As John Nichols wrote in the Nation,

while Trump may think “socialism” is a scare word, and while many prominent Democrats may get scared when it is referenced, Sanders is comfortable discussing the ideology.

Nichols and other hopeful progressives look at recent Gallup poll results for encouragement. It seems more and more young people are expressing confidence in socialism.

gallup socialism

Changing attitudes…?

Let me be as clear as I can about this: I hope it’s true. I hope new majorities of American voters see the wisdom of policies such as health care for all, affordable college tuition, and aggressive economic policies to help lower-income Americans. I hope that the s-word has lost its enormous power to stop useful policies dead in their tracks.

But I don’t think it has. Any candidate—including Trump—can win instant and powerful support by screaming about the dangers of socialism. Maybe I’m scarred by my time in the archives, but I can’t help but remain impressed by the powerful emotions generated by the s-word.

For example, in the middle of the twentieth century anti-socialist conservative activists in the Daughters of the American Revolution went to great lengths to sniff out any traces of socialist subversion in America’s public schools. Their intense investigations would be hilarious if they weren’t so destructive.

In the early 1960s, for example, Mississippi DAR leader Edna Whitfield Alexander warned of the dangers of Bobby Squirrel. The BS incident took place in a popular kids’ book used in schools, Ask For It.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs Alexander asked in the pages of the Monitor Herald (Calhoun City, MS), January 3, 1963, “Have you ever heard or read about a more subtle way of undermining the American system of work and profit and replacing it with a collective welfare system?”

In that period, as well, conservative activists used their newsletters and mailing lists to spread terrifying rumors of socialist intrigue in the nation’s public schools. As this flyer warned, students nationwide were planning socialist revolts in school.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Conservative activists reprinted flyers like this and included them in newsletters, c. 1959.

It was a ridiculous thing to panic about. Its ridiculousness, however, does not take away anything from its incredible political power. To a depth that progressives can’t hope to fathom, Americans have always been terrified of the prospect of socialism in our country.

It hasn’t gone away. As one conservative pundit wrote recently,

By making resistance to socialism a lynch pin of his 2020 campaign, Trump will be helping to right this extremely dangerous situation, giving cover to students being indoctrinated in our classrooms and to their increasingly alarmed parents.

Maybe it doesn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway. There IS NO “extremely dangerous situation” in American classrooms due to creeping socialism. It just doesn’t exist. The real dangers in American public school classrooms come from inadequate funding, cruel and imbalanced disciplinary practices, and rampant economic segregation.

Nevertheless, though I hate to say it, I think the sort of knee-jerk terror many Americans feel at any whisper of the s-word will prove Trump right. If he continues to portray himself as the bold defender of American freedoms against creeping socialism, he stands a chance of victory.

Vermont Really Does Discriminate against Religious Schools

Hot off their Colorado no-gay-weddings baker case, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is at it again. This time, the target is the state of Vermont. ADF alleges that the state discriminates against religious schools. They’re absolutely right, but until now ADF wouldn’t have had a chance. They’re hoping a recent SCOTUS win has put a crack in the wall between church and state wide enough to pull the state of Vermont through. The case comes down to one tricky question: Is a college class the same as tire mulch?

The Simpsons Lemon GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Here’s what we know: Three high-school students from a Catholic school wanted to participate in a dual-enrollment program. In this program, the state pays tuition for students to take college courses for advanced credit. Because they attended a religious private school, they weren’t allowed to participate. According to the Burlington Free Press, Vermont’s Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that state funds could not sponsor students at religious schools.

ADF says such laws are discriminatory. As they complained,

The Dual Enrollment Program statute discriminates against students attending religious high schools not because of the content of college courses they wish to take, but instead because of the religious status of the high schools they attend.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, two SCOTUS cases are most relevant here. Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) established the three-prong “Lemon Test.” This case decided whether or not Rhode Island and Pennsylvania could financially support religious schools.

  1. Any law, SCOTUS ruled, must have a secular purpose. So, for example, a state government COULD pay for children to go to religious schools if the government was mostly interested in the secular goal of providing a basic education for children.
  2. Second, any law’s primary effect must not be one that supports or inhibits religion. If a religious school is part of a church’s religious mission, for example, the government can’t pay for it, because the primary effect would be to support that religious mission.
  3. Trickiest of all, any law must avoid “excessive government entanglement with religion.” But what constitutes “excessive?” IMHO, this is where things get really tricky.

Because last year, SCOTUS ruled that a church could not be excluded from a grant program that had a secular purpose. Trinity Lutheran complained that it was being discriminated against by not being allowed to participate in a program for its playground. The church wanted an equal chance to get government-sponsored tire mulch for its playground.

In its new case, ADF is undeniably absolutely correct in its primary assertion. The state of Vermont really does discriminate against students from religious schools. That discrimination, however, is intentional and seems to be in line with the Lemon Test tradition.

The way I see it, ADF deserves to lose this case. A college class is not the same as tire mulch. To be able to offer college course credit, IMHO, would be a big bonus for any high school. It would promote the mission of the school. If that mission is religious, as it certainly is in the case of Catholic schools, then government money would constitute excessive entanglement. Moreover, funding this important educational experience would mean supporting the Catholic diocese’s religious mission.

But if it helped students in religious schools take college classes, would Vermont’s PRIMARY purpose be to support the Church? Or merely to help all its citizens further their educations? And how would a judge decide what constitutes “excessive” entanglement?

What do you think?