School Dictatorship by Facebook

What do conservatives want out of schools? In Brazil as in the USA, it’s a familiar checklist: communist subversion out, LGBTQ+ stuff out, union power out. In Brazil’s case, the new right-wing president has given conservatives new hope. But unlike in the past, Brazil’s conservatives have a new weapon at their disposal: Facebook.

bolsonaro

Hear no evil…

As reported in The Economist, President Jair Bolsonaro has energized right-wing school dreams in Brazil. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bolsonaro won the election in spite of—or because of—his inflammatory anti-gay statements and nostalgia for the old dictatorship.

When a presidential candidate promises to bring back torture, makes rape jokes, and brags that he would rather see his son dead than gay, it’s not a shocker that his policies move schools in right-wing directions.

In Brazil’s case, that means fighting the influence of Brazil’s most famous educational thinker, Paolo Freire. It also means an attempt to ban what Brazilian conservatives call “gender ideology.” Brazilian conservatives consider the left-wing ideas of Freire to be a blight on Brazil. As one right-wing group put it, Freire’s teachings turned

Innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists.

The plan? Bolsonaro has promised to

Take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paolo Freire out of there.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, those things are similar to what USA conservatives have wanted in schools for a long time. Conservatives here, too, have fretted about communist subversion, tried to get rid of the “homosexual agenda” in public schools, and threatened to eliminate the Department of Education.

What might be new, though, is the Brazilian strategy to enforce their right-wing changes. As The Economist reports, conservative activists have taken to Facebook to enforce their vision of proper public education. As one conservative teacher told students on Facebook,

“Attention students! . . . many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by Bolsonaro’s victory. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that . . . offend your freedom of thought or conscience.”

Bolsonaro’s Facebook page apparently includes video clips of left-wing teachers in action, including one in which a teacher shouts at a student,

I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.

Or another in which a teacher warned students not to listen to

idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor.

The plan, clearly, is to shine a right-wing social-media spotlight on teachers. If they endorse rights for LGBTQ people, they can be “outed” for it. If they teach a sympathetic vision of socialism, everyone will know about it. If they teach anti-Bolsonaro ideas–the thinking goes–then right-wingers can target them. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at least, conservatives hope that Facebook can offer a new way to pressure teachers and schools to conform to their vision of proper public education.

Will it work? So far, some teachers have reported being threatened and disciplined for their anti-Bolsonaro or pro-LGBTQ classroom comments. Back in the twentieth century, USA conservatives tended to fight against textbooks instead of individual teachers, because they usually couldn’t find out much about what classroom teachers were actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder if Facebook will allow conservatives to take their fight right to the teachers themselves.

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What Does Education Look Like from 1600 Penn. Ave?

It doesn’t mean much, but Trump’s official statement for “Education Week” tells us a little more about the hopes and dreams of America’s conservative education activists. It also includes one stumper.

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The roots of “Education Week,” c. 1941

First, a little background on “Education Week.” As I found out in the research for my book about educational conservatism, Education Week started roughly a century ago as an effort to bring conservatives and progressives together for a whole-community focus on public schools.

The leading players were the American Legion for the conservative side and the National Education Association for the progressives. The Legion hoped to use Education Week to fight socialist subversion in America’s public schools. They hoped the week would give a much-needed shot of patriotism and community oversight to possibly subversive teachers.

These days, Education Week mostly passes unnoticed by everyone. In line with tradition, however, President Trump issued a formal proclamation in support of it. Predictably, he hit a few notes calculated to warm the hearts of conservatives.

First, he included conservative educational dog-whistle #1:

Parents are a child’s first teacher.

At least since the 1920s, conservative activists have looked askance at the role of the teacher and school in forming children’s characters. Harping on the leading role of parents has long served as a promise to respect conservatives’ vision of proper education. As I argued in the pages of Newsweek, though, it’s not always as simple as people tend to think.

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The plan, c. 1934

Second, he used the c-word a lot. As Trump proclaimed,

We are also protecting and expanding parents’ access to a wide range of high-quality educational choices, including effective public, charter, magnet, private, parochial, online, and homeschool options.

Next, Trump’s proclamation noted that the primary goal of school should be to prepare students for employment. In the words of the proclamation,

My Administration is committed to ensuring that America’s students and workers have access to education and job training that will equip them to compete and win in the global economy.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH recall, Trump made headlines last summer with a proposal to roll together the Departments of Education and Labor into a giant “workforce” department. It hasn’t always been the dream of conservatives to abolish the federal role in public education (see this Time article for my longer explanation of the history) but since the 1940s it has been a reliable conservative vote-getter.

So far, so good. Trump’s proclamation hit the notes calculated to encourage conservative education activists. But what about his oddball third paragraph? Here it is in all its glory:

Each student is unique, with their own distinct experiences, needs, learning styles, and dreams.  Thus, education must be customized and individualized as there is no single approach to education that works for every student.  My Administration encourages parents, guardians, educators, and school leaders to rethink the way students learn in America to ensure that every American receives a high-quality education that meets their needs.  We empower teachers to create learning environments that are challenging, relevant, and engaging.  When families are free to choose where and how their children learn, and when teachers are free to do their best work, students are able to grow and explore their talents and passions.

On the face of it, this paragraph seems to be balancing the ideological teeter-totter a little bit. Trump seems to be speaking to the progressive crowd, calling for student individualization and teacher empowerment.

How are we supposed to take it?

When I channel my inner curmudgucrat, this paragraph sounds like just another use of phony “personalized” buzzwords to sneakily privatize public education. Or if I remember the lessons of Larry Cuban and David Tyack, it might sound like a bureaucratic recognition of the eternally conflicted goals of public education.

Or maybe, just maybe, the proclamation simply doesn’t deserve this much parsing. Maybe it is merely the product of a group of Trump-bots who wanted to say something without saying anything.

I would love it if someone could explain it to me.

Conservatives Are Right about America’s Schools (but So Are the Rest of Us)

As usual, I’m behind the times. I’m just now catching up with ed historian Jack Schneider’s work. Last summer, Prof. Schneider wrote a great essay in the Atlantic about the differences between real public schools and “public schools” in America’s culture-war imagination. It helps me understand why conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher are both right and wrong about the current state of American education.

school prayer

Will the real American school please stand up?

As Scheider argued convincingly, there really isn’t anything that we can usefully call a “system” about America’s public schools. As he put it,

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. . . . What schools need in order to succeed depends significantly on the needs and concerns of the local community, and policy tends to reflect that. . . . Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.”

So when our favorite pundits warn us about the terrible dangers of America’s public schools, they can be convincing. For some conservative readers, for example, the Benedictophile reporting of American Conservative Rod Dreher can be terrifying.

Dreher has told true stories, after all, that might understandably frighten religious conservatives. For example, when it comes to new thinking about gender, some public schools have taken an aggressive role. As Dreher told the tale,

A few years ago, a friend of mine’s daughter, an Evangelical Christian, was in a public school in a Bible Belt town about the size of Brownsburg. The school’s administration had gone all-in on LGBT, particularly on transgender, and the school’s culture was celebratory to the point of militancy. The daughter — a sweet, small-town church kid — was constantly challenged by other students about her hateful religion. The simple fact that she was openly Christian put a target on her back in the culture of that school. . . . I know there are lots of conservatives who think this isn’t going to happen to their kids’ school. Listen to me: you’re wrong. This is a cultural revolution. The day is fast coming where what was once radical will be mainstream, and what was once mainstream will be radical. . . . If you can afford to take your kid out of public school, why aren’t you doing it? [Emphasis in original.]

To this non-conservative reporter, the power of Dreher’s story comes from its plausibility. Public schools really do tend to push a certain vision of sexuality and gender that might go against some conservative beliefs.

But here’s the kicker: As Prof. Schneider’s essay reminds us, it is only some public schools that might do such things. Leaping from one case—or even several cases—to a sweeping pronouncement about the nature of public education today is unwarranted.

And of all people, Dreher himself should be the first to agree. Because in the end, anyone from any side with any axe to grind can put together the same sort of blistering and accurate accusation. Looking at the terrible and heart-breaking record of sexual abuse in private Christian schools, for example—even Dreher’s preferred sort of “Classical” Christian schools—might lead fair-minded observers to conclude that private evangelical-Christian education is foundationally perverted by its penchant for hierarchy, patriarchy, and subjugation.

Indeed, we do not need to look far to see survivors who do just that, concluding, for instance,

 purity culture creates a toxic environment that enables abuse and assault.

Or further,

Predators are enabled by the inherent patriarchy that disbelieves female victims, on the purity culture that treats abuse as a sexual sin rather than a violent crime, and the zealous willingness to believe the abuser’s claims of repentance (to forgive is divine, after all).

Is it in the very nature of evangelical Christian schools to enable sexual abuse? The string of examples certainly seem to point in that direction. And we’ll be wise to heed the warnings. However, we’ll also be wise to remember Schneider’s words.

Though it might be useful for “rousing the collective conscience,” jumping to conclusions about America’s school systems is fundamentally flawed. There is no single public school system. There is no single, coherent evangelical system. The merits and terrors of each need to be understood as they really are, not as judgments on an entire way of life.

Is THIS Okay?

It’s not easy to be a social-studies teacher these days. We are supposed to inspire our students to love history and to become active citizens, but we’re not supposed to dictate political beliefs to students. We are encouraged to share our own biases and political commitments with students, but we’re not encouraged to tell students what to think. Our job is to help form moral persons—real empowered humans—but we aren’t hired to cram our morality down anyone’s throats.

pa liberal indoctrination

Civics ed? Or sinister indoctrination?

Given all that, we ask today: Did this Philly school teacher go too far? The chair of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party says yes. He says a flyer handed out by Philadelphia Central High teacher Thomas Quinn crosses way over the line.

The flyer encourages students to vote. Nothing very controversial there. But it also tells students to support Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, and to oppose the “Trump regime.”

It will come as no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH that I support this whole platform. I would love it if every student voted this way. But that’s not the most  important point here. The real question is about the proper political role of a good teacher.

What do you think? Should social-studies teachers encourage students to vote a certain way?

Religious Extremists Capture Major Political Party

Old news, right? SAGLRROILYBYGTH won’t be surprised to hear that the Republican Party is addicted to the political support of conservative evangelicals. These days, though, we have a sad reminder of the fact that both major parties can fall victim to special-interest lobbies, lobbies that put children in a terrible educational position.

yeshiva

Who is watching out for the kids?

For Republicans, this is nothing new. For a long time now, Republicans have been trembling at the thought of angering evangelical creationists. The most egregious example, IMHO, was the waffling of former Governor Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, you may recall, was the popular governor of Louisiana who briefly made a bid for the GOP nomination in 2016. No matter what you might think of his politics, Governor Jindal is no dummy. He graduated from Brown with a degree in biology. He went on to Oxford, turning down acceptances at Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School. He may not have made much of a splash in the 2016 presidential race, but we can safely assume that Jindal knows plenty about evolution and many other things.

Yet in spite of all his knowledge, when asked what he thought about evolution in 2014, Jindal hedged. Yes, he wanted his own kids to learn about evolution. When it came to public schools, though, Jindal defended the rights of creationists. If a local school district wanted to teach creationism as science, Jindal argued, that should be up to them.

Bad thinking, but good politics, I suppose.

We see a similar tragedy unfolding these days in Arizona. To win election in the Republican Party, it seems, candidates felt pressed to endorse a bigger role for creationism in public schools.

It’s been true for a long time and it doesn’t seem like it is going to change any time soon. The Republican Party forces candidates to ignore their own ideas and truckle to the desires of radical young-earth creationist supporters.

Recent news from my adopted home state shows that this is not only a problem for the GOP. The Democratic Party, too, seems to have entered into a deal with religious extremists. Just as Republican pandering hurts schoolchildren in Louisiana and Arizona, so too does Democratic deal-making hurt kids in New York.

Here’s what we know: Governor Andrew Cuomo is accused of a sordid educational quid pro quo. He allegedly promised prominent Hasidic leaders that he would not interfere with their religious schools in exchange for a vital political endorsement.

If it’s true, it’s more than a shame. Politicians of every party have a duty to safeguard the educational chances of students. The schools in this case don’t seem to do that at all. As a lawsuit this summer charged, significant numbers of yeshiva students in New York aren’t adequately taught secular subjects such as English, history, and science. Their curricula for boys focus almost exclusively on studying ancient religious texts.

As the New York Times reported, the state has promised to investigate these schools.  As they wrote last summer,

In 2015, the city Department of Education said it was opening an investigation into about 36 private yeshivas to see if they were providing adequate secular education according to state law. But in the three years since that announcement, the city has not released any results. Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the investigation is still active and the department would deliver the report “soon.” The city has visited 15 schools so far, according to Ms. Rothenberg.

A year ago, when asked when the education department planned to release a report on its investigation, a spokeswoman, Toya Holness, said the investigation is continuing. “We are treating this matter with utmost seriousness,” she said.

This month, Governor Cuomo was accused of promising the Hasidic community that the investigation would continue to languish in exchange for the political endorsement of an influential leader in the Hasidic community.

If true, the charges show how difficult it is to protect the educational rights of children. Children don’t vote.  Children don’t meet with governors to insist the law be obeyed. Children can’t promise a solid block of political support in exchange for special favors.

To be fair, I think the GOP problem is worse. But this story demonstrates that the problem is not only a “conservative” one. Rather, any political party risks being held in thrall to special-interest groups, groups that might not have the best interests of children at heart.

Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?

The Catholic Elephant in the Room

Why didn’t she mention it? For people familiar with the twentieth-century history of Catholic education, it looms as the biggest issue. Yet in a recent article about changing private-school enrollment in The Atlantic, Alia Wong leaves it out entirely. I’m stumped.

Students in class at St. John Villa Academy Catholic School

…or maybe it was the plaid?

Wong looks at the changing face of private education. With the dwindling enrollment in low-tuition Catholic schools, she notes, more expensive private schools are gobbling up a larger and larger share of the private-school market. The average tuition at private schools in the latest available data approached $11,000 annually. For most parents, that’s simply unaffordable.

So far, so good. If we really want to get a sense of the staggering inequalities built into America’s educational landscape, IMHO, the bigger story is the startling disparities between public schools. Even in the same city, some public schools resemble upscale educational hotels while others feel like seedy fleabags. But Wong makes a good point that private schools are becoming the province of a shrinking economic elite.

However, I can’t figure out why she left out the most obvious explanation for the shrinking of America’s Catholic school network. Here’s how she puts it,

A number of factors are contributing to the phasing-out of Catholic schools. One is a drop in the number of clergy members, who historically taught for relatively low wages. Another is the Church’s sex-abuse scandals, whose financial ramifications have undermined its ability to operate schools. In addition, demographic shifts such as falling birth rates, the growing concentration of black and Hispanic families in the bottom tier of the country’s income distribution, and a decline in religiosity among Americans, combined with the rise of charter schools, have led to lower enrollment in parochial education.

All true and important. But Wong doesn’t mention the impact of Vatican II. The public perception of the Church’s 1965 statement, Gravissimum Educationis, was that Catholic parents had been released from the requirement to send their children to Catholic schools. As the 1965 statement said,

Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.

Of course, at least as I read it, that statement is more about helping Catholic parents get a tax break to send their children to Catholic schools, but in the public eye the Vatican II agreement was often seen as freedom to attend public schools. Not surprisingly, given the choice between free-tuition public schools and low-tuition Catholic schools, huge numbers of Catholic parents began sending their children to local public schools instead.

Vatican II is not the only reason for shrinking enrollments in Catholic schools, for sure. At least in the popular understanding of American Catholic history, though, it played a huge role.

…so why wouldn’t Wong mention this epochal shift in American Catholic education? If we’re trying to understand the changing enrollment in private Catholic schools, it seems like an odd thing to leave out.

Sex Abuse at School: The Bad News from Chicago

It’s ugly enough as is. When we reflect on the lessons we should take from Chicago’s record of abusing students, though, it should leave us even more depressed.

Chicago abuse stats

The news from Chicago.

It has been too tempting for too many of us to explain away the sexual abuse of students in schools. Oh, we might say, that’s a problem for those fundamentalists at Pensacola and Bob Jones. Or, oh, we might think, that’s the danger of big-time sports. Or Catholic church hierarchies. Or homeschooling. Or fraternities. Or fancypants private schools.

Or any of a host of other explanations, all of which try to impose some vaguely reassuring line around the edges of sexual abuse at school. We shouldn’t. Sex abuse is part of the structure of schooling itself, difficult as that is to say out loud. When adults are put in power over vulnerable students—as is the case in almost every school on the planet—sex abuse will be a tragic but tragically predictable result.

In Chicago, investigative reporters uncovered a pattern of abuse and denial in Chicago Public Schools. Students who reported abuse were ignored. Teachers and coaches who were credibly accused of abuse were recommended or rehired. Over and over again, students were not protected.

As the Chicago Tribune report insists, better protections must be implemented. At the heart of the matter, though, is our shared unwillingness to confront the bitter roots of the problem.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing me say it, because I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Here it is: Any school, anywhere, with any system of reporting and control, is still a potentially dangerous place for children. If we don’t understand school as a fundamentally coercive institution, we’ll never be able to recognize its real dangers.

What Vouchers Can Do: Florida Tax-Funded Fundamentalism

I guess we shouldn’t really call it an “exposé” because it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t expect. Still, it can be eye-opening to see the sorts of things voucher programs can do. This week, the Orlando Sentinel explores the content of fundamentalist textbooks used at area private schools. The story prompts us to ask a tough question about voucher programs: Is it fair to limit voucher programs only to religions we like?

ACE florida 1

Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

As I’ve argued in a couple of academic articles, the history of fundamentalist textbook publishing is key to understanding both the “Christian-school” movement and the subsequent evangelical homeschooling exodus.

Without the work of school publishers such as A Beka Book, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press, I believe, conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been able to open so many small private schools. And without pre-made curricular materials, evangelicals would not have been able to leave school by their millions in the 1990s to homeschool.

Plus, no one should think that these fundamentalist textbooks are static or monolithic. As I explored in a chapter in AJ Angulo’s terrific book Miseducation, ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones are all very different from one another, and all have radically changed their treatment of topics such as US History.

It’s not just me: Dr. Jonny Scaramanga has devoted his early academic career to exploring the curriculum to which he was subjected as a youth. Dr. Scaramanga argues that Accelerated Christian Education never escaped its racist, homophobic origins, despite some surface changes and lip service to liberalization.

As the Orlando Sentinel explains, voucher programs in Florida are sending tax dollars to schools that use textbooks by the “big three” fundamentalist school publishers. As the investigators discovered, the textbooks are full of creationism, ethnocentrism, and historical denialism. As OS puts it,

[Investigators] found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions. . . .

The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”

We have to ask: Is this sort of thing okay for a tax-funded school? After all, there is nothing in this story that should come as a surprise. If we want to allow voucher programs that send tax money to private schools, we should expect some of those dollars to pay for curricula we disagree with. Is that okay?

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Hard-hitting curriculum for Florida’s third-graders. This sample comes from an Accelerated Christian Education reader.

Or, to put it in nerdier terms: How should policy-makers decide if religious schools qualify to participate in tax-funded programs? It can’t be simply on the basis of our own personal religious views. For example, I believe the ACE, BJU, and Abeka textbooks are terrible and I would never want my kid to use them in school. But my personal preferences can’t suffice to dictate policy. How can we decide which religious schools qualify for tax-funded voucher programs?

One option would simply be to make ALL religious schools off-limits for voucher-funded students. In some cases, though, that would seem to keep deserving kids from getting a higher-quality education than their local public schools can provide.

Another option would be to rule out schools that limit their students’ life chances. As one of the OS investigators argued, for example, using these creationist textbooks would hurt students. As the article explains,

“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”

But WOULD they? Anyone who knows the real story of American higher education knows that creationist students have plenty of creationist colleges they can attend. Is it fair to say that students can’t study creationist books because they don’t agree with mainstream science? Isn’t that the whole point of private schools in the first place?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly against using tax dollars to fund private religious schools. I think we should nix ALL religious schools from that sort of public funding. But we can’t do it only for some religious schools and not for others, based on the fact that we don’t like some of the religions. And we should not be surprised to find out that voucher programs are doing precisely what they were designed to do: Fund religious schools.

Bursting the Conservative Bubble about Educational History

How did American public schools get started? Like the rest of us, conservative intellectuals and activists have always told themselves stories that confirmed what they wanted to believe. This morning, we see another expression of century-old conservative myths about educational history.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, conservatism has always been fueled by a false notion of America’s past. When it comes to schools and schooling, conservative activists since at least the 1930s have told themselves that schools used to be great, but scheming progressive New Yorkers took over at some point and ruined everything.

rafferty what they are doing

Schools USED to be great…

Consider this example from my favorite twentieth-century educational conservative, Max Rafferty. Rafferty was the superintendent of California’s public schools in the 1960s. He was a popular syndicated columnist and almost won the US Senate race in 1968. One of the reasons for Rafferty’s popularity was his persuasive but false vision of educational history. He told readers over and over again that American public schools used to be great, local institutions. The problem came, Rafferty explained, when New York “progressives” took over.

As Rafferty wrote in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

Wherever progressive education was allowed in infiltrate—and this was almost everywhere—the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

This morning we stumbled across a 2018 update of this twentieth-century just-so story. Writing from Pepperdine’s American Project, Bruce Frohnen tries to explain why conservatives hate public schools. Along the way, Prof. Frohnen makes big false assumptions about the history of those schools.

First example: Like a lot of conservatives, Frohnen incorrectly assumes that federal and state leaders call the shots in public schools. As Prof. Frohnen puts it,

The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.

Not really. Most teachers ARE the local communities.  As Stanford’s Susanna Loeb found,

A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

Similarly, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that the most important factor driving teachers’ choices about evolution education was local values. If communities wanted evolution taught, teachers taught it. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

gallup local schools

If schools aren’t local, why are so many locals happy with them?

So, yes, the impact of federal funding has increased since 1950. But most of the day-to-day decisions about schooling and education are made at the very local level. This localism might explain why most American parents are actually very happy with their children’s schools. Gallup polls have consistently found that most people grade their kids’ schools highly, in spite of the hand-wringing by pundits like Dr. Frohnen.

Second example: Like a lot of people, Prof. Frohnen mischaracterizes the early history of American public education. As he argues [emphasis added by me],

Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships. Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann.

Nope. From the get-go, ed reformers promised that publicly funded schools would serve a national purpose. And those reformers preceded the attention-hogging Horace Mann. Consider just a couple of examples from my recent research into the career of Joseph Lancaster. Starting in 1818, Lancaster swept into Philadelphia, New York, and other cities, promising that his “system” could educate a new nation’s children.

Lancaster and his fellow reformers insisted that their goal was precisely to train NATIONAL citizens, not local ones. As he wrote in a 1817 guide to his system [emphasis added again],

Another inducement to pursue the Lancasterian system, as it respects the state at large, is the uniformity of principles and habits, which would be thus inculcated among the children of those citizens who are the subjects of this kind of instruction, a desideratum essential to the formation of correct national feeling and character.

In all of his early writing, Lancaster explicitly promoted his scheme as a way to foster “NATIONAL EDUCATION” [his emphasis this time]. Indeed, one of the reasons Lancaster’s reform plan was so popular in the 1810s was precisely because it promised to train national citizens—at the time, the security of the new nation was extremely shaky.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, agree with Prof. Frohnen’s ideas about public schools or don’t. Embrace his vision of conservative principles or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t listen to pundits who tell you that America’s public schools are ruled by any distant power. And don’t buy the old line that schools in the old days used to be about purely local values.

It just ain’t so.