School Politics Cracks the Race Wall

The unions like the one on the left...

The unions like the one on the left…

Who backs market reforms of schools? Conservatives, of course, and rich people. Oh, and African American voters. The race for superintendent of public instruction in California is suggesting a dramatic realignment of electoral politics. But those conservative dreams might not be warranted.

As we’ve explored in these pages (here and here, for example), white conservatives have long dreamed of shaking off their racist reputations. In school politics, it seems those efforts have finally begun to bear fruit.

It has not been easy. The conservative, or, to be more precise, the more conservative candidate for New York City mayor tried to woo non-white voters with similar school appeals. That candidate, Joe Lhota, blasted Bill de Blasio for his opposition to charter schools. Such schools, Lhota insisted, were the only educational hope for “minorities and inner city children, and children of immigrants.”

In New York City, it didn’t fly. But the race in California is much different. According to the San Jose Mercury News, one candidate for superintendent has cobbled together a coalition of super-rich backers and conservative voters, plus Latino and African American support.

That candidate, Marshall Tuck, is running neck-and-neck with the establishment choice, incumbent Tom Torlakson. Tuck’s success is built on his appeal to both the rich and the poor. The teachers’ unions have spent plenty to support Torlakson, but Tuck has still managed to outspend them, thanks to his deep-pocketed backers among the usually conservative California business elite.

Non-white voters like Tuck’s plan. According to a recent poll, Tuck leads by 38% among African American voters and 13% among Latinos. Why? One expert thinks that such voters want more charter schools, more vouchers, and less power for teachers’ unions.

Could this be the realignment conservatives have long been dreaming of? A chance to appeal to the conservative feelings among non-white voters? A chance to split off non-whites from the clutches of the Democratic Party and get them voting Republican on issues such as gay rights, abortion, and school choice?

After all, there have been similar epochal realignments in electoral politics. Most famously, FDR managed to convince African Americans to vote Democrat. Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, African Americans had been solidly Republican. Or, more recently, Reagan wooed “lunchpail” Democrats to the side of the GOP.

Could we be on the verge of a similar realignment? One in which conservative non-white voters ditch the Democrats in favor of the more conservative GOP? And if so, will school politics lead the charge?

There are a couple of things that should temper the hopes of conservative poll watchers. First, this California race is non-partisan. Both candidates are Democrats. So conservative African Americans and Latinos can vote for the more conservative candidate without abandoning the party of FDR and LBJ.

Second, though Tuck is the candidate with the more conservative positions, he’s not calling himself that. Instead, as with much of school politics, Tuck is calling his marketization plan the side of “school reform.” And his election fund, filled by mega-rich donors, officially calls itself “Parents and Teachers for Tuck.”

In this case, non-white voters seem to like the market idea that conservatives have long promoted. But they like it when it comes in a Democratic Party wrapper. They like it when it is called the progressive choice, not the conservative one.

Will non-white voters soon flock to the conservative banner? Maybe, but this race shows they might only do so if conservatism calls itself something else.

Children Must Submit

First learn to obey

First learn to obey


What is the role of the child in school? Many conservative thinkers, now and in the past, have insisted that children must learn to submit to teachers’ authority. Before they can learn to read or figure, children have to learn that obedience is their proper attitude. These days, this penchant for submissive children has leached out of the world of traditionalist thinking into the burgeoning world of charter schooling. A recent interview with a leading scholar highlights the ways conservative values have reasserted themselves as the mainstream norm.

Thanks to a watchful colleague, I came across this interview with Penn’s Professor Joan Goodman. Professor Goodman works in the Teach for America program at Penn and spends a good deal of time in urban charter schools. In many of those schools, Goodman finds a rigorous standardization and a vigorous effort to train children to be submissive. As Goodman told EduShyster,

these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told. . . . They want these kids to understand that when authority speaks you have to follow because that’s basic to learning.

At the same time, Goodman notes, the schools insist on lockstep performance by teachers. Every teacher is supposed to be delivering the same content at the same time in the same way. Goodman calls it a “very uniform and scripted curriculum.”

Ask anyone familiar with urban charter-school education these days, and you’ll hear similar stories. For those of us trying to figure out what “conservatism” means in education, this leads us to some difficult questions: Did these goals and values move from fundamentalist and conservative activists into the mainstream? And if they did, how?

In my historical research into the worlds of conservative educational activism, I’ve seen it time and again. For decades—generations, even—conservative thinkers have insisted that submission is the first lesson of successful schooling. Without submissive children, teachers will not be able to transmit information. Without the successful transmission of information from teacher to student—according to this conservative logic—education has not happened.

Originally published in 1979...

Originally published in 1979…

In the world of Protestant fundamentalist education, youthful obedience is often elevated to a theological value. Writing for an A Beka guide in the late 1970s, fundamentalist writer Jerry Combee warned that Christian teachers must be stern disciplinarians. “If Christian educators give one inch on discipline, the devil will take a mile.” Combee continued,

Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child. Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting). They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

That same A Beka guide to good fundamentalist schooling promised that good schools always taught in lockstep. At the time, A Beka offered a curriculum for private start-up Christian fundamentalist schools. Not only would schools get curriculum infused with dependably fundamentalist theology, but

the principal can know what is being taught. He can check the class and the curriculum to make certain that the job is getting done. Substitute teachers can also step in and continue without a loss of valuable teaching time.

Some bloggers confirm that fundamentalist schooling has continued to emphasize obedience over intellectual curiosity. Jonny Scaramanga, Galactic Explorer, and Samantha Field have all shared their experiences with this sort of fundamentalist educational impulse. In their experiences, fundamentalist schools and homeschools have insisted on obedience, and have done so in a sinisterly gendered way. Young women and girls, especially, were taught to submit to male authority figures. Every student, however, seems to be pressed to submit and conform, not as a punishment, but rather as a foundation for education.

To be fair, as I argued in an academic article a while back, there has been a lot of disagreement among fundamentalist Protestants about proper education. Just as the folks at A Beka were insisting that proper education began with submission, the equally fundamentalist thinkers at Bob Jones University pushed a very different vision of proper education. Led by long-serving dean Walter Fremont, the school of education at Bob Jones promoted a more child-centered sort of fundamentalist education.

We also need to note that this insistence on submissive children is not just a fundamentalist one. Secular conservatives have long insisted that learning can only begin with obedience. In many cases, this has been a conservative response to a left-leaning progressive pedagogy. For example, leading progressive thinker Harold Rugg began his career with recommendations for proper classroom attitudes. In an article from the 1920s, Rugg instructed teachers to share authority with students. Good teaching, Rugg wrote, did not dictate to children; it did not insist on obedience. Rather, good teaching pushed students to think of themselves as autonomous, self-directed learners. Good teachers, Rugg insisted, asked students again and again, “What do you think?”

In the 1920s, this notion of proper student behavior divided progressives from conservatives. One conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution offered a very different vision of good teaching. Writing in 1923, Anne Minor explained that the best teachers begin with “truth and integrity, orderliness and obedience, loyalty and love of country.”

In the 1950s, another conservative Daughter of the American Revolution warned that teaching had gone astray when it encouraged children to be “persistent in their own ideas, disobedient, and resent[ful of] parental discipline.”

Another secular conservative in the 1950s agreed. One letter-writer to the Pasadena Independent described the problems with progressive education this way:

discipline, as well as the lack of fundamental knowledge teaching [sic], is one of the biggest lacks of the progressive school. Some parents shift the discipline to the school which is wrong, of course, but if the parents are at fault for lack of discipline, so are the schools. . . . Lack of consideration of others is the biggest fault of children today, and should not be too difficult to correct. Tantrums should never be tolerated, sassiness and disobedience should be controlled at an early age.

rafferty what they are doing to your children

And, of course, other conservative educational thinkers and activists also pressed for an obedience-first vision of good education. The leading secular conservative voice of the 1960s, Max Rafferty, agreed that schools could only function if children first learned to submit. As Rafferty put it in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

School, you see, was not considered ‘fun’ in those days. It was a mighty serious business and was conducted that way. At any rate, once the two premises are accepted that (1) boys won’t behave in schools unless compelled to do so and (2) boys must be made to behave so that they can learn things that are essential for them to know, then the whole paraphernalia of corporal punishment falls into proper perspective. . . . Things have changed of late in the field of discipline, and more than somewhat. They started to change at home first, back in the twenties and thirties. The prime mover in their change was the new psychology, which was widely publicized and which caused parents seriously to doubt their proper role vis-à-vis their children for the first time in the recorded history of the human race. . . . The result was the emergence of the least-repressed and worst-behaved generation of youngsters the world had ever seen.

As I researched my upcoming book about conservative activism in education, I found this theme repeated over and over. It goes something like this: Good schooling means the transmission of information to children. That transmission cannot occur unless children submit to teachers’ authority. Therefore, any meaningful education reform must begin with the establishment of an atmosphere of relentless obedience and submission.

Professor Goodman doesn’t talk about “conservatism” or “fundamentalism” in the schools she visits. And many of the reformers these days who push for youthful obedience and teacher standardization would never call themselves conservatives, let alone fundamentalists. But it is difficult not to notice the overlap.

Conservative notions of youth and education, it seems, have become the standard way to think about educational reform among groups such as Teach For America. First and foremost, in this understanding of education and youth, children must submit.

Required Reading: Wal-Mart and Fundamentalist U

A recent exposé in the New York Times attacked Wal-Mart’s funding of charter schools. Conservative pundits defended Wal-Mart. But neither side took notice of a more profound tradition of educational activism by the leaders of the mega-retailer.

Historian Bethany Moreton, in her not-so-recent-anymore book To Serve God and Wal-Mart, describes a different sort of educational work by the founders and leaders of Wal-Mart. In addition to funding charter schools, the Waltons and Wal-Mart developed a network of fundamentalist colleges and universities that may have had far more long-term impact on American society and culture than any charter school.

How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

The 2009 book garnered plenty of rave reviews from academic historians. I won’t try to offer a full review here, but if you’re interested, you can check out this one in Church History, or this one in the American Historical Review. Instead, I’ll sketch a few of Moreton’s points about the links between the Wal-Mart fortune and a network of evangelical colleges in the Ozark region. As I move into the research for my next academic book, a twentieth-century history of conservative evangelical colleges and universities, it seems clearer and clearer to me that these colleges have played a huge role in determining some of the basic culture-war landscape of recent United States history.

As Moreton describes, Wal-Mart and Walton money helped support some schools that desperately needed financial help. Especially close to Wal-Mart were the University of the Ozarks, John Brown University, and Harding University. Each of these schools embraced a Wal-Mart friendly combination of evangelical Protestantism and free-marketeering. And each benefited from substantial financial support from the Wal-Mart empire. Indeed, as Moreton relates, University of the Ozarks students joked that they should just change the name of their school to “Wal-Mart U” (pg. 144).

In the mid-1980s, as Moreton tells the story, with help from the Waltons, the faculty of the University of Ozarks spelled out the connections between traditional evangelical higher education and an intellectual embrace of the values of capitalism. In 1983, Mrs. Walton launched a series of “Free Enterprise Symposia” to trumpet the achievements—both moral and economic—of capitalism (pg. 154). A few years later, the faculty agreed that a new student concentration in entrepreneurship would include traditional courses in Old and New Testament, government, and liberal-arts electives. But the focus would be on business and the moral triumph of capitalism over “socialism/marxism” (pg. 155).

Students at these capitalist/Christian colleges embodied a very different sort of student identity from those of the hippies and leftists dominating headlines at other schools. For instance, Moreton describes one example of student activism at the University of the Ozarks in the late 1970s. Students joined with downtown merchants to encourage Christmas shopping. Students combined patriotic displays of red, white, and blue with traditional Santas to connect Jesus, America, and consumerism (pg. 143).

Wal-Mart also supported student organizations such as Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE). These pro-Christian, pro-capitalism student groups claimed to enroll 40,000 college students at 150 campuses nationwide. Together, SIFE bragged that it reached 100,000,000 people with its message of Christian free enterprise. Moreton described one example of that sort of student outreach by the SIFE chapter at Harding. Harding students tromped about the region with a student in a giant pencil costume. They spoke at schools, club meetings, and any other venue that would have them. Their message? Following the work of pundit Leonard Read, the students explained that worldwide capitalism managed to produce goods and services for all without central guidance. The humble pencil, for example, took materials and know-how from all around the world, bringing profit and uplift to all involved. Yet the invisible hand of the market accomplished this incredibly complex task without oversight from bumbling and greedy governments (pp. 193-197).

Leonard Read's Free-Enterprise Tale

Leonard Read’s Free-Enterprise Tale

As Moreton tells it, Wal-Mart’s college activism did not limit itself to the borders of the United States. In the late 1980s, the Waltons funded scholarships for students from Central America to study at colleges such as Harding, John Brown, and the University of the Ozarks. The goal was to train managers and workers in the pro-business, pro-Christian approach to big-block retailing and worldwide supply chains (pp. 222-247).

Moreton rightly emphasizes the centrality of higher-educational activism by conservatives such as the Waltons. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argue in both my 1920s book and my upcoming book on educational conservatism more broadly, the nature and purpose of higher education remained a central focus of American conservatism. As Moreton’s study reveals, the brains behind the Wal-Mart phenomenon took an active part in sponsoring the sorts of college and university “experience” that they thought would promote proper, traditional Americanism.

If I were to quibble with this book, I’d note that Moreton sometimes seems unaware of the longer, broader connections between pro-business groups and educational institutions. She describes what she calls the “national context of business colonization of education generally” (pg. 151) in the 1970s, but she doesn’t adequately note that the roots of that colonization go back into the 1930s, at least. Groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, for example, actively conducted the same sorts of pro-business educational outreach that Moreton describes. A quick consult with Jon Zimmerman’s Whose America? would have helped Moreton flesh out the longer history.

But this sort of historian’s quibble does not detract from the importance of Moreton’s book. As the recent New York Times attack makes clear, conservative activism in K-12 education will always get plenty of attention. But the more profound cultural work of changing higher education may have much bigger impact on the nature of America’s culture wars. Who teaches the many conservative teachers in K-12 schools, for instance? Where do Christian executives learn to combine Jesus with Milton Friedman? Moreton’s look at the connections between Wal-Mart and higher education help illuminate the core intellectual premises of Christian capitalism.


Charter Schools SHOULD Be Religious


Thanks to alert colleagues, I’ve been following the great series of articles in Slate about creationism and charter schools.  Most recently, we find a map of charter schools that seem to be teaching creationism.  According to this survey by Chris Kirk, plenty of tax-funded charter schools across the nation are teaching creationism.

But is there anything wrong with charter schools teaching creationism?

Don’t get me wrong: I think all students should learn the best science, even if they go to non-tax-funded schools or homeschools.  That should not be a legal requirement, but rather simply a goal for common education and citizenship.  In traditional public schools, we should demand a rigorously pluralist ethos.  No student from any religion or non-religion (or race, or gender identity, or etc.) should ever feel squeezed out due to his or her background.  And I don’t dispute Kirk’s accusation in this Slate piece that lots of charter schools are likely teaching creationism.  As Kirk puts it,

If you live in any of these states, there’s a good chance your tax money is helping to convince some hapless students that evolution (the basis of all modern biological science, supported by everything we know about geology, genetics, paleontology, and other fields) is some sort of highly contested scientific hypothesis as credible as “God did it.”

But let’s step back a moment and examine the real legal, educational, and constitutional issues here.  Let’s not forget that charter schools were created in order to offer more authentic diversity of educational models.  Should that diversity not include religious diversity?

According to a note in the Yale Law Journal a few years back, the proper line between religion and publicly funded charter schools is not as clear cut as journalists and policy-makers often assume.  In that 2008 piece, Benjamin Siracusa Hillman argues that charter schools ought to be allowed or even encouraged to include religious practices and beliefs.

Recent US Supreme Court decisions, Hillman argues (see esp. page 576), support a notion that school districts may legitimately include religious schools without violating the famous 1970 “Lemon Test.”  If a state or school district has a secular purpose in setting up schools—including even religious schools—those schools are more likely to pass constitutional muster.  The goal must not be to serve only one sort of religion.  Nor must school districts hope to exclude non-religious students, or students from other religious backgrounds.  Religious schools may fit into a broad charter school/voucher school network, the Court has suggested, as long as the first purpose is to improve education for all.

Hillman also analyzes the decision of a Michigan court in which parents sued a charter school for cramming religion into their publicly funded school.  The school, according to this federal court ruling, did no wrong in including religion, since it did not force students to engage in religious practice or adopt religious beliefs.

So can publicly funded charter schools teach creationism?  Or, even more provocatively, SHOULD charter school networks work to include schools that teach creationism?

The recent string of Slate articles implies that such practice ought to raise alarm bells.  But if we view creationism as an expression of a religious belief, it seems the rule is not quite so cut-and-dried.  Public school districts have much more leeway to include religious schools than many people seem to think.  Such ignorance can be politically useful.  For example, no one will mobilize to fight against teaching that might be perfectly legal and even desirable.  But some sections of our chattering classes might have better luck with breathless exposes of religion in publicly funded schools.




Kopplin, Creationism, and Liberal Book Burnings

A network of charter schools in Texas uses religious textbooks.  Bad religious textbooks.

That’s the accusation leveled last week by anti-creationism activist Zack Kopplin in the pages of Slate.

For anyone who has looked at the textbooks cranked out by conservative religious presses, as I have, the charges sound true.  But does this sort of expose rely too heavily on shock value?  Does it really tell us anything about what goes on in those charter schools?  Or does it rely on the dangerous mentality of the book burner?

Kopplin’s investigation uncovered the dodgy content of books used by Responsive Education, a network of charter schools that claims 65 schools and a plan to open more in the coming year.  Kopplin, a young but seasoned activist, found textbooks rife with creationist-friendly ideas.  Moreover, the textbooks promote a religious vision of history and repeatedly promulgate half-truths and lies as historic fact.  The books take a questionable tone about homosexuality and seem to embrace a distressingly patriarchal vision of proper family life.  Worst of all, Kopplin argues, these textbooks are used in public schools, schools that ought to be open and welcoming to all students, not just religious conservatives.  These slanted textbooks are peddling fake science, bad history, and sectarian “values,” and they’re using tax money to do it.

Let me repeat: Kopplin’s charges ring true to me.  I agree that public schools must not push theology.  But as I finish up my current book manuscript about the history of conservative school activism in the twentieth century, I can’t help but notice the disturbing echoes of Kopplin’s crusade.  His anti-textbook campaign seems to revive the worst elements of wartime book burning.

Sound outlandish?  Let me offer some specific examples.

First and most worrisome, Kopplin relies on the tried-but-false McCarthyite tactic of guilt by association.  In his article, Kopplin points out that some ResponsiveEd schools might assign readings from the Patriots’ History of the United States, a skewed and partisan book.  To discredit the book, Kopplin notes that the book is beloved by conservative blabbermouth Glenn Beck.

More troubling, Kopplin tars ResponsiveEd schools with all the sins of every right-wing theocrat with whom they can be associated.  Consider, for example, Kopplin’s takedown of Oklahoma businessman and curricular contributor Tom Hill.  Hill, Kopplin charges,

is a follower of Bill Gothard, a minister who runs the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a Christian organization that teaches its members to incorporate biblical principles into daily life. IBLP is considered a cult by some of its former followers. Gothard developed character qualities associated with a list of “49 General Commands of Christ” that Hill adopted for his character curriculum. Hill then removed Gothard’s references to God and Bible verses and started marketing the curriculum to public schools and other public institutions.

The values taught by Responsive Ed can often be found word for word on Gothard’s website. The Responsive Ed unit on genetics includes “Thoroughness: Knowing what factors will diminish the effectiveness of my work or words if neglected.” The only difference is that Gothard’s website also adds “Proverbs 18:15” after the quote.

What does this really prove?  That some of the origins of ResponsiveEd’s curriculum can be tied to conservative evangelical Protestants?  Is that illegal?  Is that even worrisome?  After all, taken another way, Kopplin’s accusation can be taken as proof that ResponsiveEd’s curriculum has been DE-Biblicized.

This sort of guilt-by-association has a terrifying history in American educational and political history.  Too often, left-leaning or liberal groups earned labels of “subversion” by association with communist thinkers or organizations.  Consider, for instance, the widely circulated “spider-web chart” used by patriotic activists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  Any alleged association with leftist organizations, the chart accused, meant that organizations must not be trusted.

Image Source: Women's and Social Movements in the U.S.

Image Source: Women’s and Social Movements in the U.S.

In the late 1930s, a conservative campaign took off against a set of social-studies textbooks by left-leaning author Harold Rugg.  Time and again, those accusations were based on these guilt-by-association tactics.  Since Rugg taught at Teachers College Columbia, it was alleged, since he was a member of the Frontier Thinkers intellectual group, and since some members of that group had made statements or editorial decisions friendly to communism or Soviet Russia, Rugg was charged with treasonous intent.  His books were charged with all manner of subversive crime.  Just as anti-Rugg activists swung too wildly against Rugg’s books, so Kopplin seems over-ready to ban ResponsiveEd books based on questionable associations.

Another parallel between Kopplin’s article and earlier book-burning crusades is that Kopplin’s charges do not have much to do with actual classroom practice.  As Kopplin admits, he never actually witnessed the teaching in ResponsiveEd schools.  Rather, he relates that one classroom he looked at had the distinctive set up of an Accelerated Christian Education classroom.  Kopplin cites ILYBYGTH friend and guest writer Jonny Scaramanga as evidence that such classrooms teach terrible Bible-based schlock.

But here’s the problem: just as conservative book-burners in the 1940s gave too little thought to the ways Rugg’s textbooks might actually be used, so Kopplin does not offer any evidence about the actual goings-on in ResponsiveEd classrooms.  Anyone who has spent any time teaching knows that textbooks do not dictate classroom practice.  Take the most obvious example: What should we make of public-school classrooms that use the Bible as curriculum?  As religion scholar Mark Chancey has argued recently, the Bible can and should be taught.  But HOW it is taught makes all the difference.

I’m not saying that the ResponsiveEd curricular materials are wonderful.  But I am saying that jumping to conclusions about the practices at any school based mainly on textbooks is a fundamental mistake.

This is getting long, but here is one other creepy similarity between Kopplin’s article and earlier book-burning campaigns.  Like earlier campaigns, Kopplin’s charges have been passed along uncritically by allies seeking to discredit ResponsiveEd.  Intelligent, well-meaning critics such as Diane Ravitch, the Texas Freedom Network, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have trumpeted the conclusions of Kopplin’s expose.

None of these liberal organizations seems troubled by Kopplin’s sketchy evidence or guilt-by-association tactics.  As an historian who has spent the better part of the last few years stuck in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1930s and 1940s, this knee-jerk boosterism alarms me.  For many patriotic book-burners in the 1940s, Elizabeth Dilling’s The Red Network served as a similar sort of convenient sourcebook for denunciation.  Too many conservative activists—even intelligent, well-meaning ones—repeated outlandish charges and baseless accusations from Dilling’s book.  The fact that a textbook author such as Harold Rugg showed up in Dilling’s pages served as proof positive for many school activists that his books must not be allowed in America’s public schools.

Creepiest of all, Kopplin’s language often echoes almost verbatim the language of 1940s book-burners.  For example, Kopplin engages in a sinister sort of hermeneutic when he says the following: “Some of Responsive Ed’s lessons appear harmless at first, but their origin is troubling.”

In other words, Kopplin admits that the books themselves might not be so bad, but since they came from conservative religious sources, we must automatically attack them.  This smacks too much of what political scientist Michael Rogin has described as “political demonology.”[1]

Consider some of the similar language from the 1930s/1940s anti-Rugg textbook fight.  One of the leaders of that anti-book battle, R. Worth Shumaker of the American Legion, told a correspondent that the dangers of the Rugg books only became clear if one went “back of the scenes.”  Reading the books themselves, Shumaker admitted, made them seem bland and harmless.  But once an earnest researcher discovered Rugg’s leftist connections, the slant of the textbooks became obvious.

Another American Legion activist agreed.  Hamilton Hicks admitted in a 1941 article that “intelligent people” could read Rugg’s book and find nothing wrong with them.  “Dr. Rugg,” Hicks accused, “is far too adept a propagandist to disclose his real purpose in any one textbook.”[2]  Just as Zack Kopplin warns that the ResponsiveEd textbooks might seem harmless until we understand their origins, so anti-Rugg activists admitted that Rugg textbooks might seem fine until their sinister backstory was uncovered.

We verge from activism to hysteria when we denounce textbooks for reasons other than the textbooks themselves.  If textbooks seem harmless, the first appropriate conclusion is that the textbooks are likely harmless.

So what is a liberal to do?  Kopplin makes an important point: public schools ought not cram dead science and bad history down students’ throats.  As organizations such as Texas Freedom Network have done, this situation calls for more rigorous examination.  What really goes on in ResponsiveEd schools?  They should not be allowed to use tax dollars to teach sectarian religion and false facts.  It is important for all of us to remember, however, the profound costs of over-hasty accusations.  Calling for book burnings is never an appropriate tactic.

Kopplin has made some serious charges.  So far, however, those charges have not been backed up by adequate proof.  More is at stake here than just one charter-school network.  If we veer into hysteria rather than activism, we repeat the worst mistakes of our history.

[1] Michael Paul Rogin, “Ronald Reagan,” The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), xiii.

[2] Hamilton Hicks, “Ours to Reason Why,” American Legion Magazine (May, 1941): 6, 51.

How to Save the GOP

What can conservatives do to shed their image as “a party of plutocrats who get a kick out of kicking the poor when they’re down”[?]

Writing in the pages of libertarian flagship Reason Magazine, A. Barton Hinkle pleads with conservatives to get on the charter-school bus.

Liberal politicians such as President Obama and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio have handed conservatives a golden opportunity, Hinkle argues.  When liberals close down charter schools and limit vouchers, they doom low-income children to “reactionary” public schools.  By promoting market reforms, allowing parents to choose among a variety of schools, conservatives can kill two birds with one stone.

First, conservatives will be able to introduce a significant measure of market discipline into a social institution firmly dominated by entrenched and bloated unions.  Second, conservatives will be able to claim without flinching that they represent society’s least powerful.  Charter schools and voucher opportunities can benefit low-income parents the most.

Can this strategy work?  Can conservatives take the wind from liberals’ sails by promoting school privatization?

We’ve seen recently how it can fail.  Mayor De Blasio’s recent challenger Joe Lhota went all-in for charter schools.  Didn’t help.

Perhaps other conservative politicians will manage to do better.


Texas Charter School Promotes Religion

Doesn’t seem like news that publicly funded schools in Texas promote religion.  But this story from the New York Times has a twist you might not have expected.

Anyone who pays attention to this stuff might expect Texas public schools to be woefully (or wonderfully, depending on your POV) entangled with religion.  Whether it is preaching in the form of Bible classes, cheerleaders with Bible verse banners, creationism in the science textbooks, or just a general Long-Game style fight for more Jesus and less Devil, Texas schools have long seemed friendly to Jesus.  Texas’ conservative “Revisionaries” have worked long and hard to make public schools friendly for faith.

A recent story in the New York Times features a different sort of religious entanglement.  In this case, it is not a question of teachers leading Protestant prayers, or students protesting against learning evolution.

In this case, a charter school has been accused of using public money to promote the Jewish religion.

The San Antonio school, Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy, teaches in Hebrew and has classes about Israeli culture.  Doesn’t seem to be a problem there.  Lots of publicly funded charter schools focus on a specific non-English language and culture.

But according to journalist Edgar Walters, the school has drawn attention as a potential church/state problem since the new charter school seems to be nothing more than a cynical reincarnation of an existing religious school.  Critics worry that religious schools are simply conducting a name change on paper in order to win public money.

School leaders insist they don’t teach religion.  But one board member admitted they have the same head of school and most of the same staff as they did when they were an explicitly religious school.  As a private Jewish day school, the Eleanor Kolitz Academy used no public money.  But now as a charter school in the same building with the same staff, they receive public funding.

Can religious schools reinvent themselves this way?  It does not seem paranoid to assume that things will go on largely as before at the Kolitz Academy.  It seems a little iffy for religious schools to simply make a name change to start raking in public moolah.


A Conservative Runs on Charter Schools

How can a Republican get votes in the Big Apple?  Mayoral candidate Joe Lhota thinks promises of charter schools will help.

In a recent advertisement analyzed in the New York Times, Lhota critiques Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio for threatening to charge rent to charter schools.  Lhota, in contrast, promises to double the number of such schools.

Why?  According to the ad, charter schools promise the best educational hope for “inner city” kids.

Charter schools also represent the first best hope for many conservative educational activists.  The free-market conservatives at the Heritage Foundation, for example, insist that expanding the number of charter schools will expand educational opportunity for all.

Lhota does not seem to support charters in order to prove his conservative credentials, however.  Just the opposite.  Charter schools, Lhota claimed, were the real “progressive education approach.”  Lhota insisted that his support for charters proved that he was the real educational progressive in this race.  “If you oppose charter schools,” Lhota told the Association for a Better New York, “and the programs and the other choices that are available for minorities and inner city children, and children of immigrants, you cannot call yourself a progressive.”

That’s educational politics for you: the more conservative mayoral candidate endorsing a school program beloved by conservatives and calling it the progressive choice.


A Conservative Takedown of Testing and Charters

Progressive education folks foam at the mouth when they talk about the new power of testing and charter schools.  Will conservatives join them?

We see recently a furious conservative condemnation of the current education “reform” mania. [The essay originally appeared last July in Crisis.]

Veteran history teacher Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg offered a conservative rationale for opposition to the Michelle Rhee/Waiting for Superman school reform crowd.

Those folks want to make public schooling more responsive.  They argue that schools should have more wiggle room to fire weak teachers; charter schools should be able to slash red tape to provide effective education for any child left behind.  Such reformers often also promise to hold teachers and schools “accountable” by mandating rigorous testing of students.  Such tests, the argument goes, will force teachers and schools to pay attention to the academic performance of all their students.

Progressive critics have teed off on this reform ideology for a while now.  Some have warned that charter schools are nothing but a capitalist scheme to siphon money away from public education.  And the mania for testing, progressives warn, represents a perversion of the promise of American public education.

Rummelsburg gives a different rationale for this same suspicion.  Placing hope in the panacea of charter schools, Rummelsburg argues, is a mistake.  Waiting for any kind of public-funded superman, Rummelsburg insists, misses the point.  The real responsibility for education must remain with the family, not with the government.  And standardized testing reduces the true goal of education to a series of bubbles filled in.

Rummelsburg doesn’t pull any rhetorical punches.  As he puts it,

Waiting for “Superman” illustrates how severely broken public education is and brings up the real issues of school reform and the voucher system. However, the “magic bullet” of charter schools is not the answer. A transfer of money and power from the dreadful public classrooms to charter schools is a bit like transferring the administrative duties of running Nazi death camps from the Germans to the Belgians, yet still the need for reform is beyond dire. However, reform is futile if the goal remains a high standardized test scores.

Ouch.  Will more conservatives join Rummelsburg’s condemnation of the current reform agenda?



School Choice: Failing

We don’t normally hear criticism of school privatization from free-market conservative types.  But a recent essay by Michael Q. McShane in National Review included some harsh talk about vouchers and charters.

McShane, Education Fellow at the staunchly free-market American Enterprise Institute, complained that free-market solutions were not working.

Seems like a shocking admission for a conservative intellectual, until we get into McShane’s argument.

Vouchers aren’t working, McShane argues, because they are not being pushed hard enough.

McShane looks at the example of Milwaukee.  For twenty-five years, as McShane points out and as academic historians have agreed, Milwaukee has been one of the most “choice-rich” big cities in the nation.

The result?  As McShane notes, Milwaukee’s student test scores lag far behind Chicago and other big cities.

Some critics might conclude that “choice”—vouchers for parents to send children to private schools, charter schools that use public funding but avoid public-school bureaucracy, and rules that encourage parents to move their children between schools—has been proven a loser.

McShane says no.  What school systems really need, he argues, is a more thorough-going application of the principles of “choice.”  Ultimately, cities such as Milwaukee have only tinkered around the edges of the destructive public-school mentality.  Free-market solutions won’t really work, McShane believes, until cities allow the “creative destruction” that the market demands.

Private schools must be encouraged, he writes, to create new schools and new capacity, not merely fill existing seats.  In conclusion, McShane writes,

Private-school choice will drive positive change only when it creates high-quality private schools within urban communities. New schools and school models need to be incubated, funding needs to follow students in a way that allows for non-traditional providers to play a role, new pathways into classrooms for private-school teachers and leaders need to be created, and high-quality school models need to be encouraged and supported while they scale up. In short, policymakers, private philanthropy, and school leaders need to get serious about what’s necessary to make the market work.

Those of us hoping to make sense of conservative attitudes toward American education must grapple with this free-market thinking.  To scholars such as McShane, data that seem to prove the failure of free-market reform really only means such reforms have not been implemented thoroughly enough.