I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy Monday! Another week come and gone and nothing to show for it except a handful of headlines:

Does college push students to the left? Not really, a new study finds. At IHE.

A Catholic view: Radical creationism suffers from “an impoverished theology,” at America.Bart reading bible

What does a conservative Koch-funded school look like? Now we know, at Wichita Eagle.

Schools don’t teach much about slavery, at WaPo.

What goes on in evangelical study centers on college campuses? At RNS.

Who’s afraid of institutional life? An interview with an evangelical college president at CT.

New bill would ban South Dakota schools from teaching about gender identity, at MN Star-Tribune.

Florida takes the lead on privatizing public education, at AP.

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The Tortuous Triumph of Progressive Education

It’s hard to know whether to cheer or cry. For people like me who want progressive schools and progressive politics, it hurts to see progressive classrooms converted into tools of the rich. But see it we do: More evidence today from Wichita that progressive education has triumphed over its conservative bête noirs, only to be turned into a tool of traditionalism.

wichita wonder koch school

The progressive vision for Wichita. Rich people only, please.

Here’s what we know: The conservative bajillionaire Koch brothers have long been interested in educational issues. Now they have funded a fancy-pants progressive school in Wichita. Second-generation Chase and Annie Koch are opening the Wonder school in Wichita. Their plans could have come straight out of a 1930s progressive-ed playbook.

Their vision? No age-graded classrooms, no report cards, no judgment. Focus on student-directed activity, guided by adult “coaches,” not teachers. As one planner put it,

We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now. . . . We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.

So far, so good. Such dreams have been around for a century now, pushed by progressive-ed leaders such as George Counts, William Heard Kilpatrick, and of course, John Dewey.

In the middle of the twentieth century, as I recount in my book about educational conservatism, traditionalists pushed back hard against such notions. These days, at least in Kansas, some of the hardest-core educational conservatives have embraced the obvious superiority of progressive classroom methods.

So we should celebrate, right? Not so fast. Those same progressive-ed-loving conservatives tend to take a very different approach when it comes to schools for the rest of us.

Yes, the Koch’s own kids get to go to schools with fabulously progressive pedagogy. But Koch money pushes a very different sort of classroom elsewhere. In Tennessee, for example, Koch funding promoted charter schools for low-income families. At some of those schools, most famously the KIPP network, students are rigidly controlled. KIPP’s “no excuses” model and “SLANT” rules (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer questions, Nod and Track the teacher) can feel oppressive.

At some charter schools—especially urban schools with high proportions of low-income non-white students—students are compelled to sit silently at lunch, march silently and exactly through hallways, respond rapidly and exactly to teacher prompts, and hold their heads rigidly at all times.

What a contrast to the free-wheeling, mind-expanding Koch-funded school soon to be offered to affluent kids in Wichita. Of course, for only $10,000 per year, anyone is welcome at the Wichita Wonder school. Unless, of course, a student has any sort of disability.

What are we supposed to think? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard not to see the obvious: Some conservatives have recognized the huge benefits of progressive classroom practices, but they only want them for their own children. Or, to be more charitable, conservatives are only willing to foot the bill for progressive classrooms for their own kids.

A Liberal Leader Pushes Religion in Public Schools

They say only Nixon could go to China. Maybe now they’ll say that only de Blasio could get religion back into New York’s public schools. According to the New York Times, Mayor de Blasio has been irking his liberal allies by his repeated efforts to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state. With greater success than many conservative activists, this liberal mayor has been able to push religion in the Big Apple.

Public religion: Texas style

Public-school religion: Texas style

No one doubts de Blasio’s left-of-center politics. The Washington Post called his leadership “a laboratory of sorts for modern progressivism.” Yet this progressive politician has done more to integrate religion and public schools than many of the conservative politicians we’ve studied in these pages.

For example, in his quest to expand pre-kindergarten classes to all of New York’s children, de Blasio has included religious schools. As the New York Times relates, the Mayor has welcomed the participation even of very conservative religious schools, as long as they agree to include children of all religious backgrounds. This plan, of course, would funnel tax dollars directly to religious organizations.

Similarly, Mayor de Blasio has added two Islamic holidays to the New York City public school calendar, precisely because they are religious holidays. Muslim leaders celebrated, but civil libertarians point out that this act violates a long-standing principle of church-state separation.

The Mayor has long supported the use of school buildings by religious groups for services, though conservatives accuse him of reversing himself. One case might soon end up before the Supreme Court. If SCOTUS bans this traditional practice, will de Blasio protest? Will the Mayor take the side of religious groups against a constitutional clarification of the required wall between religious groups and public education?

Public-school religion, New York style

Public school religion, New York-style

New York Times writers Michael M. Grynbaum and Sharon Otterman call New York a “famously secular city.” But we need to be careful when we say such things. As Grynbaum and Otterman note, de Blasio’s success has come partly with support from conservative religious New Yorkers, “a substantial portion of the city.” As we’ve explored in these pages, New York, like many big cities, is not secular, but rather riotously religious.

Indeed, that ferociously diverse religiosity might be the key to Mayor de Blasio’s success. Conservative activists have tried time and again to push evangelical Protestantism in the public schools of places such as Kansas and Kountze, Texas. In New York City, on the other hand, the Mayor can make a good case that he is not pushing any one sort of religion. In his efforts to improve public schooling for all, he has the liberty to open the door to religious groups in ways a more conservative politician might not.

Can Conservatives Care about Black People?

Would you take twenty-five million dollars from a conservative donor?

That’s the question posed recently to the United Negro College Fund.  The love-em-or-hate-em Koch brothers gave a $25 million donation, and some voices in the academic community want the UNCF to give the money back.  We have a different question to ask.

The prominent historian Marybeth Gasman argued that the UNCF should give the money back.  [Full disclosure: Professor Gasman and I will both be contributing chapters to an upcoming volume about agnotology and education.]  For anyone who knows the history of African-American higher education, Gasman wrote, this sort of conservative funding raises ominous red flags.

As Gasman has demonstrated, philanthropists have too often exerted control over historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the UNCF.  James Anderson, too, has argued that philanthropists have pushed HBCUs away from liberal-arts education and towards manual training courses.

With that history in mind, Professor Gasman insisted that the Koch money is tainted.  “The Koch brothers,” she wrote,

have a considerable history of supporting efforts to disenfranchise black voters through their backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In addition, the Koch brothers have given huge amounts of money to Tea Party candidates who oppose many policies, initiatives, and laws that empower African Americans.

Balderdash, say leading conservative intellectuals.  In the pages of Forbes  Magazine, George Leef argued that the UNCF should be celebrating.  First of all, Leef insisted, the Koch brothers’ anti-big-government activism will help African Americans, not harm them.  And in addition, the money is just money.  Take it, spend it, help people, Leef concluded.

In an interview with Michael Lomax of the UNCF, American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess suggested a similar happy ending.  Lomax told Hess that he hoped to take money from whomever he could.  Too much ideological thinking, Lomax said,

has really poisoned the thinking of some people all across the country. For them, there’s this kind of purity thing that, unless we agree on everything, there is no common ground.  Call me a pragmatist but, if I can agree on something meaningful with folks that I don’t agree with on other things, I’m going to try to work on what we agree on and, hopefully, build a meaningful and productive relationship.

Professor Gasman worried that the Koch brothers will use their gift to have a nefarious influence on the UNCF. Lomax insists it won’t. But in the world of conservative education policy, we’ve seen a different struggle.

As I argue in my upcoming book, conservative intellectuals and activists have argued since the end of World War II that their school policies did not make them racist. As we’ve seen in these pages, conservatives have worked long and hard to overcome the accusation that conservatism is inherently anti-black.

In 1950 Pasadena, for example, progressive superintendent Willard Goslin pushed a new zoning plan that would have desegregated Pasadena’s schools by race. Conservatives reacted furiously and eventually booted Goslin. But their opposition to desegregation, conservatives insisted, did not make them racist. To prove it, many conservatives cited the support of prominent African American leaders. As one conservative activist told a packed school-board meeting, her anti-deseg petition could not possibly be racist, since it was signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors.”  Plus, this woman told the meeting, she could not be racist, because she had become friends with a “Negro physician” in her neighborhood.

Similarly, in the fight over textbooks in 1974 Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservatives insisted that their position did not make them racist. In that case, new textbooks included provocative passages from writers such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. White conservatives hated the books, but not because they were racists, they insisted. In their support, conservatives cited prominent African American voices such as George Schuyler.

In all these cases, conservative educational activists trumpeted the support of African American voices to prove that their conservative ideas did not make them racist. In a way, foes of the Koch brothers could argue that this UNCF gift will serve a similar purpose. If folks like Professor Gasman accuse the Koch brothers of racism, the Koch brothers can now call on Michael Lomax and the UNCF to burnish their anti-racist credentials.

Professor Gasman argued that the Koch gift will come with unacceptable strings. But we could also ask this question: Is the UNCF now vouching for the Koch brothers? Is the UNCF willing to back the Koch brothers when they insist that their conservative activism does not make them racist?