Why Are Conservatives Still Paranoid about Teachers?

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

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

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

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Those ed school professors…c. 1949.

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

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

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

So why these bills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sneaky red teachers, c. 1949.

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

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

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

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