Why Do Ed Leaders Keep Trying to Repackage Old Garbage? TN Edition

Does it count as an innovative “disruption” when politicians repackage the oldest failed idea in public education financing? This time we’re talking about Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Lee is trying to sell it as a bold new idea, but it’s really the oldest idea in public education.

Here’s what we know: Governor Lee promised to increase funding for public schools. He wants to increase teacher pay and provide more mental-health counselors for schools. So far, so good.

The problem comes when Governor Lee explained his plan to pay for these improvements. He wants to engage in what he calls “disruption” of traditional public funding models. The old methods didn’t work, Lee said, so it was time for “extraordinarily different inputs.”

What’s wrong with that? As I argued in the Washington Post about Secretary DeVos’s similar call for new approaches to school funding, this “new definition of public education” is anything but new. In fact, as I’m finding in the research for my new book about the roots of American public ed, the system we have grew out of the inadequacies of mixing private and public funding.

Back in the 1820s, cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and New York thought they could provide tuition-free public education for all children by mixing funding streams. They appealed to philanthropists to cough up money for this worthy cause.

It didn’t work. The money was never enough. School leaders were caught in a desperate, recurring bind. Every year, they had to plead with both legislators and philanthropists to provide enough money for basic services. Because the old system was so obviously inadequate, they successfully pushed for full public funding, enough to cover school costs.

With hindsight, the problems seem obvious. It seems obviously difficult to predict how many wealthy people will decide to give how much money for public schools.

What really stumps me is how so many leading politicians these days—it’s not only Secretary DeVos and Governor Lee—seem devoted to stubbornly ignoring those obvious lessons from our past. Not only that, they try to sell this old, failed model as a bold new program, an exciting innovation.

It almost seems as if people who don’t know their own histories are doomed to repeat them.

…but God IS My Hero

“But God IS my hero.” That’s a dramatic reconstruction of what ten-year-old Erin Shead told her teacher in October. Her teacher had asked her to do a writing assignment about a hero. When Erin turned in an essay about God, her teacher told her she couldn’t write about God, she had to write about her personal hero.

Source: WRCB Chattanooga

Source: WRCB Chattanooga

The resulting kerfuffle pushed Tennessee lawmakers to pass the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act. According to this bill, which now goes to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam for a signature to become law, students must be allowed to voluntarily express religion viewpoints “on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner [the school] treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint.” In other words, students must be allowed to write about God as their hero.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to wonder if this sort of law might represent a powerful new conservative tactic in America’s ongoing educational culture wars.

Tennessee is not alone in passing this sort of school rule. Texas has such a law on the books. Missouri has a similar rule enshrined in its constitution. And Oklahoma is considering something along these lines.

Today, I’m not going to argue the merits of these sorts of laws. In short, though, I’m against them. As I’ve argued in places such as Education Week and the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, these kinds of bills threaten to impose an utterly unmanageable free-for-all in our nation’s classrooms. IMHO. Other commentators, too, have worried that these laws will impose a renewed theocracy in public schools. If students can use class time to make religious statements, some worry that religious students might turn classrooms into religious battlegrounds. What if a creationist student insisted that she could answer questions about evolution with references to Genesis? What if a Muslim student made a speech in which he denied that Jesus was God? It’s not hard to imagine dicey situations these new laws might encourage.

Today, though, instead of arguing against these kinds of bills, I’d like to make a different point. It seems educational conservatives can win politically by protecting students from a perceived overreach by educational leaders. In the case of Tennessee, the senate bill passed unanimously. In the assembly, only two representatives voted against it.

Why did this bill have such overwhelming political support? Two reasons. First, there is not much new in these laws. Students already had the right to engage in self-directed religious activity in public-school classrooms. Erin Shead already had the right to write about God as her personal hero. Second, conservative educational thinkers and activists have long worried about school as a potential threat to young people’s faith. Anything that looks to support religious young people from what many people see as an aggressively secularizing public-school establishment will win political points among religious conservatives.

So liberal-leaning lawmakers can vote for these laws as mere clarifications of already-existing rules. And conservative-leaning lawmakers can promote these votes as an effort to protect religious youngsters from the sinister aggression of secularizing teachers and schools. Together, that is a powerful political coalition.

If I were a conservative activist, I would be watching very closely. Bills that underscore the religious rights of students in public schools have a powerful symbolic effect, if nothing else. And politically, they may be hard to stop.

Why shouldn’t conservatives push these sorts of school laws all over the country?