I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another rip-roaring week has come and gone in the offices of ILYBYGTH. Here are some stories you might have missed:

Anti-Muslim? Or pro-secular? School-prayer debates in Ontario.

Forget about free speech and violent protests for a second. At WaPo, Jeffrey Selingo argues that there are much bigger problems to worry about in the world of higher education.Bart reading bible

Southern evangelical churches wonder what to do about their Confederate monuments.

Summer vacation is here. From the Fordham Institute, Christopher Rom says we need to get rid of it. And it’s not because we’re not all a bunch of farmers anymore.

Jerry Falwell wants in. But other university leaders want out. Queen Betsy’s Ed Dept is having trouble filling its ranks.

The more things change…Southern Baptist Convention debates an anti-racism resolution.

More Trumpian tragedy: Cabinet meeting relives the opening of King Lear.

Helicopter parenting and the authoritarian personality: Pratik Chougule makes the case at the American Conservative.

Teaching climate change: A rundown of the latest developments.

DeVos’s Ed Dept. closes a sexual-assault investigation at Liberty University.

What do we do when a religion is all about racial violence? The question of Odinism.

Will vouchers help? Only at the edges, two researchers claim. Positive effects from vouchers are due to something else.

Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

Vouchers: The Path to the White House

How can a conservative candidate get elected in 2016?

According to a recent story in the Weekly Standard, the conservative path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. may be paved with school reform.

Image Source: Governor Jindal's webpage

Image Source: Governor Jindal’s webpage

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stood side by side at a Washington press conference to denounce federal interference in conservative school reform efforts.

In Louisiana, that has meant a Department of Justice crackdown on the state’s aggressive voucher program.  The federal government has warned that Louisiana’s voucher system may violate racial desegregation laws.  For a while now, left-leaning pundits have warned that the voucher scheme swipes public school funding and gives it to conservative religious schools.  Diane Ravitch has concluded that Louisiana’s privatization program will drive a stake through the heart of quality public education.

Such criticisms don’t deter Governor Jindal.  He has insisted that the program represents the best educational hope for low-income students in his state.

Michael Warren of The Weekly Standard suggests vouchers may also represent Governor Jindal’s best hope for higher office.  As Warren notes,

the Obama administration’s attempt to thwart the voucher program has also been a gift for Jindal, who may run for president in 2016. Since the DOJ filed its lawsuit on August 18, Jindal has been campaigning loudly and publicly against the suit and, more broadly, for conservative education reform.

 

 

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.

 

A Conservative Plea for the Common Core

Don’t throw the conservative baby out with the Common Core bathwater. That’s the plea this morning from two leading conservative intellectuals.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, Chester Finn Jr. and Michael Petrilli rally conservative support for the new standards.

As we’ve noted in these pages, all sorts of conservative activists, from Phyllis Schlafly to the Heritage Foundation to the Tea Party, have denounced the centralizing tendencies of the Common Core.

The conservative credentials of Finn and Petrilli are difficult to dispute.  Both have long been leading voices for the movement to introduce market choices into public education and reduce the influence of unions and left-leaning schools of education.  Both have worked in conservative think tanks and conservative political administrations to fight for such measures.

They want conservatives to embrace the Common Core as the best available program to heal public education.  As they argue,

the fact that Obama thinks well of it doesn’t means there’s anything (else) wrong with it. This is understood by the many respected conservatives who back the Common Core, including such scarred veterans of the education-reform wars as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, John Engler, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, Rod Paige, and Mitch Daniels. They realize that academic standards are only the beginning, setting out a destination but not how to get there. They understand, however, that a destination worth reaching beats aimless wandering—and a big modern country is better off if it knows how all its kids and schools are doing against a rigorous set of shared expectations for the three R’s.

Finn and Petrilli offer three specific ways to use the Common Core to best conservative advantage.  Conservatives, they insist,

should maximize the good it can do and minimize its potential harm. Here are three useful steps:

  • Draw a bright line between the standards and the federal government. (Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is onto one approach with his proposal to ban any further federal spending related to the Common Core.)

  • Overhaul No Child Left Behind as proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander and House education committee chairman John Kline, in effect rolling back the regulatory regime that has turned results-based school accountability into Uncle Sam’s business. (The tighten-the-screws alternative advanced by Senate Democrats would entangle Washington even further with states’ standards and accountability systems—as well as much more mischief.)

  • Continue to push aggressively in dozens of states for more school choice, both public and private—and allow voucher schools (and maybe charters, too) to opt out of their states’ standards and tests (Common Core or otherwise) if they can present alternatives that are just as rigorous. (Disclosure: the co-authors of this piece are still tussling over this one!)

Finn and Petrilli base their argument on a conservative vision of the recent history of American education.  As I’ve argued in the pages of Teachers College Record, conservative school reform proposals, no less than progressive ones, depend on their own interpretations of American history.

In this case, Finn and Petrilli remind their fellow conservatives that the fundamental ideas embraced by the Common Core, including elevated academic standards as well as rigorous standardized testing, began as conservative responses to a public education system that had strayed from its true mission. In the 1970s, they recount, control over public education had been seized by well-meaning but short-sighted leftists who emphasized equity at the expense of rigor.  After 1983’s Nation at Risk report, bold conservative reformers such as Ronald Reagan, Lamar Alexander, and William J. Bennett took steps to reverse that curse.

The solutions back then included increased public money for private education as well as ambitious new standards.  To lend heft to such standards, iron-clad standardized tests hoped to limit the ways educational bureaucrats could game the system.

The Common Core, Finn and Petrilli insist, represent an imperfect attempt to impose those higher standards.  In the end, by providing better information about school performance to parents and policy makers, the standards will fuel the conservative drive for greater privatization of public education.

So what is a conservative to do?  According to these scholars, the real conservative choice is to back the Common Core.  As they conclude, conservatives who take time to read the standards themselves “will be impressed by their rigor, thoroughness, solidity, and ambition—even their ‘conservative’ nature.”

 

 

Do Georgians Hate Gay Kids?

About a week ago, an article in the New York Times drew attention to a report about anti-gay discrimination in tax-funded private schools in Georgia.  Though liberal groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have publicized the findings, responses from conservative America seem more muted.  I wonder if this lack of indignant defenses from conservatives results from the implicit connection between this issue and racial discrimination.

The report from the Southern Education Foundation warned that of the 400+ Georgia private schools that receive tax-funded scholarship money, 115 schools discriminate openly and explicitly against homosexuality.

The report included policy statements from several such schools.  For instance, according to the report, the parent/student handbook at Shiloh Hill Christian School in Kennesaw warned that any student who said, “I am gay,” “I am a homosexual,” or a male saying, “I like boys,” could be expelled.  Another school statement quoted in the report warned,

“In accordance with the Statement of Faith and in recognition of Biblical principles, no ‘immoral act’ or ‘identifying statements’ concerning fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, or pornography, will be tolerated.  Such behavior will constitute grounds for expulsion. . .”

These schools all receive funding from student scholarship organizations (SSOs).  SSOs, active in eleven states, according to the New York Times, allow taxpayers to divert taxes dollar-for-dollar to these scholarship organization.  Instead of paying their money in taxes, in other words, taxpayers can pay for students to attend private schools.

How have conservatives defended the program?  Fairly quietly, it seems to me.  Perhaps my antennae are simply not sensitive enough, but I have not read many endorsements of the Georgia program.  This is surprising, since other school-funding options such as charter schools and school vouchers usually draw vociferous defenses from conservatives.

There have been some arguments in defense of Georgia’s policies.

In a post on First Things’ First Thoughts blog, for example, Joseph Knippenberg made a religious-liberty defense of the Georgia program.  First, Knippenberg argued, taxpayers ought to have control over their tax dollars, to some extent.  Until their money enters the public treasury, it is still private, Knippenberg pointed out.  Therefore, choosing to donate to certain schools must be considered in the same category as choosing to donate to certain churches, or hospitals, or advocacy organizations.

Second, Knippenberg extended this argument to people’s right to practice their religions freely.  “To deny people the opportunity to make a contribution to the faith of their choice,” Knippenberg wrote, “is to deny their religious freedom.”

It seems there are other arguments conservatives could make.  As one commenter on a Christianity Today blurb noted,

“Sexual preference or orientation is not a person. It is not unjust discrimination to discriminate between acts, including sexual acts that respect the personal and relational essence of the human person and are thus acts of authentic Love, and acts, including sexual acts, that do not respect the personal and relational essence of the human person and are thus demeaning.”

These comments from “Kathleen” articulate a deeper possible defense of Georgia’s policies.  Though I personally agree that Georgia’s tax money ought not fund schools that discriminate against homosexual students, let me try to spell out this possible argument a little bit.

Here goes:

The argument against Georgia’s tax-funding scheme implicitly uses the history of racial school discrimination to discredit the current policy of religious school discrimination.  It fudges the difference.  This implied analogy does not hold water.

All schools, all people, all organizations discriminate.  Any school that admits some people and does not admit others discriminates.  In some cases, private schools discriminate openly against people who can’t or won’t pay their tuition.  And this sort of discrimination raises no objections.

The issue, then, is which sorts of discrimination are legitimate.  On the whole, Americans agree that discrimination by race is not legitimate.  Of course, there are plenty of white- and black-supremacist holdouts.  In general, however, in terms of constitutional law and explicit policy practice, America has abjured its white-supremacist past of schools segregated legally by race.

To imply that all school discrimination belongs in the same moral, legal, and Constitutional category as racial discrimination unfairly smears religious dissenters as bigots.

Again, just to ward off misunderstanding, let me be clear: I’m playing devil’s advocate here.  In this case, I personally believe that public money should not fund private schools that discriminate against homosexuality.

But intelligent scholars have pointed out the flaw in the “bigotry” analogy.

In an essay on Public Discourse a few months back, Princeton’s Robert George assailed the tendency to label all forms of discrimination “bigotry.”  Speaking in regard to the definition of marriage, George argued,

“Thus, advocates of redefinition [of marriage] are increasingly open in saying that they do not see these disputes about sex and marriage as honest disagreements among reasonable people of goodwill. They are, rather, battles between the forces of reason, enlightenment, and equality—those who would ‘expand the circle of inclusion’—on one side, and those of ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination—those who would exclude people out of ‘animus’—on the other. The ‘excluders’ are to be treated just as racists are treated—since they are the equivalent of racists. Of course, we (in the United States, at least) don’t put racists in jail for expressing their opinions—we respect the First Amendment; but we don’t hesitate to stigmatize them and impose various forms of social and even civil disability upon them and their institutions. In the name of ‘marriage equality’ and ‘non-discrimination,’ liberty—especially religious liberty and the liberty of conscience—and genuine equality are undermined.”

Similarly, Peter Berger noted the increasing tendency of homosexual-rights advocates to frame their arguments as matters of rights.  As Berger wrote in The American Interest,

“At the time [the 1950s] homosexual rights were advocated by a discourse of individual freedom, basically freedom to choose one’s values and way of life. In other words, the discourse was in terms of the first amendment to the US constitution. The discourse now is very different: Homosexuality is not a choice, but a destiny—an individual does not, cannot choose to be gay—one is born gay—and society should acknowledge and respect this congenital fate. I think it is very clear why this change in discourse occurred: If homosexuality is destined not chosen, it is analogous to race—and thus the movement for homosexual rights can wrap itself in the mantle of the Civil Rights movement. Let me reiterate: I have identified all along with the insistence on the rights of homosexuals, and I think I understand the rhetorical logic of the changed discourse. Is it based on good scientific evidence? I don’t know.”

In other words, if conservatives hope to maintain schools—even private schools, even religious schools—that discriminate against homosexual students, it will be imperative for conservatives to reframe this issue.  If Americans see Georgia’s funding of anti-homosexual schools as a fair analogy to public funding of anti-African American schools, the writing is on the wall.  Such racial discrimination no longer musters any public support.

Arguing that this is an issue of religious freedom will not be enough.  Conservatives must do more than just argue that discrimination against certain lifestyle choices is a legitimate part of their religious freedom and expression.  After all, religious freedom has been abridged in the quest for racially desegregated schools.  Conservatives, it seems to me, must do what Professor George advocates: break the intellectual connection between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination on other bases.  Only if discrimination against homosexuals is seen as a legitimate option—even by those who do not agree—will religious institutions manage to maintain such policies.

Pluralism and Progressivism in America’s Schools

Is American public education progressive?  Do most teachers and administrators hope to use schools to instill a sense of individuality, of self-expression, in America’s youth?  Do public schools emphasize the individual construction of knowledge over the traditional emphasis on transmitting knowledge?  In general, I don’t think so, but many informed, intelligent people still assume that they do.

For instance, in this month’s First Things Ashley Rogers Berner makes a smart argument for more pluralism in American public education.  In her essay, she assumes that the ideological training of America’s public school teachers includes a decisive dollop of progressivism.

The primary reason for the stultification of American public education, Berner argues, is the system’s lack of real pluralism.  If we Americans could get over our irrational attachment to a model of public education in which only publicly run schools could receive significant public funding, then we could enjoy the fruits of a truly diverse system.

Her article is worth reading in its entirety, but in short, in her words,

“Lasting, structural change requires reframing ‘public education’ to mean publicly funded or publicly supported, not exclusively publicly delivered, education. This in turn requires a different political philosophy, a turn to a model of education based on civil society rather than state control.”   

In today’s educational culture wars, the first response to Berner’s argument is usually that such pluralism will essentially abandon those students who most need publicly run schools.  By leaching funding away to a universe of school options, those students and families who are last to scuttle away from the sinking ship of publicly administered schools will be left with even fewer resources to scratch together a decent education.

Berner and other advocates of greater diversity in public-funded schooling blame teachers’ unions for clinging to control at the expense of educational quality.  Defenders of our current funding model of public education respond (with varying levels of coherence) that the union model ought to be understood in a different way: Only if all families and teachers stick together, the argument goes, can public education be saved for all.  In this sense, advocates argue, it is a union-like argument.  With unity comes strength; privately run schools that accept public money amount to labor “scabs” that betray the cause of quality education for all.

I won’t make that argument here.  Instead, I’ll challenge Berner’s argument in a different way.  Berner insists that one killing flaw of the current public system is that it falsely purports to be ideologically neutral, while promoting a “progressive” worldview.  Berner calls this “schooling that is supposedly ideologically neutral but in fact reflects a progressive tradition strongly committed to beliefs and to an educational philosophy rejected by many Americans.”  To be fair, Berner notes that public schooling reflects a struggle between several visions of proper education, traditional vs. progressive as well as secular vs. religious.  She notes that two visions contend for ideological control of public education.  In her words,

“Today’s educators have often been trained in progressive pedagogies, but state legislatures are now asking them to teach a more prescribed curriculum and to participate in high-stakes academic assessments. This has caused a struggle in nearly every state.”

But she proceeds with an assumption that public schooling today has been captured by a progressive ideology.  As she puts it,

“American institutions, including public schooling, tend to reinforce individual autonomy and to discourage the habit of commitment. . . . An educational philosophy whose aim is self-expression is ill-equipped to foster attachment to liberal democracy.”

Her assumption that progressivism has maintained a powerful influence in public education in America is widely shared.

But as anyone who has spent any time in public schools can agree, traditional schooling practices and ideology dominate most public schools.  The notion that schools are primarily geared toward engendering a sense of “self-expression” among students does not hold.

This is more than an anecdotal observation, though I’d welcome responses from parents, teachers, and administrators who might agree or disagree.  More systematic research confirms it.  Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argue in their book Ten Thousand Democracies that American school districts display a wide variety of ideological commitment.  And they conclude in Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms that teacher beliefs often fit those of their surrounding community.  Conservative, traditionalist communities hire conservative, traditionalist teachers.

My own historical research confirms that the level of dominance of progressive ideology in America’s public schools is generally not as high as is often assumed.  To cite one illustrative example, consider the deeply and self-consciously progressive vision of one educational leader from the first half of the twentieth century.

Harold Rugg taught at the bastion of progressive education: Teachers College, Columbia University.  As a charter member of the “Frontier Thinkers,” Rugg helped lead the charge for a “reconstruction” of American public education along progressive lines.  After a conservative, traditionalist campaign eliminated most of Rugg’s textbooks from America’s public schools, Rugg retained his belief that progressivism would conquer.  In his 1941 That Men May Understand, Rugg argued that his progressivism

 “has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools” (pg. 293).

Rugg’s predicted transformation of public schooling never took place.  His progressive vision may have changed some outlines of public schooling, but by and large public schools remain dedicated to a deeply traditional model of education, one that views the goal of education as transmission of information to young people in order to prepare them to take their place in America’s hierarchical economy.

The closest observers of public education and progressivism have noted the tendency away from the promised land of progressivism.

Near the end of his singularly influential career in American education and thought, John Dewey concluded glumly that “repressive and reactionary forces . . . increasing in strength” had managed to maintain “the fundamental authoritarianism of the old education.”[1]  A generation later, historian Michael Katz asserted that public education had always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”[2]  Arthur Zilversmit, in his history of the successes and failures of Progressive education, agreed that most Americans held a “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.”[3] More recently, Michael Apple has argued that conservatives have mounted “a powerful, yet odd, combination of forces” that has won the central battle to define cultural and educational “common sense.”[4]

None of this has much impact on Berner’s central argument for greater pluralism in public funding for schools.  But the notion that progressivism has achieved the sort of domination its advocates hoped for misunderstands both American educational history and the current state of American public education.


[1] John Dewey, “Introduction,” in Elsie Ripley Clapp, The Uses of Resources in Education (New York: Harper and Bros., 1952); reprinted in Dewey on Education: Selections with an Introduction and Notes, Martin S. Dworkin, ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1959), 129, 130, 131-132.

[2] Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 3.

[3] Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 169.

[4] Michael W. Apple, Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 4, 31, 53, 57.