Mob Rule Is Un-American—at the Capitol on January 6 and at Your Local School Board Meeting

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. A mob isn’t supposed to attack Congress to overturn the routine approval of the vote count in a Presidential election, and mobs of angry parents are not supposed to appear at local school board meetings trying to bully the school board to censor the books in classrooms or make teachers leave out the history of slavery or omit the theory of evolution.

I am neither an attorney nor a legal expert on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But even I can tell that something weird is brewing when a right-wing PAC, The Conservative Action Project, sends an alert, Conservatives Urge Every Parent To Attend Their School Board Meetings in Defiance of the FBI, signed by a long list of people including attorneys like former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Trump defender Cleta Mitchell, demanding that parents attend local school board meetings to defy the FBI and demonstrate their First Amendment rights. Of course this action alert is carefully framed to ask parents “to use their rights to speak, to request documents under the Freedom of Information Laws, to engage in dialogue with elected school boards,” but the Conservative Action Project message to parents is a response to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s threat to involve the FBI when school board members are threatened with violence or outshouted and unable to do their work in the context of rude and violent parent protests.

Then there is last week’s bizarre Wall Street Journal commentary* by Philip Hamburger, a libertarian professor of law at Columbia University and president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a legal organization which describes itself this way: “NCLA views the administrative state as an especially serious threat to constitutional freedoms.” (*The link is to Diane Ravitch’s reprinting of this column, because the original is paywalled.)

Hamburger makes the following argument, based on his interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, for direct parental control of the curriculum in public schools and for finding public education itself unconstitutional because parents’ free speech rights are being violated: “Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling.” “Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment…. (T)he freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents… The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling… (P)arents are… being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own… For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.”

Here is the response of journalist, Jennifer Berkshire and education historian, Jack Schneider: “(O)ne might reasonably conclude that radicals are out to curtail the established rights that Americans have over the educational sphere. Yet what’s actually radical here is the assertion of parental powers that have never previously existed. This is not to say that parents should have no influence over how their children are taught. But common law and case law in the United States have long supported the idea that education should prepare young people to think for themselves, even if that runs counter to the wishes of parents… When do the interests of parents and children diverge? Generally, it occurs when a parent’s desire to inculcate a particular world view denies the child exposure to other ideas and values that an independent young person might wish to embrace or at least to entertain. To turn over all decisions to parents, then, would risk inhibiting the ability of young people to think independently.”

Last week, the Washington Post Editorial Board spoke up for the rights of children themselves and the importance to the public of students who have developed critical thinking skills: “Allowing one parent—or a group of parents—to bully, threaten and intimidate school officials into their way of thinking is not what our democracy is about. And it is not what learning should be about. It is chilling that a school administrator in Texas suggested that an opposing view of the Holocaust needed to be taught to comply with the state’s controversial law on curriculum content.  Everyone—parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as politicians—needs to focus less on what books are being taught and more on giving students the skills to think critically and form their own judgments.”

Education historian, Diane Ravitch challenges Hamburger’s inaccurate depiction of the history of American public schooling: “Hamburger’s central critique of the public schools is that they were created by nativists out of fear of Catholicism and their central purpose was to homogenize all children and mold them into Protestants. He repeatedly asserts that the very idea of the public school was shaped by hostility to Catholics… Were there anti-Catholics who supported public schools? Yes. Were there nativists who hated Catholics and who feared that the Pope wanted to seize control of their city or state? Yes.  Was the primary purpose of the public school movement to stamp out the influence of Catholics? No. The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the growth of public schools because they believed that a democratic society needed educated citizens who were prepared for self-government. The Catholic school system grew and thrived. Catholic leaders thought their schools were unfairly denied public funding, but the idea of prohibiting the public funding of religious schools was broadly popular and appears in almost every state constitution. The public endorsed the proposition that society as a whole, though taxation, is responsible for maintaining a public school system that offers a free education for all who enroll.”

Without taking on the bizarre logic of Hamburger’s far-right legal argument that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech renders public schooling unconstitutional as a violation of parents’ rights, First Focus on Children’s executive director Bruce Lesley suggests  the chaotic result if a school board were to adopt the demands being shouted by parents to suppress what is deemed accurate science or history or to censor books we’ve all been reading for decades:

“(I)magine an elementary school of 450 students where 15 parents oppose the teaching of evolution, 19 parents believe the earth is flat, 28 are Holocaust deniers, 22 oppose white children learning about slavery, 7 believe in racial segregation, 21 believe in the concept of a school without walls, 49 demand the use of corporal punishment, 18 want to ban Harry Potter books from the school library, 26 want to ban any books that mention the Trail of Tears, 62 believe that parents should be allowed to overrule a physician’s decision that a child with a concussion should refrain from participating in sports, 87 oppose keeping their kids out of school when they have the flu, 9 believe that a child with cancer might be contagious, 29 believe that kids who are vaccinated should be the ones who quarantine, 72 support “tracking” in all subject areas, 32 believe students should not be taught how to spell the word “isolation” and “quarantine” because they are too “scary of words,” 104 don’t like the school neighborhood boundaries, 38 don’t like the bus routes, 71 parents want a vegan-only lunchroom, 4 demand same-sex classrooms, 5 oppose textbooks and want their children only reading from the Bible, and it can go on and on. The vast majority of parents do not agree with any of these things, and yet, parental rights extremists would insist schools must accommodate them, even if they are completely false, undermine the purpose of education, threaten the safety of children, or promote discrimination. How can a school operate if every parent can decide every aspect of the education of their child, as some are demanding? It cannot.”

Lesley juxtaposes Hamburger’s libertarian argument with the profound defense of public schooling by the late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” (Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954)

7 thoughts on “Mob Rule Is Un-American—at the Capitol on January 6 and at Your Local School Board Meeting

  1. Historically people have gathered together to protect themselves from real or perceived threats to their safety and well-being. At its Foundation this structure has been based on the acceptance of what constitutes the common good. What constitutes the common good has always been subject debate; however, recently it seems as if a series of events have conspired to raise such debates to include the most fundamental of aspects of our society and at a time when the belief in the need for acceptance of the foundational components of our society are threatened by both increasing anger and the villainization of the “others”. That such a development is seen by some as an opportunity to redefine society as serving the individual versus the common good is nothing short of self serving rejection of very foundation of healthy societies.

  2. Thanks for this, Jan. Doesn’t it make you wonder if these parents who are protesting oh-so-loudly also embraced what their parents wanted them to believe or think? And what if that passion was directed not at curriculum, books, and words but at making sure every child in school was safe from sexual predation by teachers, coaches and school staff?

  3. It’s easy to see that this is a political strategy by conservatives to fire up their white supremacist and anti-government base to get them out to vote for Republicans. At face value it can sound sweet to the ear, “We need choice! Parents need a voice!!” They do have a choice, of course, parents can send their child to the public schools or to a private school, but they can’t expect taxpayers to pay for the private school choice. They do have a voice, of course, parents should be part of the voting community that chooses their school board representatives. The backers of all this at “the top of the food chain” —millionaires and billionaires— who want to get out of paying taxes to the public schools, have an end result front and center: privatize schools until the public schools are so starved for money, they die a “natural death.” Without public schools, why should there be taxes to support a school system that no longer exists? The result will be parents paying for their child’s education from pre-school through twelfth grade. A constitutionally guaranteed free public education will only be a memory. There are loan sharks ready and able to give loans to parents to pay for third grade for the son as they do for the third year of college for the daughter. Educational people much smarter than I am, like Jan Resseger, have documented this ultimate goal for those who have been working to privatize education, and evidence it’s working is seen by those parents who just love those words “choice” and “voice.” I hope I’m not around to see an education system I no longer even recognize.

  4. Pingback: Glenn Youngkin’s Campaign in Virginia Was about Something Sinister, Not about Public Education | janresseger

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