The culture war attacks on local public school boards and the school curricula are part of a long campaign paid for by very powerful groups to push for school privatization via universal vouchers. To understand how this strategy has worked, we can look back at some recent history and some political theory.
In his 2017, book, The One Percent Solution, economist Gordon Lafer describes the attack on public education which was part of the 2010, Tea Party wave across the 50 state governments: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation for Independent Business, or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the agenda… The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all coalesce around the school system… There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 128-129)
In their book about about the era of Donald Trump, Let Them Eat Tweets, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson trace the expansion of far-right plutocrats’ appeal to fear, racism, and xenophobia by stoking the culture wars as a strategy for moving their much broader agenda: “Race was always front and center, but the GOP strategy was adaptable: division on cultural or social issues was the consistent goal; the specific issues and the enemy ‘other’ at the heart of this divide… were designed to be consistent with the party’s plutocratic turn… What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies… is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize… This fateful turn toward tribalism, with its reliance on racial animus and continual ratcheting up of fear, greatly expanded the opportunities to serve the plutocrats.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 109-117)
This background from experts prepares us to recognize today that Moms for Liberty and similar groups disturbing local school boards with racist and homophobic attacks are part of a conscious strategy of funders like the Heritage Foundation and the Goldwater and Manhattan Institutes to grow school privatization and undermine public support for our society’s largest and most universal civic institution. In my state, Ohio, House Bill 290, the universal, Education Savings Account school voucher bill, which will be hashed out this month in a lame-duck session of our gerrymandered, supermajority Republican state legislature, is intimately connected with the mass of culture war bills that have been introduced in the same legislature—bills that would ban books and ban any discussion that touches on race, gender, and sexuality. The culture war bills are there to make us define some of our children as “other” or deviant, to generate fear and unease, and to destroy commitment to a public system of education that has been made more inclusive over the decades in accordance with its declared mission of serving each and every child.
Whose responsibility is it to push back against today’s attack on public education? In his 2021, book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen assigns the obligation for protecting a democracy to its citizens: “In a democratic society, public goods…. should be defined by the public and its values. Just because some people can be excluded from having a public good does not mean we should allow that to happen. In fact, after we the people define something as a public good, we must use our democratic power to make certain that exclusions do not happen… no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine), even if it’s possible to do so. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all. That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods… What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them. That’s how democracy should and often does work. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 6-8)
Today’s attacks on local school districts and their elected school boards undermine confidence in teachers, in other local school officials, and in the school curricula. The attacks also marginalize some students while affirming others—denying the reality of the children and adolescents from the minority groups whose history is being erased and stigmatizing the children who identify as gay or lesbian, or whose families include two dads or two moms.
In the powerful final essay in the new, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, describes the ideal of public education we citizens are responsible for protecting: “In a free society education must focus on the production—not of things, but—of free people capable of developing minds of their own even as they recognize the importance of learning to live with others. It’s based, then, on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being, constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all.”
Ayers adds that public schools are the product of the society in which they are set: “Schools don’t exist outside of history or culture: they are, rather, at the heart of each. Schools serve societies; societies shape schools. Schools, then, are both mirror and window—they tell us who we are and who we want to become, and they show us what we value and what we ignore, what is precious and what is venal.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 315)
It is our ongoing challenge as citizens to ensure that our public schools do not merely capitulate to the injustices that are part of our culture. As citizens, we are obligated to push back against today’s attack on public school boards, on teachers, and on public education itself. We must not give up.