June 2, 2022

Adam Laats: Conservatives long ago lost the war over America’s public schools

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Adam Laats is a scholar whose focus is public education and its intersection with conservative beliefs. In this Washington Post piece, he argues that conservatives are trying to fight a battle that is long over, and he starts by looking at the history of the KKK’s support for public schools. Then he looks at where we are today.

It seems as if the school culture wars have never been fiercer or more bizarre. Conservatives are rejecting textbooks — even math textbooks — for including “prohibited topics” and attempting to “indoctrinate students.” Politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) are accusing teachers of targeting “White babies” with Marxist teaching. State leaders are calling teachers “groomers,” accusing them falsely of intentionally sexualizing children to satisfy their own predatory desires. The pitch is feverish, apocalyptic. It feels like a critical moment in a nationwide war for control of America’s public schools.

It’s not. Conservative activists would like nothing better than to call their attacks on public education a “war,” but, in fact, America’s school culture wars ended long ago and conservatives lost. The battles in today’s headlines are something different: part of a desperate retreat, an attempt to loot as many resources as possible from public schools on the way out the door, in the grim recognition that conservatives can only destroy what they can never control.

In Florida, conservatives have gone further than sowing distrust; they have helped pay for it by making more public money available to pay private-school tuitions. Their leader, Gov. Ron DeSantis, would like nothing more than to have his policies seen as a war. He relishes his self-promoted image as a warrior. As he put it: “I don’t care what Hollywood says. I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I am not backing down.”

But destructive attacks like these are not a war for control of public education. We’ve seen what that looked like. In a war for public education, both sides try to get more money into the public system, not out of it. In the 1920s war, in the name of “100 percent Americanism,” extremists tried to force students into public schools, not give them tuition for private ones.

Today’s battles are different. Conservative attacks on public schools represent a decidedly minority viewpoint. As polls have shown for years, most parents are happy with their children’s public schools. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, over 4 out of 5 parents said their schools “handled the pandemic well.” And contrary to conservative charges that schools are exposing children to too much information about race and sexuality, a large majority (71 percent) of respondents say that schools are teaching about race either the right amount (37 percent) or too little (34 percent), and about sexuality the right amount (40 percent) or too little (31 percent).

The history is clear: Today’s conservatives are attacking public schools, but they are not fighting a war to control them. But their tactics make perfect sense when we see them for what they are: an attempt to pillage the nation’s public education system and divert funds into private schools that conservatives actually have the ability to control.

Read the full piece here.

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