Jennifer Berkshire: Conservatives Want to Destroy Public Schools. Communities are Fighting Back.
Co-host of the hit podcast Have You Heard, Jennifer Berkshire looks at the folks fighting back against the conservative attack on public schools. She starts by visiting Tulsa, Oklahoma.
ULSA, OKLA. — Ashley Daly still gets angry thinking about the first Oklahoma state board of education meeting she attended. It was August 2022 and the board was preparing to downgrade the accreditation for two school districts, including Tulsa, where Daly’s daughter attends school, over alleged violations of Oklahoma’s new law banning critical race theory. As the board penalized the district for a diversity training that predated the law, the realization struck her: “They were punishing a school district of 33,000 kids for political reasons, and I was the only parent from Tulsa in the room.”
After that, Daly attended every meeting to “just show up and ask questions.”
Conservative firebrand Ryan Walters became Oklahoma’s top education chief in January, waging what he called “a spiritual war for the souls of our kids.” He declared the teachers’ union “a terrorist organization” and, this summer, threatened a state takeover of Tulsa’s school district, citing low academic performance, “woke ideology” and even ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
But this time, Daly wasn’t alone. An expansive coalition of parents, teachers, community groups, elected officials and business leaders began holding rallies, filling local papers with op-eds and waging a successful campaign to get Oklahoma’s Republican governor, J. Kevin Stitt, to weigh in against the takeover.
The scale of the response seemed to reflect a growing recognition of how vulnerable public education is. “The rhetoric I’ve heard Walters using this past year to describe anyone opposed to his agenda — parents, educators, unions, Democrats and LGBTQ people — is dangerous,” says Daly. “It dehumanizes us and puts all Oklahoma kids at risk. I think people are waking up to that.”
It’s been a long two years since “parental rights” erupted into the mainstream political lexicon, largely thanks to Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. The movement’s standard bearer is Moms for Liberty, the deep-pocketed group targeting school boards and pledging to eradicate “Marxism” from the nation’s public education system.
Yet the response to these conservative-led attacks — the backlash to the backlash — has received little attention.
“You’ve got parents, students, educators, policymakers and unions all working together,” says Alex Ames, director of the Partnership for Equity and Education Rights (PEER), a student organizing network of 13 state-level groups fighting censorship laws and school privatization while demanding reinvestment in public education. “Not only did these coalitions not exist in 2020 or 2021, but in many of these states, these kinds of coalitions have never existed before.”