John Warner, Jennifer Berkshire: Challenges to Public Education
John Warner interviews Jennifer Berkshire about the current threats to public education and the various panics enveloping school right now.
JW: This past weekend at the CPAC conference, Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State and likely future presidential contender said, “There is no threat greater to the United States than that which emanates within our republic; specifically within our school systems.” What are your thoughts on his comments’s going on here?
JB: What’s so striking about Pompeo’s language is that it basically passes as mainstream within the GOP right now. At the root of this war mongering vs. the public schools is a very old, very unresolved debate: who gets to decide what and where kids learn. Is it the parents or the state? After several decades of bipartisanship around accountability, “excellence,” and choice, issues of parents’ rights have now roared back to the fore. And what’s interesting about the case that Pompeo, DeSantis and others on the right are making against the schools right now is how contradictory it is. On the one hand, they’re pushing to make parents the ultimate arbiters of how their kids are educated, including letting them decide how to spend public funds. But on the other hand, they’ve developed a new fondness for using state power to enforce a very particular vision of patriotism and morality. You could really see this contradiction in Florida Senator Rick Scott’s recent plan to “rescue America.” The first plank of his education plan is that kids will say the pledge of allegiance, salute the flag and learn that America is the greatest. But also they can choose any school they want.
JW: Maybe this is an impossible question, but I’m curious to hear your perspective on it. How much of these things like the criticism of CRT and the book bans over LGBTQ content are fueled by a genuine sincerity of belief , and how much of it is a political project finding a wedge issue from which to claim advantageous electoral standing?
JB: If we go back and look at similar culture war flare ups from previous periods, you always see this same mix of genuine anger and political opportunism. In 1974, for example, when conservatives in Kanawha County, WV protested the adoption of textbooks they believed were anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-White, they regularly cited the behavior of local kids—they smoked pot, they disrespected their elders—as the cause of their concern. The Heritage Foundation, which was then just getting off the ground, immediately smelled an opportunity to advance its cause of getting rid of public schools. You saw the same dynamic in the 90s when a parents’ rights movement emerged in response to profound anxiety about the pace of social change, but then became a political project for conservative and religious groups whose specific policy recommendations were really unpopular with the public. I’d argue that we’re seeing something similar happening right now. Parents have a million reasons to be anxious and unhappy as we enter the third year of a pandemic during which they’ve basically been told by leaders at every level: “Here, you deal with it.” But does that anxiety translate into wanting to see specific books banned from the library or having state officials in Texas investigate the parents of trans kids? What we’ve seen in the past is that a cause like parents’ rights can win a lot of support in the abstract but then run out of steam as the demands get more specific and more explicitly about imposing a particular vision of morality that is simply out of step with where most Americans are.