February 26, 2024

Thomas Ultican: School Moms Battle for Public Education

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Thomas Ultican takes a look at the new book by Laura Pappano about mom activism and partisan politics. Reposted with permission.

Leading into the 2020-2021 school year, I started hearing about parents protesting mask mandates. It did not make sense. Soon, open schools now protests started in San Diego County. News came that Florida had mandated in-class school. These events turned out to be part of a new right-wing attack on public education. Journalist, Laura Pappano, explores this recent history in her book School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education.

War Moms

Visiting the Marriott Tampa Bay in 2022 for first-ever Moms for Liberty (M4L) national gathering, Pappano described the conference rooms as “white, far-right Christian world”, adding:

“As I listened to keynote speeches and strategy session after strategy session, I saw speakers lay a foundation of a distorted groupthink. Then, like an ideological conveyor belt, the speakers carried the moms to ever crazier places, stirring fears that their children were being brain washed and indoctrinated into Marxist ideology and that they were being groomed by teachers to want to transition from one gender to another.” (Page 2)

Before COVID vaccines, Tina Descovich, who just lost her Brevard County school board seat, became angry about school mask mandates. M4L grew out of this anger. She joined Indian River County school board member, Tiffany Justice, and Sarasota County school board Director, Bridget Ziegler, to legally found M4L.

The first speaker at the Tampa rally was Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, wanting people to recall that in July, 2020 Florida’s education department declared schools would return to in-person learning. He did not mention Florida Education Association’s Safe Schools Report that disclosed 46 COVID-related teacher deaths, 10 student deaths and 200,834 student-positive tests in school year 2020-2021. Knowing how much that last statistic spread COVID is impossible but it was a lot.

At the conference, DeSantis claimed:

“While they were infringing freedoms, we were lifting people up. We made sure that every single kid in this state had the right to go to school in person five days a week.”(Page 3)

A quick peek at data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) shows little to no advantage for Florida students academically.

Pappano shared the drumbeat of fear in Tampa with:

“Parents were told that public schools are rooted in ‘Marxist ideologies’ and seek to brainwash their children—and not ‘brainwash in some cute way,’ said one speaker, the far-right cultural critic James Lindsay. ‘I mean brainwash in the sense of ‘she-now,’ which is Mandarin, which is literally what the Maoist prisons referred to as their program of thought reform.”’ (Page 6)

DeSantis told his audience about drawing “a line in the sand” with the “Don’t Say Gay Law”, prohibiting discussion of sex and gender identities in grades K-3. He claimed it lets parents send kids to school “without having woke ideology” and “have some first-grader be told that yeah, your parents named you Johnny and were born a boy, but maybe you are a girl.” (Page 7)

This has never happened in an American elementary school … but reality was not the point.

Former Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, used “education freedom,” the new term for “school choice” to promote vouchers. Moms were told it was critical because public schools were a mess. (Page 8)

James Lindsay asked, “If you knew you were sending your children for thirty to thirty-five hours a week to a Maoist thought reform prison, Maoist brain-washing prison, what would you [do] differently?”, saying take “all lines of dedicated action to fix this system to get this crap able to be seen and identified for the crime against humanity that it is and pulled out of schools.”

He declared: “You are War Moms!” (Page 7)

Not everything following the convention has been positive for M4L. February 3rd, 2024, CNN ran Moms for Liberty faces new challenges and growing pushback over its conservative education agenda. The article reported on the January 23rd Brevard County school board meeting, where M4Lstarted, with many quotes similar to this:

‘“Why are we banning books?’ asked Mindy McKenzie, a mom and nurse who is a member of Stop Moms for Liberty, which was formed to counter what it calls a far-right extremist group ‘pushing for book banning and destroying public education.”’

Critical Race Theory

In School Moms, Pappano addresses the headline-grabbing education concerns since 2020. Few issues stirred more animosity and notice than Christopher Rufo’s Critical Race theory (CRT).

Rufo was born August 26, 1984 and grew up in Sacramento, California. His path to fame and power in rightwing politics opened while he was a research fellow at the Christian think-tank, Discovery Institute. This small institute is most famous for promoting “intelligent design” in high school science classes and opposing Darwinian Theory.

While working at Discovery, Rufo lived in Seattle, Washington. When protestors drove police out of a precinct near Cal Anderson Park, erected barricades and established the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, he immediately jumped on the story and wrote pieces for Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, with titles like “Anarchy in Seattle.” (Page 76)

In “Cult Programming in Seattle”, he described a “racial-justice shakedown”, causing white employees to “abandon their ‘white normative behavior’ and learn to let go of their ‘comfort,’ ‘physical safety,’ ‘social status’ and ‘relationships with some other white people.’” He also quoted James Lindsay, the Maoist prison camp guy, calling it “the language of cult programming—persuading members they are defective in some predefined manner.”

Pappano reports:

“On July 18, 2020, he pressed harder. In ‘White Fragility’ Comes to Washington,’ Rufo claimed that diversity trainings at several federal agencies were part of ‘the creation of a new, radical political consciousness.’ He also miss-defined this new consciousness as CRT, writing, ‘Critical race theory—the academic discourse centered on the concepts of ‘whiteness,’ ‘white fragility’ and ‘white privilege’—is spreading rapidly through the federal government.’ The erroneous definition of CRT caught on. Rufo tweeted about it. Then, on August 17, 2020, Rufo was a guest on Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, where he described critical race theory as spreading ‘like wildfire’ across American institutions.”’ (Page 77)

A few weeks later, Rufo, back on Carlson’s show, claimed, “Conservatives need to wake up that this is an existential threat to the United States” and looking into the camera stated:

The president and the White House, it is within their authority and power to immediately issue and executive order abolishing critical race theory. I call on the president to immediately issue this executive order.” (Page 78)

President Trump complied. Two days later on September 4, 2020, Russell Vought of the Office of Budget and Management wrote to all agencies, “The President has directed me to ensure that Federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions.” (Page 78)

CRT indoctrination was from the beginning a bogus claim. It is a legal theory, developed in the 1970s and 80s, looking at how race is affected by legal structures. This was almost exclusively the purview of graduate school legal debates. Forty years later, it has been drudged up to fuel a McCarthyesque style attack on educators and fight against inclusion. There is no evidence that it has ever been taught in the K-12 environment. Today, CRT is almost forgotten, as Rufo and the hard-right are focusing on destroying diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Those opposing DEI are supporting segregation, privilege and exclusion. Antagonism to DEI indicates support for white supremacy and disapproval of judgments based on merit.

School Moms

Big education issues that appeared over the last three years are covered in this book.

The Seven Mountains mandate, placing the law of God above secular law, is addressed in Chapter 5. Pappano writes, “For Christian Extremists, LGBTQ+ individuals, and especially transgender students, are a deviation from ‘God’s design’ and a clear ‘problem’ in the ‘extremists’ quest for a Christian society.” (Page 116)

The movement to ban books is addressed in Chapter 3, “When librarians Come Under Attack.”

There are heart-wrenching stories from Texas, Tennessee, Minnesota and other states, of popular educators having careers ruined by zealots and racists.

The story of Free Staters, trying to destroy public education in New Hampshire, is included.

Not all is lost!

Pappano says, “In this new environment, everything had a side: masks, books, pride flags, pronouns, history lessons.” Before their children arrived, many mothers were high-functioning employees with skills. She asserts, “So one should not be surprised at the professional-level organizing going on in grassroots public education groups.” (Page 128)

School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education

… is a worthwhile read.

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