MEMO: The Right Wing Gambit to End Public Education in America
TO: Reporters + Political Thought Leaders
FROM: Mike Lux
RE: The Right Wing Gambit to End Public Education in America
Republicans and newly minted far-right groups like Moms for Liberty are excited to deep dive into the education issue in advance of the 2024 elections. This isn’t just your garden variety policy debate. While they don’t advertise this widely, what these groups want is the end of public education -- or as they often call them, “government schools” -- in America.
The debate over public education has shifted radically over the last 30 years. When I was in the Clinton White House and, later, at People For the American Way, the voucher movement was starting to gain momentum. Back then, pro-voucher forces were focused on doing research that showed attendance at private schools resulted in improved educational results on test scores and other measures. The problem is that 30 years of research hasn’t panned out for them -- there is very little credible evidence that voucher programs improved educational outcomes.
That lack of provable success, combined with the overall radicalization of the Republican Party in the Trump era, has resulted in a new phenomenon: Republican politicians and right wing organizations becoming more open that they want to do away with public education altogether.
Here’s Christopher Rufo, a top adviser to Gov. DeSantis and the political strategist who led the charge on making Critical Race Theory the chief boogeyman of the Right, in a 2022 lecture at Hillsdale College: "To get to universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust… We have to be ruthless and brutal."
And here is Lake County Republican Party chair and congressional candidate (one expected to win an open seat) Anthony Sabatini in Leesburg, Florida last month:
I'm talking about defunding government agencies, defunding bureaucracies -- defunding government schools and going to 100% private schools like Florida is making gestures at right now. Let's make sure that bill that just passed, House Bill 1, gets fully implemented in good faith and we don't have government schools and we don't have strings attached to our private education models that are about to emerge here in the state of Florida at a much faster rate.
And, as it has in other areas of the right wing world, the radicalization of rhetoric has combined with a new openness to resorting to violence and threats, which have increasingly been aimed at school board members, teachers, administrators, and even public school nurses.
Leaning into the Debate over Whether America Should Have Public Schools
Given that the United States has had public schools since the 1600s, and compulsory education since the 1800s, reporters need to understand how profoundly radical the idea of ending public education is in this country. But if that is the fight right wing Republicans want to have, progressives should lean into it. We can win this fight decisively.
This is an old debate. Thomas Jefferson said in the early 1800s that education was necessary to “enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.” Franklin D. Roosevelt more than a century later stated, “The real safeguard of democracy … is education.” And Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Education is the road to equality and citizenship.”
Public education isn’t only popular with some of our most important historical figures, it is widely popular with voters, too, in spite of the intense efforts by right wing ideologues to make it unpopular. From a Hart Research poll done earlier this year for AFT:
Just 20% of voters prioritize giving parents more choice over which schools their children attend, including private school education, while 80% say that improving the quality of public schools is the higher priority. Public school parents echo this view by an identical four-to-one ratio (80% to 20%).
Voters’ top goals for schools are teaching good fundamentals, not focusing on whether schools are too woke, or even giving parents more of a say over what children are taught.
Voters’ top priorities for improving the schools are expanding access to career and technical education, addressing staff shortages, reducing class size, and improving literacy. Items on the “culture war” agenda, including banning “CRT” and expanding school choice, are least important.
Voters mostly think culture wars are a distraction and a waste of time. 65% of voters, including 74% of parents say that teachers generally stick to teaching appropriate educational content. Only 27% think teachers go too far in being woke. 66% of voters think culture wars are a distraction from the core mission of teaching children.
In case you want to question a poll for AFT, here is another poll with equally powerful results. And despite the best efforts of conservatives to tell you differently, parents and the general public have been consistently happy with their public schools. Voters also strongly dislike book banning, thoroughly rejecting right wing arguments on the topic. Meanwhile, in my own Factory Towns research, our polling showed that a Democratic message on the economy easily defeated the Republican culture war message.
Why the Culture Wars?
Given the losing hand they are playing in terms of the polls, why are Republican politicians and right wing groups pushing so hard on Critical Race Theory, book bans, drag queen and transgender rights bans, and the ‘war on woke’ in general? Short-term, they see it as the way to win the 2024 election; long-term, they think they can kill two birds with one stone: public education and transgender rights.
With regard to the election, it is profoundly important for Republicans to gin up their base. They know that in any given national election, there are more people inclined to vote Democratic than Republican. Democrats have won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1992 except for one (2004). That is why Republicans are so focused on gerrymandering districts and passing voter suppression laws. GOP strategists also know the importance of squeezing every last vote from their core supporters, and there is nothing better than the culture war to turn them out, particularly Christian conservatives. The Trumpian electoral strategy is why Republicans won the 2016 elections, and it has been their go-to strategy ever since.
Focusing on trans issues like a laser beam is the centerpiece of the Republican culture war. While it is especially reprehensible to attack a group already prone to more bullying and suicide than most students, that isn’t stopping the GOP from an all-out assault on trans kids.
Republicans are making a cold, calculated decision on this as a strategy. The polling above on education mirrors polling on most other issues right now; Democratic stances tend to be far more popular than Republican ones. On education in general, defending abortion rights, passing stricter gun laws, lowering drug prices, strengthening Social Security and Medicare, manufacturing things in America, raising the minimum wage, investing in solar and wind jobs, taxing the wealthy, and a wide variety of other issues, Democrats have the high political ground and Republicans are in a world of hurt.
Trans issues, though, are more uncomfortable and complicated for a majority of Americans, according to a recent Washington Post poll. Given how unpopular most of the rest of their policy prescriptions are, Republicans want to spend a lot of time talking about one of the few things where voters might agree with them. There are ways to win the public over on trans rights, especially around protecting kids from being bullied and engaging in conversations about common human rights, but things like nonbinary pronouns, transgender pregnancy, and medicating trans kids are all still new concepts to many people and are thus highly contentious and ripe for Republican targeting.
And here is where the short and long-term agendas come together: by far the clearest path of attack for the conservative movement on trans issues is through the public schools. Most people don’t care much about how adults define themselves in terms of gender; the whole bathroom thing never had much salience outside of the paranoid right wing echo chamber. But Republican rhetoric around “grooming” children, or about boys competing with girls in sports, is designed to make parents worry, so public schools are the place to make the fight.
Which feeds well into that longer term agenda of ending public education. The large majority of voters deeply dislike such an idea, so the right wing propaganda machine needs an issue to erode the trust and affinity people have for their local teachers and schools.
The Soros-ization of Randi Weingarten
The right wing loves to attack public education in general, and they are happy to go after both major teachers unions (AFT and NEA), as well as any example they can create of individual teachers, principals, school nurses, and librarians allegedly doing “liberal” things. I have no doubt that the good people at AFT and NEA can give us hundreds or even thousands of examples of these kinds of nefarious and unfair attacks.
However, the right wing loves to personalize the opposition, drawing a dark picture of one person they can attack as the ultimate villain in their twisted storyline.
For a couple of decades now, those on the right have used George Soros as the ultimate liberal donor boogeyman and puppet master. There are plenty of major contributors to Democratic candidates, some of whom have given more than Soros to campaigns and party committees. There are quite a few major foundations like Carnegie, Ford, Kellogg, and Rockefeller that have given to many of the same organizations that Soros’ foundation does. Given those facts, why do Republican politicians, along with right wing pundits and groups and conspiracy theorists, talk incessantly about George Soros being the ultimate bad guy in the liberal world? I am far from the first writer to point out the obvious answer: he is a Jewish liberal from New York City.
So you’ll have to pardon me for being suspicious that the right wing echo chamber seems to be centering all of its fire on AFT President Randi Weingarten. The NEA has more members and is in more locales than the AFT; they have just as much political power and give contributions to the same groups and candidates. There are other non-education unions that are bigger, and other progressive groups that give as much or more to Democrats. Yet we are now getting a steady drumbeat of attacks on Weingarten as, per a recent interview in Semafor with Mike Pompeo, “the most dangerous person in the world.” Not Putin. Not Xi. Not Kim Yong Un or the head of Iran’s government. Not a terrorist successor to Osama bin Laden. Randi Weingarten.
Pompeo and his ilk have no cogent arguments as to why Weingarten is so dangerous. But she is Jewish and a lesbian and from New York City, so she makes a great target for the right wing movement’s toxic blend of anti-semitism and homophobia.
Our Democracy Is Built on Public Education
The current discussion on education which the MAGA conservatives are driving is not a policy debate in any conventional sense. Moms for Liberty, as the Washington Post puts it,
“didn’t name specific presidential actions on education they hope to see. The group’s website is also short on details.” Their local chapters jump on any conservative issue they think they can organize around, with a central goal of constantly sowing doubt about public education.
This isn’t a debate between conservatives and pro-public education progressives about which form of education best improves educational outcomes. The MAGA right wants to literally end public education in this country, an idea which would fundamentally rip apart the underpinnings of our economy and our democracy.
The economic argument here is obvious. In a society without public schools, massive numbers of kids will fall through the cracks, or get stuck in substandard schools because they will be the only ones parents can afford. The private sector and public sector alike will have huge problems finding educated workers. The middle class will pretty much disappear as income inequality, already at its highest level since the age of robber barons, will skyrocket to levels never seen in any western nation.
And then there is our democracy. Here’s what is crucial to understand: public schools are the place where a pluralistic society is nurtured, where its seeds are planted and blossom. It is where children meet a wider diversity of people than they would necessarily know in their families, on their street, in their church; where they learn the values of community and the lessons of history; where they come together to learn about camaraderie of sports and teamwork and the arts; where they hear and discuss ideas and concepts and facts they haven’t heard before. Public schools are what makes a democratic society possible.
Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim kids and kids who don’t belong to a church all go to public schools. White, Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous. Rich, poor, and everyone in between. Kids who are sure about their gender identity and kids who are not. They will all be in public schools. And while the politics of diversity are complicated, the job of a teacher is straightforward: teach all the children in your classroom. Care for them all, nurture them all. That’s what a teacher does.
Maybe that is why the profoundly anti-democratic MAGA Christian nationalist movement hates the idea of public schools so much.
It is time to get real: reporters and political thought leaders need to understand the stakes in the educational debate. Our democracy is in a lot of trouble right now -- intense polarization, the big lie of election denialism, violent white nationalism out in the open and on the rise. But if our system of public education goes away, the problems of democracy today will seem like child’s play.