Drowning Education in a Bathtub

The same fine folks who brought us the Critical Race Theory (CRT) scare tactic to win the Virginia gubernatorial election are now poised to bring our public education system to its knees and then put it out of its misery.

In an alarming New York Times column, Michelle Goldberg recounts an exchange with Christopher Rufo, the manipulative wizard behind the weaponizing of CRT for broad political purposes.  Rufo gleefully admits that the CRT gambit, combined with widespread pandemic frustration, provides a perfect storm for completion of the decades-long conservative goal of weakening and effectively eliminating “government schools.”

Conservatives have similarly weaponized the phrase “government schools” as an emotional trigger intended to disingenuously characterize public schools as institutional agents of a sinister plot to indoctrinate children into a socialist, anti-religion agenda that violates parental rights, freedom of choice and traditional values.  That none of this is true is of no consequence to the likes of Rufo or other conservatives.  An example of Rufo’s propaganda landed on my desktop as I wrote this post, fresh from his Twitter account: 

Language tip: school choice advocates should always say "scholarships" instead of "vouchers." It gives a connotation of opportunity and forces our opponents to take the unenviable position of denying scholarships to families and children.

This calculated campaign gives fresh energy to persistent efforts to divert billions of tax dollars into religious education, voucher schemes and charter schools.  Despite all the claims made by charter advocates, study after study shows that public schools do as well or better than charters, even by the relatively meaningless metric of test scores.

The pandemic has turbocharged the school choice movement by also mobilizing anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiments.  In communities all through the nation, efforts to follow public health protocols have subjected school officials to attacks, up to and including death threats.   The few school systems that have begun to offer vaccinations are under vicious attack for supposedly sacrificing innocent children to a government campaign to impose unproven medical treatments.

These falsehoods run in tandem with local and state elections for school boards and state legislatures.  The evidence is rapidly mounting that this mandate for parental “rights” will spawn new voucher legislation and other school choice measures in unprecedented numbers.   Dissatisfaction with pandemic online programs, mask policies and the myth of CRT training has already led to drops of 4-5% enrollment in New York City and other major public school systems.  These students are migrating to the charter school of choice, Christian schools, or homeschooling, whichever is most consistent with the parents’ “beliefs,” whether rational, mythical or ignorant.  

This migration leads to dramatic reductions in funding for public schools which are already under catastrophic fiscal strain.  This, in turn, is accelerating the already alarming attrition in teacher ranks.  Less money and more attrition leads to larger, less manageable classes, deteriorating facilities and sinking morale.  Every teacher I know has grown weary of increased demands, fewer resources, flat or reduced compensation and constant attacks on their profession.  It is a wonder that any of them persevere.

The strategy is the educational equivalent of Reagan-era, anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist’s intent to starve government “down to the size that we can drown it in the bathtub.”

The role of education is all too frequently described as preparing children to become employable and contribute to a thriving capitalist economy.  That description has always troubled me, as every person’s life and worth should be so much more than economic utility. 

A true education has two purposes higher that economic utility.   One purpose must be to open children’s minds and hearts to knowledge and beauty so that they can live a fruitful and satisfying life.  The other is to prepare children to be active and ethical participants in society, advancing the evolution of our democratic republic through civic engagement and deep appreciation of our collective responsibilities; to ourselves, our world, and our fragile planet.

These purposes require a common civic, scientific and historical vocabulary, enriched by understanding cultures and expression through a well-curated exposure to literature and other manifestations of the human spirit through dance, music, theater, visual arts and other disciplines.  A common civic knowledge must be developed through study of the Constitution and the mechanisms of governance as they have evolved over several centuries.

It is unquestionably the case that this kind of education has the collateral result of preparing the most productive contributors to our society and our economy.  

I don’t claim that any or all of these objectives are being brilliantly achieved in today’s pubic system, but they sure as hell won’t be achieved - or achievable - in a disjointed collection of religious schools, charter schools designed to meet parents’ ideological tastes, or voucher programs that allow families to choose whatever “brand” of schooling that reinforces their own predilections.

If we lose the public system we may never get it back.  Without a vibrant, well-funded system of equitable public education for all, our noble, albeit flawed, experiment in democracy may be doomed.

Everyone must resist.  Be active in local politics, especially regarding education.  Support efforts to fight choice and privatization.  

The best resource to guide you in helping to save public education is the Network for Public Education (NPE), founded by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody in 2013.   

Visit the website, inform yourself, and support them if you can.

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