An important element is missing from our national conversation about the flood of laws attacking critical race theory, banning books, muzzling teachers, and opening public schools to legal liability for teaching the realities of race in America and American history.
More than half state legislatures have introduced or passed bans on critical race theory, which proponents are adamantly opposed to, even if they cannot explain the first thing about it. (Please read Robert Jones’ skewer of such proposal in Florida, making it illegal for public schools to cause “uncomfort” to white males.) We’ve seen the revival of so-called “Don’t Say Gay” proposals, also in Florida. In Tennessee, a novel about the Holocaust wins the Pulitzer Prize Maus was banned, a whole story to break Holocaust Remembrance Day.
These bills are ugly and rightly reviled for their anti-equality, anti-reality and anti-education goals. But this last goal is much larger than most people realize.
One of the anti-education goals is to create such uncertainty about the rules and potential lawsuits that it scares teachers and administrators away from subjects. It’s part of an old playbook. Among the many tactics used to undermine the teaching of evolution in our public schools was to make miserable science teachers who dared to educate children about this fact so that whatever the Supreme Court can decide (and these days there are few guarantees that the court would do the right thing), teachers simply avoided the topic to make their lives easier.
It’s also one of the Republican goals to impose tough new requirements on voters – think voter ID cards and banning same-day registration – people will give up on bureaucracy opaque and ever-changing and just stay at home.
Some are aware of this tactic, but very few seem to understand the broader ambition of these laws and how they fit into a decades-long attack on public schools (my colleague RD writer Chrissy Stroop being an exception). They don’t just want to ban those topics or those books, they want to completely destroy public schools. I explore this in my new book, American Crusade: How the Supreme Court is weaponizing religious freedom, to be published in September.
Under our constitution, public schools must remain secular. For older students, they can teach on religion, but not preach religion as objective truth. Public schools can educate, but not indoctrinate. (We learned this on hard way.)
This separation of church and state is seen as a threat rather than a blessing. Focusing on math, reading, science, music, art, physical education, and any other subject that was not religious education or indoctrination, Christian nationalists and other activists of choice school children believe that public schools keep their children away from the church. It is anot old and widespread notion. Tara Westover tells it in her bestselling memoir, educated:
Dad said public school was a government ploy to keep children away from God. “I may as well abandon my children to the devil himself,” he said, “as send them on the road to this school.”
Instead of seeing public schools as a foundation of education that people of any religion or no religion can agree on, that parents can supplement with whatever religion and holy book they choose, Christian parents were taught to fear public schools. This is an attack that has been going on for decades, dating back to Brown v. School Board at least, and this has been a central objective of Christian Reconstructionism and its heirs, as scholar Julie Ingersoll has argued for some time.
Attackers are rarely open about this goal, but sometimes the mask slips. Jerry Falwell wrote in his book America can be saved!, which was published by Sword of the Lord Publishers, which he “hope[d] to see the day when… we won’t have public schools anymore. The churches will have taken them over and the Christians will lead them. And if they can’t get hold of them, it’s better to destroy them.
For example, this week is National School Choice Week. It’s not about defending private education or ending public education, it’s just about giving people a choice, right? After all, conservatives and republicans are the champions of choice (as long as women do not make their own reproductive choices). Kyle Olson helped create and National School Choice Week Chair until its birth in 2011. As Executive Director, olson wrote, “I would like to think that, yes, Jesus would destroy the temple of public education and save the children from despair and a hopeless future.”
Olson also led the Education Action Group Foundation in Michigan, in part funded by the fortune of Betsy Devos. Betsy Devos and her family promoted school vouchers and choices “to help advance the Kingdom of God,” as she told “The Gathering,” the annual gathering of the nation’s wealthiest Christians. But also because “the church – which in our opinion should be much more central in the life of the community – has been replaced by the public school as the center of activity”.
It is not enough that Americans have the right to home school their children. Or that a Christian family can send their child to a Christian kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, university, and even law school; school choice and vouchers require citizens to pay for this Christian education. And even that is not enough.
Catherine Stewart, the author and investigative journalist who has worked in this space for more than a decade abstract in his latest book, Power Worshipers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism: “For many proponents, of course, the underlying motive of voucher programs is not to improve education but to eliminate non-sectarian education.”
Regardless last pet peeve of the right, be it critical race theory, Common core, desegregated schools or evolution, destroy public education is the underlying objective. The methods change slightly. Public education drain. Defunding of public schools. Imposing financial and legal responsibility on teachers and teaching staff. But it’s all meant to “destroy the temple of public education” and funnel children into Christian schools. As I explain in the new book, this Supreme Court has been a willing accomplice in the crusade. We shouldn’t be. Nor should the media cover this biblical flood of damaging and unethical legislation.
My fear is that conservative media criticism has done to them what creationists have done to teaching evolution in public schools and what Republicans have done to so many voters – make it easier for the media to remain silent on the real problem. Or worse, favor “balance” rather than truth. There is a war on truth, as these laws show, and we will not save it by trying to be fair and balanced.