Public schools – the new political battleground

Ken Wolf
Ken Wolf

Teachers and schools are having a hard time today, especially in the twenty-three states that have both a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled state legislature.

Some states have passed, or likely will pass, bills providing punishment for teachers who say the “wrong” things about race, gender, or any other topic to which a parent objects.

In Virginia, Republican governor Glenn Youngkin is establishing a hotline allowing parents to report any teacher who appears to violate Youngkin’s executive order limiting the ways teachers may discuss race. Missouri and Florida Republicans want to permit parents, or any taxpayer, to bring private lawsuits against school districts they believe violate newly-imposed limits on how racism is presented.

PEN America, a free-speech organization, tracked 122 state bills restricting public school teachers since January 2021; more than half of these were introduced in January 2022 when legislatures reconvened (Atlantic, January 28, 2022).

Oklahoma Republican state senator Rob Standridge has introduced the Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act which would fine teachers $10,000 ‘per incident, per individual,’ for saying or teaching anything that would challenge a student’s “deeply held beliefs,” a phrase which is not defined. If a teacher could not pay, they would be fired (Forbes, February 4, 2022).

And restrictions on classroom speech is being supplemented by a revival of book banning in recent months. A Tennessee school board banned the book Maus, a graphic novel describing the Holocaust, while another district in that state actual burned “offensive” texts. Republican legislators in Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas are passing or trying to pass similar laws.

Teachers are retiring at a rapid rate, and a teacher shortage is looming, due to low salaries and morale, and a lack of support from principals and school boards. Even worse, many states are reducing teacher pensions.

This attack is not new and is motivated by ideology. For decades, right-wing think-tanks and libertarians have been trying to get schools to present right-wing or conservative views, and they are succeeding by aiming their misinformation at educators and parents. Funding for schools at all levels has declined steadily in recent decades. “Vouchers and private schools,” cry the Rightists.

Public schools, colleges, and universities were intended to create an educated electorate to support democracy. Those who attack democracy want to change education to indoctrination.

It is true that problems exist in schools, including unmotivated students, racial discrimination, poverty, drugs and behavioral disorders. These mirror the problems in our wider society, many of which fit under one of two headings: racism and greed.

The schools (not courts or voting booths, despite the media attention they get) are rapidly becoming the most important battlefield on which our “original sin” of racism is being displayed. Liberals and conservatives, left and right, have contributed to this over many decades.

Liberals contributed with well-intentioned busing to promote integration, and white conservatives responded by creating private academies to avoid sending their children to school with blacks. Both actions enhanced rather than reduced racism, and then the “war on drugs,” which targeted minorities, didn’t help.

Students’ behaviors and attitudes toward learning reflect the influence of their parents, their living conditions, and social media. None of these currently support serious learning; all seem to move toward entertainment and indoctrination.

And here are some consequences, based upon my decades of college teaching, during which I and my children came to respect many fine K-12 teachers:

  • fewer teachers – especially gifted, sensitive, wise, and passionate teachers;
  • greater political and social divisiveness due to continued “down-funding” of public schools to allow more tax money to go to charter and private schools;
  • a technically well-trained but under-educated population less able to deal with ambiguity and solve problems not based upon “either-or” math and science learning;
  • a decline in our national intelligence (all types: IQ, logical, emotional, kinesthetic, interpersonal, linguistic, etc.)

When teachers can no longer encourage students to analyze different ideas without worrying about whether this will make the students uncomfortable, they can no longer educate students.

Ignorant voters are easily scammed by emotional lies, and will elect politicians eager to scam them to get and keep power and money without governing for the people.

And that, as much as vote-rigging and the courts, will make democracy unworkable.

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Ken Wolf

Ken Wolf spent 40 years teaching European and World History, punctuated by several administrative chores, at Murray State University, retiring in 2008. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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