Thursday, August 18, 2011

Schools to be used as cultural battlefields all over again

Silly season is definitely here now. Slate magazine has posted an item on the significance of Michele Bachmann's rise in political power, and it has a lot to do with public education. Naturally, this means that educators should pay attention, if they're not already. If you wade through the political stuff, you'll find in the Slate article a number of issues that raise important and scary questions for all of us.

Michele Bachmann's victory in the Iowa straw poll Saturday represents many obvious things: the mainstreaming of the Tea Party, the overnight ordinariness of female presidential candidates, the increasing irrelevance of also-ran moderates like Jon Huntsman. But her growing popularity among the Republican base also signals something that's been less widely acknowledged: a sea change in the party's education agenda. It's safe to say that the political era of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind is now officially over, even as the law's testing mandates continue to reverberate in classrooms across the country.

As recently as a decade ago, Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain, and John Boehner embraced bipartisan, standards-and-accountability education reform as a pro-business venture, a way to make American workers and firms more competitive in the global marketplace. Now we are seeing the GOP acquiesce to the anti-government, Christian-right view of education epitomized by Bachmann, in which public schools are regarded not as engines for economic growth or academic achievement, but as potential moral corrupters of the nation's youth.

This echoes what Rick Santorum has been saying in his stops in South Carolina and Iowa, that early childhood education is "government indoctrination," rather than preparation for schooling.

Against a backdrop of Tea Party calls to abolish the Department of Education and drastically cut the federal government's role in local public schools, Rep. John Kline, the moderate chairman of the House education and workforce committee, has refused to engage in productive negotiations with the Obama administration on how to update and reauthorize the troubled No Child Left Behind law. If it is not rewritten to emphasize academic growth instead of raw test score goals, up to 80 percent of American schools could be labeled "failing" this school year, because less than 100 percent of their native-born American students have reached "proficiency" on reading and math tests.

Shades of what is already happening here!

Bachmann stands at the forefront of the GOP's shifting allegiances on education. Like many female elected officials before her, she first got involved in politics as a mother concerned about local public schools. (Though Bachmann home-schooled her biological children, the family's 23 foster children attended public schools.)

I wonder why she home-schooled her own, but sent her 23 foster children to public schools?

As Ryan Lizza described in his recent New Yorker profile, in 1993, Bachmann, then an IRS-lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, co-founded a charter school whose curriculum was built around evangelical Christian themes such as creationism. Several years later, she went on to run unsuccessfully for the Stillwater, Minn., school board as one member of a five-person Christian conservative block. The group campaigned on the expected culture war issues, such as abstinence-only sex education, but also on a more esoteric platform: opposition to state education standards and to federal vocational education programs.

As her political career advanced, the overarching theme of Bachmann's education activism was that government attempts to improve schools threatened the prerogatives of the Christian family and represented a dangerous move toward a socialized, planned economy. In 2001, she charged that the 1994 federal School to Work Opportunities Act, which provided funding for low-income teenagers to do on-the-job apprenticeships with local companies, would turn students into "human resources for a centrally planned economy." As a state senator in 2002, Bachmann produced a bizarre film called Guinea Pigs II, which compared Minnesota's Profile of Learning curriculum standards—instituted in 1998 by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson—to Nazism and communism. As Tim Murphy of Mother Jones wrote of Bachmann last week, "She was Tea Party before the Tea party was cool. In 2002, with a Republican president in the White House and the Tea Party a full seven years away, she cited the 9th and 10th amendments while railing against No Child Left Behind as an unconstitutional abuse of power."

Bachmann wasn't the only Christian conservative local politician making these anti-education reform arguments in the 1990s. Rather, from the beginning of her activist career, she was part of a national "parental rights" movement organized by groups such as Focus on the Family and the Homeschool Legal Defense Fund. Like Bachmann, Sarah Palin was a foot soldier in this movement. According to an account local political activist Phillip Munger gave Salon, as mayor of Wasilla, Palin promoted a group of Christian right school board candidates. She also explored the possibility of banning "offensive" books from the town's public library.

Banning "offensive" books. Could book-banning come to South Carolina?

These Christian right organizations lobbied against curriculum standards and state and federal regulation of home-schoolers, and recruited thousands of school board candidates—many of them churchgoing moms like Bachmann—in an attempt to wield influence over curricula and textbooks.

This sounds an awful lot like Kristin Maguire, Mark Sanford's appointee to the State Board of Education. Though she home-schooled her children, she became the chair of the State Board. Her departure from the board was very strange for someone with her political ideology -- who is Bridget Keeney? -- but she's recently re-asserting herself in public.

The movement paid special attention to how public schools dealt with issues such as homosexuality, contraception, and abortion, but also sought to promote an uber-nationalist view of American history, in which the evils of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans were downplayed or sometimes totally whitewashed. (For more on the curriculum wars of the 1990s, see Sara Diamond's masterful Not By Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right.)

Oh, that'll be the day: Whitewashing slavery, in South Carolina? What, the slaves enjoyed slavery here? They were better off, were they?

Bachmann's main competition for Tea Party voters, Rick Perry, has made opposition to federal education mandates a centerpiece of his political career. Under his watch as governor, Texas was one of just two states (the other was Alaska) to refuse to even consider adopting the new state-led common core curriculum standards in English and math. Perry also kept Texas out of the Obama administration's Race to the Top education reform grant competition, declaring, "[W]e would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children's future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington, virtually eliminating parents' participation in their children's education."

Did Mick Zais get those same talking points?

It will be interesting to see how Mitt Romney, the man Bachmann or Perry will have to beat to claim the GOP nomination, handles all this. His centrism on school reform is a matter of public record. When he ran for president in 2008, he defended No Child Left Behind, saying similar legislation had worked well in Massachusetts during his time as governor. As recently as February 2010, in a speech before the Conservative Political Action Committee, he outlined a school reform platform largely indistinguishable from that of the Obama administration, supporting higher pay for teachers and more accountability.

But recently, Romney has gone quiet on the issue. His campaign website carefully avoids any mention of education policy, and he hasn't brought it up on the trail. At Thursday night's GOP debate, only Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain were asked about NCLB; Romney got off the hook. But with his party's congressional leaders rushing to the right on school reform—chasing after Bachmann, Palin, and other members of the Tea Party—Romney won't get a free pass for very long. He'll have to either defend his record of support for top-down education standards or perform another obvious and painful flip-flop in his quest to woo the conservative base.

So, the takeaway from this article is that rather than have an honest dialogue and debate about the equal access to high-quality public education, our public schools are going to be used again as the battleground for a culture war.

Haven't we been here before? Didn't we get sick of it then? Where are leaders like Dick Riley when we need them?

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