Attacking Teachers and Banning Books is the Point — Part II: How We Got Here
Attacks on U.S. Teachers is Nothing New
Although the demonizing of teachers, removal of “offensive books”, and packing of school board meetings has been escalating this fall, it did not happen overnight. This is the culmination of decades of fiscal and religious conservatives’ attempts to undermine and discredit public schools. It is the end result of a long game that they have been funding and feeding for almost a century. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, which doesn’t realize that the water is getting hotter because it’s heating up gradually, the roots of the current attacks on public schools began almost a century ago. But they happened slowly and were seemingly innocuous enough that few people saw them as an attempt to fully discredit our educators and dismantle our public school system.
Heather Cox Richardson has written about how the New Deal under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930’s also gave rise to fiscal conservatives who opposed the idea that our government should provide infrastructure and services for common people, and not solely for the corporations and oligarchs who nearly ran our country into the ground in 1929. Echoing the former plantation owners’ arguments that allowing any portion of their taxes to go to “free stuff” for former slaves was “socialism,” they opposed any form of government that supported the majority of taxpayers instead of lining businessmen’s pockets. They began to use their vast sums of money to create a noise machine that would build opposition this New Deal by employing lobbyists, creating “think tanks” to promote their views, and flooding the media in an attempt to get common people to vote against their best interests. From the beginning, public education was one of the “government excesses” they opposed.
The majority of Americans (at least white Americans and those with political power) supported public schools — as long as they were segregated so that their children benefitted and received the lion’s share of taxpayers’ school funding. But that support started to waver during the Johnson Administration, which ordered that all public schools desegregate in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education. Many white families shifted their children to private schools, including religious schools that received tax exemptions. This practice ended with a series of court decisions and the Nixon Administration’s mandate that the IRS start taxing all-white private schools. As white people’s taxes and school funding looked like it was going to help fund the education of other people’s children, white families began to oppose public schools as “socialism,” “indoctrination,” and evidence of “government waste.”
The Republican Party, still recovering from damage from Watergate and Vietnam, began to employ Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” courting southern voters who opposed the forced integration mandated by the federal government. Realizing that it was no longer politically expedient to talk directly about race, the Republican Party began using dog whistles and coded language to talk about race while pretending they were only discussing fiscal policy.
The school choice and school voucher movements arose from this movement. Their backers shifted from discussing segregation to discussing “school choice” — which, coincidentally would shift the public’s tax money back to funding schools which could find ways to keep out the “wrong” kinds of students. Similarly, school vouchers would allow people to directly bring taxpayers’ money to private religious schools or to schools that could create barriers to keep students of color out. Both were tools to re-segregate schools, and both are succeeding.
The Reagan Administration brought conservatives’ preoccupation with attacking public schools into the political mainstream. His speeches about how American schools “were being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity,” combined with the panic brought about by his administration’s 1983 “A Nation At Risk” report propagated the perception that the U.S.’ public school system was “failing” and that massive reform — or total privatization — would be necessary. Since then, Republicans, Democrats, and the media have all parroted this narrative, despite little evidence that the narrative is correct. This narrative allowed the Reagan Administration, with help from prominent trickle-down economists like Milton Freeman, to argue that school choice was the answer to the non-existent crisis they had declared.
Nevertheless, the myth was pervasive enough to create a decades-long media blitz against public schools. Everywhere we’ve turned over the last two decades, there have been news stories about how public schools were “failing,” and how “teachers weren’t doing their jobs.” Even Democrats and mainstream news sources repeated these myths. Movies and films further perpetuated stereotypes that framed teachers within a false dichotomy of either “incompetent or inspiring,” portraying those teachers who were unwilling to martyr themselves by subsidizing ongoing tax cuts with their own health, safety, and unpaid labor as lazy, uncaring, unmotivated, and unfit to serve in our nation’s classrooms.
As the conservatives’ (with help from Democrats’) dissemination of the myth of “failing” schools became accepted as gospel truth (pun intended), the politicians and the public became more open to “school reform.” The 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bill, followed by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gave more power to charter schools while creating unfunded mandates, red tape, and increased oversight and “accountability” for our public schools. Many schools saw funds that could have gone to teachers, libraries, counsellors, or nutrition programs going to hiring one or more administrators to gather and present all the data that these bills required. Schools deemed as “failing” often had to use their funding to follow multiple tiers of unproven “school improvement” measures. Given that test scores closely correlate with socio-economic level, it’s not surprising that the schools who were most negatively affected were the schools with a larger percentage of students enrolled in Free and Reduced Lunch programs. But instead of providing additional funding to help the students and teachers in those schools, those schools were branded as “failing” and threatened with liquidation (to be replaced by a charter school), and the teachers were castigated for being “ineffective.” Since these laws also mandated that teachers’ pay be dependent on their students’ test scores, the teachers serving our most high-need populations — arguably had the most difficult jobs — got thanked for their services with pay cuts.
The use of state tests — and only tests — to measure students’ success created billions of dollars in profits for private companies like Pearson, which won contracts to create the tests, score the tests, and to create the “test prep” curricula that they could sell back to schools. Some of the corporate interests who had opposed The New Deal were starting to realize their dream of making public education profitable for the private sector while simultaneously increasing their control of schools’ operation and curriculum.
Conservatives further attacked public schools by stoking the culture wars. They started endless controversies and debates about multiple aspects of instruction that were already mainstream in public schools. Of course the pro-lifers (a movement that itself rose out of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy) attacked any aspect of sex ed. that didn’t focus exlusively on abstinence. When that wasn’t enough to keep parents outraged about what public schools were doing, they created a whole new theory of “creationism” and used it to counter the well-established theory of evolution. Then they charged that the schools which refused to teach “both sides” and include the bunk theory they created were not honoring their beliefs. They kept it coming, debating national social studies standards in the 90’s, instigating endless debates about requiring prayer in schools, demanding Common Core standards and then complaining about them, demanding that their children have the “right” to be exceptions to decades-old rules about getting vaccinations before going to public schools, and debating whether any discussion of the existence of people on the LGBTQIAA spectrum should be allowed. They viewed all of these issues as “attacks” on their “values” and used that to generate a sense of umbridge and persecution. Of course, the “solution” they demanded was re-segregated charter schools and voucher schools, where they could better ensure that their children would only attend schools with other children who matched their values and beliefs (and demographics). The most recent iteration of stoking the culture wars has been creating a whole controversy over “Critical Race Theory” (a theory that was only taught in specific college classes) and getting their followers to believe that schools are using it to indoctrinate white children.
All of these narratives and reforms — combined with endless budget cuts — delegitimized, undermined, disempowered, and demoralized teachers almost as well as the Maoists’ tactic of parading them through the streets bearing placards declaring their “crimes.” It also empowered an army of Karen (and Ken) parents to continually demand more special (and unfunded) services for their children and to scrutinize every decision teachers made. All of the “reforms” added new jobs and duties for teachers, which were uncompensated due to budget cuts brought about by Republican-led demands for lower taxes. Worse, teachers’ salaries and benefits were cut, often to the point where they had to work second or even third jobs in order to pay their increasing rents and other costs as consumer prices rose. Despite these cuts, many continued to work unpaid overtime for their schools and to use their $30-$40K salaries to buy supplies that their school districts couldn’t afford. While one would think people would be grateful to teachers for their service and sacrifices, media narratives still derided teachers for “not doing their jobs” while those who served students who were poor were usually labeled as “failing” due to their students’ low test scores.
This is where we all were before 2020 and the disruptions brought by COVID-19. Overworked and demoralized teachers. Underfunded schools. Massive inequality created by localized school funding which shortchanged our most impoverished students. Pervasive myths of “failing” schools and teachers, which were invented and propagated by fiscal conservatives opposed to funding public goods such as schools and by religious conservatives opposed to school desegregation (who will cite every reason EXCEPT the real one unless you catch them off guard). Increasing “reforms” that do exactly what the conservatives wanted — re-segregating schools, moving public funding to private companies’ profits, and increasing scrutiny and control of every aspect of our public schools and curricula.
But the fiscal conservatives are not going to be satisfied until the public school system is completely dismantled and all education is privatized. The evangelical religious conservatives, who had always been guided by dominionism and its southern antebellum twist that there is a “natural order” that governs race and class, were not going to be satisfied until they could once again CHOOSE to send their children to the “right” schools with the “right” kinds of students. Even decades of compromise and “reform” have not been enough to placate their demands.
As Trump-supporting Republicans have moved farther to the right, they have worked to consolidate their control and to give themselves a monopoly on our government and social institutions. Their “pro-life” movement is controlling women — which itself was another movement Republicans created in response to de-segregation in order to “energize” the religious right and give them a flag to unite around that was not directly about race (although it conveniently allowed them to pretend to care about babies while dog whistling about “welfare moms”). Trump Republicans are using gerrymandering and voter suppression laws to ensure that they can continue to win elections even as they represent a smaller and smaller percentage of the American voters. Following the fascist playbook, they are scapegoating immigrants and minorities. In a move that closely mirror’s Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, they attempted a coup and are now using any efforts to counter that as an opportunity to play the role of martyrs while spreading their Big Lie about a “stolen” election. They use divisive language, misinformation, and dehumanization of all perceived “enemies” to whip up their base to the point that their followers are openly threatening civil war.
Anyone who follows history and knows how that fascists operate could predict that their next target was going to be schools and our educators.