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Education and Election-Year Politics
Recent conservative bills in Florida, Texas, and across the country seek to control the language and books teachers use. For example, Florida HB 1557, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents, restricts what educators can say about gender and sexuality. It is accompanied by others that would mandate that teachers post all of their lessons online. This is an invitation for any zealot to make a harmless lesson go viral and unleash an online mob on any teacher or school in the country. Other bills, like HB 327 in Ohio, seek to restrict language that supposedly promotes critical race theory.
Although the bills are masked in official names, like the HB 1557 “Parental Rights in Education” bill, the sum of these efforts is to destabilize education by intimidating teachers and making education an even more challenging career choice. The bills undermine trust in those most experienced in the classrooms: The educators. The educators study, prepare and know the communities to make decisions about materials and content.
Why would politicians and right-wing groups seek to undermine teachers and public education? To score culture war points in an election cycle. And to point to what is wrong in public schools, without solutions other than privatizing education to yank it from the public, democratic trust in favor of private money grabs.
Sending Public Money to Private Schools
States such as Ohio and Indiana (and others) have EdChoice voucher programs that allow families to pay private school tuition using public money if their school of address is “failing.” This F rating is based on state report card data that include attendance rates, standardized test scores, and graduation rates. The overwhelming majority of schools that accept voucher money are religious schools.
Additionally, conservatives have taken the charter school concept and made profit-inspired inroads into charters, as described in The Original Purpose of Charter Schools. Although charter schools are public, individuals and entities can apply an entrepreneurial spirit to make education into a business, often using a lack of unionizing and relaxed regulations to profit. Traditional public schools run more democratically, with elected school boards, union participation, and public meetings.
Politicians harbor more than just short-term election goals when they polarize topics in education. They systematically decrease public satisfaction with public schools, emphasizing poor performance on state report cards. This is not to help struggling schools and neighborhoods but to create more opportunities for private spaces to gain education dollars.
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Why Conservatives Are Attacking Public Schools
Between recent Republican legislation, the COVID pandemic, and shootings, the national eye is on education more than ever. On Pod Save America, a podcast by former advisers to President Obama, they discussed the Republican bills. They capture a key motive for these house bills:
They want teachers to go to bed afraid. They want being a teacher to be terrible, because, ultimately, they want to undermine the public schools and make them so rancorous and awful. They want every school board meeting to be a [expletive] nightmare. Every PTA meeting to be a nightmare….They want to make it so awful, so terrible that fewer and fewer people go into it so ultimately, the public schools fall apart and they can privatize one more aspect of community, destroy one more aspect of our society. That is the goal. Jon Lovett,
“America’s Next Top Press Secretary.” Pod Save America. April 15, 2022.
And conservatives with this aim are succeeding, at least somewhat. In the face of such pressures, teachers are leaving the profession. Further, young people are increasingly hesitant to select into teacher training programs. However understandable, this exodus from teaching may create enough disruption for Republicans to further divest from public schools in favor of education privatization.
Stay in the Classroom to Protect Democracy
This right-wing pushback on public education gives educators a new reason to stay in the classroom: To hold the line of democracy on this societal front of public schools. If we stay and provide quality public education, we lay the foundation to an educated citizenry. We stabilize the schools, fight against the failing ratings, and keep education dollars public.
This motive to preserve the public schools could help attract and retain teachers and other educators. Like the Obama administration advisers who are now activists with their knowledge via podcasts and books, our resistance to conservative house bills is doing what we have experience doing: We teach.
We teach in the face of idiotic house bills that show a complete lack of understanding of what we do in the classroom. We teach through active shooter drills, innumerable interruptions and disruptions, and increasing demands without corresponding compensation.
We can also recommend education to the amazing young people we know to show up to give each student the best possible public education. This framing allows us to be truthful about the difficulties in public education and offers a motivation that may not be obvious–that teaching in the face of political and societal pressures serves a democratic society.
To the teachers starting a new year in public education: Thank you for showing up and using your talents in the schools. For those who have left or are leaving soon, we thank you for your service to our communities. Maybe you gave a year or more than you thought you should to offer stability in unstable times. At the very least, you withstood missing bathroom breaks and lunches and tending to your own basic needs. Many of you have also seen young people through a pandemic, a natural disaster, active shooter drills (and some that weren’t drills), and the deaths of classmates and parents.
To those considering leaving–have you thought of your role as one critical to our democratic society? Teachers are leaving for many well-documented and known reasons, and their choice to go should be honored when they do. But for anyone still grappling, add this to the “pros” column for staying: Teachers can defend democracy by working in the public schools.
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