The Right Attacks Public Schools
By Barbara Miner
Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 pp. 15-18
The religious right, helped by more moderate conservative forces, is taking aim at the very concept of public education.
Buoyed by the conservative movement’s success in gutting welfare and other social programs, the religious right increasingly is targeting its sights on public schools.
The survival of this country’s tradition of public education has far-reaching implications for all who are committed to a democratic society that respects diversity. No matter how much this tradition is tarnished and battered in practice, it remains a cornerstone of our democratic vision.
Both the religious right and the broader conservative movement understand that schools play an essential role in instilling society’s values in a new generation of people. They know that if they are to reverse the gains of the women’s, civil rights, environmental, and gay rights movements, they must pay attention to school curriculum and culture.
People for the American Way Foundation, a civil liberties advocacy group in Washington, D.C., points out that the religious right’s education agenda has two main goals:
- Redirect substantial public tax dollars into private, religious schools serving the religious right’s core constituency; and,
- Use whatever public education system remains to impose narrow, Biblically-based beliefs on America’s next generation.
The main political emphasis of the religious right-particularly on a national level-is to implement voucher programs and tax initiatives that use public dollars to help fund religious schools. The beauty of vouchers, from the religious right’s perspective, is that fundamentalist parents could send their children to religious schools controlled by Christian fundamentalists-and have the public pay for it.
Deanna Duby, director of education policy for People for the American Way, notes that national organizations such as The Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family have also put a high priority on affecting local policy for school boards. She points to the enormous amount of material generated by right-wing organizations on how to become involved in education, including radio programs, books, videos, and training workshops.
The religious right has been increasingly successful in imposing its agenda on public schools. For instance, it successfully pushed to pass federal legislation mandating abstinence-only sex education. It has also stepped up its censorship of controversial books, particularly those with gay or lesbian themes or those dealing with adolescent sexuality. Further, the religious right has so intimidated some science teachers that they no longer discuss the theory of evolution-considered by scientists to be the cornerstone of modern biology.
On its own, the religious right does not have the popular support or political clout to implement its agenda. In recent decades, however, it has forged a working relationship with more mainstream conservatives in the Republican Party-an unholy alliance in which each wing of the Party is trying to use the other to its advantage. The alliance rests on an understanding by both groups that sustaining this coalition is crucial if the Republican Party is to dominate the country’s political structures. Thus, even when more moderate conservatives disagree with the religious right , they rarely speak up publicly for fear of jeopardizing the alliance and/or incurring the religious right’s wrath.
Periodically, the religious right threatens to bolt from the Republican Party if more mainstream conservatives do not adopt its agenda. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote in the summer of 1998, “The religious right now demands an ideological purity that few to the left of the U.S. Taxpayers Party can meet.” When threats are made, mainstream Republicans tend to bow down before the religious right and try to smooth over the differences.
If progressives are to defeat the religious right’s agenda, they must scrutinize both the points of unity and the points of difference within the right’s attack on the schools, and begin to drive a wedge between the religious right and its allies in more mainstream conservatism.
Chip Berlet, who has researched the right wing for over twenty years and is currently with the Boston-based watch-dog group Political Research Associates, argues that progressives must begin to exploit the contradictions within the right. “It’s a coalition and like all coalitions, there are points of unity and points of divergence,” Berlet told Rethinking Schools. “What has allowed them to operate, in part, is that their points of difference have not been scrutinized sufficiently.”
From the outside, it often appears that conservatives are of one mind on education: abolish the U.S. Department of Education; return all educational authority to states and localities; and push for school prayer, vouchers, and privatization.
But their seeming unity masks important differences.The most significant cleavage is between the religious right, which seeks to place Biblical law at the center of public policy, and those who remain secular in their orientation despite rhetoric that often matches that of the religious right.
“The key difference is in the word religion,” argues George Kaplan, an educational analyst in Washington, D.C., who has studied the religious right.
Kaplan sees a theocratic vision at the heart of the religious right’s agenda, in keeping with evangelical Christianity’s belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible. For this reason, Christian rightists are obsessed with their children receiving religious instruction as the foundation of their school curriculum. A number of religious right organizations reflect this parental obsession and place education issues at the center of their political work. These include: Louis Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition; Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association , based in Tupelo, Mississippi; Citizens for Excellence in Education/National Association of Christian Educators; Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, located in Alton, Illinois; Rev. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, based in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Lee Berg, a Baptist minister who has studied the religious right for over twenty years and now works with the human and civil rights division of the National Education Association (NEA), argues that too many people underestimate the extent to which the religious right is committed to a theocracy-a government based on a literal interpretation of Biblical principles. Berg points out that many of the top leaders in the religious right have been strongly influenced by Christian Reconstructionism. The movement, in essence, seeks to replace democracy with a theocratic form of government. It argues that secular law is always secondary to biblical law, and that it is the duty of Christians to see that God’s law is paramount throughout society. Though the movement has received minimal attention in the mainstream media, some analysts consider it the driving ideology of the leadership of the religious right.
The defining text of reconstructionism, Institutes of Biblical Law, is an 800-page tome written in 1973 by Rousas John Rushdoony. By providing a theological basis for Christian involvement in politics, it helped spur the growth of the religious right. In it Rushdoony writes: “The only true order is founded on Biblical law. All law is religious in nature, and every non-Biblical law-order represents an anti-Christian religion.”
While religious conservatives base their ideology on a narrow interpretation of the Bible, economic conservatives pay homage to corporate capitalism and unrestrained markets. Economic conservatives are primarily concerned with increasing the freedom of the market-by cutting taxes, privatizing government services, and reducing government social programs, especially federal programs that redistribute resources and serve the needs of low-income people and people of color.
Educators familiar with the issues argue that the differences between the religious right and the economic right sometimes appear to be based on rhetoric and emphasis-for example, how strongly they push for school prayer or how strongly they attack the rights of gay and lesbian students. Those differences, however, ultimately stem from a fundamental split over the role of religion in education.
Economic conservatives “believe that the free market drives civilization, while the religious right believes that God drives civilization,” notes Berlet. “Just because God is driving the same way right now as corporate capitalism is a fortunate coincidence for the right.”
Religious and economic conservatives try to mask their strategic differences over the role of religion. Thus they are able to join forces on a number of issues. Most importantly, they both are pushing on the federal and
state level for vouchers that would provide tax dollars for private and religious schools. They also support other privatization efforts, such as contracting to for-profit businesses-everything from food service to, in some cases, the entire running of a school.
They both also have an antipathy toward federal education programs, in particular those designed to lessen inequalities due to race, gender, disabilities, or economic status. Both argue that the federal government tilted too far to the advantage of poor people and people of color, and that liberals tilted too far to the left on cultural issues.
Of the various education issues uniting religious and economic conservatives, vouchers hold primary importance. Using public dollars to provide vouchers to private schools remains the main political goal of both the religious right and its allies in more mainstream conservatism. A key to defeating the right-wing education agenda of both the religious right and its allies in more mainstream conservatism is to defeat the voucher movement.
For religious conservatives, the voucher movement provides a way to funnel public dollars into private Christian schools. For economic conservatives, vouchers serve a number of purposes, including furthering an overall goal of privatizing government services and dismantling social entitlements, as well as undermining the role of government in providing for the good of all. “To privatize public education is the centerpiece, the grand prize of their overall agenda,” Ann Bastian writes in the booklet published by Rethinking Schools, Ltd. in 1996, Selling Out Our Schools: Vouchers, Markets, and the Future of Public Education.
Vouchers also serve an important political function for the conservative movement, whether efforts to legislate their use are successful or not. As Bastian writes: “Vouchers unify the different strands of the right: business entrepreneurs looking for a new public carcass to feed on, having used up the Cold War; anti-government libertarians who worship the free market, having noticed that education is the society’s largest public institution; social and religious conservatives who want to break down the separation of church and state, while garnering public funds to run their own schools. Many issues divide the right; vouchers unite them and provide an organizing platform.”
Politically, vouchers also provide a way to make inroads into the urban Democratic base. Most legislative voucher proposals have targeted low-income students in urban districts and support for vouchers has been stronger among urban African Americans -who are the group most dis-served by the U.S. educational system-than among white Republican suburbanites, who tend, by and large, to be satisfied with their schools.
The voucher movement often uses the rhetoric of “school choice,” masking its actual goal, which is to promote a system of vouchers to pay for private school attendance. In fact, most voucher proposals don’t even use the term “voucher.”
Vouchers refer specifically to plans to use public tax dollars to help parents pay tuition at private schools, including religious schools. School choice, in contrast, is a much broader concept that also encompasses proposals to let students attend public schools in other districts, or that allows students to choose various public schools within a district.
As of September 1998, the only operating voucher programs were initiatives in Milwaukee and Cleveland. In both cities, conservatives have included religious schools in the programs. Lawsuits have been filed in both cities on grounds that the inclusion of religious schools violates the separation of church and state. Ultimately, the issue is expected to go before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Even if found constitutional, vouchers raise key public policy issues. Should voucher schools, for instance, be considered private schools that can ignore accountability measures that public schools must follow? Will the voucher schools be able, for instance, to teach that homosexuality is a sin and that creationism is credible science?)
Four efforts to institute statewide voucher programs-in Oregon, California, Colorado, and Washington State-have been put to the voters. All were defeated by a margin of roughly 2-1. On the federal level, conservatives have tried, to date unsuccessfully, to institute some form of voucher program either through tax measures or so-called “scholarship” programs for low-income students.
Given the difficulties of getting a full-scale voucher program passed, some Republicans are emphasizing tuition tax credits or tax-free savings accounts. Such measures, which are politically appealing because they are packaged as “tax relief,” provide a back-handed way for the government to help middle-class parents pay for private schools.
It is easiest to point to various areas where economic and religious conservatives agree on education issues. But if one is to try to drive a wedge into their working coalition, it is important to identify the issues on which they disagree-and to publicize those disagreements. The religious right, for instance, often emphasizes an opposition to gay rights, national curriculum standards, and the evils of secular humanism. They support home-schooling, creationism, school prayer, and censorship of what they see as objectionable books.
The religious right also masks its true agenda when it is organizing parents at the local level. Thus it is often able to build coalitions of parents and community people who may not agree with the religious right’s overall goals but
who are concerned about educational issues raised by the religious conservatives. For instance, well-meaning parents might become involved in a religious-right campaign around curricular issues, such as the teaching of reading.
The religious right has emphasized both electing fundamentalists to local school boards and training fundamentalist parents and pastors to organize in local schools. No one knows for sure how many religious conservatives serve on the country’s 15,000 local school boards, but the number is possibly in the thousands. Sometimes the candidates are openly affiliated with religious fundamentalist organizations; often they are what is known as “stealth” candidates who conceal their true beliefs until elected. As one Christian Coalition member said at a workshop during the coalition’s 1995 convention, “We are told not to identify ourselves as Christian Coalition members, just as John Q. Public.” Ralph Reed, then executive director of the Christian Coalition, told convention-goers: “I would exchange the Presidency for 2,000 school board seats in the United States.”
Despite popular concern about the state of our public schools, there remains widespread and deep support for a public system of schools that provides an equal education for all-no matter how tarnished that ideal may be in reality. If the religious right were to win its agenda, that long-standing ideal would be abandoned.
Barbara Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools, a grassroots newspaper based in Milwaukee, WI. This article is excerpted with permission from “Classroom Crusades: Responding to the Religious Right’s Agenda for Public Schools,” published by Rethinking Schools, Ltd. (www.rethinkingschools.org). For a free catalog call 1-800-669-4192.