Just as extremists have used the Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election to undermine American democracy, far-right advocates of privatizing public education are using Big Lies to undermine public schools. Supporters of public schools must see these ugly attacks for what they are and take a stand against them.
In a recent lecture at ultra-conservative Hillsdale College, culture war orchestrator Christopher Rufo detailed the strategy for replacing public education with a universal voucher system. “To get to universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust,” Rufo explained. Earlier in that same lecture, describing how to lay siege to institutions, he noted the necessity to create your own narrative and frame and advised his audience they “have to be ruthless and brutal.”
Rufo and other dark money-funded extremists follow a consistent playbook for attacking public schools.
First, they concoct lies, smears and distortions that stoke fear and anger, such as that eight-year-old white students are being taught to hate themselves because they are responsible for slavery, and that kindergarten teachers are grooming five-year-olds.
Next, these falsehoods are spread on social media and by Fox News and the click-driven, controversy-obsessed mainstream media.
Finally, extremist state politicians champion cookie-cutter bills provided by those same national voucher backers to “solve” the manufactured “outrage,” often under the banner of “parents’ rights.”
In the wake of the worst pandemic in a century, policymakers should be focusing on how to strengthen public education and support students’ success and well-being, by expanding pre-k, addressing shortages of teachers, nurses and guidance counselors, increasing access to AP classes and career technical education pathways that lead to well-paying careers, and better equipping schools to teach critical thinking skills and address spiraling rates of youth depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Instead, politicians following Rufo’s playbook are doing the exact opposite. They are banning library books, textbooks, and news services that help students learn to identify misinformation. They are demanding teachers remain neutral on, or worse—teach both sides of—Nazism, slavery, lynching, and other historical atrocities. And they are encouraging lawsuits against teachers and school districts that teach thorough and accurate history. They are marginalizing and dehumanizing LBGTQ students and teachers and same sex families and barring students from receiving mental health services and lessons that foster their social and emotional development and well-being.
As Rufo made clear, the assaults on public schools in state after state are part of a nationally orchestrated and funded campaign. The goal is to destabilize public education and replace it with a universal, unregulated voucher system which would increase segregation and exacerbate already wide gaps between the rich and the rest of us.
But parents and the public strongly support public schools, and there is encouraging opposition to this drive to undermine public education.
Last month, in Indiana, a sweeping bill to censor teachers, limit access to mental health services, and impose costly bureaucratic requirements on teachers and school districts failed because of a tsunami of opposition from parents, teachers, students, and faith leaders and private pushback from business leaders.
In New Hampshire, in March school board elections, all 33 pro-public education school board candidates in 14 school districts who were endorsed by state civic groups and the two state teachers’ associations, won election against anti-public education candidates funded by an extreme national group.
And last week, in a must-watch 5-minute floor speech, Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow, a self-described “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom,” powerfully held legislator Lana Theis to account for Theis’ national talking points-filled fundraising email accusing McMorrow of supporting “grooming” and “sexualizing” kindergartners and teaching “that 8-year-olds are responsible for slavery.” McMorrow said, “We cannot let hateful people…scapegoat and deflect from the fact that they are not doing anything to fix the real issues that impact people’s lives. And I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”
We know from history, and we are seeing in real-time with Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, that unchecked disinformation and dehumanization cause untold damage and suffering.
If people of conscience stay on the sidelines, Rufo and other extremists could well succeed in their drive to weaken public education, undermining our democracy and further eroding America’s middle class.
But if people stand up against these attacks, as so many did in Indiana and New Hampshire recently and as McMorrow did last week, we can defeat this destructive push to privatize education and instead strengthen our public schools’ ability to help all our children succeed and create a better future for all of us.
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