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The NY Times and National Review Weigh in on “Government Schools” and Both Miss the Point

August 1, 2017

Yesterday the NYTimes published an op ed article by Katherine Stewart titled “What the Government School Critics Really Mean” and shortly thereafter, the National Review web page posted a rejoinder by Daniel French. Ms. Stewart’s premise is that those who use the term “government schools” are doing so as a “dog whistle”. Ms. Stewart notes that many progressives and liberals associate the use of this terminology with “right-wing think tanks like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Heartland Institute and the Acton Institute’ each of whom “…have received major funding from the family of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, either directly or via a donor group”. She looks more deeply into those who use the term and sees roots in racism.

But the attacks on “government schools” have a much older, darker heritage. They have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism — and those roots are still visible today.

She then recounts the “dark heritage” of racist and xenophobic opposition to public education, offering examples of fringe leaders whose message was rooted in hatred and who used public education’s high-minded mission of universality, cooperation, and integration to generate animus against public education.

After reading Ms.Stewart’s analysis, Daniel French responded on line in the National Review with an article titled “To Defend Public Schools, Supporters Put on the Tinfoil Hat“. As the title indicates, Mr. French finds Ms. Stewarts assertions absurd. He begins his essay describing the algorithm used by “liberals writing about conservative Christians“:

One of the more amusing aspects of life as a conservative Christian is reading liberals writing about conservative Christians — especially writing about conservative Christian political causes. There’s a formula. First, you’re told there are “dog whistle” or “hidden” reasons for the use of common terms. Second, these hidden reasons trace back to racists and Christian dominionists. Third, and finally, if you use this common language and advance mainstream conservative Christian ideas, you’re actually advancing racism and theocracy. The plot is revealed. The true agenda is laid bare.

He then dissembles her argument, eventually offering his rationale for using the term “government schools”:

Why do libertarians and Christians intentionally increasingly use the term “government schools” to describe public education? First, because it’s true. Public schools are government schools. Second, because it’s clarifying. Too many Americans are stuck in a time warp, believing that the local school is somehow “their” school. They don’t understand that public education is increasingly centralized — teaching a uniform curriculum, teaching a particular, secular set of values, and following priorities set in Washington, not by their local school board. The phrase is helpful for breaking through idealism and getting parents to analyze and understand the gritty reality of modern public education. The phrase works.

Mr. French then suggests— inaccurately— that school choice, the favored mechanism for improving public education, will increase the opportunities for children using an unintentionally illustrative example of why it won’t:

The upper middle class seems to be pulling away from everyone else. Spend much time with America’s wealthier families, and it’s not uncommon to see parents with three kids in three different schools. They made choices based on each child’s unique needs. They give their children the best possible chance to succeed. Why deny these choices to poor kids? Should we punish them for their parents’ economic performance? Faced with the difficult task of defending a failing system and limiting parental choice, all too many defenders of government schools fall back on name-calling, conspiracy theories, and their own anti-Christian bigotries… It doesn’t make public schools better. And it certainly doesn’t invalidate the good and decent effort to use greater competition to improve education for everyone — white and black alike.

I am certain Mr. French realizes that his civil rights argument falls apart in the light of day. Can he cite a single state legislature that has suggested that governments are willing to provide vouchers for children that will enable parents in poverty or the working class to have the same kinds of choices as “the upper middle class”? Is any state legislature or state legislator advocating spending levels that would match those of  the schools chosen by the “upper middle class”?

Several weeks ago I researched the term “government schools” and learned that the term was originally coined by Patrick Moynihan, arguably one the “founding fathers” of neoliberalism. As Ms. Stewart and Mr. French note, the term was expropriated and embraced by the libertarian right and, as Mr. French’s article illustrates, has has been purposefully used to emphasize the link between public schools and the government, especially the federal and local government. In my blog post in early July I wrote: 

Public schools, after all, are not governed by some remote and alien force in Washington DC or, in the case of Kansas, Topeka. They are governed by local school boards who still have a say over who they hire, the raising of local taxes, and how the curriculum is delivered.

And here’s the maddening irony of all this: those who want to impose “market forces” on public schools are imposing the reliance of standardized tests on school boards and, in doing so, are imposing standardized curricula on the schools. Moreover, many of the fundamentalists who are drawn to the notion that “government” is “bad” want to control the material taught in the “government schools”, insisting that religion and patriotism be incorporated in the curriculum at the expense of topics like evolution and global warming.

One point I didn’t make in that earlier post is the point that neither Mr. French nor Ms. Stewart make: the real goal of those using the term “government schools” is the commodification and privatization of public education. Both the neoliberals and conservatives are seeking this outcome because their donors want to see this occur: the tech-based donors and edu-preneur donors because they see the possibility of profits and the corporate donors because they want to pay lower taxes. In both cases the children raised in poverty will suffer and the opportunities for economic advancement will be limited… and in both cases local governance will be undercut and democracy will suffer.

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