Sometimes* I despair over the state of things in America, which is a fun hobby because there are so many anxiety-inducing subjects to choose from. Guns! Reproductive health care! The fact that half of the country lives in an alternate reality! It is an all-you-can-eat buffet of terribleness!
Today, I have decided to stress about schools. Specifically, I’m despairing at the possibility that by the time my kids are in high school, their curriculum could consist solely of Donald Trump rally footage (history, social studies, psychology), sharp-shooting lessons (gym) and creationism (science).
I meant this (mostly) as a joke, but my need to clarify that sort of negates the hilarity. What can I say? I didn’t build the buffet, I just work here.
*Just when I’m awake
The Big Takeaway
You can trace the GOP’s all-out war on schools back to at least the 1990s, when Christian nationalists infiltrated the GOP with their anti-public education agenda in tow. It began quietly, with support for publicly funded charter schools, pushback against sex education and routine resistance against federal oversight.
But by 2010, on the heels of the Great Recession and the rise of the Tea Party, the campaign had exploded into public view. Emboldened by a swell of anti-government anger, freshman lawmakers and school board candidates openly pushed for the reversal of federal education mandates, arguing that school oversight should be returned to states and cities in the interest of “reasserting local governance” and “preserving community values.”
Those terms should sound familiar, because modern Republicans still use them to disguise their blatantly anti-education education agenda. “Community values” is right-wing jargon for “attacking LGBTQ students” and “denying the existence of systemic racism,” while “local governance” is code for “letting parents control school policy.” (Never mind that the “local control” push is a nationwide scheme plotted and coordinated by dark-money billionaires. Go on, parents! Feel empowered!) It’s the same old battle, just broader and more blatant.
It’s a successful (if tired) playbook, and Republicans tend to stick to it even when their proposals openly defy their stated goals. That was the case in Iowa on Tuesday, where Republicans rushed to approve a proposal funding private school scholarships with taxpayer money, a measure they claimed was designed to spend public dollars “on students instead of a system,” per the Iowa Capital Dispatch.
The bill, passed at 9 p.m. with no Democratic votes, will be phased in over a three-year period, eventually allowing students to draw $7,598 each year from “education savings accounts” to pay for private school tuition. (That’s the same amount of per-student funding allocated to public schools in Iowa.) Public school districts will receive $1,205 in funding for each publicly funded private school student who resides within the district boundaries, according to the legislation.
“With this bill,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement, “Iowa has affirmed that educational freedom belongs to all, not just those who can afford it.”
If you’re partial to fairy tales, that’s a nice story. Here’s the non-fiction version: The bill strips taxpayer money from public schools to fund tuition at private schools, which face little oversight and aren’t held to the same stringent transparency standards as other state-funded institutions. Opponents of the measure noted that private schools are not required to hold open meetings, maintain public records or adhere to budget laws, which leaves taxpayers without a mechanism to ensure that their money is spent responsibly. The bill does nothing to address those discrepancies, according to State Auditor Rob Sand.
“After a private school gets public dollars as tuition, they could buy a teacher or teachers brand new Ford Mustang convertibles in the name of incentive pay,” Sand said in a statement. “The public may not find out at all, and if they did, there may be no recourse for taxpayers. That is flatly, fundamentally irresponsible.”
Private school admissions are similarly opaque, giving administrators carte blanche to accept or reject student applications with no explanation. And because those schools are not beholden to federal standards, there’s no guarantee that students with special needs or disabilities will receive equal treatment there, Democrats noted. The result is a policy that seems designed to perpetuate existing inequities in schools — precisely the opposite of the bill’s stated purpose.
State Rep. John Wills, the bill’s floor manager, dismissed those concerns, saying that state law already protects students from discrimination due to their race, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. And then he said the quiet part out loud: That’s not really the point of the program, which was created in response to “parental demands for more choices” due to certain practices in public schools, like “not outing trans kids to their parents.”
“Maybe they don’t trust the public schools anymore,” Wills said, without explaining how a particular parent’s “distrust” of a school program guarantees them access to state funding specifically earmarked for that school.
Which is the crux of the whole thing, really: Your personal distrust or dislike or disavowal of something that does not affect you is not enough to justify policy changes that affect entire communities. And even if it were, most of those policy changes are unnecessary, because schools already have measures in place to accommodate your personal preferences. Look at Michigan, where a right-wing group is arming parents with a form to remove their children from sexual education classes — something parents already have the authority to do, per the Michigan Advance.
Per usual, the facts are not the point. The form, circulated by the newly formed Great Schools Initiative, places a heavy emphasis on shielding kids from any discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation, topics that typically aren’t included in sex ed curriculum to begin with. (Semi-regular reminder: Exploration of gender identity and sexual orientation are normal and important parts of development!)
But the three-page document goes beyond your standard bigotry, demanding that schools ban lessons on everything from contraceptives, family planning and “physiological (including endocrinological), psychological and functions of reproductive health” to “sexual orientarion [sic], gender fluidity, transitioning, and expicit [sic] sexual activity or behavior.” (Alas, you are not required to spell a thing correctly before you call for its ouster, though I would venture that doing so lends credibility to your efforts.) The form also requests schools that exempted students be shielded from the presence of pride flags and teachers asking for students’ pronouns; a nonsensical bonus list of demands grouped under the title “rogue sex ed” despite having nothing to do with sex ed.
I have no idea how schools would even begin to accommodate some of these requests (“Right, so when the teacher asks if anyone has alternate pronouns, just cover your ears” ?????), and that appears to be precisely what members of the Great Schools Initiative are hoping for. A founder of the group said Thursday that if enough parents submit the form to their children’s schools, it’ll “change everything because it’ll be too much for them to handle.”
“And with the ability for us to bring lawsuits, we’ve got a whole system set up simultaneously across many different places,” continued Nathan Pawl, a Detroit-area entrepreneur. “We think we can make a very strong move with this.”
The group’s legal power comes from the Thomas More Law Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit law firm that weaponizes the court system to advance right-wing causes like “attempting to overturn elections won by Democrats” and “defending people who break the law but also oppose abortion.” The firm has dabbled in Michigan culture wars before — last February, the group threatened to sue two school districts over mask mandates — and has pledged to allocate “a significant amount of resources” to ensure that schools comply with the opt-out form, according to Pawl.
That support is far from casual, according to state documents, which list the Thomas More Law Society’s address for each of Great Schools Initiatives’ three founders. It’s a fitting metaphor for the increasingly incestuous parental-rights battle in Michigan, which Pawl said hinges on the ability of multiple fringe groups to band together in their attempts to sow chaos.
“If we can create this statewide movement of simultaneous action, we believe we can unify all of these different groups,” Pawl said. “We can bring momentum throughout the month of February across all these groups, and really encourage parents that they’re not alone.”
I’d prefer solitude, thanks: (Florida) DeSantis wants partisan school board elections; proposes shorter term limits on board members … Florida’s higher ed system faces a mountain of contentious changes under DeSantis; here’s a rundown … Kansas educators share personal insights in quest to reverse statewide teacher shortage … Unraveling Northern Kentucky University’s almost $25 million deficit, sudden leadership change … (Nebraska) State senator touts using military veterans to help address ‘crisis’ in teacher shortage … (New Jersey) Bill would require schools to let students use preferred names on diplomas … New Mexico educators seek a role in setting requirements for extended learning … Boosting graduation, reducing dropout rates key to Philly schools’ success, city schools chief says … (South Dakota) ‘Center for American Exceptionalism’ gets first committee endorsement … West Virginia public schools are underfunded, understaffed and underperforming. Why? … Sweeping education bill clears Missouri Senate committee without anti-transgender provision
From The Newsrooms
One Last Thing
I left pointed lists of questions for the tooth fairy as a child, but even I’ve got nothing on the Rhode Island girl who submitted a half-eaten cookie to the state Department of Health for DNA testing to confirm whether Santa is real. Officials said they were unable “to definitively confirm or refute the presence of Santa,” adding on Twitter that “we all agree that something magical may be at play.” (For what it’s worth, the tooth fairy was similarly evasive.)
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