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VOL. 46 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 19, 2022

Same old motives in this war on public education

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Southern conservatives have long been fighting a war on public education.

They don’t call it a war, of course. More recently it’s been going by the innocuous label of “parental choice.” Conservatives, it turns out, can be very pro-choice – depending on who’s doing the choosing and what’s being chosen.

In this case it’s a dodge, a verbal sleight of hand.

Tennessee’s latest weapon in the war, championed by Gov. Bill Lee, goes by the name education savings accounts. “ESAs are the education version of health savings accounts that more than 20 million Americans use,” states the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a right-wing think tank.

That makes it sound as if Tennessee parents are being encouraged to dutifully set aside a portion of their hard-earned paychecks to benefit their children’ learning with some sort of tax savings as a reward.

No. The accounts are a mechanism to take public funding away from public schools and funnel it instead to private ones. The means is commonly known as vouchers.

The 2019 law, which set up a pilot program, was quickly challenged by the only two counties it applies to, Davidson and Shelby. Among other objections, they contended it violates the Home Rule provision of the state constitution because it imposes mandates on the counties with no provision for requiring approval by local officials or voters.

Legal action by the counties managed to delay enactment of the law for several years. But in May, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against the counties on the Home Rule issue, delighting supporters and surprising no one.

Full speed ahead! Lee proclaimed last month: “Starting today, we will work to help eligible parents enroll this school year, as we ensure Tennessee families have the opportunity to choose the school that they believe is best for their child.”

But as of the first day of school, no child had been approved for the program, and no school either. Oops!

Why the war in the first place? A lot of reasons.

Way back in my school days, the issue was integration. Conservative Southerners – a majority just as now, but they identified mostly as Democrats then – fought it through every means available. Including, in my home state, Mississippi, passage of a law known as Freedom of Choice that ostensibly allowed parents to pick whichever schools they wanted for their children.

Of course, no white parents chose to have their children attend black schools.

Why would they? Those schools had been shamefully underfunded and mistreated for decades. And very few black parents chose to subject their children to what would have been hostile receptions in traditionally white schools.

Here’s something else the Mississippi Legislature did, in 1964: It passed a grant program that provided state money for parents to help pay tuition to private, all-white academies. I invite your comparison.

And I suspect that some of that racially motivated resistance to public schools remains among whites to this day. Hence all the objections to the – imagined – teaching of critical race theory.

But racial concerns are not the only objection conservatives have for public schools. They want organized prayer back in the classroom – provided, of course, that it is conservative Christian prayer. No Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastians or Jainists need apply.

They also worry their children are being indoctrinated in liberal ideologies by the public schools. And they suspect that their children are somehow being “groomed” for “homosexual lifestyles.”

Basically, they mistrust anything affiliated with “government,” assuming it is inherently inferior to anything offered up by the private sector.

Toward that end, Lee also wants to see 50 charter schools in Tennessee associated with Hillsdale College, a right-wing, conservative Christian institution in Michigan. You might recall that Hillsdale’s president, Larry Arnn, recently caught hell for his disparaging comments about teachers and teacher training. He has since tried to backtrack, but don’t be fooled. Among Arnn’s words:

“We are going to try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.”

It’s a war. And the wrong folks are winning.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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