I am the child of a public schoolteacher. I am the parent of a son who has been a public schoolteacher and who remains a private instructor in a public high school. Many dear friends are public schoolteachers.
As a child, I helped my mother grade papers every night, and I watched her work long hours preparing lesson plans and creating learning tools. I heard her former students who came back as adults to say that what she taught them in math as fourth- and fifth-graders opened the world to them. I read and treasured the letters they wrote upon her retirement and upon her death.
As a parent, I have watched my son work magic with middle school and high school students, teaching them the joy of music and helping them achieve things they never thought possible.
Like many of you, I care passionately about public education as a stabilizing, equalizing force for good in society. In a world filled with so much inequity — even though our schools may not always be as equal as they could be — public education remains perhaps the greatest single means of giving everyone a bootstrap to pull up. It is foundational to our society and our democracy.
So it is disgusting, dismaying and disheartening to see the continued attack on public education from conservative evangelical Christians and people who pretend to be evangelical Christians but couldn’t find John 3:16 in the Bible if you asked them. It is time to stop being shocked at this behavior and stand up against it.
This has been going on for 60 years, and it seems to get worse with every passing year. We now have reached a cringeworthy crescendo in which the very future of public education hangs precariously in the balance. This is not an exaggeration.
Why? Because a very loud minority of parents wants to conform entire school systems to their narrow ways of seeing the world. In the 1950s, this sprouted from racism that rallied parents to oppose integration of public schools. One of the big differences then was that racist parents formed private schools through their churches to protect their precious white children from having to sit in a classroom or play on a sports team with darker-skinned children. Their response to their racist impulses was to remove themselves.
“A very loud minority of parents wants to conform entire school systems to their narrow ways of seeing the world.”
But now, the plan has broadened. Parents who want their kids educated in a world that hasn’t existed since Little House on the Prairie are desperate to divert taxpayer funding from public schools to support their sectarian private schools. They are not willing to pay the price for being isolationists. And having failed at this unconstitutional effort, they now are trying to take over entire school boards and bend the will of public education to their whims.
They are like parents who micromanage and berate the coaches on Little League teams because they know better than the coaches how the game should be played — always seeking advantage for their kid, not the team. They are the parents who insist their kid must always play first base or pitcher and blame the coach when their kid drops the ball.
The examples of the insanity in this debate today are numerous — including book banning, the made-up hullaballoo about Critical Race Theory, and the bogus fears about transgender athletes — but for today, look no further than my home state of Oklahoma where Republican State Sen. Rob Standridge has introduced a bill “that would allow people to sue teachers if they offer an opposing view to the religious beliefs held by students,” according to MSN News and multiple other news outlets.
Standridge’s “Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act” would allow any parent to demand the removal of any book “with perceived anti-religious content from school,” the news service reported. “Subjects like LGBTQ issues, evolution, the big bang theory and even birth control could be off the table.”
Under this proposed legislation, teachers could be sued a minimum of $10,000 “per incident, per individual” and the fines would have to be paid “from personal resources.”
Further, under this proposed legislation, teachers could be sued a minimum of $10,000 “per incident, per individual” and the fines would have to be paid “from personal resources,” not from school funds or from individuals or groups. And then, if the teacher is unable to pay, they will be fired.
Worse, the Oklahoma legislator says his bill is “necessary for the preservation of the public peace.”
This is insanity.
No surprise that just a month before, Standridge introduced a bill to ban books from public school libraries. And if you think his cockamamie bill to fine teachers couldn’t be duplicated in your local district, just look at how the book-banning effort is spreading like wildfire. In Texas, where I now live, a state legislator has produced a list of 850 books — 850! — that he wants banned from public school libraries, while our governor believes our school libraries contain “pornography.”
This is insanity.
We cannot fail to connect the dots between this attack on public education and the larger political maneuverings in our nation. This is, at root, about Christian nationalism and more specifically, white Christian nationalism. This is motivated by racism, fear of science and a desire to rewrite history. It is taking the failed tiki-torch-lit slogan of “Make America Great Again” and applying it to public education.
This is insanity.
Within the last year, I have witnessed my own outstanding school district capitulate to these ideological terrorists — aided by weak-willed and well-meaning people who think they can keep the peace. Yet there is no negotiating or compromise with the far-right ideologues.
“They are doing and demanding insane things because other opportunists have stoked the fires of hate within them.”
To think otherwise is insanity.
What I am saying is that our public school systems — from coast to coast and border to border — are under a full-frontal, coordinated attack from angry parents who have been fired up with all sorts of scare tactics. They are doing and demanding insane things because other opportunists have stoked the fires of hate within them.
It’s time to put out the fire. It’s time to stand up not just for an individual family’s good but for the community good. It’s time to make plain that whatever sincerely held religious beliefs some parents may have, they may not force those beliefs and their revisionist history on all children.
Some of the more cynical among us believe the goal of these political operatives is not actually to take over public schools but to so discredit them and demoralize their teachers and staff that they will fail — and then their private sectarian schools and charter schools will be waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces.
We cannot let this happen. For the sake of all children, for the future of our communities and our nation, we must rise to defend public education that lifts up the least of these among us and helps every child excel.
Why? Because this is the very mission Jesus said he came to earth to accomplish. Read it for yourself in Luke 4:18-19 — “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When attempts to control public education do not amount to good news to the poor, the release of people held in educational captivity, the opening of minds to reality and do not set minds free, the Spirit of the Lord is not there. Not to stand up for this Jesus agenda is insanity.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
Sen. Standridge wrote a Letter to the Editor in response to this piece. Read his letter here.
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Racism and the evolution of Protestant support for private education | Analysis by Andrew Gardner