The New York Times ran an astonishingly ignorant op-ed on Monday by writer Katherine Stewart, using historical fallacies to smear today’s critics of public schools as being rooted in Jim Crow racism: “What ‘Government School’ Means.” The text box got to the point: “A phrase rooted not in libertarian economics but in Confederate rage”:
When President Trump recently proposed his budget for “school choice,” which would cut more than $9 billion in overall education spending but put more resources into charter schools and voucher programs, he promised to take a sledgehammer to what he has called “failing government schools.” That is harsh language for the places most of us call public schools, and where nearly 90 percent of American children get their education. But in certain conservative circles, the phrase “government schools” has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was targeted as well:
What most people probably hear in this is the unmistakable refrain of American libertarianism, for which all government is big and bad. The point of calling public schools “government schools” is to conjure the specter of pathologically inefficient, power-mad bureaucrats. Accordingly, right-wing think tanks like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Heartland Institute and the Acton Institute have in recent years published screeds denouncing “the command and control mentality” of “government schools” that are “prisons for poor children.” All of these have received major funding from the family of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, either directly or via a donor group.
While acknowledging libertarian economist Milton Friedman’s 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education,” as the intellectual foundation of Ms. DeVos’s voucher proposals, Stewart (author of “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children”) identified the real agenda behind the attacks on government schools as violent 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.
One of the first usages of the phrase “government schools” occurs in the work of an avid admirer of Dabney’s, the Presbyterian theologian A. A. Hodge. Less concerned with black paupers than with immigrant papist hordes, Hodge decided that the problem lay with public schools’ secular culture. In 1887, he published an influential essay painting “government schools” as “the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of antisocial nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.”
(Reason’s Jesse Walker eviscerated that piece of sloppy history.)
Stewart uncovered two people that few conservatives, religious or not, follow or are even aware of:
Someone who found great inspiration in Fifield’s work, and who contributed to his flagship publication, Faith and Freedom, was the Calvinist theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony. An admirer, too, of both Hodge and Dabney, Rushdoony began to advocate a return to “biblical” law in America, or “theonomy,” in which power would rest only on a spiritual aristocracy with a direct line to God -- and a clear understanding of God’s libertarian economic vision.
These were not merely abstract academic debates. The critique of “government schools” passed through a defining moment in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, when orders to desegregate schools in the South encountered heavy resistance from white Americans. Some districts shut down public schools altogether; others promoted private “segregation academies” for whites, often with religious programming, to be subsidized with tuition grants and voucher schemes. Dabney would surely have approved.
When these people talk about “government schools,” they want you to think of an alien force, and not an expression of democratic purpose. And when they say “freedom,” they mean freedom from democracy itself.
National Review’s David French assured panicking liberals that critics of government schools really aren’t secret bigots:
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.
And that brings us back to Rushdoony. It also brings us to Robert Lewis Dabney. And to A. A. Hodge. Never heard of these men? Neither had I -- until I started reading liberals who were explaining to me why I really send my kids to private schools and why I really use terms such as “government schools.”....Yet none of these men matter to modern Evangelical Christians. And none of them matter to modern libertarians. They don’t even know who they are.
But don’t tell that to Katherine Stewart, author of the subtly titled The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. The Times gave her prime space today to try to connect the dots between these obscure and historically inconsequential figures and libertarians such as Milton Friedman (yes, Milton Friedman). The common thread? Each of them has critiqued “government schools.” Each of them has advanced home-schooling or private education. Thus, bingo-presto, when you hear libertarians and Christians critique “government schools,” they’re really unlocking a dark and racist past.
Andrew Walker at The Federalist found Stewart’s argument shallow, lazy, and resentful.
In a breathtakingly shallow op-ed written by Katherine Stewart, the author accuses those who use the term “government school” and parents who abstain from public schooling as engaging in subversively anti-democratic behavior. Why? Because the author cannot conceive of education -- that is, an education that supports her own values -- apart from government control:
Let me save you the time from reading the actual column. In essence, Stewart asserts that opposition to “government schools” is based on Confederate-era beliefs about a godless, encroaching, racist state. That’s right, modern school choice is a bastion of Confederate ethics, according to this columnist.
Stewart’s argument is lazy. It’s generalized, misinformed, and reads much like a carnival barker shouting down the looming threat of theocracy, theocracy, theocracy. It’s such absurd, zero-sum thinking that one feels bad for the nursed resentment this author has cultivated over time toward millions of citizens who disagree with her code of educational ethics.