A Brief History of the Education Culture Wars: On Santorum’s Legacy, the GOP and School Reform

A Brief History of the Education Culture Wars: On Santorum’s Legacy, the GOP and School Reform

A Brief History of the Education Culture Wars: On Santorum’s Legacy, the GOP and School Reform

The idea of dismantling the federal government’s civil rights–driven education agenda is not new.


Judging by the applause lines at GOP campaign stops and debates this winter, a significant segment of the Republican electorate understands public education not as a crucial civic institution, nor as a potential path from poverty to the middle class, nor even as a means of individual betterment. Instead, this coalition of religious conservatives and extreme tax-cutters prefers to vilify public schools—and actually, pretty much any traditional educational institution, including liberal arts colleges—as potential corruptors of the nation’s youth; as unwanted interlocutors in that most sacred relationship: the one between a child and her parent.

It is a curious thing, because with some 90 percent of American children enrolled in public schools, there must be significant overlap between the consumers of public education and the approximately one-third of Americans who describe themselves as Tea Party–type conservatives. Never mind: It is clear that in the American political economy, there is nothing unusual about a voter hating and resenting a government program even while relying heavily upon it.

Rick Santorum’s presidential bid looks increasingly quixotic as we head toward Super Tuesday. He clearly represents only a minority of the Republican base. But what his surge made clear is that there was appeal in appointing a sort of national standard-bearer for the culture war against mainstream education, perhaps because  anti-government voters could look up to Santorum, a homeschooling father of seven, as a man who actually lives their values. Disdain for schools has been everywhere in Santorum’s rhetoric, from his ad nauseam boasting about his own family’s homeschooling; to his assertion that government-run public schools are “anachronistic;” to his complaints about comprehensive sex education; to his counterfactual claim that President Obama is “a snob” who opposes vocational training and wants all Americans to be “indoctrinated” by liberal college professors.

In his now-infamous February 24 anti-college rant, Santorum likened parents to God, and children to unformed souls in some idyllic Eden—souls who must be prevented from biting the apple of wicked, corrupting knowledge. “I understand why [President Obama] wants you to go to college,” Santorum said. “He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

In order for parents to have unfettered access to their children’s minds, government must get out of the way. During the February 22 GOP debate in Arizona, Santorum advocated shutting down not only the federal Department of Education but perhaps state departments of education too. “I think the state governments should start to get out of the education business,” he said, “and put it back to the…local [level] and into the community.”

At the same debate, Ron Paul declared, “Once the government takes over the schools, especially at the federal level, then there’s no right position, and you have to argue which prayer, are you allowed to pray?” Newt Gingrich has praised President Obama’s support for charter schools, and once toured the country alongside Mike Bloomberg and Al Sharpton to advocate for national school reform. But in Arizona he promised to “dramatically shrink the federal Department of Education down to doing nothing but research, return all the power…back to the states.”

Mitt Romney alone defended No Child Left Behind, and the idea of federal school improvement efforts more broadly.

Twelve years ago, George W. Bush and John McCain both ran for president as aggressive, accountability-driven school reformers. McCain revised the act in 2008. So it is worth considering what has changed politically to leave Romney out in the cold on these issues among the serious GOP contenders, and pausing to remember just how reactionary the other candidates’ proposals were.

Prior to the civil rights movement, the federal government indeed did very little to provide oversight of American schools, just as Santorum et al. propose today. The ethos of local control dates back to the colonial era, when schools were run by villages, churches and ad-hoc neighborhood organizations. The rise of the Common Schools movement in the 1830s guaranteed most children an elementary education and led to the opening of thousands of new schools, but did little to regulate them.

The problem with localism was that it left millions of poor, non-white and special-needs children drastically underserved and undereducated. As late as the mid-1970s, for example, only one in every five disabled kids was enrolled in public school. So the federal government stepped in with new regulations and funding intended to flow directly from Washington to the neediest children. There were three policy landmarks: The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed de jure school segregation; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding for the education of poor children; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, which established a federal funding stream for special education.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education to coordinate Washington’s new role. Today the DOE has an annual budget of some $70 billion, most of it filtered through ESEA and IDEA.

The idea of dismantling this civil rights apparatus is not new. After the backlash against school busing, Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 promising to shutter the DOE. But he was met in Washington by bipartisan panic about the Soviets and Japanese out-educating the United States, especially in math and science. To satisfy national security hawks, Reagan appointed a national commission to research American schools; the result of its work was the “Nation at Risk” report of 1983, which declared the American education system failing and inaugurated the standards-and-accountability school reform movement.

All of this culminated in 2001 with the passage of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Rick Santorum voted for NCLB. During his 2006 Senate campaign, Santorum even bragged to a special education advocacy group that he supported $7 billion in new health and education funding—exactly the type of federal spending he opposes today. But none of this made Santorum unusual in the Bush-era Republican Party. Bush’s claim of “compassionate conservatism” was built in large part on the argument that school choice and accountability could be levers for social mobility. Republicans in Congress—led by John Boehner, then chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce—lined up behind Bush, at first reluctantly but then with increasing fervor. Some became true believers in the idea that standardized testing mandates could substitute for a full-bodied anti-poverty agenda, and would make American workers more competitive in the global marketplace.

All that was before the Great Recession, before budget shortfalls swept the states, and before the rise of the Tea Party, with its animus toward almost all government social programs. Throughout the 1990s, Christian Right activists like Michele Bachmann had argued that public schools were dens of iniquity, where kids were indoctrinated to use condoms, respect religious diversity and question American moral superiority. In 2010, the Tea Party swept some of these culture warriors into office, and their electoral success profoundly influenced the GOP presidential field. The new class of Republican freshmen pressured their Congressional elders to reject bipartisan education reform, with its squishy promise to improve the lot of the poor, and instead use austerity as an excuse to reverse federal education mandates, returning power to states and school districts where local “values” could triumph.

Ideological fervor is often tamed in the byways of the Capitol. Since closing the DOE and denying the nation’s schools billions of dollars of promised funding would be politically unpopular and logistically disastrous, instead House Republicans have advanced a spate of proposals that would allow local school administrators to redirect ESEA and IDEA funds away from poor and disabled children and toward the general student population. This is a severe attack on the federal government’s already limited ability to enforce fairness for populations that desperately need supplemental educational services.

At the state level, a priority of the education culture warriors is to halt the adoption of the new national Common Core curriculum standards in math and English; the South Carolina legislature is considering a bill that would do so. Another priority is providing homeschooling parents with tax credits, and lowering the age of compulsory schooling from 18 to 16—despite evidence that raising the compulsory schooling age, a policy President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address, actually leads to higher lifetime earnings.

Republican governors like Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels continue to subscribe to broader, Bush-type education reforms. Charter schools and private school vouchers remain popular throughout the party, and if Romney finally clinches the GOP nomination and faces off against Obama, perhaps the center will hold in education policy; the two men have fairly similar approaches to the issue. But then again, there is pressure from the left, as well: from parents wary of too much standardized testing, from teachers’ unions weary of shouldering all the blame when poor children don’t succeed and from pedagogical progressives who want to empower local educators to create curricula, instead of relying on state or national standards.

There are few mainstream Democrats standing up for these ideas, because they do not comport with President Obama’s agenda. Strangely, it is Newt Gingrich who articulates this critique of federal school reform. “We bought this notion that you could have Carnegie units and you could have state standards and you could have a curriculum. Everybody—every child is unique,” he said in Arizona. “Every teacher is unique. Teaching is a missionary vocation. When you bureaucratize it, you kill it. We need a fundamental rethinking from the ground up.”

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