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Students line a busy intersection and overpass in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., on Sept. 25, 2022 protesting a Jefferson County School Board proposal to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the teaching of U.S. history. Image courtesy of the Denver Post.

A National Conservative Effort Aimed at Public Schools with a Goal of Stoking Fear and Grievance

As the school year begins, and Colorado marches day-by-day closer to the November 7 consolidated elections with multiple board of education seats open in both Chaffee County school districts, the hope would be that the normal commonsense approach to public education would prevail. Whether conservative or liberal, we locally have generally supported our public schools and state core curriculums.

But something odd has begun. Over the last couple of years, the election playground of the conservative right is not just state or national legislatures or town council positions, it is the nation’s public schools and local public school districts. While it is being made to look like a grassroots movement, it would appear to be anything but.

The effort has tended to focus on “parental rights”, as opposed to student rights, leaving the (inaccurate) impression that parents are dissatisfied with their local schools. A multitude of groups such as Moms for Liberty have pushed forward with a tone of grievance; taking direct aim at everything from transgender youth in school sports, what bathrooms they should use, book bans in school libraries, complaints about core curriculums, to evangelical campaigns to push prayer in schools. They have stoked fear and anxiety, and some insist their children might be made to feel guilt if confronted with truthful history topics such as slavery or the U.S. government’s treatment of indigenous peoples.

Even local conservative candidates, who often refuse to discuss their positions on key topics, can sometimes reveal themselves as much more right-wing than they first appear. That’s what happened in 2021 in Woodland Park School District, which became the first — and, so far, only — district in the country to adopt the American Birthright social studies standard, created by a right-wing advocacy group that warns of the “steady whittling away of American liberty.”

When Woodland Park teachers, students, and parents objected, the administration barred employees from discussing the district on social media. At least two Woodland Park staff members who objected to the board’s decisions were later forced out of their jobs, while another was fired for “allegedly” encouraging protests.

The changes were by design. “This is the flood the zone tactic, and the idea is if you advance on many fronts at the same time, then the enemy cannot fortify, defend, effectively counterattack at any one front,” wrote David Illingworth, one of the new conservative school board members, to another on Dec. 9, 2021, just weeks after they were elected. “Divide, scatter, conquer. Trump was great at this in his first 100 days.”

But Parental Dissatisfaction isn’t a Thing

The thing is, most parents who actually have students in public schools say they aren’t dissatisfied. In fact, since 1999, the polling company Gallup has been asking American parents the same question: Are you satisfied with your oldest child’s education? Every year through January 2020, between two-thirds and 80 percent said yes.

The Gallup Poll conducted late last year, not only confirmed that 80 percent of parents said they were somewhat or completely satisfied with their child’s school, their degree of satisfaction was actually higher than in most years before the pandemic.

Jefferson County Schools protests. AVV file photo

“Contrary to elite or policy wonk opinion, which often is critical of schools, there have been years and years worth of data saying that families in general like their local public schools,” said Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Andy Smarick. The manhattan Institute just happens to be a bonafide conservative think tank.

Interestingly, it is the general public, led by older Americans and those without children in public schools who are the ones saying parents aren’t satisfied with public schools.

As Chalk Beat Magazine confirmed:

“Gallup’s poll suggests a divergence between parents’ views of their children’s schools versus the public’s view of the nation’s schools: There was a startling 38-point gap between the two — which had also hit a 20-year record.

This and other data suggest that dissatisfaction with American public schools — and the policy changes that have resulted — has not been driven by most parents’ own experience with public schools.”

Local School Districts Face a National Marketing Strategy

So what is going on here? It would appear that local school districts across the country are facing a national marketing strategy designed to convince us all that we shouldn’t support our country’s public school system — which, while challenged, just happens to be the envy of the world. Who does this benefit — who would gain?

Well, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, beneath this is the real war; on our public schools, core curriculum, and a growing evangelical crusade to shift the education of our children to private for-profit schooling. Ultimately a segment of the evangelical movement says it wants to install a theocratic-Christian state, as opposed to the guarantees of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Moms for Liberty group is actively recruiting chapters and training in a national effort to capitalize on fear. Adjunct campaigns such as the Project Liberty effort and the Liberty Action Network are building on that. As one of their leaders articulated: “This is a spiritual battle”. These groups are creating model school board resolutions tailored to specific states, even banning any nongovernment flags from classrooms (Guess no more “Go Broncos” flags).

By insisting that their views of education are right, “the current debate over public education underestimates its value—and forgets its purpose,” says the article’s author, Erika Christakis.

Parents pack a school board meeting objecting to misogynistic tweets by board members. Photo courtesy of Chicago Daily Herald.

She goes on to write about the words and actions of former President Trump, and the right; “their words and proposals have brought to a boil something that’s been simmering for a while—the denigration of our public schools, and a growing neglect of their role as an incubator of citizens.”

There it is —  the role of public schools as a public good — that with parents, public schools support the goal of raising contributing human beings; members of a positive civil society, who as informed and educated people can participate in this reality we call democracy and contribute to society.

This marketing campaign appears to come from the enclaves of Christian nationalism, but it is increasingly supported by some strange bed-fellows. Their agitation at school board protests is attracting increasingly violent groups and involving “active clubs” (thinly-veiled white supremacist groups) and clearly white nationalist groups such as the Proud Boys, who the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has identified as one of several domestic terrorism groups.

The SPLC has identified at least 31 hate groups in Colorado, ten of them are state-wide groups. Several of them go by names that are not just neo-Nazi, but Judeo-Christian. Yes, Moms for Liberty is on that list. Nine of those groups appear to be focused on issues related to public education. Whether or not any of them are operating in Chaffee County isn’t yet known.

ProPublica has done a multi-part series on the chaos these groups are causing at the local school board level which is worth reading. Follow this link.

Editor’s Note: This journalist admits to a slight bias; my 10th great grandfather Deacon Thomas Borne, was on that 1642 Puritan council that voted to mandate public education for the children of the colony: “In 1642 they passed a law – the first of its kind in North America — requiring that all children in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts receive a public education.” My own children have been educated in the public school system, including in a public charter school, and attended both private and public universities. They are “contributing human beings”.