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Transcending the Education Culture Wars
How a middle path of reflective patriotism can rebuild support for public schools
Observers sometime dismiss the education culture wars as a diversion from what really matters in schooling—teaching kids the basics needed to function in society and live productive lives. But recent evidence suggests it would be wrong for liberals to unilaterally disarm by simply trying to change the topic of discussion. The stakes are high because public education—a central pillar upholding American democracy—is in real trouble. Support for public schools is eroding at an unprecedented rate—and education’s culture wars appear to be a big part of the explanation.
Student enrollment in public schools is down. School privatization programs are on a tear, with one conservative observer recently noting they’ve have had more success with these efforts “in the past three months than over the past three decades.”
Critics of public schools, long advocates of private school vouchers, have switched to “education savings accounts” as the new mechanism for funneling public funds to private education. In 2023 alone, universal ESA programs have already been adopted in Florida, Iowa, Arkansas and Utah. In all, the American Federation Teachers (AFT) has identified 72 voucher and tax credit programs that exist in 33 states.
Looking ahead, these new programs could grow exponentially. The old conservative argument that public funding of private education should be limited to disadvantaged students stuck in struggling public schools has been thrown out the window. Today, even a billionaire’s kids could qualify for many of the privatization programs.
What accounts for the right’s new success? The prolonged closing of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic clearly soured some parents on public schools. Given the terrible toll online learning had on many students, public school officials should have found ways to safely open schools sooner. In retrospect, public schools did not always strike the right balance between protecting health and providing students access to the in-person leaning they needed.
But there’s something deeper is going on in this erosion of support for public education. You can see it in the shifting conservative arguments for privatization: the right used to suggest that that vouchers would improve student test scores (always a dubious empirical claim), but today their leading argument is that public schools are unrepresentative of mainstream American culture and are, in some cases, exaggerating America’s ills to the point of caricature.
The right pounds this idea hard, sometimes taking long rhetorical leaps. Former Republican Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, absurdly claimed that American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten is "the most dangerous person in the world.” This charge was predicated in part on the idea that, “If our kids don’t grow up understanding America is an exceptional nation, we’re done. If they think it’s an oppressor class and an oppressed class, if they think the 1619 Project [is right], and we were founded on a racist idea—if those are the things people entered the seventh grade deeply embedded in their understanding of America, it’s difficult to understand how Xi Jinping’s claim that America is in decline won’t prove true.”
If Weingarten actually believed that kids should be taught that America is a terrible country, that would indeed be deeply disturbing. But Weingarten, who taught civics education and history as a high school teacher in New York City, is nothing like the conservative caricature. In a recent major address titled “In Defense of Public Education” at the National Press Club, for example, Weingarten quoted Thomas Jefferson on the importance of providing a general education to protect freedom. She called America a “great nation,” strong enough to “not fear people being educated.” While some on the far left have embraced the tenets of critical race theory and other esoteric ideas circulating in rarefied precincts of academia, Weingarten didn’t defend that worldview in the speech and instead distanced herself from it, saying CRT is not being taught in “elementary and secondary schools.”
Likewise, while some on the hard left downplay violence in the schools, Weingarten called it out, explicitly, as deeply disturbing and unacceptable. She said: “I just got a report from Florida. In Flagler County, a 17-year-old student with special needs pushed a paraprofessional so hard she went airborne and was knocked unconscious. A teacher in Osceola County was monitoring students in the hallway when a student sucker-punched him. And there are others.” These are not the words of a left-wing radical.
In her speech, Weingarten also adroitly turned the tables, arguing that it was the right-wing that was espousing fundamentally un-American views, such as trampling on free speech and academic freedom. She denounced right-wing governors who were using the power of the state to place sometimes absurd limits on the books that students can read. Appallingly, books removed from public school libraries, Weingarten said, included those about Roberto Clemente, Anne Frank, and Ruby Bridges.
In the future, I hope Weingarten and other liberals are even more emphatic in drawing lines that clearly and decisively reject far-left thinking. Just as President Joe Biden loudly rejected the “defund the police” mentality, saying we should “fund them, fund them, fund them,” so too, liberals should explicitly reject some of the race essentialism on the extreme left that fails to recognize what we share in common as Americans. Too many school Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) trainings suggest, for example, that “characteristics of white supremacy” include “individualism, worth of the written word and objectivity.” Even the venerable Smithsonian Institution posted (and then quickly pulled down) a bizarre chart describing “objectivity,” being on time, and appreciating the written word as particular aspects of “white culture.”
Liberal leaders should say very loudly how strongly they reject these views, which are in vogue on the far left today but might just as well have come from the mouths of southern white racists in the 1930s—or worse.
By attacking right- and left-wing extremism alike, liberals can seize the broad the middle ground on the education culture wars—the space occupied by the vast majority of Americans. Polling from More in Common has found that the vast majority of Americans—both Democrats and Republicans—want public schools strike this precise balance: to teach the warts that are part of American history, but also the ways in which American democratic institutions have allowed for self-correction. Public schools can and should teach reflective patriotism, a sense that our nation may be flawed but also that America’s best ideals are worth fighting and dying for.
For the survival of public education, as well, it’s critical to get this right. People like public schools—they have a “public school ideology”—in part because public schools teach kids what they share in common. The fundamental purpose of public education, Weingarten’s predecessor as AFT president, Albert Shanker, said, is to teach schoolchildren "what it means to be an American"—the liberal democratic values that bind together people from all corners the world. At its core, the main comparative advantage of a public school system over a privatized system is that public schools are better positioned to teach those common American values. In 1991, Shanker recognized, "If public schools don't transmit common values and shared culture, why should taxpayers pay for them?"
What does it mean to be an American today? In a highly polarized country, what precisely are the best ideas and values that hold together what author Heather McGee calls a nation of “ancestral strangers”? Once those American values are identified, what are the best ways to instill them in school children? What exactly should the public schools be doing to teach a common American identity that inculcates a deep and healthy sense of reflective patriotism? I’m working with the Progressive Policy Institute to explore just that question—and here are some preliminary answers.
To begin with, schools must do a better job of teaching the basics of American history and the fundamentals of the American form of government. Scores on the latest eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress in American history and civics fell to historic lows—just 13 percent were proficient in U.S. history and 22 percent in civics in the 2022 exams.
Beyond that, American history teachers need to adopt an approach that recognizes the brutal chapters in American history but also democracy’s capacity for self-correction. The middle way will avoid the overly pessimistic and inaccurate 1619 Project curriculum that identifies the arrival of enslaved people in Virginia as the “true founding” of the country and also avoids the even more inaccurate efforts of President Trump’s 1776 Commission, a panel that erroneously lists early twentieth century “Progressivism”—a legitimate expression of American democracy—as a challenge to American principles alongside such genuine threats as slavery, fascism, and communism.
Likewise, schools need to adopt an approach to civics that fosters appreciation for the American system of liberal democracy—in part by teaching students what it is like to live in systems that fail to protect freedom of thought, and don’t provide the right for citizens to elect their leaders. Schools also need to bolster a common, shared American identity centered around the values in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that counters both a right-wing white identity politics that sees only white Christians as “real Americans” and left-wing essentialism that sees a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, and religion as far more important than what citizens have in common as Americans.
Each generation needs to be taught democratic values anew to know what truly defines them as Americans. Among the towering issues of our time, few are more important than this one.
Richard D. Kahlenberg is the author or editor of 18 books, including Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy. He is a senior fellow at The Progressive Policy Institute.