Witnessing with horror a parade of articulate and smart teenagers speaking confidently about the role of intersectionality in the social movement they ignited, conservative leaders have seized on the explosion of activism launched by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students to make the case that so-called government schools — or traditional public schools — are a fundamental threat to their vision of the country. David Hogg and Emma González are all the evidence they need.
“The radical progressive agenda is now basic propaganda in our public school system,” said Mark Levin, a prominent right-wing radio host on his show in March. “These government schools have become propaganda mills. Whether it’s genitalia assignment, bathrooms, and gyms; whether it’s the school lunch program that’s even politicized … radical environmentalism is advanced, capitalism is trashed.”
Levin, who leaned hard into his message that “the purpose” of public education is to indoctrinate students, insisted that public schools have been taken over by liberals and their unions. “Whether it’s the school lunch in the cafeteria, the different plays and musicals that take place, history class, social studies, current events — they push the agenda of the progressives, of the Democratic Party,” he said.
Following the national student walkouts for gun control, United States Parents Involved in Education, a right-wing education activist group, released a statement also blaming the public school curriculum:
Government K-12 schools are teaching politically biased social justice values. Students are taught the faults of America, Christianity, Western Civilization and White Men. Sadly, children are not being taught accurate history of the United States and the reasons for American exceptionalism. They are not being taught the historic facts about hundreds of millions of unarmed people of all races murdered by their own governments in the 20th century. Lack of historical context leads students to believe the only way they can be safe in school is to further restrict and/or take guns away from law abiding Americans. Children deserve better.
Until policy makers implement proven school safety strategies, and until schools stop teaching politically-biased social justice values, the only way parents can raise children safely to be well educated American citizens is to teach at home or in good private schools.
Just days after the Parkland shooting, right-wing radio show host Rush Limbaugh went so far as to say that such tragedies only occur in public schools, not private or religious schools. “That is an inescapable observation,” he said. “It’s true.” A caller on his show offered this by way of explanation: “I mean, there’s almost no rules in the public schools.”
Ted Nugent, a National Rifle Association board member, said last week on the radio that schools and the media are brainwashing students. “The lies from these poor, mushy brained children who have been fed lies and parrot lies, I really feel sorry for them,” said Nugent. “It’s not only ignorant and dangerously stupid — it’s soulless. … I’m afraid to say and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable: They have no soul.”
The condemnation of public schools for their ability to create such dangerous figures as the Parkland students comes at a time when conservatives more broadly are gravitating toward increased support for charter schools, which undercut liberal teacher unions and give schools much more freedom over the curriculum.
The lines between church and state in charter schools are also more complicated — and in some cases blurrier — than in traditional schools. In a post published last month on the website for the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank, the author spoke favorably about religious schools and charters, writing, “it’s obvious that the traditional government school system is broken.”
Public opinion polling released over the past year reinforces this idea of a growing partisan divide for charter schools. Paul Peterson, the director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance wrote recently, “As late as 2010, members of the two parties did not differ significantly in their opinions about charters. But by 2015, a 20-point gap had opened up, and now it has grown to 30 percentage points: 75 percent of Republicans, but only 45 percent of Democrats.”
A Gallup survey, released in August, found Democratic support for charter schools standing at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support, by contrast, held steady at 62 percent. A different nationally representative online survey, released last month by the University of Southern California, showed charter support jumping by 14 percentage points among self-identified Republicans, with no change in support from Democrats.
Far-right conservative attempts to weaken support for public education did not begin with the Parkland massacre. Many advocates for private and religious schools have long framed public schools as dangerous secular institutions. Even this past summer, a young listener called in to Rush Limbaugh’s show to ask why it seems like liberalism has taken over all aspects of public education. Limbaugh responded:
Whenever there is a communist invasion or revolution, the news outlets are the first things seized and then the schools and then health care. … So [leftists] make it an objective to control education, because that’s how they control minds, that’s how they control countries, that’s how they control populations.
But the Parkland students’ efforts have catalyzed a renewed sense of outrage among conservatives, who see students walking out from schools to protest guns, some without consequence, as irrefutable proof of public education’s liberal bias.
“As a former high school teacher, I am shocked at the scope of political indoctrination and partisan manipulation now taking place in middle and high school classrooms,” wrote Tom Tancredo, a former Republican Colorado Congressperson, following the walkouts. “But the breakdown in standards goes beyond the open partisanship of classroom teachers promoting walkouts. School administrators, too, participated in the charade. How else to explain the large number of school buses providing taxpayer-funded transportation to partisan rallies off the campus? How else to explain reports of students being punished for NOT walking out of class and teachers being disciplined for questioning the educational character of the event?”