From Singapore to Arizona: Right-Wing Groups Invade Classrooms and Curriculum

Agatha Tan, a 17-year-old high school student in Singapore, recently attended a mandatory sex-ed class at her school. She was appalled by what was being taught, and took the opportunity to address her concerns in a Facebook post addressed to her school’s principal. “From merely glancing through this booklet,” she explained to him, “I learned a simple yet important lesson: that bigotry is very much alive and it was naïve of me to think I could be safe from it even in school.”

Tan’s post, which quickly went viral, critiqued the program’s promotion of rape culture, sexist gender stereotypes, and anti-LGBTQ perspectives. It also brought to attention the source of these messages—Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family (FOTF) is a global right-wing Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, CO. Founded by the conservative Christian psychologist James Dobson in 1977, it has grown significantly in size and influence since then. In 2012, FOTF had nearly 750 employees, revenue of nearly $91 million, and net assets of nearly $53 million. CitizenLink—the political advocacy arm of FOTF—had about 50 employees, revenue of more than $13 million, and net assets of $3.5 million.

In addition to its sprawling Colorado Springs “campus” (FOTF even has its own zip code), FOTF maintains a massive web presence and produces several programs that air on Christian radio stations globally. Some 4,000 radio and TV stations in more than 40 countries carry their broadcasts. To support these international efforts, FOTF has affiliate offices in Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Egypt, Ireland, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, and Taiwan.

FOTF has campaigned against LGBTQ people since its founding. The organization’s director of family formation studies, Glenn Stanton, has described homosexuality as “a particularly evil lie of Satan because he knows that it overthrows the very image of the Trinitarian God in creation, revealed in the union of male and female.” One FOTF analyst, Jeff Johnston, has described homosexuality as “Satan roam[ing] the earth like a lion, using sexual and relational brokenness to destroy individuals, families, churches, groups, [and] businesses.”

As for abortion, James Dobson says it’s “the greatest moral evil of our time.”

As Tan put it, “FotF has used sexuality education as an opportunity to further spread their own conservative, ‘God-ordained’ beliefs rather than to educate students on arguably more important things such as safe sex, sexual identity and shared and equal responsibility.”

ripped bookMeanwhile, here in the U.S., a school board in Gilbert, Arizona recently voted to “edit” a high school honors biology textbook after determining that it does not align with a 2-year-old state law. Under Senate Bill 1009, which went into effect in April 2012, “no Arizona school district ‘may allow any presentation during instructional time or furnish any materials to pupils as part of any instruction that does not give preference, encouragement and support to childbirth and adoption as preferred options to elective abortion.'”

The textbook in question, Campbell Biology: Concepts & Connections (Seventh Edition), includes a chapter that discusses abstinence, birth-control methods, tubal ligations and vasectomies, and drugs that can induce abortion. (Note: all of the information included is strictly based on medical facts and doesn’t advocate any positions on these topics.)

In this case, it was the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) that stepped in to ensure that this public school’s curriculum be restricted to only the most conservative understandings of gender, sexuality, and reproduction.

According to school board member Jill Humpherys, ADF complained about the textbook to Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto this past summer, and eventually argued their way to censorship victory—the board made its 3-2 decision after listening to a presentation from Natalie Decker, an ADF lawyer. Though Decker didn’t offer any recommendations for how exactly the book should be altered in order to be in compliance with the law, board member Daryl Colvin has an idea. “The cheapest, least disruptive way to solve the problem is to remove the page,” he said.

ADF is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, but much like FOTF, it has a global reach (made possible by its network of over 2,200 lawyers). Formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund, this legal ministry committed to “religious freedom” was created in 1994 by a team of conservative Christian leaders, including FOTF’s James Dobson. Tom Minnery, FOTF’s senior vice president of government and public policy, currently sits on ADF’s board of directors.

ADF serves as a key opponent to reproductive justice efforts in the U.S., working to end what they refer to as the “premeditated murder of the helpless.” Their efforts have included lawsuits aimed at discontinuing funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, forcing young adults to obtain parental consent for abortions, and eliminating critical reproductive healthcare elements of the Affordable Care Act.

Under the leadership of president, CEO, and general counsel, Alan Sears, ADF claims to have “successfully defended marriage as the union between one man and one woman in over 40 cases nationwide.” According to their website, “Redefining marriage is ultimately part of a larger effort to redesign society in order to give social approval of homosexual behavior, and to empower social acceptance of a forgery of gender and sexual practice at odds with natural law and the faith of millions.”

FOTF, ADF, and their crew of right-wing allies are working in courtrooms and classrooms around the world to influence the policies that define the strength and extent of our freedoms. May our resistance be as bold and brilliant at Agatha Tan’s.

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Midterm Elections: School Privatization Continues to Advance DeVos/Heritage Foundation Strategy

Midterm elections present a particularly fruitful opportunity for the school privatization movement to maximize their investment.  Since 1974, in mid-term or non-presidential election years, the federal election turnout has failed to reach 40% of eligible voters, as opposed to range of about 49% – 56% in presidential elections, thus providing an opportunity for energized voters to advance their issues in state-level races.  While the results of the 2014 effort remain to be seen, this effect has been amplified by the impact of both the Tea Party movement and the millions of dollars of pro-privatization money being poured into elections in several states.

While most of the press coverage and national attention during midterm elections is focused on the composition of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the privatization juggernaut has used these low-turnout elections to continue to increase its hold on state legislatures, where most decisions are made on education policy and funding.

“Private school choice” is the term used by its advocates to describe the state-level programs that use public dollars to fund private education, including tax credit programs and school vouchers.  Advocates of school privatization have always focused on state elections, but by the late 1990s they had shifted their dollars and efforts from statewide ballot initiatives to a policy of rewards and consequences for individual state legislators—both Republican and Democratic—based on their position on school privatization. This strategy was described to a Heritage Foundation audience by leading privatization advocate Dick DeVos in 2002, as the strategy implemented in the late 1990s was beginning to yield results.

Dick DeVos

Dick DeVos

Although it’s now more than a decade old, the Dick DeVos speech to the Heritage Foundation is still useful in understanding the shift in strategy that has resulted in the success of the privatization movements after decades of rejection on state ballot initiatives.  The video includes the explanation of the “rewards and consequences” strategy, which uses massive funding to support or attack state legislators in their home districts. DeVos explains the ongoing implementation of this strategy by his wife, Betsy DeVos, through the Great Lakes Education Project in their home state of Michigan. Betsy DeVos was then, and continues today, to be the “four star general” guiding the attack on public education, as she has been dubbed by Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The DeVos strategy has been implemented through single-interest nonprofits, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the conservative think tanks in all fifty states interconnected through the State Policy Network.

In addition to the shift from state ballot initiatives on vouchers to a “reward and consequences” for state legislators, DeVos also emphasized the need to continue an ongoing strategy for changing the face of “school choice” promotion.  School privatization had been the domain of a small core group of wealthy, White, conservative donors, but by 2002 an effort was already well underway to recruit a public face for the movement that would be bipartisan, minority led, and appear to be a grass roots effort.

In the video, the covert nature of the strategy is stressed, as DeVos warns the Heritage Foundation audience that they need to “be cautious about talking too much about these activities,” including the need for school privatization to have a different face than their own.

“That has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible. And, in fact, to the extent that we on the right, those of us on the conservative side of the aisle, appropriate education choice as our idea, we need to be a little bit cautious about doing that, because we have here an issue that cuts in a very interesting way across our community and can cut, properly communicated, properly constructed, can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”

Here’s a two minute excerpt of the speech:

A transcript of that segment can be accessed in my 2011 Talk2action.org article.  and DeVos’ full December 3, 2002 speech at the Heritage Foundation can be seen here.

Dick and Betsy DeVos and their relatives have long been leaders in funding school privatization activism.  Betsy heads the 501(c)(3) American Federation for Children (AFC), and its tax affiliated 501(c)(3) Alliance for School Choice—the two are the primary advocacy organizations behind the movement and the source of funding for many state nonprofits dedicated to this agenda.  Also under the umbrella of the AFC advocacy is an array of political action committees or PACs, which fund candidates and the reward and consequences strategy in states across the nation.

In 2011, I tracked the money spent by AFC and its related entities in the 2010 midterm elections and mapped the history of primary nonprofits behind the privatization movement. Some of the products of this effort can be seen in a series of 2011 (list of links and summaries accessed in this article) and in the Summer 2012 issue of The Public Eye magazine (beginning on page three).

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Neoliberalism, Higher Education, and the Rise of Contingent Faculty Labor

Higher education is intended to foster critical reflection, personal growth, public discussion, collective inquiry, social and political analysis, and the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and justice.  These values and practices emphasize the generation of knowledge.  Higher education does not simply record what has already been said and done; instead, it reviews the past and present in order to create newer, deeper, and better ideas.  Ideally, those ideas become social goods, improving the lives of everyone—from Albert Einstein’s E = mc2 and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, to Edward Said’s Orientalism and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Some of these works may be controversial and debatable, but that is also the point—they provoke necessary discussions about the unsavory aspects of worldly affairs.

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This underscores the politics of knowledge and higher learning.  Which ideas are allowed to speak, and which are censored?  Who gets to speak those ideas, and who is silenced?  What values are attached to those ideas and speakers?  How might issues of power, domination and, hopefully, liberation, factor into these equations?

Such issues cut to the heart of the matter: higher education is under attack by the neoliberal enterprise.  While most colleges and universities are still nonprofit institutions, they have been overtaken by the neoliberal agenda.  I am not suggesting some grand conspiracy between university board members and the corporate elite. That may be true in some cases,[1] and some do argue that collusion has occurred.[2]  Generally speaking, however, the synthesis of higher education and corporate interest is much more supple and unspoken.  Forty years of privatization, stagnant wages, a weak economy, a lack of jobs, and budget cuts have forced college administrators to find alternative forms of funding.  These alternatives have involved everything from licensing agreements with Coca-Cola and Disney and the corporate sponsoring of research to a pedagogical emphasis on job preparation.[3]

This corporatization has also given rise to a contingent faculty labor force.  According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “contingent faculty” include both part-time and full-time non-tenure track faculty.[4]  This includes adjuncts hired on a part-time, semester-by-semester basis; full-time lecturers and instructors granted one-year to multi-year contracts; and special- or visiting-assistant professors whose contracts are similar to those of lecturers or instructors but with slightly more institutional status.  The common characteristic among these positions is a lack of institutional commitment from the university.  A 2011 AAUP report found that contingent faculty of all types, including graduate assistants, account for “76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education,”[5] a marked increase from 55% in 1975.[6]

Adjunct labor represents the largest segment of this workforce, comprising about 50% of all higher education faculty.  (In 1970, that number was only about 20%.)[7]  The overwhelming majority of adjuncts have post-secondary degrees but earn far less than full-time instructors; receive no health or retirement benefits; teach different classes at different institutions; often pay out of pocket for gas and/or transportation; receive no funding for conference travel or professional development; and are commonly assigned cumbersome teaching schedules, making it difficult to teach consecutive classes across campuses.

Such conditions undoubtedly affect the quality of instruction.  That’s not to say that adjuncts—or contingent faculty, in general—are not excellent teachers.  According to a 2010 survey, about 57 percent of adjuncts “are in their jobs primarily because they like teaching, not primarily for the money.”[8] But the contingency of the modern day professorate places unreasonable demands on pedagogical practice.  Adjuncts are rarely granted their own institutional computers, phones, or offices, and something as simple as photocopying can be difficult when teaching once-per-week night classes.  Consistent office hours, regular communication with students, spontaneous classroom activities, pedagogical discussions with colleagues, and critical, creative, open-ended exams become difficult to sustain.

Contingent faculty are also less likely to serve on committees, advise undergraduate theses, teach graduate classes, oversee student organizations, lead program or curricular changes, participate in institutional governance, or reap the full benefits of a university’s intellectual life.  Campus can quickly become a place to earn a paycheck, period.

The most recent economic crisis may have exacerbated, but does not fully account for, this situation.  Decades of conservative, pro-business, deregulatory policies have restructured the landscape not only of higher education but also the workforce as a whole.  Precarious labor is now a defining characteristic of the contemporary global workforce, affecting everyone from computer programmers and IT call-centers to migrant agricultural workers and Wal-Mart employees.  The era of a secure, long-term, well-paid position with a single institution is over.  Downsizing, outsourcing, temp-jobs, sweatshops, day labor, and company relocations have stripped workers of stability and power.  These practices allow corporations to outmaneuver state and federal taxes, government regulations, workers’ rights, and manufacturing costs. Higher education has followed suit, as universities continue to cut back on the number of faculty, increase class size, issue temporary contracts, and refuse to rehire anyone who speaks out.

These precarious conditions also inhibit open and honest discussion, both in and out of the classroom. Controversial course topics might raise the brow of a department chair. An appearance at a campus protest or a quote in the school newspaper might catch the eye of a dean. A search committee might question candidates with politicized research agendas.  (These are some of the very reasons why tenure was invented.) Tenure and academic freedom are being dissolved by a system driven by corporate logic rather than by the free exchange of ideas.

Luckily, not everyone has been silenced.  The American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Education Association have been vocal in their opposition to these trends; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched “Adjunct Action,” a national campaign to address the needs of adjunct faculty; “New Faculty Majority” was started in 2009 to advocate for the rights of contingent faculty; and there has been a resurgence in graduate student unionizing, with New York University and University of Connecticut recently winning high-profile victories.[9]  Even Congress has begun paying attention to the issue of contingent faculty labor.  A Democratic House Committee released a report in January, 2014 on adjunct labor,[10] and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced the “Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program” that could potentially reduce student loan debt for adjunct professors.[11]

These are necessary and uplifting efforts that should be supported and applauded.  Yet we also should recognize that victories for some educators are not the same as victories for all workers.  Only by uprooting the system of neoliberalism and corporate domination can we begin to address the wants and needs of all people and reconstruct higher education as an epicenter for knowledge, truth, and justice.  Such a lofty goal necessitates a broad-based, multi-pronged movement capable of speaking to our shared material conditions and our collective hopes for a more just and equitable society.  Examples from Wisconsin, Occupy, and the emerging student loan forgiveness movement suggest the will of the people is there.  Now it’s time to turn that will into a long-term, sustainable reality.

For more, see Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology, and the Fall 2014 special neoliberal edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Jason Del Gandio is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University.  He is the author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (2008) and co-editor of Educating for Action: Strategies to Ignite Social Justice (2014).  You can visit his website for more information about his work.

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[1] See, for example, Graham Bowley, “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” New York Times, July 31, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/business/01prez.html.

[2] See, for example, Claire Goldstene, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” Thought & Action (Fall 2012), http://www.nea.org/home/53403.htm.

[3] See, for example, Natasha Singer, “On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/at-colleges-the-marketers-are-everywhere.html; and National Education Association, “Higher Education Privatization,” NEA Higher Education Research Center (10.2, March, 2004: 1-6), http://www.nea.org/home/34258.htm.

[4] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty,” http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.

[5] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty.”

[6] American Association of University Professors, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2011,” http://www.aaup.org/file/Instructional_Staff_Trends.pdf.

[7] “The Just-In-Time Professor,” Democratic House Committee Report, Jan. 2014, http://mpsanet.org/Portals/0/1.24.14-AdjunctEforumReport.pdf.

[8] American Federation of Teachers, “A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty,” American Academic (March 2010, Vol. 2), https://www.aft.org/pdfs/highered/aa_partimefaculty0310.pdf.

[9] Vimal Patel, “Graduate Students Seek to Build on Momentum for Unions,” Chronicle of Higher Education (May 16, 2014, Vol. 60, Issue 35), http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/jp/uconn-recognizes-new-graduate-assistant-union.

[10] See “The Just-In-Time Professor.”

[11] Tyler Kingkade, “Adjunct Faculty Would Get Student Debt Wiped Away Under New Proposal,” Huffington Post (July 31, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/adjunct-faculty-student-debt-durbin_n_5638881.html.

Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology

When we talk about the privatization of public education, we often think of K-12 education. Certainly, the growth of charter schools and voucher programs and attacks on teachers unions indicate that the “education reform” movement poses a major threat to the traditional public school. As prominent education historian Diane Ravitch writes, “‘Reform’ is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.” But discussions of the entrepreneurialization of public education institutions must also be understood within the context of higher education.

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Image via Turnstyle News.

The current crisis within higher ed is often discussed primarily in terms of rising tuition and student debt, but the debt crisis is just one particularly ugly manifestation of a larger trend involving increased corporate investment in college campuses, the exploitation of adjunct faculty, and a de facto attack on scholarly and professional training that does not  directly lead to corporate opportunities for graduates. Taken together, these seemingly distinct problems in higher education, and public higher ed in particular, point to a common, underlying ideology that is consistent with that of the K-12 education reform movement: a rationale of neoliberal corporatization and privatization.

As Wendy Brown, a prominent political theorist based at UC Berkeley, writes, neoliberalism represents a “unique governmental and social rationality—one that extends market principles to every reach of human life”:

[Neoliberalism] formulates everything in terms of capital investment and appreciation (including and especially humans themselves), whether a teenager building a resume for college, a twenty-something seeking a mate, a working mother returning to school, or a corporation buying carbon offsets. As a governing rationality, neoliberalism extends from the management of the state itself to the soul of the subject; it renders health, education, transportation, nature, and art into individual consumer goods, and converts patients, students, drivers, athletes, and museum-goers alike into entrepreneurs of their own needs and desires who consume or invest in these goods (emphasis is mine).[i]

Neoliberalism is thus a turn away from collectivity and commitment to the public good and a turn toward individualism and an acceptance—embrace, even—of structural inequality. Such ideologies prepare students for life under the domination of large corporations.

But public universities should not act like corporations. They should train students to be great citizens; they should provide academics with resources and security to challenge convention by producing novel ideas and inventions for the public good; and they should be affordable and attainable to any qualified student, and particularly those who come from communities that have historically been isolated from higher ed. Unfortunately, the neoliberal corporatization of public universities is responsible for a number of dynamics that directly undermine these principles.

Rising Tuition = Supply and Demand

Contrary to popular belief, tuition hikes at public universities date back to the 1980s, far before the 2007 financial crisis. According to Salon reporter Thomas Frank, the rise in tuition took off in 1981, the same year that Ronald Reagan took the White House. While politicians and journalists have blamed students, professors, and the new demands for a diverse student body from a more liberal society, it’s now clear, Frank says, that the real culprits behind rising tuition are administrators and other decision makers who have long embraced a neoliberal, corporate approach to university administration. This shift was further exacerbated by increasing economic inequality. Indeed, tuition pricing became subjected to “market forces” at the same time that degrees were becoming ever-more important for middle-class employment and upward social mobility.

Donations with Strings Attached

Another reason why universities have increased tuition is the lack of adequate state funding—a trend that has only grown worse since the recession. Disinvestment in state universities has forced colleges to look elsewhere for funding sources, and the corporate sector has eagerly stepped in.

For example, John Allison, former chairman of BB&T Corp.,  has worked through the BB&T Charitable Foundation to provide schools with “as much as $2 million” under the condition that they “create a course on capitalism and make [Ayn] Rand’s … Atlas Shrugged required reading.” Former hedge fund manager Jim Simons has tried to privatize tuition practices within the SUNY system, wielding an apparently conditional pledge of $150 million at Stony Brook as a bargaining chip. The Koch brothers have also been widely criticized for their politicized contributions (particularly for funding economics professorships at Florida State University); the Charles Koch Foundation can rescind funding for professors’ salaries if their work is deemed “unacceptable.” These donations, which come with ideologically charged strings attached, use a not-so-invisible hand to influence university administrators and to promote development strategies and curricula lauding capitalism and the super-rich.

Squeezing the Workforce

Public universities have also sought to shift financial burdens onto faculty and staff. The rise in the percentage of contingent faculty, the precariousness of their positions, and the effect it has on academic integrity and teaching quality are all characteristics of what Claire Goldstein calls the “emergent academic proletariat.”

In 1970, “78% of faculty were permanent and full time;” now, says Goldstein, “close to 70 percent of all faculty appointments in degree-granting institutions are off the tenure-track, a number that includes over one million people.” Contingent faculty are more likely to be overworked, under-resourced, and left out of important decision-making groups. Lacking job security and other resources, contingent faculty may be less likely to include controversial course material, too. As law professor and free speech activist Marjorie Heins has argued, the dominance of corporate rationality recalls an earlier era of academia, before tenure was a well-established policy and professors could be dismissed for championing scholarship or causes that went against the outlooks of university boards. Now, the public university is again squeezing out those who might otherwise push for some much needed progressive thinking, teaching, and learning.

Entrepreneurializing the Public U

Given the landscape of public disinvestment, rising tuition, and a persistently weak labor market, many have called for the American university to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit they claim is required in an increasingly competitive global economy. As universities take heed—and follow the money—the “entrepreneurial university” is being born before our eyes.

Great public universities can certainly be centers for innovative and pragmatic partnership, and the production of quality goods and services that benefit the larger world should indeed be a part of the university’s activities. But in the long term, focusing exclusively on entrepreneurship and the development of “marketable skills” is a different and even dangerous project. Private investors and firms that support an entrepreneur are, by their very nature, interested first and foremost in the profitability of their investment. When an entrepreneurial profit motive is the driving force of decisions instead of a desire to make people’s lives better, the university stops being a center for the betterment of society and becomes another means of capital accumulation.

Under this paradigm, certain fields of knowledge yield a higher return than others—as do certain students, namely those who are willing to pay full tuition, accumulate assets of their own as well-paid professionals, and give back to their beloved alma mater. It just so happens that the kinds of learning and teaching deemed most useful—what Henry A. Giroux would call “instrumental pedagogy”—are not those that are essential to progressive social thinking: the critical orientation and self-reflexivity of the humanities and interpretive social sciences pose a threat to neoliberal rationality. And given the price, projects, and results that neoliberal education demands, students from historically marginalized backgrounds or who present points of view challenging corporatization are often shunted aside.

Conclusion

When the market rules, ordinary people and inclusive social structures do not. Instead, rigid hierarchical structures proliferate, free market ideology dominates, progressive and critical thought declines, and disparities among employees abound. Those who have money and influence—corporate billionaires and university administrators—accumulate more of it, while those who do not—students and their families, contingent academic workers— are further marginalized.

In the post-war era, a democratic project began to establish a widely and rigorously educated general public through well-funded and subsidized public higher education. It was an imperfect project at best—African Americans and other people of color were largely denied access to many of these programs—but we should do well to remember the democratic promise of the public university before we relegate it completely to the cold hands of the neoliberal market and corporatization.  The stakes are high: who and how we are educated forges us into the kind of society we become. A vigorous public education system, higher ed included, is the best defense against an ascending neoliberal plutocracy where democracy is deemed second to entrepreneurship and capital accumulation.

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[i] Brown, Wendy. Neoliberalized Knowledge. History of the Present Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 2011). University of Illinois Press. pp. 113-129

 

“Zero Tolerance” for Silenced Histories: Neglecting Civil Rights Education in Schools

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters' Shoulders

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders

It’s been a busy few weeks for education policy in America. (Then again, when is it not?)  Just last week, the College Board announced changes in the SAT to make the test a better assessment of school curricula and predictor of college success.  Mayor Bill DeBlasio and charter school champion Eva Moskowitz continued to butt heads over the role of charter schools in New York City.  The Center for American Progress released a new report, Beyond Bullying, focusing on LGBTQ students and the school-to-prison pipeline. And with the snow beginning to thaw and spring right around the corner, teachers and students are gearing up for a new onslaught of high-stakes testing designed to ensure “accountability” and “achievement.”

Many leading advocates of school choice and education “reform” are actually well-established right-wing players whose other political priorities—including anti-unionization efforts, regressive tax policies, and cuts to welfare—demonstrate little interest in defending public institutions or promoting racial justice.  Yet by using people of color as the spokespeople for privatization campaigns, these reformers can claim to be strengthening public schools and combating inequality even as they advance a pro-privatization agenda that is fundamentally at odds with commitments to racial and economic justice.

For example, as Political Research Associates’ fellow Rachel Tabachnick and others have documented, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has been a vocal advocate for vouchers and private school choice in Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  Its founder, Howard Fuller, previously played a pivotal role in establishing a voucher program in Milwaukee.  The resulting voucher and corporate tax credit programs have helped redirect millions of public dollars from public schools to private schools.

People for the American Way has described BAEO—which was established in 2010 and receives major funding from both the Walton (i.e. Walmart) and Bradley Foundations—as “better known for supporting education privatization and affirmative action rollbacks than empowerment of the African-American community or low-income families.”  Indeed, the promise of the education reform movement to “close the achievement gap” and “end educational inequality” is disingenuous at best and empty and pernicious at worst when considering the role of its primary funders in perpetuating racial, economic, and gender inequality.

A few other recent news stories, however, have suggested ways to engage with substantive questions of racial justice in public schools.  President Obama, for example, recently announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a new initiative that, while far from perfect (particularly in its neglect of female and LGBTQ students), is designed to support young men of color and intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center just released an updated version of Teaching the Movement, which evaluates civil rights education across the United States. The report serves as a powerful reminder that improving public schools must go beyond debates over high-stakes testing, reading comprehension, and complex fractions.  Unfortunately, the report also makes clear that we still have a long way to go.

The authors note that some states have made important improvements to their curricula since the report was first released in 2011. Still, 20 states still scored a big red “F” according to the SPLC’s criteria, and an additional 14 states still earned a “D.”  As the report’s authors state bluntly, “We remain concerned that students are likely to remember only two names and four words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and ‘I have a dream.’”

While education reformers remain hyper-focused on test scores and “achievement,” SPLC’s criticism regarding a lack of civil rights literacy is about far more than just getting 11th graders to ace the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam.  In his introduction to the report, Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes, 

“All of us are aware of the pressures our teachers and children are under to keep pace with the world’s students in science and math, but without a steep grounding in our history, what will rising generations have to pivot from? What will inspire them to remake their world with the confidence that comes from knowing it has been done before?”

Too often, debates over public education sidestep discussions of how schools can teach students not only to master Common Core standards, but also to be active, thoughtful, justice-driven members of society. Quoting civil rights historian Taylor Branch, the report offers one response: “If you’re trying to teach people to be citizens, teach them about the civil rights movement.”  Notably, Branch does not mention suspensions, high-stakes testing, or Teach for America as citizenship-building.  In the conclusion to Teaching the Movement, the report emphasizes just how high the stakes are: “When students learn about the civil rights movement, they learn about the democratic responsibility of individuals to oppose oppression and to work for justice. We gloss over the civil rights movement at our own peril as a nation working to achieve equal opportunities for all citizens.”

Meanwhile, as reformers lament a (non-existent) decline in test scores and wax nostalgic about the 1960s when American students “were so much smarter,” they obscure critical gains in public education access for students of color since the end of Jim Crow-era segregation and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.  Even after Brown in the 1960s, Black students in the United States often still found themselves in segregated, woefully underfunded classrooms.  “At the same time,” the report notes, “the very school districts that Brown desegregated have now re-segregated”  While some charter schools have managed to raise test scores, they may contribute to the resegregation of public schools, while also pushing out ELLs, students with disabilities, and others.

Ultimately, our failure to prioritize civil rights education in American classrooms is not an isolated problem.  Rather, it reflects a much broader and arguably misguided discussion about what constitutes racial justice within public education.  We talk endlessly about the “achievement gap,” but we do far less to fight back against efforts to ban ethnic studies in Arizona and elsewhere.  Many charter schools—the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) being the most well-known—place a heavy emphasis on character development and strict discipline policies. But as we debate discipline and “zero tolerance,” we neglect the shoddy teaching of the Civil Rights Movement and other substantive discussions of curriculum.  In doing so, we fail to make schools critical sites of intervention against a history of oppression and injustice, prioritizing “grit” and “zero tolerance” over the too often hidden histories of people resisting, dreaming, and building toward a better future.

Beyond Bullying: Equally Excellent Education for All?

The 2014 Creating Change Conference was held in Houston, Texas on January 29 – February 2 and included several panels led by staff and fellows of Political Research Associates.  The following is a summary of my portion of the panel titled “Beyond Bullying:  Equally Excellent Education for All?” 

LGBT students face challenges in our public school systems, but the current wave of school privatization efforts across the nation threaten to further exclude and stigmatize LGBT students and teachers.

State legislatures across the country have introduced and passed “private school choice” bills that allow for public funds to finance private school education.  This includes  school vouchers and various tax credit programs.  Political Research Associates’ Public Eye magazine featured an extensive article in 2012 on the history and organization of the pro-privatization movement.  One way to track the progress of the movement is through the annual update of the leading pro-privatization nonprofits – the tax affiliated partners  Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children.  Their annual yearbook tracks their successes in promoting the public funding of private school education, much of which takes place in religious schools.

The impact of this privatization of public education on LGBT students and teachers is both immediate and long term.  The immediate results is the public financing of private schools with exclusion policies that refuse admission to LGBT students.  A report by the Southern Education Foundation, for example, documents at least 115 private schools in Georgia’s tax-funded scholarship program with “explicit, severe anti-gay policies.”  This is not limited to Georgia or to the South.  These exclusion policies can be found in private schools around the country receiving public funding through school choice programs.

The longterm impact includes the further stigmatization of LGBT students, staff, and teachers through the public funding of schools using curricula in which homosexuality is described as “evil.”  For example, a teacher’s guide to one high school government textbook instructs teachers to instruct students that, “Homosexual unions must be opposed because God opposes them.”

Some of the most popular curricula series used in private religious schools across the nation, including A Beka Books and Bob Jones University Press, also teach young earth creationism, bigotry toward other religions, revisionist history and climate change denial. Recent reports are documenting the spread of this type of curricula in charter schools, which technically remain in the public education system although they are privately managed.

Scroll through the presentation below, or download the pdf.

Rachel Tabachnick Creating Change Presentation, 2014

Review – Home is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering

Intensive Mothering
Home is Where the School is: the Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering – By Jennifer Lois. Reviewed by Rachel Tabachnik

**Note: This review originally appeared in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 30, No. 6, November/December 2013. Republished with permission.

Home is where the school isThe number of children homeschooled in the United States was estimated in 2007 to be at least 1.5 million and is likely more than two million today—more than three percent of the school-age population. Exact figures are unknown, since data collection varies by state. Nearly one quarter of states have no requirement for registration or notification and, according to the International Center for Home Education Research, ICHER, only half of the states have any requirements for testing or student evaluation. What is known, and has been shown repeatedly in research on the topic, writes Jennifer Lois, the author of Home Is Where the School Is, is that homeschooling is a mother’s project.

Mothers overwhelmingly bear the burden of the “immense emotional, temporal, and physical workloads required to homeschool,” Lois explains. This, she devotes her ethnography to these mothers, bypassing the more commonly researched homeschooled students. In her unique study, she examines the emotional lives of the mother-teachers and what she describes as a mothering experience fraught with “temporal-emotional conflict.” Homeschooling, she says, has the potential, particularly when fathers fail to share the load, to “ratchet up the standards for intensive mothering to historically unprecedented levels.”

The “ideology of intensive mothering” is a term coined by sociologist Sharon Hays in her 1996 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996). Hays identifies the paradox of the escalation of cultural norms of good mothering simultaneous with the influx of the mothers of young children into the workforce. “Good mothering” as defined in contemporary culture, writes Hays, requires a woman to play dual roles: she must be warm and nurturing at home, yet cool and competitive at work. Homeschooling mothers face a different set of challenges, including having little or no discretionary or childfree time, while bearing the responsibility for the education of one and sometimes many children. Referencing Hays’s research, Lois examines the homeschooling subculture and the sacrificial version of intensive mothering that requires women to “achieve near self-obliteration for their children.”

The book is the culmination of years of field research on homeschooling by Lois, an associate professor of sociology at Western Washington University, that included extensive interviews with homeschooling mothers and, in some cases, husbands or other family members. The original interviews of 24 mothers took place in 2002; these were followed in 2008 and 2009 by interviews with sixteen of the original interviewees. Of Lois’s 24 original interviewees, 21 were white, two were Hispanic American, and one was African American. One was a single mother, and one was a widowed grandmother. Lois describes 21 of the mothers as “identified with a Christian-based religion” and fourteen as highly conservative evangelicals. The numbers of children in their families ranged from one to twelve. Lois describes homeschooling as a class issue from both above and below. It is largely limited to middle-class families who can afford to have one parent remain out of the work force, but it is also a choice made by families who cannot afford private school tuition.

The most thoroughly studied aspect of homeschooling is motivation. The subculture is usually described as consisting mostly of those labeled by some researchers as ideologues and pedagogues, who are often stereotypes as religious zealots, alone with a smaller group of left-wing “unschoolers.” Although the majority of homeschoolers may indeed fit into one of these two categories, the most prominent homeschooling organizations certainly do, homeschoolers also comprise a wide range of religious adherents and nontheists who choose to homeschool for a variety of reasons. Lois’s interviewees, for example, include the mother of an academically gifted son with Asperger’s disorder who was not succeeding in a conventional classroom. Although Lois objects to simplistic stereotypes, she too divides her interviewees into two broad camps, albeit with different labels: “first choicers,” or mothers who are determined to homeschool their children; and “second choicers,” or those who homeschool because of a lack of acceptable alternatives. Lois is interested in discovering how the women chose to homeschool; how they defend their choice in the face of criticism; how they manage the workload and emotional demands; and how they deal with burnout.

She entered her research with little knowledge of religion or of conservative religious culture, admitting that she had to look up the significance of the Bible verse John 3:16 after seeing it on a mother’s tee-shirt (The verse says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”) This was a handicap to understanding both the majority of the mothers in her sample, who self-identified as conservative evangelicals, and the minority who self-identified as religious progressives. As a researcher who has written about homeschooling curricula and the role of religious organizations in the promotion of school vouchers and the privatization of education, I would have been interested in the responses that Lois could have elicited if she had been more religiously literate.

Her lack of exposure to religious communities may have contributed to the assumption she makes that homeschooling mothers must defend themselves from stigmatization and accusations of “emotional deviance” by mainstream society. In 2002, many of the homeschoolers she interviewed were defensive about their roles. However, with the dramatic growth in homeschooling over the last decade, the dynamics of peer pressure may have been reversed, with the stigma directed towards those who send their children to public schools. It’s easy to imagine this taking place, particularly in some religious communities, which are hubs of homeschool participation. If so, the decision to homeschool may be less a matter of challenging peer expectations and more about fulfilling them—presenting mothers with a different set of emotional challenges from those faced by Lois’s early interviewees.

Despite Lois’s limited ability to speak the language of her religious interviewees, her book opens a window onto the lives of homeschooling mothers. Throughout her observations, she explores differences between first and second choicers’ responses to challenges. The first choicers generally approach homeschooling as a calling; several describe a moment of ephipany or a sudden realization that God wanted them to homeschool. The second choicers were more ambivalent and continuously struggled with their decision. They were more likely to homeschool only one of their children and to make attempts to return to conventional schools. Lois sums up the difference, writing, “[C]hoices can be wrong; knowing is infallible.”

Most of the mothers had no precious teaching experience. In Washington state, where Lois did her research, the law requires a homeschooling parent to meet only one of the following guidelines: complete one year of college; attend a fifteen-hour homeschooling course; or meet with a state-certified teacher for an hour each week. The mothers’ lack of experience leads to an almost universal fear of failure, intensified for those new to homeschooling. Lois’s research included attendance at conferences, including a session at one statewide convention on Total Failure Syndrome, or the fear of failure in all areas—as mother, teacher, and wife. The speaker recommended that the mothers suppress problematic emotions and feelings of deprivation by comparing themselves to those less fortunate. “Do it with a servant’s attitude and a joyful heart,” she suggested , and celebrate the subordinate position. “Homeschooling subculture relentlessly pushed mothers to sacrifice more,” writes Lois.

Margaret Talbot, in her 2001 Atlantic review of Mitchell Steven’s Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (2001), describes homeschooling as “souped up domesticity with higher stakes and more respect.” Referring to the rejection by homeschooling mothers of the “idealized domesticity” of the 1950s, Stevens claims that although homeschooling may appear to be reactionary and antifeminist, it actually “bears clear imprints of the liberal feminism that was blossoming when many of today’s homeschooling mothers came of age.” Lois found that many of the mothers in her study dealt with their overwhelming workloads by prioritizing mothering over housework. Her interviewees—from those in patriarchal settings to the self-described nonreligious, left-wing moms—shared an almost universal complaint: they were disappointed in their husbands’ lack of participation.

If feminism has made an imprint on homeschooling, it has no resulted in gender equality in the area of household chores and childcare—at least not for the subjects of this study and others. Lois’s interviewees report that their husbands, including those who insist on having their children homeschooled, do little to help relieve mothers of their workloads or to provide them with discretionary time. First and second choicers generally responded differently to their disappointment, however: the first choicers felt they had to protect the fathers’ free time and invalidated their own claims to “me-time”; while second choicers generally had greater expectations concerning their husbands’ participation and felt resentful when these were not fulfilled.

Readers expecting Lois to tackle the controversies over homeschooling’s role in American society will be disappointed, at least if they don’t read the endnotes. There, she debunks widely publicized claims that studies show homeschool students outperforming their public school counterparts on achievement tests. As she explains, the subjects of these studies are self-selected volunteers, who do not represent a full range of homeschooled students. Families holding the most antigovernment beliefs, for example, usually do not agree to participate in studies. In addition (although Lois does not mention it), the achievement test cited in these studies can be administered at home. As ICHER notes, “Not surprisingly, wealthy homeschoolers from stable two-parent families who take tests administered by their parents in the comfort of their own homes outscore the average public school child by large margins.”

Despite the overwhelming workload and the obstacles, most of Lois’s interviewees reported that they were happy to have homeschooled and would continue homeschooling. When Lois looks at outcomes, she measures the emotional responses of the mothers rather than the more-often measured achievements of the students. Again, she looks at the differences between the first and second choicers. When their children “graduated” from homeschooling, the second choicers were excited about entering the next phase of their lives, while first choicers were anxious to extend their experience of intensive mothering. Several reported putting their family planning “in God’s hands,” and three of the mothers, all first choicers, gave birth between Lois’s first and second round of interviews. Another mother, 41 years old and with three boys, reported that she wanted to make herself “open to life” and to have surgery to reverse her tubal ligation.

On the ICHER blog, the organization’s co-founder Milton Gaither, an academic and a homeschooling father, describes Home Is Where the School Is as “the most extensive look at the mothers who homeschool ever published.” It may do little to alter readers’ perceptions of homeschooling, whatever they may be, but in studying the mothers behind this growing trend, it id an invaluable addition to the sociological record.

Creationists Get Influential Positions in Texas Science Textbook Review

This post originally published at TFN Insider.

It looks like the Lone Star State’s reputation as a hotbed of anti-science fanaticism is about to be reinforced. At least six creationists/”intelligent design” proponents succeeded in getting invited to review high school biology textbooks that publishers have submitted for adoption in Texas this year. The State Board of Education (SBOE) will decide in November which textbooks to approve. Those textbooks could be in the state’s public school science classrooms for nearly a decade.

Among the six creationist reviewers are some of the nation’s leading opponents of teaching students that evolution is established, mainstream science and is overwhelmingly supported by well over a century of research. Creationists on the SBOE nominated those six plus five others also invited by the Texas Education Agency to serve on the biology review teams. We have been unable to determine what those other five reviewers think about evolution.

Although 28 individuals got invites to review the proposed new biology textbooks this year, only about a dozen have shown up in Austin this week for the critical final phase of that review. That relatively small overall number of reviewers could give creationists even stronger influence over textbook content. In fact, publishers are making changes to their textbooks based on objections they hear from the review panelists. And that’s happening essentially behind closed doors because the public isn’t able to monitor discussions among the review panelists themselves or between panelists and publishers. The public won’t know about publishers’ changes (or the names of all the review panelists who are in Austin this week) until probably September. Alarm bells are ringing.

Following are the six creationists/evolution critics we have identified so far on the biology review teams:

The Revisionaries: Documentary Goes Inside Texas Textbook Controversy

Texas Board chair Don McLeroy in The Revisionaries.

Texas Board chair Don McLeroy. The Revisionaries.

From 2009 to 2010, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) set about the once-a-decade task of writing curriculum standards for Texas’ almost five million school children. Claiming that “Academia is skewed too far to the left,” right-wing Board members voted to undermine the teaching of evolution and rewrite history from a Christian nationalist perspective.

The Revisionaries, a documentary available from PBS for online viewing through February 27, follows the Texas Board during this controversial process with nationwide repercussions: because their curriculum standards serve as guidelines for textbook publishers competing for the massive Texas market, decisions made in the Lone Star State can impact education across the country.

Filmed over a period of three years, the documentary focuses on three major figures: Board chair and self-described creationist Don McLeroy; Kathy Miller, head of the Texas Freedom Network, the “state’s watchdog” monitoring the Christian Right; and Ron Wetherington, an anthropologist specializing in evolutionary theory who reviewed the proposed science curricula. The Board’s other anti-evolution advocates included Cynthia Dunbar, who commuted from her Texas home to teach at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia. Read More

Arizona Proposes Loyalty Oath, Creationism for Students

After the controversy surrounding Arizona’s S.B. 1070 immigration law and recent legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, I’ve grown accustomed to controversial legislation from my home state. This month, the Arizona legislature is proposing a trio of laws that were declared unconstitutional decades ago.

The first “patriotic”  bill, H.R. 2467, would require high school students to recite an oath of loyalty to the United States—actually only a slight variation on elected officials’ oath of office—before being allowed to graduate from a public high school. The second, H.R. 2284, would require students in grades 1 through 12 to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a specific time each day, exempt only at the request of a parent.

ACLU Arizona’s public policy director Anjali Abraham was quick to dismiss these bills: “Both bills are clearly unconstitutional, ironically enough…You can’t require students to attend school … and then require them to either pledge allegiance to the flag or swear this loyalty oath in order to graduate. It’s a violation of the First Amendment.” Even so, the sponsors of both bills stand by their assertion that the bills will benefit children by helping them think more about the Constitution and their patriotic duty. (In all fairness, if a child’s school is sued for First Amendment violations, that could be true.)

A third bill, SB 1213, purports to encourage the development of “critical thinking skills” by requiring that educators teach multiple sides of “scientific controversies” such as the origins of life and global warming. Translation: Teachers can and should teach creationism and other religious theories as on par with evolution and scientific research. Although the bill takes pains not to endorse any specific religious doctrine over another, it also makes it more difficult for administrators to prevent teachers from doing so. Read More