History Wars Exposed: Right-Wing Influence in APUSH Curriculum Update

Co-authored by Katherine Stewart.

Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

On July 30, 2015, the College Board, creators of college-level curricula and testing for high school students, released an update to its Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course.1 The revision came after what had already been a two-year battle and was quickly criticized by all sides. Digital news outlet Quartz published an article detailing “All the ways the new AP U.S. history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,”2 while conservative media sites like The Daily Caller quoted conservative “experts” who groused that the changes were merely cosmetic and still don’t adequately emphasize “American Exceptionalism.”3 But as to why the changes had been undertaken in the first place, the media consensus was, as The Washington Post put it, that “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history.”4 Were these headlines just clickbait or had there been mounting pressure on the College Board to appease right-wing critics?

Jeremy Stern, an independent historian who had consulted on the College Board overhaul,5 cast the revision in a more positive light, telling The Christian Science Monitor, “This is a major success for an unpolitical look at American history.”6 However, there was nothing “unpolitical” about the events preceding the revisions.

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

The fight over APUSH had been simmering ever since the College Board released its new version of the framework in 2012; it boiled over in several states after the new curriculum was implemented for the 2014-2015 school year. The original redesign of the course—in the works since 2006—was intended to reflect an ongoing shift in history classrooms from rote memorization to critical thinking skills.7 As the authors of the new curriculum explained in Education Week, 8 they’d been motivated by the concerns of AP teachers who felt the existing APUSH curriculum “prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of U.S. history.” They sought greater opportunities for their students to “understand the ‘why’ of U.S. history,” and to “make its deeper meanings come alive to students.” The 2014 redesigned APUSH was greeted warmly by academic associations, including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for Social Studies, and the National Council for History Education.

But the College Board’s attempt to change how students learn U.S. history was greeted by conservatives as a revision of what U.S. history is.9

Education has long been a front in the U.S. culture wars. In particular, conservatives have argued for at least two decades that secular progressives have taken over history studies to inculcate students with a negative view of the American past and present.10 Thanks to a concerted effort from members of the State Policy Network,11 such as the Boston-based Pioneer Institute12 and the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, high school history has remained a controversial subject on a national level.

“Ben Carson said that ‘most people’ who complete the course would then be ‘ready to sign up for ISIS.'”

The APUSH controversy of the past several years is reported to have started when Larry Krieger, a retired high school history teacher who had started each year with the theme of American exceptionalism,13 slammed APUSH in numerous articles,14 including several written for the Heartland Institute,15 a conservative think tank known for its role in promoting climate-science denial. The Republican National Committee picked up the beat and condemned APUSH as “radically revisionist.” Peter Wood, President of the right-leaning National Association of Scholars and a critic of environmentalism and LGBTQ equality, penned an extensive piece criticizing the APUSH redesign last year,16 using the term “Bowdoin Syndrome” to describe what he called the “intellectual arrogance” fostered by that college as well as by AP examinations. Eventually, Tea Party hero Ben Carson, author of One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future, went so far as to say that “most people” who complete the course would then be “ready to sign up for ISIS.”17

“Little Rebels”

In 2014, the fight received national media attention when nearly 400 high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado, engaged in an unusual form of political theater. A newly elected school board was attempting to create a “curriculum committee”18 that could review any course’s instruction materials, starting with APUSH. Its review criteria held that “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”19 A Colorado school board member, Julia Williams, summed up this sentiment in an interview with a local TV news station, saying, “I don’t think we should encourage our kids to be little rebels.”

In protest of the school board’s attempt to write civil obedience into the curriculum, the students dressed themselves up as historical figures, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and sundry founding fathers, and staged a walk out. Some county schools were closed when too many teachers failed to show up for work in protest.20 Jefferson County Board of Education President Ken Witt dismissed the students as “political pawns”21 for the teachers’ unions, but the walkout succeeded in stalling the school board’s plan to change the curriculum22 and helped garner support for the recall of three board members.23

Local Battles, National Strategy

The Jefferson County history battle was colorful enough to capture national headlines. But it was just one in a string of conflicts over APUSH curricula taking place nationwide over the last few years, in Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and North and South Carolina.

While the vehement state battles appeared to be driven by local personalities and agendas, there was a larger, national strategy at work.

“In Texas, the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.”

The opposition to APUSH occurred on two levels. The first, as in Colorado, concerned control of local school boards and school communities. A second prong of the attack focused on legislation at the state level, bolstered by a resolution passed by the Republican National Convention denouncing the course and urging Congress to withdraw funding to the College Board.24 Policymakers in the Carolinas agitated to eliminate or doctor APUSH at the end of 2014. In Texas, a state that represents 10 percent of the College Board’s market,25 the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.26 In February 2015, Oklahoma state representative Dan Fisher introduced a bill that would bar funds from being used on AP History, although public outcry effectively killed the bill within a month.27 And in March 2015 in Georgia, a lobbyist from the American Principles Project, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, D.C., reportedly showed up urging legislators to adopt anti-APUSH legislation, resulting in a bill that passed the state Senate in March28 (but ultimately stalled in the House).

The American Principles Project (APP), which has been advocating against APUSH since at least the Jefferson County protests, was founded in 2009 by Princeton University professor and Catholic neoconservative Robert P. George in order to ensure that the “dignity of the person” is reflected in local and national policies. Some of the APP’s best-known work has been produced in the fight against Common Core, but its leadership is invested in a broader slate of culture war issues. After the publication of the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, The New York Times called George “the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.”29 George was the primary author of the Declaration—part of an effort to unify conservative Catholics and evangelicals around a three-part agenda, which they described as “life, marriage, and religious liberty”30—but other APP figures are also proven culture warriors. APP chairman Sean Fieler also heads the Chiaroscuro Group, whose radio ads attacking a pro-choice politician once featured a talking fetus; the APP’s board president, Francis Cannon, coauthored a post-2012 report on “Building a Winning GOP Coalition”;31 and other board members include anti-marriage equality activist Maggie Gallagher and Luiz Tellez, cofounder of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion legal advocacy group the Witherspoon Institute (which helped fund a thoroughly debunked 2012 study by conservative sociologist Mark Regnerus suggesting negative outcomes for children of same-sex couples32).

In their 2015 lobbying document,33 APP charged that APUSH “requires American History to be taught through a leftist, revisionist lens.” According to APP, the course gave “special attention to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities” and “presents American business in a consistently negative light.”

This type of accusation is an old one, dating back to at least 1994, when Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (and wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney) condemned the National Standards for U.S. History as revisionist political correctness in her now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The End of History.”34 Over twenty years later, Cheney, currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, resumed the attack in another Journal op-ed, “The End of History, Part II,” arguing, “The [APUSH] curriculum shouldn’t be farmed out, not to the federal government and not to private groups. It should stay in the hands of the people who are constitutionally responsible for it: the citizens of each state.”35

Whose History?

At the core of this debate over “revisionist” versus “traditional” history is the question of whether U.S. history curriculum should be about facts or a primer on civic duty and citizenship. The College Board’s new curriculum already had to stand the test of certain state laws such as North Carolina’s Founding Principles Act, which since 2011 has required that high school students pass a course on the “Founding Principles” (because “the survival of the republic” depends on students being better “guardians of its heritage”).36

A professor of history at the University of Oklahoma asserted that the 2014 “framework represents a shift from national identity to subcultural identities” and warned, “We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narratives, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women. The new AP U.S. History framework fails on that count, because it does not see the civic role of education as a central one.”37 (Scholars of Native American history pushed back on this, arguing in Indian Country Today that, “American Indian history is part of the fabric of the state of Oklahoma and who we are today…therefore all of that history is American history.”38)

“At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts.”

In September 2014, the Board had responded to critics, writing in a memo, “At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts…the most vocal critics have prioritized their own agenda above the best interests of teachers, students, and their families.”39 Nonetheless, the force of the pushback was enough to convince the Board to solicit public feedback on their course, which they did through their website from late 2014 through early 2015.40

In the end, with no sign of the debate relenting, the College Board agreed to another revision, which was released this July. News coverage pointed to the pressure the College Board had received using phrases such as “gives in” and “caves to.”

Zachary Goldberg, Director of Media Relations for the College Board, objected to these characterizations, saying that inaccurate media reports about the revision had misled many readers into thinking the Board had removed numerous mentions of slavery from the course. Not only was that incorrect, he wrote, but the revision was hailed as a success “by historians and teachers representing a range of political views [for] presenting a richer and more balanced view of American history. This was achieved not by reducing or minimizing the important narratives of underrepresented groups, but by adding to those narratives and including other important themes and concepts that the 2014 edition was rightly criticized for having minimized.”41

Whether or not the curriculum was rightly criticized, and the College Board was simply “responding to legitimate criticism while avoiding excessive overcompensation” (as consultant Jeremy Stern put it),42 the events preceding the revisions appear to suggest that APUSH, like much school curricula, has been politicized by a right-wing agenda.

The areas of the curriculum that the College Board noted had received the most criticism—the treatment of the founding fathers, founding documents, free enterprise, and America’s role in wartime victories—underwent the most significant changes and expansions.43 And a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the course shows concrete examples of right-wing influence—some blatant, and some more coded.

“Mention of ‘white superiority’ as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation.”

Analysis of White racial identity and power as an undercurrent of U.S. history is all but erased. Mention of “white superiority” as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation. From 2014 to 2015, the coverage of Native American history under colonialism shifted from describing indigenous people’s attempts to “forge advantageous political alliances” in order to “maintain their tribal lands” to having “repeatedly evaluated and adjusted their alliances” in order to “maintain control of tribal lands and natural resources”—a subtle tweak that seems to speak more to contemporary conservative complaints about Native American control of natural resources on sovereign lands than an impartial reassessment of what happened during colonial times. Where the issue of White racial identity was added, it often seemed intended to mitigate injustices perpetuated against Blacks, by linking the experience of White indentured servants and poor White sharecroppers with the experience of enslaved Africans and impoverished African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

While Goldberg argues that “The struggles and challenges experienced – and that continue to be experienced – by minorities as America seeks to live up to its ideals in no way are minimized in the new edition,” many complexities of those struggles seem to have been lost in the Board’s new revision. Quoted in a September article in Indian Country Today, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation and a professor at Arizona State University, pointed to the consolidation of “Latino, American Indian, and Asian American movements” into one statement in the course as an example of how the newest curriculum is “once again erasing indigenous sovereignty and sliding American Indians in as just another piece of the so-called racial-ethnic mix.”44

To The National Review, which was pleased with the revision, the changes amounted to “a good rewrite,” and “balanced handiwork.”45 But the biggest question about teaching U.S. history remains: how can you balance coverage of a heritage that was never based on equity?

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board's AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board’s AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description


About the Authors:

Gabriel Joffe is the program coordinator at Political Research Associates. 

Katherine Stewart has written for The Nation, The New York Times, and The Guardian. She is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, 2012).


1 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/2015-ced.

2 Jack Flanagin, “All the ways the new AP US history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,” Quartz, July 31, 2015, http://qz.com/469169/all-the-ways-the-new-ap-us-history-standards-gloss-over-the-countrys-racist-past/.

3 Scott Greer, “Experts: AP U.S. History Still Doesn’t Teach American Exceptionalism,” The Daily Caller, August 5, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/05/experts-ap-u-s-history-still-doesnt-teach-american-exceptionalism/.

4 Lyndsey Layton, “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/college-board-rewrites-american-history/2015/07/30/cadadd4c-36d1-11e5-b673-1df005a0fb28_story.html.

5 Anya Kamenetz, “The New, New Framework For AP U.S. History,” NPR, August 5, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/08/05/429361628/the-new-new-framework-for-ap-u-s-history.

6 Kevin Truong, “New guidelines for AP history: Are they still ‘unpatriotic’?,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2015/0730/New-guidelines-for-AP-history-Are-they-still-unpatriotic.

7 College Board, “Announcing AP U.S. History Course and Exam Revisions” (presentation, AP Annual Conference, July 20, 2012), http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/ap_ush_course_exam_revisions.ppt.

8 Catherine Gewertz, “AP History Framework Authors Defend Their Work,” Education Week, August 18, 2014, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/08/the_authors_of_the_new.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB.

9 Caitlin MacNeal, “Meet The Man Behind The Right’s AP History Freak Out,” Talking Points Memo, October 9, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/larry-krieger-ap-us-history-conservatives.

10 Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 164.

11 For a more in depth look at the State Policy Network and its links with member organizations see Frederick Clarkson, “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics,” Political Research Associates, November 25, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/#sthash.kAdMt3Nz.dpbs.

12 Stanley Kurtz, “Madison Scholar Condemns AP U.S. History Redesign,” National Review, September 2, 2014, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/386849/madison-scholar-condemns-ap-us-history-redesign-stanley-kurtz.

13 Pema Levy, “What’s Driving Conservatives Mad About the New AP History Course,” Newsweek, August 14, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/whats-driving-conservatives-mad-about-new-history-course-264592.

14 Casey Quinlan, “College Board Caves To Conservative Pressure, Changes AP U.S. History Curriculum,” Think Progress, July 30, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/07/30/3686060/conservatives-get-major-win-fight-ap-history-classes/.

15 Larry Krieger, “29 Biased Statements In the AP U.S. History Redesign,” Heartland, August 19, 2014, http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2014/08/19/29-biased-statements-ap-us-history-redesign.

16 Peter Wood, “Update on AP U.S. History,” National Association of Scholars, July 10, 2014, https://www.nas.org/articles/update_on_ap_us_history?utm_source=Copy+of+July+2014+Newsletter&utm_c.

17 Valerie Strauss, “Ben Carson: New AP U.S. history course will make kids want to ‘sign up for ISIS’,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/29/ben-carson-new-ap-u-s-history-course-will-make-kids-want-to-sign-up-for-isis/.

18 Jesse Paul, “Jeffco students walk out of 5 high schools in school board protest,” The Denver Post, September 23, 2015, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26588432/jeffco-high-school-students-plan-walk-out-their.

19 Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education, “Board Committee for Curriculum Review,” September 18, 2014, http://www.boarddocs.com/co/jeffco/Board.nsf/files/9NYRPF6DED70/$file/JW% 20PROPOSAL%20Board%20Committee%20for%20Curriculum%20Review.pdf.

20 Justin Streight, “Colorado Teacher Protest Shuts Down Schools Over History Censorship,” Inquisitr, October 1, 2014, http://www.inquisitr.com/1511072/colorado-teacher-protest-shuts-down-schools-over-history-censorship/.

21 Dr. Susan Berry, “Colorado Teacher’s Union Uses Students As ‘Political Pawns’ in Teacher Salary Dispute,” Breitbart News, September 24, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2014/09/24/jefferson-county-colorado-teacher-s-union-uses-students-as-political-pawns-in-teacher-salary-dispute/.

22 Jack Healy, “After Uproar, School Board in Colorado Scraps Anti-Protest Curriculum,” The New York Times, October 3, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/04/us/after-uproar-colorado-school-board-retreats-on-curriculum-review-plan.html?_r=1.

23 Nicholas Garcia, “Jeffco clerk: School board recall organizers have enough signatures,” Chalkbeat Colorado, August 18, 2015, http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/08/18/jeffco-clerk-school-board-recall-organizers-collected-enough-signatures/#.VddSnJ1Vikp.

24 Catherine Gewertz, “Republican National Committee Condemns New AP History Framework,” Education Week, August 11, 2014, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/08/college_board_statement_on_ap.html.

25 Merrill Hope, “Exclusive: Texas is ‘Nation’s Last Best Chance’ To Block APUSH, Say Experts,” Breitbart News, September 11, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/Texas/2014/09/11/Exclusive-Texas-is-Nations-Last-Best-Chance-to-Block-APUSH-Say-Experts/.

26 Merrill Hope, “Texas State Education Board Passes Resolution to Stop Redesigned AP US History,” Breitbart News, September 20, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/texas/2014/09/20/texas-state-education-board-passes-resolution-to-stop-redesigned-ap-us-history-apush/.

27 Jasmine Song, “Oklahoma Educators Quash Attempt to Ban AP U.S. History,” neaToday, March 16, 2015, http://neatoday.org/2015/03/16/oklahoma-educators-quash-effort-ban-ap-u-s-history/.

28 Martha Dalton, “Georgia Senate Passes Resolution Challenging AP US History Exam,” 90.1 FM WABE, March 12, 2015, http://wabe.org/post/georgia-senate-passes-resolution-challenging-ap-us-history-exam.

29 David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” The New York Times, December 16, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/magazine/20george-t.html.

30 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” Political Research Associates, July 23, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/07/23/christian-right-seeks-renewal-in-deepening-catholic-protestant-alliance/#sthash.w8MSl9lV.dpbs.

31 “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: The Lessons of 2012,” American Principles in Action, October 2013, http://www.americanprinciplesinaction.org/gop-autopsy-report-2013/.

32 Brandon Watson, “New Documents Contradict Regnerus’ Claims on Gay Parenting Study,” The Austin Chronicle, March 29, 2013, http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2013-03-29/new-documents-contradict-regnerus-claims-on-gay-parenting-study/.

33 Ayman Fadel, “Anti-Advanced Placement US History Movement at Georgia Capitol,” Aym Playing, March 19, 2015, https://aymplaying.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/i-dont-have-time-to-discuss-all-the-scary-ramification-of-this-document-and-the-movement-it-represents-but-i-wanted-to-pass-this-on-to-others-asap/.

34 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1994, http://online.wsj.com/media/EndofHistory.pdf.

35 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History, Part II,” The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/lynne-cheney-the-end-of-history-part-ii-1427929675.

36 T. Keung Hui, “NC Board of Education to hear AP US History controversy,” Charlotte Observer, November 27, 2014, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/education/article9237761.html#.VH0R3THF_kK#storylink=cpy.

37 Wilfred M. McClay, “History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy,” Imprimis Vol. 44, No. 7/8, July/August 2015, https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/history-american-democracy-and-the-ap-test-controversy/.

38 Tanya H. Lee, “University of Oklahoma Prof: Native History is American History,” Indian Country Today, March 6, 2015, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/03/06/university-oklahoma-prof-native-history-american-history-159482.

39 “Statement on AP U.S. History.” Advances in AP, September 19, 2014, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/college-board-statement.

40 Trevor Packer, “Letter from Trevor Packer,” Advances in AP, nd., https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/trevor-packer-letter.

41 Zachary Goldberg, e-mail message to author, September 16, 2015.

42 Jeremy Stern, “Left and Right May Not Be Happy with the New AP Standards. Here’s Why You Should Be,” History News Network, August 14, 2015, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160264.

43 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/2015-ced.

44 Tanya H. Lee, “New AP US History Exam Perpetuates Lies About Native Americans,” Indian Country Today, September 8, 2015,  http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/08/new-ap-us-history-exam-perpetuates-lies-about-native-americans-161628.

45 Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr., “The Overheated Reactions to the New AP U.S. History Framework,” National Review, August 5, 2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/422052/ap-us-history-framework-rewrite-defense.

Opening Pandora’s Box: The Rise & Fall of the Right’s School Voucher Pioneer

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Polly Williams, the Wisconsin African American lawmaker behind the nation’s first school voucher program, believed vouchers could help students of color in urban Milwaukee. Conservative donors and right-wing think tanks saw her program as opening the door to the privatization of public education. Education reform has come to mean different things to different people: from improving public education to privatizing it out of existence.

This article appears in PRA’s Winter 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

Polly Williams, the “mother of school choice,” passed away on November 9, 2014.  The moniker dates back to the late 1980s, when Williams broke ranks with her fellow African American and Democratic state legislators to partner with conservatives on Milwaukee’s school voucher program, the first of its kind in the nation.1  The Milwaukee voucher program was signed into law in 1990 by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.2 A quarter-century later, conservative pro-privatization funders and advocates continue to advance their free-market agenda as if it is the salvation of the nation’s most underserved students. Vouchers, once stigmatized by their use in fighting integration of schools, are being marketed as the vehicle of a “New Civil Rights Movement.”

Polly Williams became an instant celebrity within the conservative-dominated world of school vouchers, although she did not share their privatization agenda. Williams supported a limited program targeting the city’s poorest families, sometimes referred to as “charity vouchers” or compensatory vouchers3 by her conservative allies. Those allies saw an opportunity to use urban students of color as a wedge to break down the alliances defending public education. They also viewed it as an opening that could be expanded over time to employ “universal vouchers”, or vouchers for students of families in all income brackets, and ultimately the privatization of public education.

Young students in Philadelphia in 2011 demonstrate support for privatization programs. Image via Pennlive.com. Photo used with the permission of PA Media Group 2011. All rights reserved.

Young students in Philadelphia in 2011 demonstrate support for privatization programs. Image via Pennlive.com. Photo used with the permission of PA Media Group ©2011. All rights reserved.

But by the late 1990s, Williams had been pushed aside, just as she feared that students of color from low-income families would be pushed aside by the diverging agenda of her White conservative partners. Within a few years, Williams was ridiculed by her former allies, described as “irrelevant” and no longer useful.

Nevertheless, upon her death, the school privatization leaders and organizations reclaimed her—memorializing her for her role as a pioneer while omitting her later disillusionment with the movement.

Williams’ alienation from the movement she helped birth offers a cautionary tale for those who believe that vouchers, tuition tax credits for private schools—or even quasi-public charter schools—may offer a magic bullet to equitable education for underserved urban children.

Whose interests are served?

In 1995, Milton Friedman, an economist and the intellectual dean of the school privatization movement, stated, “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.”  School privatization’s “New Civil Rights” theme appears to be little more than a public relations campaign that camouflages this shift.  Privatization advocates and their funders have appropriated the language of civil rights and use the dissatisfaction of underserved communities to promote the marketization of public education, an agenda that promises to leave many students of color behind.

Our nation has “consistently and purposefully underserved students of color,” notes Julian Vasquez Heilig, Professor of Educational Policy and Planning at University of Texas-Austin, in a 2013 Texas Education Review article on the current reframing of school choice as a civil rights issue.4 Heilig adds that the school choice movement depends heavily on African American and Latino leaders such as Williams. Janelle Scott, a professor in the graduate school of education and the African American Studies Department at the University of California-Berkeley, writes in Critical Studies in Education about the tension between exposing the drivers of privatization while simultaneously understanding the limited options of underserved urban families:

In raising questions about the lack of commitment to eradicating structural inequalities by the managers of choice, I do not denigrate the individual choices parents of color are making for their children within the policy framework largely dictated by an elite invested in privatizing public education … What is important is to illuminate the elite networks that are funding and paving the way for educational policy to be radically altered along business models.5

The neoliberal privatization movement has presented “choice” as a civil rights effort—and as the only option for changing the status quo for these historically underserved students of color. It does so despite the preponderance of evidence that, as the authors of one educational study from 2002 wrote, “school choice, on average, does not produce the equity and social justice that proponents spin.”6

From the time of desegregation forward, disillusionment with integration and the failure to improve education in many urban communities led to the development of “independent black schools.”  These were neighborhood private schools owned and operated by African Americans, often run on shoestring budgets, and often featuring Afrocentric or multicultural curricula.  In 1984, Dr. Joan Davis Ratteray founded the Institute for Independent Education to organize these schools, which numbered almost 300 by 1990 and were attended primarily by the children of Black middle-class parents.

Polly Williams sent her children to one of Milwaukee’s independent, nonsectarian, Black private schools.  Hoping to expand access for poor students whose parents could not afford the tuition, Williams advocated for a voucher program that would be limited to the lowest income families and to nonsectarian schools. She was, from the outset, concerned that raising income caps and including religious schools within voucher programs would again leave behind the poorest students.

Yet once Williams opened the door, the juggernaut of privatization began to roll through—a movement that blames teachers and teachers’ unions for low educational outcomes of students in underserved schools and fails to address (or even rejects) the role of structural inequalities in these same communities.

Ratteray was also a school choice supporter, and wrote a rousing op-ed in the New York Times supporting it. However, as the experiment in Milwaukee came to fruition, Ratteray grew wary of vouchers as an economic incentive. She described the existing independent Black schools as being the result of a social need, not a business venture.  “If you put on it this idea that each kid will bring a certain amount of money, it will change that,” Ratteray warned.7 Her words proved prophetic.

“School choices” or opportunities for profit

The term “school choice” encompasses a broad range of programs, from charter schools to vouchers.  The more accurate term, “private school choice,” refers to programs that use public funding to pay or subsidize tuition for private school students.  “Public school choice,” meanwhile, includes a variety of programs that allow students to attend schools outside their assigned district, magnet schools, and charter schools, the single most rapidly expanding sector of choice. (Charters are technically public but are independently operated, sometimes by for-profit corporations, and are exempt from many state and local regulations.)

SIDEBAR: Monetizing Charter Schools. (Click to expand)

Charter schools are technically a “public school choice,” but operated by an outside group that is not bound by some of the same local and stae regulations as traditional public schools.1 Today, charter schools are the fastest growing sector of school vhoice, with more than two million students attending over 6,000 charter schools.

Charters were originally intended to foster innovative approaches to teaching in small, autonomous schools. Excellent charter schools exist; overall, however, charters have failed to outperform traditional public schools. According to a recent study, Pennsylvania charter schools covered less material in both math and reading than did traditional public schools (the equivalent of 29 days of reading and 50 days of math).2

Charter schools have become a primary vehicle for the monetization of education.  Although most states require charters to be run by nonprofit organizations, many contract out the management of charters to for-profit companies, sometimes with little separation between the charter board and the for-profit management.3 In some cases, the buildings and facilities are purchased by the for-profit arm and leased back to the nonprofit, or even resold by the for-profit to an investment company.4 Entertainment Properties, Inc., a publicly traded real estate investment trust (REIT), now owns the buildings and/or facilities of 60 charter schools.5 According to an Ohio investigation, 40 percent of that state’s charter schools pay lease to a for-profit entity or out-of-state landlord. Rising lease costs are taking increasingly large percentages of the schools’ budgets, with one school paying more than 80 percent of its total budget in lease to a for-profit entity.6

In the category of “private school choice,” there are now approximately 40 programs in 19 states, plus Washington, DC, and state legislatures are continuing to introduce bills for new or expanded programs.  Advocates claim there is great public demand, despite the fact that a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that opposition to the use of public funds for private schools is at 70%, its highest level ever recorded in that survey.8

What’s more, as documentation accumulates showing that vouchers have failed to improve education outcomes, privatization advocates increasingly point to the budget savings that these programs supposedly provide.9

In addition to vouchers, the category of private school choice now includes tuition tax credit programs, a legislative maneuver that lets business redirect taxes owed to the state toward “scholarships” for student tuition at private and religious schools. These tax credit programs, sometimes referred to as “neovouchers” or back-door vouchers, have received less public scrutiny than vouchers, even as they currently comprise the largest private school choice programs in numbers of students. (See related sidebar on tax credit programs.)

SIDEBAR: What Are Tuition Tax Credit Programs? (Click to expand)

Tuition tax credit programs, sometimes called neovouchers, are “private school choice” programs.1 Individuals or corporations receive credit against their state taxes for funding “scholarships” used to pay private school tuition (or to attend a public school outside the student’s district). The largest corporate tax credit program in dollars and in number of students is in Florida, where companies can receive a 100% credit against their state taxes for the amount given to the nonprofits, which distribute the tuition funds.

Businesses are often lauded in local papers for their “donations,” but these contributions cost the company nothing in states with a 100% credit, and very little or nothing in states like Pennsylvania, where a company is credited 75% for a one-year and 90% for a two-year contribution (plus federal deduction). Claims of tax savings for states have largely been based on one 2008 Florida report in which key figures affecting the calculation were admitted to be guesses by the authoring agency.2

Most of the 14 states with tax credit programs do not require the participating schools to administer standardized tests or adhere to requirements on curriculum and teacher qualifications. The majority of these students attend religious schools (currently 81.5% in Florida). While many of these schools are excellent, a significant percentage use Christian fundamentalist curricula, (such as A Beka, Bob Jones University Press and other textbooks) that promote Young Earth creationism, hostility toward other religions, and revisionist history.

School choice’s segregationist roots

Before African American and Latino children became the focus of a multi-million dollar, pro-privatization public relations campaign, vouchers had a distinctly racist heritage. As author Kevin Kruse explains in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, vouchers were part of a deliberate strategy in the 1950s and 1960s to circumvent school desegregation: “In the event of court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would instead receive grants to attend private, segregated schools.”10

“Massive Resistance” was the name adopted by the united effort of White leaders and politicians to prevent desegregation. “Freedom-of-choice” plans were used in several states to perpetuate segregation, as they allowed students to “choose” their school while, in effect, retaining segregated Black and White schools.11

Some locations followed through with their threats to close public schools.  Prince Edward County, in Virginia, closed down its entire public school system from 1959 to 1964. Prince Edward only reopened integrated schools following the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County that Virginia’s tuition grants for sending white students to private schools were unconstitutional.12

The privatization agenda was birthed by segregationists in the 1950s, but it was kept alive in subsequent decades by Milton Friedman and sustained by wealthy conservative donors (and the infrastructure built with their dollars).  School privatization became a key part of the “devolution” of government, advocated by conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute, Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, and the 50-state network of self-described “free market” think tanks coordinated through the State Policy Network.13 The names of the major funders of school choice, including the Bradley Foundation and the DeVos and Walton families, should automatically raise red flags for progressives.

“In retrospect, it seems strange that so many liberals bought an idea that emanated from conservative think tanks and conservative thinkers,” education scholar and anti-privatization activist Diane Ravitch wrote.14

Williams’ “unholy alliance”

Annette “Polly” Williams was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1980 and served until 2010.  She also ran the 1984 and 1988 Wisconsin statewide campaigns for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid. In the late 1980s, despite intense objections from her fellow Democratic legislators and organizations such as the NAACP, Williams joined forces with conservatives to push through the nation’s first voucher program.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, activists and legislators proposed a variety of programs to provide public funding to Milwaukee’s independent Black private schools, some of which were in serious financial jeopardy.  Activists in the effort were largely liberal until the 1980s and 1990s, when conservatives and religious leaders began to capitalize on the idea as a model that could open the door to a larger voucher program.

In addition to her Republican allies in the state legislature, Williams’ partnerships with conservatives included the Bradley Foundation and its former president Michael Joyce; former GOP Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a champion of conservative welfare reform; and George and Susan Mitchell, Wisconsin’s leading pro-voucher advocates. (Williams described these partnerships as an “unholy alliance” in an interview with the Heartland Institute, an interview in which she was also described as the “Rosa Parks of vouchers.”)15

In 1988, Gov. Thompson vetoed legislation to increase funding for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and provide additional teachers to reduce class size—but he included a voucher program proposal in his state budget. The Bradley Foundation provided research, polls, publications, and a legal defense of the voucher program.

In an effort to make the plan more palatable to Wisconsin legislators, Thompson reduced the scope of his statewide voucher plan for 1989 to include only non-sectarian schools in Milwaukee County. Thompson assured voucher advocates that once the bill passed, the program could be expanded.

Williams became the public face of the pro-voucher movement, speaking at such conservative bastions as the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, and the California State Republican Convention. Yet as Williams went public with her concerns about the raising of income caps and universal vouchers, the conservative backlash mounted.

Polly Williams rejected Thompson’s plan, but she introduced a bill that would pass and be signed into law in April 1990: the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). (Thompson even held a symbolic re-enactment of the signing in one of Milwaukee’s independent Black community schools.)

Virtually overnight, Williams became the public face of the pro-voucher movement, speaking at conservative bastions like the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, and the California State Republican Convention. Williams also gave high-profile interviews, including one on 60 Minutes and one with Rep. Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC, which aired on the Christian Broadcast Network.16

In his book Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education, author Jim Carl noted that there was a moment when it seemed that conservatives and liberals might converge in agreement on the concept of compensatory vouchers. Carl described it as a program “with attributes originally championed by left-liberal policy makers, free-school advocates, and community activists from the 1960s.”17 But, as Carl points out, “social conservatives of various stripes did not wish to stop at nonsectarian, compensatory vouchers.”18

Likewise, it would not be long before the agenda of Polly Williams and that of her conservative allies would diverge.

The alienation of Polly Williams

Of all the partners in the “unholy alliance,” Michael Joyce and the Bradley Foundation were among the most unlikely allies for the African American community.  The Bradley Foundation had been a longtime funder of author Charles Murray, including his book The Bell Curve and its discredited theory of Black intellectual inferiority. For decades, the Bradley Foundation has been at the epicenter of reactionary policies, including welfare reform, opposition to affirmative action, and claims that “moral poverty,” rather than structural inequity, is the source of social ills in poor urban communities.  The Bradley Foundation has also provided millions to the Heritage Foundation, Heartland Institute, Free Congress Foundation, and other conservative think tanks.19

In 1992, the Bradley Foundation collaborated with Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a nondenominational organization founded from the dissolution of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Educational Foundation.20 Funded by Bradley and several Wisconsin businesses, the program provided vouchers for students, including those attending religious schools, and was designed to “ratchet support for expanding the publicly funded choice program.”21 To garner Protestant and Jewish support, the new program was not limited to Catholics.  In 1995, Gov. Thompson followed through with his plans to gradually extend the program, and by the 1998-99 school year, 70% of the students in the MPCP attended religious schools.22

Polly Williams speaks about school choice programs in Wisconsin in 1998. Photo by Meg Jones and courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Polly Williams speaks about school choice programs in Wisconsin in 1998. Photo by Meg Jones and courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Williams was also concerned about the raising of income caps for the voucher program, as this gradually shifted funding toward families who were already sending their children to private schools. She objected to universal vouchers, stating, “Eventually, low-income families would be weeded out due to the large volume of families wanting to participate.”23

In a 2002 interview, Williams explained the parameters under which she supported vouchers and which, by that time, had led to rifts with her former allies. Ironically, the interview was with George Clowes, senior fellow at Heartland Institute addressing education policy. Clowes later wrote a report for Heartland responding to the lack of improvement in educational outcomes in the Milwaukee voucher program and disillusionment of some school reformers. Referencing Milton Friedman, Clowes called for a shift from “charity vouchers” for needy students to universal vouchers.

Journalist Bruce Murphy, who published a 2001 article about Williams and her growing disillusionment with Milwaukee’s program, wrote that Williams understood school choice as an experiment. “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools,” Williams told Murphy.  Murphy, himself a former teacher and principal at one of Milwaukee’s independent Black private schools, describes the conservative strategy as a “two-fer”—an agenda to eliminate teachers’ unions and build the myth of school privatization as a cheaper education alternative.24

As Williams went public with her complaints, the conservative backlash mounted. From 1990 to 1997, Williams received speaking honorariums and expenses totaling $163,000, more than any other Wisconsin legislator.  By 2000, this figure had dropped to just $400.25

In 1998, Williams gave a frank interview for a chapter in The Politics of School Choice, co-written by a professor at Regent University. Williams expressed her concern that school choice was becoming a program for middle-class Whites who did not need public assistance:

The whites that promote Reverend Floyd Flake (school choice advocate in Jamaica, Queens, New York) are out to replace public education for their own children, not for blacks.  I have a black agenda for black parents.26

Michael Joyce, of the Bradley Foundation, had formerly claimed that “the Lord God” had led him to support Williams.27 By 2001, however, Joyce claimed that Williams had told him she didn’t much like White folks, and that she kept referring to school choice as “a Catholic movement.”28 Joyce added, “She was poised to be and could have been the leader of school choice.  But she stepped aside and Fuller became the leader.”

Fuller is Dr. Howard Fuller, who replaced Polly Williams as the African American standard-bearer for the movement. Fuller and Williams attended the same high school, and later shared concern about the future of underserved children in Milwaukee as well as their opposition to universal vouchers.

Fuller is a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools with a previous history as a Black nationalist. In 1969, using the name Owusu Sadukai, Fuller initiated Malcolm X Liberation University “as a way of providing Black students with a revolutionary alternative to mainstream Black colleges.”29

In 1995, Fuller became the director of the Bradley Foundation-funded Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University and founded the Black Alliance for Educational Options, also heavily funded by Bradley and by Walmart heir John Walton.30 Fuller continues today to serve as a major spokesperson for school choice and is currently on several boards, including the Milwaukee Region Teach for America.

Meanwhile, by 2006, Williams had shifted her efforts to supporting her city’s public school system.  She formed the African American Education Council and worked with Milwaukee’s teachers’ union, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), and the Milwaukee Board of School Directors to develop a strategic plan for improving MPS.31

Following the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 and his efforts to dramatically expand the voucher program, Williams again vocally objected. “They have hijacked the program,” Williams said in 2013.32 George Mitchell, a major pro-voucher donor, immediately responded, describing Williams as “irrelevant” and saying he had had no dealings with Williams after about 1994 or 1995.33 “Polly was useful to the school choice movement because of her race and her party affiliation,” Mitchell told a reporter.3435

Although Williams was discarded by her allies, her name and face were still used throughout conservative media as an African American Democratic supporter of school vouchers.  Sean Hannity lauded her in his 2002 book Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism. In 2013, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform included Williams on a list of “venerable Davids against the Goliaths of education.”36

Following her death in November 2014, Polly Williams was memorialized as the “mother of school choice.” In a post on the American Federation for Children (AFC) website, Chairman Betsy DeVos described Williams’ legacy as living on in the lives of “hundreds of thousands of children across the country who benefit from school choice.”37 That post, along with most media coverage of Williams’ death, omitted any mention of her later disillusionment with voucher programs.38

The bad news about “choice”

The school privatization movement has brought together an odd array of political bedfellows.  Some are drawn by the prospects of profiting from the conversion of education into a multi-billion dollar industry.  Others are ideologues, opposed to public education on either libertarian or religious grounds.  Yet another group is comprised of religious leaders, perhaps not ideologically opposed to public education but anxious to use vouchers or neovouchers to fill the desks of their own schools. Ironically, in some districts, charter schools (see related sidebar) have even drawn students away from private religious schools.

Recently, more religious leaders have promoted privatization programs as a way to save religious schools with dwindling enrollment.  The 2011 conference of the National Leadership Roundtable of Church Management, a Catholic organization, called for an aggressive strategy to implement tuition tax credit programs or neovouchers in all 50 states.  Speaker B. J. Cassin, founder of Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, told the audience, “Think of the effect if all Catholic schools, not just the ones that we mentioned here, had the ability to have this kind of revenue come in [from tax-credits]; it changes the environment completely.”39 Like many other promoters of privatization, Cassin frames his agenda as altruism: “We have a social justice issue that we are presenting, and part of that is to eliminate the discrimination of the inner city kids.”40

In Florida and Pennsylvania, the two states with the largest private school choice programs (both are corporate tax credit programs or neovouchers), many of the students who receive neovoucher money attend fundamentalist Christian, conservative evangelical, or nondenominational schools.  Both Florida and Pennsylvania tout their tax credit programs as providing an opportunity for minority students to access a better education.

But instead of the Afrocentric curricula supported by Williams and Fuller, the A Beka and Bob Jones University curricula used in many of these schools are written with little regard for the heritage of children of color.  Their textbooks promote nonfactual and revisionist history as well as Young Earth creationism and climate change denial.41

Most vouchers and neovouchers fund students attending schools with no curricula requirements or public accountability.  Georgia’s tax credit program, which allows for donations from both individuals and corporations, makes it a criminal offense to track how that money is spent.  Georgia’s program also promised to designate scholarships for students in “failing public schools” from low socioeconomic levels, but as a 2012 New York Times article exposed, the program has “[benefited] private schools at the expense of the neediest children.”42 In Georgia and elsewhere, these programs are showing signs of re-segregating students by both race and income. Many of the students subsidized by these programs were already enrolled in private schools.

Michael W. Apple, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, says that universal vouchers, or voucher programs for which all income levels are eligible, expose the privatization movement’s hidden agenda. “They want to minimize public schools and eventually eliminate as many government services, public employees and public institutions as possible,” writes Apple.43 In Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, Apple argues that “placing schools in a market does not interrupt the stratification of education, except for a very limited group of students. Instead, as study after study has shown, existing hierarchies are simply recreated.”

International examples include Chile, where vouchers were part of the reforms initiated during the rule of Augusto Pinochet and with the assistance of the “Chicago Boys,” economists trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.  Research on Chile’s program indicates that vouchers failed to produce improved average educational outcomes, but exacerbated stratification and inequality.44

Although excellent private schools exist, multiple studies have dispelled the myth that private schools academically outperform public schools on average.45 A 2006 study not only “[challenged] assumptions of private school superiority overall” but also found substantial differences among various kinds of private schools. The poorest performers were conservative Christian schools.

The “New Civil Rights” brand

In his 2003 book Voucher Wars, attorney Clint Bolick recounts how he anticipated legal challenges to the Milwaukee voucher program and contacted Polly Williams to offer legal representation. Bolick describes Bradley Foundation president Michael Joyce as having been wary of Williams but understanding the “necessity of their temporary alliance”; he describes Joyce as pursuing school choice as “a ‘silver bullet’ issue: the type of program that could destroy a key pillar of the welfare state.”46

Bolick was known for his work against race-based affirmative action. However, as the need grew for legal defense of emerging school choice programs, Bolick turned his attention to it and co-founded the libertarian, public interest law firm Institute for Justice in 1991 with seed money from David and Charles Koch.47

Branding education privatization as a civil rights effort has been a deliberate strategy. In his book, Bolick describes how he helped orchestrate the mainstream media’s first use of civil rights language in defense of school choice while discrediting a voucher opponent as “blocking the schoolhouse doors to minority schoolchildren.”48 In 2002, Dick DeVos addressed the Heritage Foundation, emphasizing the need for his audience (wealthy, white conservative donors and activists) to remain behind the scenes and have other faces as the public advocates of school choice.49

As a 2001 Economist article spelled out, the strategy of linking the privatization movement to the wishes and activism of “poor blacks, not rich whites” has helped disguise the people actually behind these campaigns.50

Another primary goal of the privatization movement is to drive a wedge between two pillars of the Democratic Party: African American voters and teachers’ unions.  The same Economist article, “Blacks v. Teachers,” touted this growing wedge. While the article may have been premature in celebrating the success of both vouchers and charter schools, efforts to drive a wedge between Black voters and the teachers’ unions have been remarkably successful.

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, for example, a pre-convention event for the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) essentially became an hour-long attack on teachers’ unions.  At the DNC in 2012, Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (now a U.S. Senator), and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (and husband of Michelle Rhee), headlined a screening of the fictional movie Won’t Back Down, which promotes parent trigger bills, a mechanism for replacing unionized public schools with non-union charters.  A model bill for the “Parent Trigger Act” and much of school choice and privatization legislation is designed and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which coordinates with the State Policy Network and has become notorious for promoting “stand your ground” legislation and propagating climate change denial.

Current Trends

Despite its failure to improve educational outcomes, Wisconsin’s voucher program is now 25 years old and continues to grow. Today, the program includes about 30,000 students and represents the second largest de facto school district in the state.

Characterized by instability and lack of accountability, Milwaukee’s voucher program has resulted in numerous stories like one in 2013 in a local paper51 about a minister and his wife who accepted $2.3 million in taxpayer funding only to close their Lifeskills Academy abruptly during the school year. Although their house in Wisconsin was foreclosed, the couple moved to a gated community in Florida, where they opened another school. Available test results showed that in the 2011-2012 school year, only one student in their Lifeskills Academy tested proficient for grade level in reading, and none in math.

Polly Williams bemoaned the co-opting of her voucher vision by national conservative figures, including Grover Norquist, William Bennett, and Lamar Alexander (who was Secretary of Education from 1991-1993).  Now a U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander is poised to take the helm of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).  In early 2014, Alexander introduced a bill in the Senate that would redirect $24 billion of federal education funding and incentivize states to use the money to fund 11 million school vouchers for students in poverty. These could be used for private schools or even homeschooling.52 On her website, Ravitch wrote simply:  “Bottom line: the Alexander plan will destroy public education in the U.S.”53

In the same post, Ravitch quotes a Pennsylvania Republican who warns that Alexander’s package only includes $2,100 dollars per voucher, meaning that the “School District of Record” must provide the rest of the tuition.  Ravitch continues, “Do not be fooled: this is not a conservative plan.  This is a radical plan.  It will send public dollars to backwoods churches and ambitious entrepreneurs.”

The marketing of both private school choice and public charters promises to escalate over the next two years, masquerading as the best option for underserved children. This continues even as traditional public schools are stripped of funding, teachers, art and music programs, libraries, and more.  In Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue, Julian Vasquez Heilig closes with a warning about where we may be headed:

So if you are a “choice” proponent interested in civil rights—understand that in markets there are winners and losers.  In the case of choice, the long-term losers in a large-scale market-oriented education continue to be historically underserved students of color and special populations.54

Heilig continues, “Moving our schools from the public sector to the private sector is a false choice.”

The story of Polly Williams serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of partnering with school choice donors, politicians, and think tanks. Those concerned about the future of public education should not be fooled: the agenda of these players is about privatization and market-based reform.  Williams continues to be used as the face of a movement that never intended to fulfill her personal vision.  But once she opened the door for her right-wing allies, it could not be closed.


1. Williams’ program is described as the first voucher program in the nation, but it was preceded by programs used by states to fight desegregation.  In 1964, the Supreme Court found county and local tuition grants and tax credits used to fund White students in private schools to be unconstitutional.

2. The program that passed was added to the Budget Amendment Bill by Democratic Senator Gary George, but drawn from previous bills authored by Polly Williams. Pro- and anti-voucher activists and education scholars credit Williams. See John F. Witte, The Market Approach to Education: An Analysis of America’s First Voucher Program (Princeton University Press, 2000).

3. Matthew J. Brouillette, “Vouchers,” School Choice in Education: A Primer for Freedom in Michigan (Mackinac Center, 1999), http://www.mackinac.org/2081.

4. Julian Vasquez Heilig, “Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue,” Texas Educational Review Vol. 1 (2013), pp.83-94, http://txedrev.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Heilig_Reframing-the-Refrain_TxEdRev.pdf.

5. Janelle T. Scott, “A Rosa Parks moment? School choice and the marketization of civil rights,” Critical Studies in Education, 54:1 (2013), 5-18.

6. S. Wells, J. Slayton, & J. Scott, (2002). “Defining democracy in the neoliberal age: Charter school reform and educational consumption,” American Education Research Journal 39:2 (2002), 337-361.

7. Mark Walsh, “Black Private Academies Are Held Up as Filling Void Seen as ‘Response to Desperate Situation,’” Education Week, Mar. 13, 1991, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1991/03/13/10180005.h10.html.

8. “Which way do we go? The 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” Gallup, Kappan 95:1 (Sept. 2013), http://pdkintl.org/noindex/2013_PDKGallup.pdf.

9. Jeff Spalding, The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money? Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (2013), http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/The-School-Voucher-Audit–Do-Publicly-Funded-Private-School-Choice-Programs-Save-Money-.aspx

10. See Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2007).

11. “Virginia’s ‘Massive Resistance’ to School Desegregation,” University of Virginia’s Digital Resources for United States History, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/xslt/servlet/XSLTServlet?xml=/xml_docs/solguide/Essays/essay13a.xml&xsl=/xml_docs/solguide/sol_new.xsl§ion=essay.

12. “The Closing of Prince Edward County Schools,” Virginia Historical Society, http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/closing-prince.

13. Fred Clarkson, “Exposed: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks are Transforming U.S. Politics, The Public Eye (Fall 2013), http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/.

14. Ravitch is quoted in Adam Bessie, “G.E.R.M. Warfare: How to Reclaim the Education Debate From Corporate Occupation,” Project Censored 2013 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 289.

15. “The Model for the Nation: an exclusive interview with Annette Polly Williams,” Heartland Institute, Aug. 30, 2002, http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2002/08/30/model-nation-exclusive-interview-annette-polly-williams.

16. Jim Carl, Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011), 117.

17. Carl, Freedom of Choice, 32

18. Ibid, 133.

19. Erica Lasden, Community Voice or Captive of the Right? The Black Alliance for Educational Options (People for the American Way, July 2003), http://www.pfaw.org/sites/default/files/file_237.pdf.

20. “The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and School Choice,” Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society Teaching Case, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, Jan. 2007, http://cspcs.sanford.duke.edu/sites/default/files/BradleyChoicefinal_0.pdf.

21. Bolick, 45.

22. “Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, Feb. 2000, http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lab/reports/00-2tear.htm.

23. “The Model for the Nation.”

24. Interview with Bruce Murphy, Dec. 12, 2014.

25. Bruce Murphy, “The Rise and Fall of Polly Williams,” Urban Milwaukee, Jun. 27, 2001, http://urbanmilwaukee.com/2001/06/27/murphys-law-the-rise-and-fall-of-polly-williams/.

26. Hubert Morken and Jo Renee Formicola, The Politics of School Choice (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 205.

27. Alex Molnar, “The Real Lesson of Milwaukee’s Voucher Program,” Education Week, Aug. 6, 1998, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://epsl.asu.edu/EPRU/articles/EPRU-9708-38-OWI.doc.

28. “The Rise and Fall of Polly Williams.”

29. Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report, May 25, 2006, p. 77, http://www.greensborotrc.org/pre1979_labor.pdf. Also see Larry Miller’s review of Fuller’s recent autobiography for Fuller’s explanation of why he partnered with prominent conservative think tanks and funders, accessible at https://millermps.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/howard-fuller-autobiography-no-struggle-no-progress-a-critique-3/.

30.Community Voice or Captive of the Right?

31. Action Plan to Improve Milwaukee Public Schools: 2007-2012 (2007), http://www.milwaukeepartnershipacademy.org/pubs/mps_strategic_plan_7-26-07.pdf.

32. Patrick Marley, “Past school voucher advocate rips Gov. Walker’s Plan,” Journal Sentinel, May 16, 2013, http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/207753841.html.

33. Daniel Bice, “School choice advocate George Mitchell blasts ex-lawmaker Annette Polly Williams,” Journal Sentinel, May 29, 2013, http://www.jsonline.com/watchdog/noquarter/school-choice-advocate-george-mitchell-blasts-ex-lawmaker-annette-polly-williams-b9922201z1-209452781.html.

34. Bice, “School choice advocate.”

35. George Mitchell continued his critique on the blog Right Wisconsin: “Williams was instrumental in getting the original program to Gov. Tommy Thompson’s desk. But from that day forward Williams was, directly and indirectly, an opponent … The addition of religious schools to the program evoked her racial and religious bigotry … She complained that ‘whites’ and ‘Catholics’ were going to take over the program.”  For more, see George Mitchell, “Where the Journal Sentinel Fails, Again,” Right Wisconsin, May 21, 2013, http://www.rightwisconsin.com/perspectives/208281431.html.

36. Jeanne Allen, “A Nation at Risk No More,” Center for Education Reform, https://www.edreform.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ANationatRiskManifestoFINAL.pdf.

37. “American Federation for Children Mourns the Loss of School Choice Pioneer Annette ‘Polly’ Williams,” American Federation for Children, Nov. 10, 2014, http://www.federationforchildren.org/american-federation-children-mourns-loss-school-choice-pioneer-annette-polly-williams/.

38. Rachel Tabachnick, “The Right’s School Choice Scheme,” The Public Eye (Summer 2012), http://www.politicalresearch.org/2012/08/01/the-rights-school-choice-scheme/f.

39. See the publication on the 2011 conference, “From Aspirations to Actions: Solutions for American Catholic Schools,” p. 41.

40. “From Aspirations to Actions,” 41.

41. One of many examples is Bishop Victor Curry in Florida, a vocal advocate of the state’s corporate tax credit program. The school run by his ministry includes 120 students with tuition provided by the program and uses A Beka curricula.

42. Stephanie Saul, “Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools, New York Times, May 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/education/scholarship-funds-meant-for-needy-benefit-private-schools.html.

43. Michael W. Apple, “Cannot vouch for vouchers,” FightingBob.com, Apr. 11, 2004, http://www.fightingbob.com/article.cfm?articleID=200.

44. See Chang-Tai Hsieh and Miguel Urquiola, “The effects of generalized school choice on achievement and stratification: Evidence from Chile’s voucher program,” Journal of Public Economics 90 (2006), 1477–1503, http://www.columbia.edu/~msu2101%20/HsiehUrquiola%282006%29.pdf; and Patrick J. McEwan, Miguel Urquiola, and Emiliana Vega, “School Choice, Stratification, and Information on School Performance: Lessons from Chile,” Economia (Spring 2008), http://www.columbia.edu/~msu2101/McEwanUrquiolaVegas%282007%29.pdf.

45. Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence from NAEP Mathematics Data (National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Jan. 2006), http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP111.pdf.

46. Bolick, 23. Bolick points out that Gov. Tommy Thompson was, not coincidentally, pursuing welfare reform at the same time.

47. Bolick, 35.

48. Bolick, 27.

49. Rachel Tabachnick, “Strategy for Privatizing Public Schools Spelled Out by Dick DeVos in 2002 Heritage Foundation Speech, Talk to Action, May 3, 2011, http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/3/12515/58655.

50. “Blacks v teachers,” Economist, Mar. 8, 2001, http://www.economist.com/node/526704.

51. Erin Richards, “Leaders of closed Milwaukee voucher school are now in Florida,” Journal Sentinel, Jan. 15, 2014, http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/leaders-of-closed-milwaukee-voucher-school-are-now-in-florida-b99185323z1-240384541.html.

52. “Alexander Proposes 11 Million $2,100 “Scholarships for Kids,” Jan. 28. 2014, http://www.help.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=b52ee7f7-d826-4677-ad4a-0a8e94130ac3.

53. “Lamar Alexander Proposes Sweeping Voucher Legislation,” Jan. 28, 2014, http://dianeravitch.net/2014/01/28/lamar-alexander-proposes-sweeping-voucher-legislation/.

54. Vasquez Heilig, “Reframing the Refrain.”

Tuition Tax Credits

1. Kevin G. Welner, NeoVouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

2. Kevin Welner, “How to Calculate the Costs or Savings of Tax Credit Voucher Policies,” National Education Policy Center, http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/NEPC-PolicyMemo_NeoVouchers.pdf.

Monetizing Charters

1. Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States (Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 2009), http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf.

2. Valerie Strauss, “A dozen problems with charter schools,” Washington Post, May 20, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/05/20/a-dozen-problems-with-charter-schools/.

3. Noah Pransky, “Charter schools making big profits for private companies,” WTSP, Aug. 22, 2014, http://www.wtsp.com/story/news/investigations/2014/08/21/charter-school-profits-on-real-estate/14420317/.

4. Marian Wang, “Charter School Power Broker Turns Public Education Into Private Profits,” ProPublica, Oct. 15, 2014, http://www.propublica.org/article/charter-school-power-broker-turns-public-education-into-private-profits.

5. Public Charter Schools List,” EPR Properties, http://www.eprkc.com/portfolio-overview/public-charter-schools-list/.

6. Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel, “Charter school’s lease deal scrutinized,” Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 12, 2014, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2014/10/12/charters-lease-deals-scrutinized.html.

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 book

Meanwhile, 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.)


UPDATE 1/5/2014, via AZcentral:

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto had asked the board to reverse its October request that the district edit “Campbell Biology: Concepts & Connections (Seventh Edition),” an honors textbook that has a chapter that discusses abstinence, birth-control methods, tubal ligations and vasectomies, and drugs that can induce abortion.

Kishimoto said because the textbooks are copyrighted, editing the books could create legal issues. In addition, a redaction effort would involve thousands of books and a special process that could involve hiring teachers to work over the summer.

A better solution, Kishimoto said, would be to have teachers provide supplemental information to students about childbirth and adoption and not change the books. [Gilbert Public Schools] staff could insert additional material into books if the board desires.

Kishimoto also maintained that she does not think the books violate the law.

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).


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.


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.


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.


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: