With the opening of the 112th session of Congress scheduled for January 5, 2011, the White House’s Democratic agenda will have to withstand erosion from the GOP House majority. Will attempts at bipartisanship with an arrogant opposition party led by vociferous Tea Partiers lead to gridlock, or can legislation on education squeak through?
Those energetic folks with the misspelled signs and the teabag hats want to dismantle the federal Department of Education as part of their crusade against “big government.”
Currently, the Department of Education administers grants to the states in accordance with federal education policy passed by Congress. It collects data tracking student and teacher performance. It gives accreditation for public schools and teacher training programs. In short, it performs a lot of valuable functions and calls for its abolition are extreme and counterproductive, akin to calling for the US Department of Agriculture to be dismantled.
Will these “small government” fetishists be able to succeed, now that the Tea Party and/or the Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives?
How they would do it
Education reporter Dana Goldstein devotes a lengthy piece to this very subject. The dismantling won’t be outright, but couched in a more appetizing death-by-a-thousand-cuts in the name of “parents’ rights” or “deregulating homeschooling.” She identifies a surge in popularity among Republican representatives around “parents’ rights” and tax credits for home schooling–two demands that are outgrowths of the conservative Christian homeschooling movement. In many cases, Tea Party or Republican candidates ran on platforms that were explicitly antagonistic to public education:
The competing parental-rights movement has three key legislative priorities for 2011: preventing any Obama-led reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act from regulating or even mentioning homeschooling; allowing homeschool families to claim tax credits for educational expenses, and–most ambitiously–passing the Parental Rights Amendment, an attempt to prevent the U.S. from ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The organization has powerful supporters–both veteran legislators and newcomers. Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the caucus’ vice-chairwoman, support homeschool tax credits. John Kline, the incoming House Education Committee chairman, was the keynote speaker at last spring’s Home School Legal Defense Association conference, where he said he would work to “charge up Capitol Hill with the message of homeschool freedom. And seven GOP senators, led by Tea Party darling Jim DeMint, support the Parental Rights Amendment.
McMorris Rodgers has been somewhat silent on education issues since about June 2010. It doesn’t seem to be a big priority of hers. While Kline may be an advocate of subsidized homeschooling, and will defnitely push for religious school vouchers in possible conflict with the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, he seems to distance himself from the Tea Party platform of eliminating the DOE by calling it a mere “talking point.”
What are each of these initiatives? And why are they often inherently hostile to public education and an idea of the common good?
Censorship, especially in science class
The idea of not regulating homeschooling is important to a small subset of deeply religious homeschoolers who object to certain approaches, such as the teaching of evolution or global climate crisis. There are those who still believe the earth is flat. However, would you want such a person designing an airplane in which you’ll ride? Can or should personal belief shrouded in religious justification trump commonly held advancements in science and technology?
Homeschool tax credits dangerous
Homeschool tax credits would subsidize what is very often a religious education provided at home. Some homeschoolers argue that they should not have to pay twice (for public schooling which they opt not to use, and for expenses they incur on their own to pay for homeschooling materials), while other advocates of homeschooling say that the tax credit is a carrot, but increased regulation of the curriculum, number of hours spent, academic standards, and subject areas by the state is a hidden stick.
Homeschoolers use tax revenues too
What’s overlooked here is how many homeschoolers use publicly-funded school programs that are adapted to homeschoolers, and that many citizens pay for things via taxes that they may never use, use infrequently, or simply haven’t had a chance to use yet. Is a fee-for-use model a consumer model, or a citizen model of who we are as taxpayers? Are you paying for upkeep of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC “unfairly” if you haven’t had a chance to visit them yet, or don’t much like museums? What about disabled access ramps that you personally don’t use at the moment? Under a fee-for-use model, should you be able to selectively withdraw taxes that you pay for those items? To put it more positively, state and national governments have an interest in cultivating talent and learning among its youngest citizens. Some would argue that an excellent free public education is one of the most precious gifts we as a civilized nation offer to all Americans and is the cornerstone of our prosperity.
“Parental rights” are another way to resist teaching standards and subject matter that some parents object to. Deep at its heart is resistance to sex ed, teaching about contraception, or teaching anything but abstinence.
Parental Rights Amendment vs. Convention on the Rights of the Child
Advocates for the Parental Rights Amendment claim the Convention on the Rights of the Child–which the Obama administration supports–would allow the federal government to regulate or outlaw homeschooling. (Human rights advocates note that the United States stands alone with Somalia in refusing to ratify what EVERY other nation on the planet has ratified over the 21 years of the UNCRC’s existence. You know, Somalia, land of child soldiers?)
“Parental rights amendment” advocates claim the CRC would require more federal spending on child health and welfare, and even allow schools to provide contraception or arrange abortions for students without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
First of all, the “Parental Rights Amendment” seeks to change the U.S. Constitution with a new amendment. Buried deep within the language of “rights” is the belief that government will teach values when it should be parents teaching values. Yet paradoxically, “parents rights” would enshrine through the back door religious perspectives in public education which not all parents share.
It would prevent other parents who do believe in a secular, common good, basic science and technology, and sex ed as part of health education from having their children taught these things at age-appropriate times.
Pulling us backwards and down
The religious conservatives’ resistance to more federal spending on child health and welfare is hard to fathom, especially when you see that top-peforming countries on the PISA international test of high school students provide all students a hot meal regardless of need. Finland, consistently a top scorer, ensures parents have access to high-quality childcare, and tries in all other ways to reduce child poverty and hunger.
As for arranging abortions for students–this is an anti-choice bogeyman. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is another bogeyman, unless you believe the “Parents Rights Amendment” should protect parents who beat or abuse their children, or use religious arguments to defend honor killings and child marriages.
Like much of what the Tea Party proposes, a great deal of what they’re afraid of is overstated, factually incorrect, disproven by concrete and verifiable sources of information, and at the same time larded with words and concepts that have a superficial pull. “Parents’ rights” sound good, but do they mean absolute sovereignty over a child even if the parent is abusive or incapacitated?
Now would be a good time for homeschoolers who do support public schools as a valuable common good to speak up. It’s absolutely possible for people who homeschool or send their children to private school to ALSO wholeheartedly support public education. Now would be a good time for liberals and progressives to renew the idea that public schooling is an investment we collectively make in the well-being and potential of all our children, necessary for good citizenship, and that there is always room for personal beliefs and individual values.
Now would also be a good time to recognize that while many schools do a poor job of educating students who are almost always from impoverished backgrounds, many more public schools do an excellent job teaching our kids what they need to know.
We parents are responsible for nurturing curiosity, a love of learning, and an ability and capacity to learn in our children.
The activist religious right is newly emboldened with Tea Party wins; those of us in the silent majority will have to assert through our school boards and elected representatives in Congress that we stand for reason, evidence-based learning, and moderation.
To take action, sign the petition to defend public education.
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