Periodically, Religious Right groups issue calls for upstanding Americans to pull their children out of public schools. Over the years, entire organizations have sprung up to promote the idea.
Few have had staying power, but the Religious Right keeps at it. The latest anti-public school screed comes from Cathy Ruse, identified as senior fellow and director of human dignity at the Family Research Council (FRC). Ruse, who insists on calling public schools “government schools” (because in Rightwingland, everything the government does is bad), marshals three lines of attack against public schools. None is persuasive.
Some public schools are treating transgender kids decently: Public schools are charged with the task of treating everyone who comes through the door equally. This means that kids from the LGBTQ community have the right to attend these institutions with their dignity intact. To Ruse, this is a propaganda campaign, and she claims that a cartoon “gender unicorn” is being used to brainwash children. Here's what's really going on: The FRC and groups like it spent years bashing gays and lesbians and working to deny them basic rights. They suffered a major setback when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld marriage equality in 2015. After that ruling, they seamlessly moved on to attacking the trans community, usually children. That’s an example of their “family values.”
Public schools hate Christianity: Ruse’s main piece of evidence here is a nine-year-old case involving an advanced placement history teacher in California who said some provocative things about religion to stir up his students and get them thinking. (Years ealier, he had also challenged a science teacher in his district who was pushing creationism.) Maybe the teacher went over the top, but I should note that he had plenty of defenders – and remember, this was an advanced placement course designed to prepare students for college, where these types of freewheeling classroom discussions are common. The matter went to court, where the teacher was cleared.
Yikes! Howard Zinn: Ruse asserts that public school history teachers are steeped in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which she calls “a primer for hating America.” Of course, she presents no evidence that history teachers are relying on Zinn; I suspect most of them are using a state-mandated textbook. If you’ve not read Zinn’s book – and I have – it’s an attempt to tell American history through the eyes of people who weren’t treated so well – Native Americans, African Americans and women. If Zinn’s telling comes off as a little bit harsh, it’s probably because our nation often did bad things to those people, like steal their land, kill them, enslave them and deny their basic rights. It’s a painful past, and Zinn forces us to face it. An accurate rendering of history means that we must not be afraid to own our mistake. Perhaps we can even learn from them.
Funny thing about the Religious Right’s “get-your-kids-out-of-those-godless-socialistic-government-schools” movement: It’s a flop. I started hearing it in the late 1980s, and it hasn’t caught on. Over that time, the number of children attending public schools has remained constant at 90 percent.
Americans United was founded in part to defend the public school system from those who would subvert it for their own ends. We stand for a system of education open to all, welcoming to all and protective of all. We stand for public schools that respect the religious and non-religious beliefs of all students while never engaging in anything like religious coercion or pressure. We stand for schools that let children know that they’re not all the same – and that’s all right.
Some would have our public schools become captive to a narrow, exclusionary and, frankly, mean-spirited version of Christianity that preaches division and fear. Our public schools will never be that way because the American people are better than that. Those who are unhappy are free to leave the system. I don’t think many will follow them.