Schools and Learning

Congressional Hearing Shines Light On Anti-Public School Advocates’ Goal Of Privatization

  Samantha Sokol

Public schools, which are a pillar of our democracy, are currently under attack. Anti-public education politicians are manufacturing controversies about race, LGBTQ students and history to sow distrust of our schools, undermine public education and push for private school vouchers. But the good news is that this scheme is not going unnoticed. Recently, Congress held a hearing on this subject, highlighting the danger to public education.

A House Subcommittee on Civil Rights & Civil Liberties recently held a hearing led by Chairman Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) on “Free Speech Under Attack (Part II): Curriculum Sabotage and Classroom Censorship.” In his opening statement, Raskin revealed the agenda of far-right politicians: attacking public education and replacing it with school vouchers for private, religious schools.

Raskin described anti-public education politicians’ coordinated assault on public schools for teaching so-called “critical race theory” (CRT). Never mind that these politicians’ attacks are based on outright lies: CRT is an academic framework taught in law schools, not K-12 public schools, and there is no widespread proof that K-12 educators are teaching children these concepts or even using curriculum materials informed by CRT. Politicians are also proposing and passing state anti-LGBTQ policies that strip the rights of LGBTQ students and teachers. Like the CRT “controversy,” these proposals arise from outrageous and offensive falsehoods about teachers recruiting, indoctrinating and “grooming” students to be gay.

Raskin noted, “This effort began with a right-wing propagandist named Chris Rufo who decided to use Critical Race Theory as the cover and the villain for his campaign to destroy public education in America.” As Rufo said in a speech he titled “Laying Siege to the Institutions”: “To get to universal school choice, you really need to operate from the premise of universal public school distrust.”

Americans United submitted testimony for the hearing record to inform lawmakers about this scheme. We laid bare the truth that these politicians want to siphon limited taxpayer funding away from public schools to fund the education of a few students at private, mostly religious, schools, weakening our public education system, endangering students’ rights and perpetuating segregation and discrimination. And we clarified that private school vouchers would not solve these fake controversies, let alone the real challenges that public schools face. Vouchers undermine public education, fail to improve students’ achievement, lack accountability, and violate the religious freedom of taxpayers.

It is no surprise that those opposed to promoting diversity and inclusion, or truthfully teaching our nation’s troubled history around race, would support private school vouchers. Vouchers have a sordid history rooted in discrimination: They were first designed to evade desegregation orders after Brown v. Board of Education. After Brown, Southern policy makers in seven states – Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – created voucher programs to fund tuition grants for students to attend all-white “segregation academies.”

These segregationist voucher programs were sold using the same language that is being used by anti-public education advocates to push for the privatization of education today. For example, Virginia Gentles, a witness at the May 19 hearing from the Independent Women’s Forum, noted that the pandemic had driven “support for education freedom to all-time highs.” She added, “Policymakers should empower parents to leave public schools that do not prioritize academic instruction and enroll their children in options committed to educating students. State and local leaders should fund students directly…”

Compare her words to the language of the segregationists who created school voucher programs in the 1950s and 1960s: Georgia’s attorney general argued that their vouchers would “subsidize the child rather than the school.” The Alabama plan to give money to white students to attend all-white private schools was called the “Freedom of Choice Plan,” and advocates claimed it “had nothing to do with segregation, but aimed to advance each child’s education.” Supporters of vouchers in North Carolina also avoided mentions of race and instead argued that the voucher program would “offer all our citizens the broadest possible freedom of choice.”  These brief examples show how today’s anti-public education movement uses the same rhetoric of “education freedom,” “school choice” and “funds going to students, not schools.”

It’s important that we reveal all of these tactics by anti-public-education forces, and that’s why we were pleased to see Raskin and a congressional subcommittee shine a light on this issue. Anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQ-rights politicians are aiming to destroy public schools and replace them with universal private school vouchers that perpetuate segregation and discrimination. This threat to undo the progress of the last 70 years since Brown is grave; that’s why we must defend public education and ensure that all students have the freedom to learn in welcoming, nondiscriminatory, and high-quality public schools.

Photo: U.S. Rep. Jaime Raskin (D-Md.) speaks during an April 7 hearing on book censorship. Screenshot from C-SPAN.

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