Hysterical Right-Wing Falsely Attacks Public Schools for Indoctrination

The accusation is fueling the right-wing push for vouchers and school privatization.
For decades, small, disgruntled factions have painted the American public school system, which has its roots in democratic, egalitarian ideals, as a bastion of government-funded, runaway liberalism. Now, Newt Gingrich and other conservative pundits are pointing to a suburban Minneapolis school district as further evidence that kids today are being corrupted by bleeding heart liberals posing as teachers.

On his website recently, Gingrich warned that the Edina, Minnesota public schools have become a “hotbed of left-wing activism” of the kind once reserved for college campuses. As evidence, Gingrich cited recent stories churning through conservative outlets and worries that Edina students are being forced to dwell on racial and social justice issues at the expense of their “core” education. Heck, the school is even said to be hosting a Young Marxist Club.

Fanning the flames

In going after Edina public schools, Gingrich is fanning the flames of a fire that has been stoked for months, if not years, by the Center of the American Experiment, a local libertarian outfit. The Center is staffed by conservative pot-stirrers like Katherine Kersten, a one-time op-ed columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune whose distaste for all things liberal is well-known in the Twin Cities. In October, the Center sent a copy of its quarterly magazine, Thinking Minnesota, to households throughout Edina.

The magazine arrived, unannounced, in the middle of election season. Edina voters are currently weighing both a school board race and a tax levy that would raise more funds for the town’s sought-after schools. But the Center of the American Experiment has a long history of bemoaning secular public education, and the costs associated with it, and the latest issue of Thinking Minnesota reflects this. (The Center also has spin-off groups, such as Better Ed, that have been accused of paying for racist billboards and postcards that inflate per-pupil costs in Minneapolis.)

Thinking Minnesota landed in Edina mailboxes, complete with an alarming orange background that invokes a 1950s-style Red Scare made literal by the accompanying text. The words “Whose Values?” are written near the bottom in all caps, just above the mention of the ideological threat running rampant in Edina classrooms. To top it off, the magazine cover includes a retooled illustration from Innosanto Nagara’s acclaimed picture book, A is for Activist.

I is for indocrination

Nagara’s book, endorsed by the likes of Occupy Wall Street and praised for its depiction of “rad American women, rebels, visionaries and trailblazers,” includes colorful, fist-raising illustrations of children and families from many backgrounds, all engaged in the struggle for justice and equality. The cover of Thinking Minnesota turns this flagrant multiculturalism on its head, using a Dick and Jane style image of a 1950s-era teacher and two white students. The teacher is pointing to the words A is for Activist—complete with a clenched fist—scrawled onto a blackboard.

In the magazine, Kersten takes a direct hit at the Edina schools, claiming they are being overrun by weepy leftists who are putting social engineering before the ABCs. Watch out, Edina citizens! Teachers across the district are “haranguing students on ‘White Privilege’” and otherwise forcing reading and writing to “take a backseat to an ideological crusade.” (A condensed version of her article also appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, with the following headline: “Racial identity policies are ruining Edina’s fabled schools.”)

This is nothing new, either for Kersten, the Center of the American Experiment or for American public education in general. The Center bills itself as “Minnesota’s leading public policy organization,” and paints its key promotional outlet, Thinking Minnesota, as a source of “conservative journalism.”

Out of the shadows

The online watchdog group Sourcewatch has pegged the Center of the American Experiment as a “right-wing pressure group” with ties to Wisconsin’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. This foundation, which has given the Center thousands of dollars in recent years, has its roots in a kind of ideological extremism once relegated to the fringes of American society.

Founder Harry Bradley, along with Fred Koch, patriarch of the Koch clan, was “one of the original charter members of the John Birch society,” according to Sourcewatch. The John Birch society is a far-right group that loomed large in the Cold War era, when routing out communists was all the rage. Jane Mayer covers this in her 2016 book Dark Money, in which she notes that Harry Bradley was also a “keen supporter of the Manion Forum.”

The Manion Forum was a mid-20th-century, privately funded outlet for the views of former Notre Dame professor Clarence Manion, who believed in a decidedly Christian,“conservative brand of individualism.” According to Mayer, Manion devotees “believed that social spending in America was part of a secret Russian plot to bankrupt the United States.” This idea of a “secret plot” undergirds long-standing criticism of public education in the U.S., and helps justify a similarly long-standing effort to defund and privatize schools, like those in Edina, in order to shield children from the corrupt liberalism of their teachers.

This view is no longer in the shadows, thanks to Education Secretary Betsy Devos. In a recent edition of Reveal, a public radio show devoted to investigative journalism, reporters documented Devos’ earlier years as a Michigan-based advocate for school choice. Reveal’s host, Al Leston, sets the scene for listeners, taking them back to the days immediately after 9/11: “The country is on edge,” he says, and “all of this is on the minds of the people joining a private, invitation-only meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona.”

Gathering force

The private meeting in Arizona, held at an exclusive resort, is a “networking event called the Gathering that brings together about 400 of the country’s leading Christian conservatives each fall.” At this 2001 event, billionaire Betsy Devos and her equally wealthy husband Dick were featured speakers. Using audio from the event, Leston paints a picture of Devos as someone concerned that “American culture was undermining the values that Christian students brought to public schools.”

Devos is heard expressing concern that schools are “impacting kids” more than the kids are impacting the schools. The answer? Throw money at an attempt to bring school vouchers to Michigan, so that families could sidestep the public schools and use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to any type of school—public, private or religious—they want to. Devos’ early attempts at this failed, but with an unlimited war chest at her disposal, she did not give up

< p dir="ltr">Earlier this year, a conservative policy group with ties to the Devos family published a report arguing for a Christian-based, “gradual, voluntary return at all levels to free-market private schools, church schools and home schools.” This fits Devos’ own “desire to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom” and reflects the non-public school preferences of the Center of the American Experiment. Back in Edina, Minnesota, the Center’s attack on the town’s public schools was, as mentioned, expertly timed. On November 7, Edina voters will elect a new slate of school board candidates and decided whether or not to support a proposed tax levy increase. The Edina Public Schools says the money is needed to offset years of dwindling public investment in education, as ‘funding has not kept pace with inflation.” Or maybe, in a Red Scare sort of way, the schools just want more money so they can further indoctrinate kids with talk of “multiculturalism,” race and equity, at the expense of Edina’s (real and imagined) white Christian roots.

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