Is America's public school system an "evil empire" similar to the old Soviet Union?
A coalition of ultraconservative and Religious Right forces seems to think so. In the January/February issue of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, Heritage staffer Adam Meyerson outlines what we can expect in the upcoming legislative season.
"The public education establishment today is where the Soviet Union was in 1987," wrote Meyerson. "It looks all powerful. It rules by fear and intimidation. But it is an ideological house of cards that will collapse if conservatives go on a sustained moral offensive and highlight its failure to teach basic skills to poor children."
Demanding a voucher plan that subsidizes "choice and competition," Meyerson concluded, "Ronald Reagan predicted in 1982 that Marxism-Leninism would soon be consigned to the ash heap of history. The same prediction can be made today of the evil empire of American education."
Meyerson's screed is incredibly vicious, but it has the merit of candor. Here in a nutshell (and we do mean "nut" shell) is the whole game plan of the far right. Their operatives plan to do everything in their power to launch an all-out propaganda war against public schools, seeking the diversion of tax dollars into the coffers of sectarian and other private academies.
Make no mistake. These forces are not concerned simply with education "reform" and helping poor children. (After all these are the same people who advocate slashing every publicly funded program that benefits the economically disadvantaged.) What they are really after is a radical reordering of church, state and education in the United States.
Today we have a nonsectarian public school system that welcomes children from all religious backgrounds (and none). Nearly 90 percent of American youngsters attend public schools. Far from being some sort of elite-run monopoly, these public schools are governed by thousands of public school boards, elected by parents, teachers, taxpayers and the general public.
Public education is America's greatest success story. Thanks to public schooling, our nation leads the world in academic, scientific, economic and other measures of achievement.
Do some public schools perform less well than we would like? Of course. Especially in our inner cities, public schools -- like all public services there -- are not what they ought to be. But those schools can be fixed if we summon sufficient political will as a people.
Meyerson and his ilk, however, don't want those schools improved. They are using poor children as pawns in a diabolical game. They want to scrap the whole concept of public education and move to a system where taxpayers are forced to subsidize Roman Catholic, fundamentalist Protestant and a whole host of other private religious schools where exclusion, indoctrination and sectarian segregation are the norm.
Can this be true? Look at prominent Religious Right leaders' own words.
TV preacher and Christian Coalition Chairman Pat Robertson says church-state separation isn't in the U.S. Constitution but was in the constitution of the old Soviet Union. He also dismisses the negative impact of vouchers on public schools.
"They say vouchers would spell the end of public schools in America," Robertson observed in his book The Turning Tide. "To which we say, So what? For all we've been getting for our tax dollars out of the public schools, they should have disappeared years ago."
Robertson's Religious Right crony Jerry Falwell takes a similar view. Speaking at Robertson's Regent University a few years ago, he proclaimed the public schools "damned" and urged all Christians to get their children out of them. This is the same Falwell who says church-state separation is "modern fabrication."
Focus on the Family President James Dobson, Coral Ridge Ministries' D. James Kennedy and their allies preach a similarly warped political gospel.
Surely, you say, such wacked-out views can't get a hearing in Congress and the state legislatures. Don't believe it.
The current leadership in Congress uniformly ranks near the top in the Christian Coalition's ratings. Newly elected House Speaker Dennis Hastert regularly scores 100 percent. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (whose ties to a race-baiting ultra-right group recently became public) has a perfect score as well. Many state legislatures have similar cadres of politicians who put their private religious agendas ahead of the public good.
What should Americans do about this deplorable situation?
First of all, speak up. Write to your members of Congress, state legislators and other public officials. Politely but firmly insist that they support public schools and church-state separation.
Second, make your voice heard in the public square. The news media often parrot the Religious Right line on public education, school vouchers and church-state concerns. Don't let any false charge go unanswered. (If you need ammunition, contact Americans United)
The Religious Right war on public schools and church-state separation is deadly serious and a threat to the very core of the American way of life. But it won't succeed unless we let it.