Cleburne Times-Review Column for 20 August, 2006
“He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which He commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.”
School is back and my youngest has officially started kindergarten. A lot seems different than what I remember; for one thing, the kindergarten has computers, which weren’t even invented when I was that age. We had to use an abacus or count rocks. There seem to be an awful lot of school supplies required nowadays, including enough bottles of glue, coffee filters and manila paper to build a full-scale model of the Great Wall of China. When I started school, the only supplies we needed were flint and tender to start a campfire and some sticks to make spears to fight off the saber-toothed tigers that were then known to roam the outskirts of Cleburne. Other things have changed, too. Once upon a time, not too terribly long ago, support for public education was one of the few reliably bi-partisan issues in Texas and in the nation as a whole. Both parties recalled the words of Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe in 1786, “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness... The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” In Texas, Sam Houston, a Jeffersonian by way of Jackson, stated, “The benefits of education and of useful knowledge, generally diffused through a community, are essential to the preservation of a free government.” During his otherwise execrable term as President of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar outlined a visionary system for free public schools that earned him the nickname “Father of Texas Education.” Such unity is gone now, seemingly for good. As the Republic Party has slowly been captured by the ultra-paranoid tin-foil hat crowd, public schools are now seen as a sinister conspiracy of secular humanists, Darwinists, evil teachers’ unions, and homosexuals. The GOP’s war on public schools was perhaps best exemplified when State Rep. Debbie Riddle bloviated, “Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell. And it's cleverly disguised as having a tender heart. It's not a tender heart. It's ripping the heart out of this country.” Or if you prefer the statements of some of the Republican’s spiritual gurus, there’s Pat Robertson (“The public education movement has also been an anti-Christian movement…”) or Jerry Falwell (“I hope to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we don't have public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them”). Actions, of course, speak louder than words. After ignoring school finance for years in favor of multiple special sessions to abolish democracy through redistricting, Texas Republicans recently passed a “reform” bill that doesn’t provide any new money for schools, and in fact will end up providing less funding and higher taxes. The Bush Administration tried hard to bury a Department of Education report showing that, despite their problems, public schools compare favorably with private schools. Our beloved former State Rep., Arlene Wohlgemuth, has recently teamed-up with millionaire anti-public school candidate sugar daddy Dr. James Leininger to lobby against “special interests” and their “pet causes,” like decent schools. Wohlgemuth already did her part to kill affordable health insurance for children; so as long as they’re sick, why not keep them ignorant as well? Leininger, and many other Republicans, favor vouchers as a way to interject the “free market” and “competition” into public education, in spite of the fact that our most recent experiment in privitizing education through the use of charter schools has been a dismal failure. So why the Republican hostitility toward learning? The paranoid on the Left might observe that ignorant peasants are obedient peasants. The reality, however, is more cynical: it’s just another way to scare votes out of decent people of faith who have legitimate concerns about real education issues: the lack of discipline, under-funded schools, a sometimes unresponsive bureacracy and so forth. Like the tele-Pharisees, the GOP deliberately misrepresents court decisions like Engel v. Vitale to suggest that prayer in school is now illegal. It isn’t, of course, and no court anywhere in America has ever ruled that individual students cannot pray in school. Texas Republicans rail about teachers’ unions, though unions in Texas as a whole are virtually powerless. Fear is a great motivator, though, as is scapegoating. As Lyndon Johnson once said in another context, that of the Civil Rights Movement, “If you can convince the lowest white man that he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll even empty his pockets for you.” In public education, the Republicans hope that if they can make you afraid of teachers, homosexuals and Charles Darwin, you won’t notice their hands in your wallet. This strategy is cynical, it’s shameful and harmful to society and our children and real conservatives, the few who are left, should rise up to denounce it.