School Privatizers Are Leaning Hard Into the Culture Wars

A billionaire-backed network of free-market fundamentalists is ginning up controversy over “wokeness” in American schools with an ulterior motive: to demolish public education.

Texas governor Greg Abbott has announced his intention to challenge a Supreme Court ruling that guarantees free public education for all kids. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

In a Massachusetts school district neighboring the one where I work, four parents, backed by a conservative Christian organization, are suing the school committee and multiple district employees for calling students by their preferred names and pronouns without informing home. Because one of the defendants is a counselor, some of my counselor peers in the area are now on guard, afraid we could become the targets of litigation if we allow students to broach sensitive topics in our presence.

Setting aside the very real harm that kids and educators are exposed to as a result of the Right’s eagerness to link acknowledgement of gay and trans people to sexual predation, there’s another problem here. It’s incredibly difficult to teach or counsel someone if you can’t call them what they wish to be called. Addressing students by their chosen names is a basic sign of respect that says, “I see you and I’m here to work with you.” If you need to call home to get permission first — potentially outing kids to their parents and inviting distressing blowback — you might miss the chance to form the human connection that undergirds collaborative scholarship.

Pandemic school closures reminded us that the social aspects of schooling are among the most vital for young people’s development and for society at large. Specific facts and figures (the what of school learning) can be easily forgotten and recalled with a few keystrokes. But the ability to establish a base level of trust with heterogeneous others in order to solve shared problems (the how of school learning) is absolutely essential for both a fulfilling personal life and engagement in the public square. It’s critical that educators be allowed to build that trust without fear of reprisal.

The Koch-backed parents’ rights movement aims to make that trust impossible. By pitting parents against schools, libertarian billionaires and Republican strategists intend to motivate voters in the short term and fully privatize K-12 education in the long term. As Christopher Rufo, the self-styled architect of the so-called war on critical race theory (CRT), has argued, “To create universal school choice [i.e., privatization], you really need to operate from a premise of universal school distrust.” Those powering the campaign against classroom “wokeness” are trying to hinder our ability to establish common ground from which to defend our last remaining public goods.

The illiberalism that dominates the Right can best be understood as the advanced stage of a long billionaire-funded plot to undo democracy in order to relieve capitalists of any constraints the rest of us might wish to place on them. This understanding clarifies why classrooms, the training grounds for democratic participation, are primary targets of radical right activism. If liberals are to have any hope of countering this coordinated attack, they need to remember the collective, public value of education.

Laying Siege to the Common Good

It makes sense to focus on the reactionary nature of all of this: the commitment to American exceptionalism animating the so-called CRT bans, the fresh fixation on classical education rife with chauvinist dog whistles, and the shockingly overt bigotry of the anti-LGBT “grooming” discourse. Ron DeSantis’s Florida, as some have observed, is looking more and more like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. But while these efforts to reverse cultural change are incredibly alarming, we come up short when we try to understand what’s happening purely in terms of identity-based hatred. Intolerance has always been a feature of American politics. Why does it suddenly seem so viciously well-organized?

In Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, historian Nancy MacLean argues that above all else, the activists who now own the conservative mantle seek what she calls property rights supremacy. The billionaire-backed network of free market fundamentalists looking to, in Christopher Rufo’s words, “lay siege” to public institutions are happy to form productive alliances with both evangelical Christians and white supremacists. But more than white supremacy or biblical supremacy, their end goal is a world in which the wealthiest corporations and individuals are liberated from any responsibility to contribute to the common good. When Manhattan Institute fellows like Rufo or ALEC-steeped politicians like DeSantis discuss “freedom,” this is what they really mean.

Focusing on the career of the Pulitzer Prize–winning economist James McGill Buchanan, MacLean traces the lineage of this radical movement to “insulate private property rights from the reach of government.” The Chicago-trained Buchanan became chair of the University of Virginia’s (UVA) economics department just as Virginia’s governing elites were launching their massive resistance policy to prevent desegregation by, if need be, ending public schooling altogether. Massive resistance attracted the support of libertarians, including Northerners, who saw Brown v. Board of Education as the latest example of federal overreach. They argued that Virginia’s propertied elites should not be coerced to pay taxes for goods — in this case, integrated public schools — they didn’t care for.

From his perch at UVA, Buchanan and a colleague developed a scholarly response to Brown that sought to elevate the economic liberty cause from the brutal racism attracting media attention to the South. Together, they advocated unlimited public school privatization in a last-ditch effort to preserve segregation by asserting property rights and state’s rights in the face of the New Deal’s legacy of robust federal action. But ordinary white Virginians, prejudiced though most undoubtedly were, didn’t buy it. And when push came to shove, a majority of Virginia legislators recognized that, in MacLean’s words, “a fire sale of tax-funded public schools to private operators would be political suicide.” So the effort failed.

MacLean describes how this experience solidified Buchanan’s view that politicians are hopelessly “corruptible” by popular pressure. At the dawn of the civil rights movement, more Americans were feeling that they could work together to build a better world. In order to protect the wealthiest minority from being forced to fund a growing list of public goods, Buchanan decided, collectivism and representative government would need to be dramatically curtailed. The institutions that enable these things to flourish must be hollowed out.

Following the New Deal, MacLean writes, there was a common sense of trust in the federal government and in the public institutions it provided. Only by sowing widespread suspicion of those institutions would it become possible to take them away, reducing taxes for the wealthiest few and leaving all the rest of us defenseless against the harshest blows of capitalism. When Buchanan joined forces with the plutocrat Charles Koch, his plan was put into action by a vast network of operatives intent on rendering popular demands lastingly ineffective (as in Augusto Pinochet’s constitution for Chile, which Buchanan helped to design).

With this understanding, it’s easy to see the connective tissue between today’s Koch-backed, energetically cultivated loci of parental outrage. At the engine level, this movement is not about what schools are teaching kids. It’s about burning down public schooling along with every other institution or regulation on which the public depends. Think what you will about mask mandates, the 1619 Project, or the pedagogical methods espoused by the blue-haired TikTok teachers Chaya Raichik cruelly serves up for Twitter pile-ons. These cultural battle sites are used to generate division and paranoia while billionaires rewrite the rules of our polity to permanently serve their ends.

This movement is about burning down public schooling along with every other institution or regulation on which the public depends.

Privatizers On the March

A “fire sale” of tax-funded schooling is now proceeding rapidly across numerous states. A recent Network for Public Education report shows that Republican-led state legislatures used the pandemic as an opportunity to push through legislation expanding charter programs and voucher programs (reminiscent of the voucher program Buchanan proposed to enable white Virginian children to attend “segregation academies” on the public dime). These programs divert public school dollars into the hands of frequently discriminatory or fraudulent private operators who, in some cases, have little obligation to teach kids anything at all.

In some states, like New Hampshire, with education savings accounts (ESAs), parents who have never considered enrolling their children in public school can sign up to be paid for supporting private or religious schools. In the first year of its ESA program, New Hampshire lost $8 million from its education coffers, as a majority of private school parents opted to subtract money from the state’s public schools. Such defunding mechanisms are hitting school systems already battered by severe pandemic-related challenges and over a decade of postrecession disinvestment.

With a conservative-majority Supreme Court signaling its willingness to overturn long-standing precedents, Texas governor Greg Abbott announced his intention to challenge a ruling that guarantees free public education for all kids. While Abbott has focused his message on undocumented children, relying on xenophobia to drive it home, the reality is that overturning the case in question would undermine public education for everyone.

“The Right has always understood better than the Left how to tap some of the most powerful emotions in existence: parents’ love of — and fears for — their children,” Nancy MacLean told Jacobin. Parents always worry about their kids, and the pandemic has introduced new fears about contagion, isolation, and a future that looks increasingly bleak. That mix has made fertile ground for a highly organized and breathtakingly well-funded network of operatives looking to finally do away with public schools and the political “we” they make possible.

But despite attention-grabbing campaigns to terrify them, a majority of public school parents remain satisfied with their children’s schooling. And massive amounts of outside funding notwithstanding, local parents’ rights candidates have in numerous cases failed to deliver decisive wins for the privatization movement. As in segregated Virginia, US families are not quite prepared to sign away their children’s right to publicly funded, democratically controlled schools. It’s the perfect time, in other words, for those looking to contest the radical right to offer a full-throated defense of public education and all public goods.

But Democrats, by and large, have been unwilling to mount that, scarcely standing up even against the horrific attacks on kids, families, and educators that we are seeing across the United States. And when you look at their record on education, it’s pretty clear why: for the past three decades of education reform, Democrats have ignored the social role that schools play in preparing children for engagement in the public square. Alongside Republicans, they have enabled the privatization of public schools. They have also privatized the idea of schooling down to the individual level. In the view of the Democratic establishment, the sole remit of schools should be to boost “human capital.” Guided by this view, they have yoked the vision of education ever closer to the needs of employers — a kind of corporate indoctrination eerily similar to the “woke” indoctrination Rufo and his cohort tell tales about.

But Bill Clinton’s assertion that “what you earn depends on what you learn” has proven to be a dangerous oversimplification: Americans are more educated than ever before, and yet economic insecurity is rampant and rising. When public schooling is only justifiable insofar as it increases individual earning power, the case for it is wholly dependent on its utility to capitalist markets. Without acknowledging the higher collective purpose that education serves, we won’t be able to defend public schools or democratic governance.

Democracy or Capitalism

“Republican politicians and their strategists,” Nancy MacLean told Jacobin,

have seen . . . culture-war tactics help Jair Bolsonaro get elected in Brazil and Viktor Orbán get reelected in Hungary this spring. And, lo, the CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Committee) is traveling to Hungary . . . to learn from Orbán how to use the tools of democracy to rig the rules to achieve autocracy.

The long plot is reaching maturity.

The Right’s appeals to “the family” resonate in part because our oligarchic political system leaves families in the cold, allowing child poverty to soar even as parents spend long and exhausting hours working outside the home. Any effort to save our commons and restore a sense of public spiritedness must include a material response to the significant challenges that parents face.

We need to work fast to reclaim the places where we give one another the benefit of the doubt and collaborate in spite of our differences. Democrats can still enter the battlefield and expose the Right’s deceitful efforts to turn the public against itself. As MacLean argues, the movement Buchanan authored wants to save capitalism from democracy. We can counter it if we are willing to fight to save democracy — beginning with schools — from capitalism.