Doubling-Down on Dumb: The GOP War on Being Smart

This is the first in a three-part series on the need for education reform in the United States. This first installment explores the political discourse criticizing public education, at a time when it is critical to restore the worldwide prestige the United States once enjoyed for the exemplary quality of its primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational systems.

We're supposed to be exploring every conceivable alternative for turning the domestic economy around. So why are Republicans, at state and federal levels, waging a rhetorical, legislative, and administrative War on Education?

At the state level, Republican governors like New Jersey's Chris Christie, Florida's Rick Scott, and Wisconsin's Scott Walker have been cutting funding for public schools, community colleges, and/or state colleges and universities. Moreover, Christie and Walker have demonized teachers' unions, often punishing them severely with budget cuts for teachers' and administrators' salaries and benefits.

At the federal level, House Republicans continue to pick on the U.S. Department of Education as a source of purported deficit-reducing budget cuts. Head Start and Early Head Start programs have been targeted for decades by Republicans for substantial cuts in funding or de-funding altogether. And on July 1st the interest rate on Stafford student loans will double, from 3.4% to 6.8%, on outstanding student loan balances.

But what's most-striking is that -- pretty much since the start of President Obama's candidacy for the 2008 presidential election -- there has been a consistent theme among conservatives, particularly on the far-right and those who identify themselves as Tea Party members that education, and being educated, are bad things.

Class and race provided a subtext to Obama's campaign. Projecting an image of black middle-class respectability, Obama understood that displays of emotion, especially anger, put him at risk of being framed as a thug. (Note how the Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has used this tactic, referring to his administration as "gangster government.") Paradoxically, Obama's opponents also used his Ivy League credentials, cerebral manner, and air of relaxed confidence to accuse him of being, in Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland's words, "uppity"--a term historically used by whites to disparage African-Americans considered too smart or successful for their own good. "Race, Class, and Obama," August 28, 2011

And the problem that creates is that, at a time when the country should come together to reform our educational systems (from the ground up, in my opinion), in order to make the U.S. much more competitive in a global marketplace, the segment of the population that has bought into this conservative meme will fight any efforts at actually improving education in America, particularly if such improvements require increased funding with taxpayer dollars.

It seems that these stakes are being raised exponentially, on an almost weekly basis, during the Silly Season: The GOP primary contest. For example, at least three of the original slate of GOP presidential candidates -- Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and... I'm trying to remember who the third one was... oh, right, Rick Perry -- have proposed the abolishment of the U.S. Department of Education, along with other federal agencies they deem unworthy. Ironically, Perry was crucified by his GOP debate opponents and in the conservative blogosphere, for signing into law the forward-leaning, pro-education Texas Dream Act , providing in-state college tuition for the children of undocumented foreign nationals residing in the Lone Star state.

However, among the four remaining GOP primary candidates, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (PA) is leading the charge in the GOP War on Education. In fact, there have been several weeks since the beginning of 2012 when this appears to be the centerpiece of Santorum's GOP presidential bid.

Among other things, Sen. Santorum has said:

President Obama is a "snob" for wanting every American to have the chance to attend college.

The U.S. Department of Education is unnecessary because "government-run" education is a failure.

Now everybody has recognized that primary, secondary education is a failure in America, and at the heart of it is the teachers unions, at the heart of it is government-run education. And that's why the move for charter schools, the move for home schooling, private schools is even taking wing among moderates and on the left. I don't think that would have happened, frankly, had we not had No Child Left Behind. So while I disagree with a lot of the policy in there, I certainly disagree with a lot of the money that was in there, the fact that we now have formed a consensus because we now know we have failure in that level, is a starting point now for now let's see if we can do something about the public education system.

State departments of education should be abolished, making all school control local.

"Not only do I believe the federal government should get out of the education business, I think the state government should start to get out of the education business and put it back with the local and into the community," Santorum said in a recent debate in Arizona with his GOP rivals.

Religion should be taught alongside traditional academic subjects in publicly-funded Christian schools.

"Christian schools" would be one form of government-funded education, per Rick Santorum. He wants to get rid of national or even state standards for the quality of education, and have each parent decide what curriculum the school should give each child.

The main purpose of college is to indoctrinate students into becoming (gasp) liberals.

"I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely," [Santorum] said. "The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country."

If you pay close attention to Santorum's statements, however, you'll realize that his policy prescriptions as a GOP presidential candidate are remarkably different from the voting record and on-the-record statements of U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. "Santorum's Stated Opposition to Public Schooling Doesn't Match His Record." However, whether Santorum deserves to be criticized as an enormous hypocrite when it comes to his stated views toward and policies for education isn't the point here: The point is that his anti-education rhetoric is gaining traction among the conservative GOP base that tends to participate disproportionately in Republican primary elections (i.e. older, white males). And this is symptomatic of the larger problem, which is that the far-right has been telling its loyal followers and others that public education is bad and higher education is worse. Santorum's "snob" comment is truly emblematic of this escalation of the right's anti-education meme.

But the GOP's proposed "reforms," as distinguished from using education as a cost-reduction whipping boy, seems limited to the now much-derided No Child Left Behind Act, passed by a completely Republican-controlled Congress, and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Of course, there is one additional, substantial obstacle to education reform, beyond this incessant attack from the right questioning the importance and value of education: Most "education reform" proposals seek only to address either the quality of teaching or the quality of achievement, with many of these "reforms" focused on how either or both should be measured. There is little if any focus on what and how our education system is teaching students from pre-K through a four-year degree.

The real problem with the education system in this country -- primary, secondary and post-secondary -- is that the entire system needs to be reformed. Band-Aid solutions on a shotgun blast aren't going to make a difference in how the United States reasserts its prior prominence in an increasingly global economy. This task, of truly reforming our public education system, will be the subject of the remaining two blog entries in this series.