The Tea Party's Public Education Agenda

Last January, members of the Tennessee Tea Party held a press conference in Nashville to announce their demands to the state legislature. In addition to the expected call to reject the Affordable Care Act, they included an item about “educating students the truth about America.”

“We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government,” according to materials provided.

Not sure what this means? According to Tea Party Spokesman Hal Rounds, “there’s an awful lot of made up criticism about the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in on way or another.”

The national media has often dismissed these kinds of announcements, but the influence of political ideologues has been no laughing matter over the past couple of years, especially for public education advocates. Right-wing grassroots activists are fired up and are having an impact across the country, demanding massive budget cuts that damage public education and new laws curbing worker’s rights.

In Tennessee, educators have been fighting back an all-out assault on the state’s public schools.

“They’ve thrown the kitchen sink at us, no question,” says Jerry Winters of the Tennessee Education Association.

In March, Tea Party Republican Jim Summeville took to the floor of the state Senate and told educators not interfere with these “reforms.”

“Make no mistake, the final responsibility is ours, and we are warriors,” Summerville warned. “We will bend public education to our awe, or break it all to pieces.”

In North Carolina, the election of four Tea Party conservatives to the Wake County school board led to a 2010 vote abolishing long-standing school integration measures, and other major changes are expected. According to a recent report in Education Week, the overall goal of Tea Party politicians in North Carolina and in many other states is to establish a “farm team” of conservative leaders at the local level who can then run for state or national office.

Although they have been fighting to protect their rights and their profession, many educators are concerned that this influence will also be directly felt in their very own classrooms, as political ideologues also seek to rewrite social studies and science curriculum.

Earlier this month, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed House Bill 368, which would require state and local authorities to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies” and permit teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”

On the surface it sounds pretty harmless, which is the desired effect, says Jerry Winters.

“It’s cleverly written because it’s hard to criticize that specific language. It sounds reasonable,” explains Winters. But its obvious intent is to dispel discussions about climate change, evolution, and other topics.

Educators in Texas have been fighting ideological battles over curriculum longer than their colleagues in most other states. In May 2010, the state board of education (SBOE) was garnering national attention as it considered – and eventually approved –  new social standards that were designed to neutralize the perceived liberal bias in the teaching of U.S. history.

“Tea Party members are often described as libertarians, but they are also very concerned about social issues, especially in this part of the country,” sys Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network. “That drives their interest in public education and specifically curriculum debates.”

The Texas Freedom Network has been an active opponent of right-wing extremism in the Lone Star State since 1995. Defending public schools against ideological attacks is a top priority of the organization.

In Texas, the lines between what is usually known as the “Religious Right” and the Tea Party have been blurred, says Quinn.

“It’s hard to tell them apart now. The Religious Right done a very good job of co-opting the energy of the Tea Party. They’ve always been formidable down here, but more so now.”

The new Texas social studies standards were such a big story because they will guide textbook purchases and classroom instruction over the next decade – and maybe not just in Texas. Critics fear that national publishers usually cater to its demands because the school board is probably the most influential in the country. Texas buys 48 million textbooks every year.

Since then, public education advocates have taken steps to rein in the power of the SBOE. Legislation introduced in February would establish a higher education review committee that would be empowered to put “college and workforce readiness ahead of politics” in advising the board on the accuracy of new standards.

Dan Quinn believes, however, that the first important step is for educators and parents to help monitor these groups and carefully analyze the specific wording of their proposals. As in the Tennessee case, some ideas may sound reasonable and even benign but, on closer inspection, are exactly the opposite.

“Shining a light on these activities won’t stop them,” says Quinn. “But it’s a good first step. Everyone is affected by the quality of public education. All teachers can be leaders in their community and enough people will listen to them to begin rolling these assaults back. Our classrooms should not be saddled with this political nonsense.”

Photo: Sage Ross