John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, writes about the legislators who are offering bills to undermine public schools, control their curriculum, even meddle with the school lunch program. Their goal is clear: the demoralization of teachers and the destruction of public schools.

Thompson writes:

Why are some Republican legislators in Oklahoma trying to “strip” school lunch programs from the State Department of Education and move them to the Agriculture Department?

The Tulsa World reports:

“The House author told us that some in the Legislature feel too much focus was put on making sure kids were fed during the pandemic and not on educating kids,” said Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs and deputy chief of staff at the Oklahoma State Department of Education (SDE).

The author of HB 3432, Rep. Dell Kerbs, claims he wants “to take something off of education’s plate and hopefully move more schools away from ‘heat and serve’ meal options.” But education leaders have said that that is “ridiculous,” and “a solution in search of a problem.” In fact:

The legislation would create duplication within the state’s overall bureaucracy, because their department must still obtain child nutrition data for a host of purposes including calculating state aid funding, school accountability and accreditation, and the federal E-Rate Program that provides schools with discounted telecommunications services.

This new bill should be considered in the light of numerous other anti-education bills filed this session. As The Frontier explained, they are often pushed by national conservative organizations, sometimes using “word-for-word language copied from model legislation.”

For instance, SB 1508, “would require school districts to submit to the State Department of Education detailed expenditure reports on diversity, inclusion and social justice training for teachers and administrators.” HB 3432 also brings to mind bills by Sen. Shane Jett that “would outlaw teaching of social-emotional learning in schools;” “require higher education institutions to post their budget for student and teacher diversity curriculum online;” and “ban voluntary surveys in schools from asking questions about sexuality or gender and would ban school libraries and curriculum from including books that deal with sexuality or gender.”

To understand the purpose of these restrictions, they must also be considered in the context of bills filed by Standridge that “would require teaching ‘patriotic education’” about Oklahoma history; or “impose civil penalties of at least $10,000 on school personnel who teach lessons related to critical race theory [and] require the employee to be fired and blacklisted from educational employment for at least five years.”

Similarly, these bills’ common purpose must also be understood within the context of Sen. Nathan Dahm’s attempt to “require social studies classes to teach at least 45 minutes every Nov. 7 on “Victims of Communism Day;” to “require schools to distribute historical Thanksgiving day proclamations, all of which list the importance and role of Christian faith;” to “add reading requirements for high schoolers that contain some theological themes;” and “require the Oklahoma State Department of Education to contract for curriculum for a four-year pilot project for 11th graders on U.S. history that “narrowly tailors the subject areas to align with free high school curriculum courses from Hillsdale College.”

And, of course these mandates must be seen within the context of successful and unsuccessful bills prohibiting school boards from issuing mask mandates; requiring an “opt in” system for teachers union membership, even though that is already the law; and at a “cost over $116 million” providing “state dollars to students to spend on private school tuition and other education expenses instead of attending a public school.”

To fully understand these vituperative assaults on schools, we must also consider the New York Times’ coverage of the Enid, Ok. school board battles, which concluded: From lockdowns to masks to vaccines to school curriculums, the conflicts in America keep growing and morphing, even without Donald Trump, the leader who thrived on encouraging them, in the White House.

But the fights are not simply about masks or schools or vaccines. They are, in many ways, all connected as part of a deeper rupture — one that is now about the most fundamental questions a society can ask itself: What does it mean to be an American? Who is in charge? And whose version of the country will prevail?

The Times also explained that Enid is in a county which “experienced one of the largest increases in racial diversity in the country over the past decade.” Since 1980, it dropped from 94 percent white to about 68 percent.

And this brings us back to the two, somewhat separate but intertwined agendas that drive these education bills. The corporate establishment and the leaders of the Trump wing of the Republican Party see both political threats and opportunities in demographic change. In the short-run, in order to keep their majority, they must use gerrymandering (such as moving one of the most progressive areas in Oklahoma City into the Panhandle’s congressional seat hundreds of miles away) and reverse trends that expanded the opportunities to vote. But these demographic changes give them better chances for winning in 2022 and 2024 by stoking the fears of Oklahomans who see themselves as being replaced by immigrants, other people of color, and new generations of progressives.

All of these education bills, primarily, are fact-free, fear-based campaigns to win elections at any costs. Being a Baby Boomer who saw the damage done to schools by McCarthyism, and how it persisted into my K-12 education and even into my teaching career, I worry about the long-term effects of these scorched earth campaign tactics.

The second, overarching theme is privatization. Whether it is Gov. Stitt’s undermining of public health institutions as we entered the Covid crisis, privatizing Medicaid, or disempowering the Pardon and Parole Board by preventing them from considering evidence of innocence in their deliberations, or wrecking public education, they want to dismantle governmental institutions.

Whether all of the legislators who support these bills understand it or not, the real goal is kicking vulnerable school systems that are exhausted by the Covid crisis while they are down. Then, rightwingers can ramp up their efforts to fund their cronies, while claiming that the Free Market will find replacements for what they call a rotten, socialist system that doesn’t respect their political base.

Finally, as I was about to submit this post, the New Yorker arrived, featuring Jill Lepore’s The Parent Trap. Lepore also describes the efforts of many Republicans as “whipping up a frenzy about parents’ rights” to win the mid-term and, perhaps the presidential elections. But she then goes back a century to the Scopes Trial, which also followed a global pandemic; explains the racist roots of the anti-evolution campaigns; and the Scopes aftermath, with “’purging’” libraries and “’hounding’” teachers.

Now, the campaign includes the “highhandedness, moral crusading, and snobbery” of today’s corporate reformers’ school choice movement. Lepore concludes, “It’s still going on today.” Some activist parents seem to “want to destroy public education.” So, everyone should read how this isn’t just a brutal fight in Oklahoma Red State politics, but “another long game, a hundred years war: the campaign against public education.”