Jonathan Chait wrote an excellent article about the Republican plan to control, destroy, and censor American education. It is the cover story in this week’s New York magazine.

Chait and I have long disagreed about charter schools and will continue to do so. The article does not get into privatization, and the Republicans’ determination to divert public money to religious and private schools via vouchers. Nor does it touch on the growth and scandals of the charter industry. It’s hard to ignore privatization as a main line of attacking the public purpose of public schools, but Chait covers culture war issues only.

Chait says that, in the view of conservatives, left wing indoctrination occurs in religious schools, private schools, and charter schools, so choice will not solve the problem (the problem being the left wing capture of the culture). The answer, then, for the rightwing is to capture control of the institutions and replace left wing indoctrination with rightwing indoctrination.

The article digs into the Republican effort to destroy academic freedom, freedom to teach, freedom to learn, and to turn American schools and universities into purveyors of rightwing ideology. Two central figures in this conspiracy are Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and rightwing ideologue Chris Rufo.

Florida is indeed the model for the Republican attack on education. It is here that the Governor boasts about his Stop WOKE Act, which blocks teaching about topics that might cause discomfort (especially teaching factually accurate accounts of racist brutality in American politics); his Don’t Say Gay Act (which eliminates any instruction about homosexuality in K-3, recently amended to grades K-8); his successful capture of tiny progressive New College and to turn it into the Hillsdale of the South; his intention to take control of the state’s public colleges and universities, eliminate tenure, and purge progressive professors; and his encouragement of censorship of books about race, racism, and gender issues. Add to these DeSantis’ demonizing of the minuscule number of transgender students, as well as his bullying of drag queens, and you have a major state that has embraced fascism and scapegoating of powerless minorities. Florida is also notable for the billions it spends on lightly regulated charters and unregulated, unaccountable vouchers.

Readers of this blog are familiar with DeSantis’ war on public schools and higher education, and his control of curriculum and leadership. I can’t think of another state where the Governor has moved so aggressively to control every aspect of public education. Others have recognized the limits of their power. DeSantis does not.

We also know that Florida recently enacted universal vouchers, offering to subsidize the tuition of rich students. And that the wife of the Republican Speaker of the House, then state education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, now president of New College, started a charter. And that many legislators are financially tied to charters.

This article is about the culture wars, however, not privatization.

Chait writes:

Republicans have begun saying things about American schools that not long ago would have struck them as peculiar, even insane. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has called schools “a cesspool of Marxist indoctrination.” Former secretary of State Mike Pompeo predicts that “teachers’ unions, and the filth that they’re teaching our kids,” will “take this republic down.” Against the backdrop of his party, Donald Trump, complaining about “pink-haired communists teaching our kids” and “Marxist maniacs and lunatics” running our universities, sounds practically calm.

More ominously, at every level of government, Republicans have begun to act on these beliefs. Over the past three years, legislators in 28 states have passed at least 71 bills controlling what teachers and students can say and do at school. A wave of library purges, subject-matter restrictions, and potential legal threats against educators has followed.

Education has become an obsession on the political right, which now sees it as the central battlefield upon which this country’s future will be settled. Schoolhouses are being conscripted into a cataclysmic war in which no compromise is possible — in which a child in a red state will be discouraged from asking questions about sexual identity, or a professor will be barred from exploring the ways in which white supremacy has shaped America today, or a trans athlete will be prohibited from playing sports…

While there have been political battles over the schools for many years, but this controversy is different. Republicans are going for the jugular. They believe that “the left” has taken over the nation’s educational institutions and is determined to indoctrinate the next generation to despise their own country. Nothing could be more ridiculous, but facts don’t get in the way of their culture war.

He writes:

The Republican Party emerged from the Trump era deeply embittered. A large share of the party believed that Democrats had stolen their way back into power. But this sentiment took another form that was not as absurd or, at least, not as clearly disprovable. The theory was that Republicans were subverted by a vast institutional conspiracy. Left-wing beliefs had taken hold among elite institutions: the media, the bureaucracy, corporations, and, especially, schools.

This theory maintains that this invisible progressive network makes successful Republican government impossible. Because the enemy permanently controls the cultural high ground, Republicans lose even when they win. Their only recourse is to seize back these nonelected institutions….

“Left-wing radicals have spent the past 50 years on a ‘long march through the institutions,’” claims Manhattan Institute fellow and conservative activist Chris Rufo, who is perhaps the school movement’s chief ideologist. “We are going to reverse that process, starting now.”

Many institutions figure in Republicans’ plans. They are developing proposals to cleanse the federal workforce of politically subversive elements, to pressure corporations to resist demands by their “woke employees,” and to freeze out the mainstream media. But their attention has centered on the schools. “It is the schools — where our children spend much of their waking hours — that have disproportionate influence over American society, seeding every other institution that has succumbed to left-wing ideological capture,” writes conservative commentator Benjamin Weingarten.

Republicans are afraid that the liberal bias of schools and colleges is turning their children into liberals, intent on advancing social justice. They feel a sense of urgency about gaining control of these agencies of indontrination.

DeSantis’ approach is straightforward: Taxpayers pay for schools. Why shouldn’t they control them? Why shouldn’t they tell them what to teach and what not to teach?

Chait errs in describing Florida’s efforts to restrict the accurate teaching of African American history. He writes:

It is possible for legislatures to restrict some of the pedagogical fads of recent years without preventing children from learning unvarnished historical truths about slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and its aftermath. Reports have described bans on lessons that make students feel guilty, when they have merely restricted lessons that instruct them to feel guilty, a reasonable thing to ask. Commentators on the internet likewise depicted Florida as banning the teaching of African American history, when in fact the state merely objected to elements of the AP African American History curriculum, ultimately resulting in a revised version.

This is understating the active role that the DeSantis team played in squashing the brutal facts about African American history in Florida and the U.S. The Stop WOKE Act banned teaching “critical race theory,” which most people can’t define but assume that it refers to systemic racism. The DeSantis team has banned textbooks in math and social studies that showed any interest in “social justice.”

DeSantis and his education commissioner didn’t “merely object” to parts of the AP African American History course, they threatened to exclude the AP course and test from the state’s schools altogether, a move that would likely be followed by other deep red states. This hits the College Board where it hurts, in their revenues. DeSantis has objected not only to CRT, but to “social-emotional learning,” which he sees as indoctrination but which typically means exercises in perseverance, self-control, and other workaday approaches to collaboration and respect for others. Like what I learned in elementary school many decades ago.

Are there teachers who go too far in imposing their own beliefs (from both the left and the right)? Surely. But Chait observes:

A broader problem with the wave of conservative legislation is that it is responding to a wildly hyperbolic version of reality. In a very large country with a fragmented education system, there are going to be plenty of examples of outrageous or radical teaching in the schools on a daily basis without necessarily indicating anything about the system’s overall character. As conservatives grew alarmed about left-wing teachers, their favorite media sources started curating examples of it to stoke their outrage.

DeSantis projects Florida as a model for the nation, and he looks to Hungary as a model for Florida. Its leader Viktor Orban has tamed the universities by controlling them. Chris Rufo recently spent a month in Hungary, learning how Orban has silenced the left.

Orbán’s example has shown the government’s power over the academy can be absolute. DeSantis is simply the first Republican to appreciate the potential of this once-unimaginable use of state power to win the culture wars. Even before DeSantis’s plan has passed, Republicans in North Carolina, Texas, and North Dakota rushed out bills to eliminate tenure for professors.

I urge you to read the article in full. Aside from his leaving out privatization as the keystone of the Republican attack on public schools, the article fails to mention the big money behind the culture wars and privatization. DeVos, Walton, Koch, Yass. They are an important part of the story. And there are many more (I have a long list of billionaires, foundations, and corporations funding privatization in my book Slaying Goliath.)

Chait’s incisive analysis is a good primer for the elections of 2024. Implicit are the many reasons why Democrats must be prepared to defend teachers and professors, to protect both schools and universities from the takeovers planned by Republican legislators, to gear up for the fight against censorship, to resist incipient fascism, and to hold the line for our democratic principles.