Conservative parents can effectively change the state of education, but not how you might think.
Many more parents are waking up to the abject failure of the American public school system and are becoming desperate to take action to protect their children. The threats to their children’s well-being include vaccination mandates, dangerous ideologies, a failure to teach students basic writing and math skills, an obscene and unsafe sex education curriculum, allowing trans boys to use girls’ bathrooms, and the list keeps growing. Some are calling this the “Mama Bear Revolution.” Bravo, Momma Bears!
Understandably, parents around the country are storming school board meetings and demanding change. Many have announced they will run for school boards, and dozens of local and national education reform groups are urging them to do so. But is this the right strategy?
Since it appears the current threat is coming from elected school boards, the natural reaction is to take the battle to those boards. However, the left has dominated the vast majority of school boards for decades, and a lot has changed since then. Based on my forty years working in the vineyards of the conservative movement and focusing heavily on education issues and school board races, I must tell you that I believe this fight is not worth it. It will exhaust us and accomplish little, and there are better strategies to protect our children and give them a good education.
I have spent years fighting the left on education issues. As a member of the California State Assembly, I chaired the Education Committee and witnessed first-hand how the left has transformed our public schools. They no longer exist to create productive citizens; they now exist to create social justice warriors committed to transforming America into a socialist society. From teacher unions to administrators, the entire education bureaucracy is committed to excluding parents from decision-making as they think they know what is best for the children. They are not concerned with what parents think. Winning a few school board seats will not change that reality one iota. I have been down this road, and I know how it ends.
The Myth of Locally-Controlled Schools
We need to understand that our public schools have not been locally controlled for decades. It does us no good if parents spend time, money, and energy winning school board seats to find they will not have any significant lasting impact.
Many conservative leaders do not understand this, but school districts must follow thousands of state and federal mandates. Over the last thirty years, state and federal education departments centralized almost all policies regarding teacher credentialing, testing, textbook selection, academic standards, bilingual education, special education, and even the construction of school facilities. Unelected state and federal bureaucrats are the ones who decide education policy in America today, not school boards and certainly not parents.
Today, school board members’ decisions have a limited impact and are generally choices among the options created by state or federal laws. While conservatives slept over the last three decades, we lost control of our local schools to liberal state and federal school bureaucrats. The left isn’t solely to blame. It involved a coalition of many groups, including teacher unions, Democrats, school board associations, the liberal Republican establishment, and the business establishment.
Yes, the United States Chamber of Commerce and other national business groups played a key role in pushing hundreds of bills over the last thirty years that dramatically centralized education policy into the hands of the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. This bureaucracy was created in 1979 due to a campaign promise made by Jimmy Carter to the teacher unions, who, in turn, threw their support behind him. Since that time, the Department of Education has massively grown in size and power at the expense of local school boards and parents.
Remember Goals 2000? One of many massive federal programs that centralized education policy in Washington, D.C., it was enthusiastically supported not just by the left but by establishment Republicans, including both Bush presidents and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They claimed centralizing education policy into the hands of liberal bureaucrats in Washington would improve our education system. It did just the opposite because it destroyed local accountability.
Today, America’s students are outperformed by students in Third World countries. We have a failing education system, so employers hire thousands of foreign workers. American students can no longer read or write at a world-class level.
Nonetheless, in the 1990s, I thought I could improve our education system by helping to organize a slate of over fifty school board candidates in my county. As a result, more than twenty-five conservatives won office, and in three school districts, conservatives took majority control.
Today, thirty years later, I cannot say this made any difference. These conservative school board members encountered state and federal mandates everywhere they turned. Many of them spent most of their time fighting recall efforts and lawsuits launched by the teacher unions (which have the funds to harass conservative school board members full time), not to mention the media’s almost daily attacks upon them. Indeed, nearly all of them retired within a few years or were removed by a teacher union puppet in subsequent elections.
As far as I know, this was the largest sweep of conservatives to school boards perhaps in the last sixty years, but you would never know that by observing these same school districts today. Like most school districts in America, they continue to follow the left-wing agenda without fail.
A classic example was the Vista School District in northern San Diego County. Conservatives won three of its five seats, and one of the policies they championed was to allow teachers to introduce evidence critical of evolution. At no point did they try to ban the teaching of evolution; they supported freedom of inquiry on this issue. The left and its media allies went ballistic, and for the next two years, that’s all they would talk about. Board members were recalled, lawsuits were filed, and in the end, conservatives accomplished little. Vista was back to its union-approved, anti-parent policies within a few years. Today, they’re no different from any other school district dedicated to indoctrinating children to be good little socialists.
The Myth of Public Schools Being an American Institution
We call them public schools, but we should call them what they are—government schools. Government schools were not part of America’s founding, nor were they ever mentioned by our Founding Fathers. In fact, public school systems were not widespread until the late 1800s. Before then, all schools were privately operated, and most of them were connected to a church. As education researcher Sam Blumenthal has written, this patchwork system of education produced a higher literacy rate than we have today.
There are strong moral reasons to oppose public schools as well. The Bible instructs parents to be responsible for raising their children and instilling in them virtuous values (see Prov. 23:13-14; Luke 2:48-52; Gal. 4:3-3; Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20-24). The public schools claim not to teach religion, but they do. Humanism and atheism, both of which are religious doctrines, are taught. By turning our children over to the public schools, we have allowed liberal activists to supplant the values most parents teach at home.
What Can Parents Do?
It is time parents used their influence and connections to create stronger private schools and homeschool networks. What a shame that thousands of churches in our country have unused facilities Monday through Friday. If the Christian community is serious about raising the next generation to be productive, law-abiding, virtuous people, then every Christian church should consider creating a school using their facility. Smaller churches can partner with other like-minded churches on such a project.
If existing private schools are inadequate, parents need to start their own schools. It would be wise to approach churches to undertake this project, so the facility construction cost is not an issue. Moreover, most churches have a body of educated people who can serve as teachers. The first thing to do is form a board of knowledgeable people who explore all options regarding facilities, teachers, tuition, textbooks, etc. There are tons of resources online to help those who start private schools. The RenewaNation article How to Start a Christian School with Limited Funds gives the key components necessary to start a Christian school successfully. Visit renewanation.org/startups for information about the RenewaNation Christian School Startup Program, which partners with churches and others to help start new Christian schools and provides coaching and support to sustain schools long term.
If hundreds of parents residing in a school district were to pull their children out of public schools and enroll in existing private schools—or create new ones—this could lead to a strong and vibrant network of private schools that could band together to form sports leagues, debate competitions, etc.
It is possible to create a network of private schools that rivals public school academics and extracurricular activities. Moreover, on average, private school students outperform public school students on every measurement.
Then there’s the homeschool option. There are at least five million homeschoolers in the U.S. today. Our government can’t stop this movement, nor can they compel a student to attend a public school. Homeschool graduates are sought-after students by top colleges because they are light years ahead of public school kids on just about every academic measurement.
Homeschooling comes in many different forms. In some cases, multiple families partner together, hiring tutors to cover areas they are not knowledgeable about and rotating homes where the kids meet. Many homeschool families subscribe to online programs that feature top educators. Homeschool networks in almost every state will help parents learn how to do this. Some homeschool networks have places where they meet other homeschoolers during the day, so the kids get plenty of interaction with other kids. Even private school athletic leagues allow homeschoolers to enter their league.
One of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is that it only requires a few hours a day. When you subtract all the non-academic activities at a public school, you are left with only two to three hours of real academic learning. Without interference and noise, homeschools can cover the same ground in just a few hours, and families can use free time to go on educational field trips to local museums, factories, etc.
Parents can fight for change by getting involved with efforts to pass statewide educational choice laws or initiatives. The cost of private schools and homeschooling may be prohibitive for some families. Since our constitution never granted monopoly status to public schools, every state should have some form of educational freedom in place. Still, most don’t because teacher unions typically block such programs.
Most conservative states have passed educational choice legislation. However, be wary of school choice programs where government money follows the student. The government can control curriculum, hiring, and classroom instruction in these scenarios. In liberal states, the only option to encourage educational freedom may be to place an initiative on the ballot by collecting signatures, assuming a state allows that process. However, this major effort requires millions of dollars with little chance of success in a liberal state.
One form of educational choice is the voucher system. Every parent in the state is given a voucher representing a specific amount of public money that can be redeemed at any public or private school. Again, use caution when state money is directly involved, as the state government could eventually use the voucher system to further regulate private schools that accept such vouchers. If that occurs, private schools could simply refuse this money, but it is a threat we all need to be mindful of.
Another system of educational choice is commonly referred to as educational tax credits, whereby a family is allowed to write off on their taxes the cost of private school tuition or homeschooling costs. Since this is not a direct government subsidy like vouchers, the government’s likelihood of using this process to further regulate private schools and homeschoolers is remote. It’s no different than the tax write-off used by charities.
The task before us is no small undertaking, but together, with God’s help, we can effectively change the state of education for our children and the generations to come.
Steve Baldwin is a former member of the California State Assembly, former chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, and former member of the California Curriculum Commission. He is the author of From Crayons to Condoms, the Ugly Truth about America’s Public Schools.