How sad -- and suicidal - that conservatives have decided to declare open warfare on public education.
In a previous life, I played a minor role as speechwriter and special assistant to our state's Secretary of Education during the development and public roll out of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.
This landmark law, and many like it, passed during what was known as the "second wave" of education reform that came ashore in the wake of the wake-up call about America's failing public schools that was sounded by the Reagan-era report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983's A Nation at Risk.
The Massachusetts reform law was truly a bi-partisan accomplishment, hammered out between Republican Governor William F. Weld and the Democratic Legislature.
Governor Weld agreed to double the state's investment in local public schools from $1.3 billion in 1993 to $2.6 billion in 2000, while providing a minimum "foundation budget" for every Massachusetts school child. Funds for early education were added by the end of the decade.
In exchange, Democratic leaders like Senator Thomas Birmingham and Representative Mark Roosevelt, the Chairmen of the Joint Education Committee, along with their allies in the teachers unions, agreed to certain educational reforms, among them: regular teacher re-certification, statewide curriculum "frameworks," mandatory testing as part of a new state-regulated graduation requirement and a Parent Information Center to promote transparency and accountability through annual district report cards.
Principals were also given new powers to be education leaders in their schools, with authority for hiring and firing. Rigid tenure rules were relaxed to permit for a more predictable process for assisting under-performing teachers as a preventative first step before their possible firing. And there were also provisions for "school choice."
The other two Republican governors I worked for were equally committed to a robust state role in public education -- Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, the latter becoming an education consultant after being unceremoniously shoved aside by Mitt Romney and his boys during the run-up to the 2002 gubernatorial election.
But that was then and this is now. And now, rather than leading the charge for improving the public schools Republicans are speeding the nation's ignominious abandonment of them instead.
Last year, Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida cut $1.75 billion from the public schools in his state, savings he immediately squandered on tax cuts for businesses and property owners.
Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin cut his public education budget by an even larger $1.85 billion, demonstrating again that the real purpose of his drive to dismantle public sector unions was not the savings he might wring from teacher pay and benefits but rather the institutional opposition he hoped to neutralize against the Republican Party's nationwide crusade to de-fund public education.
It's gotten so bad that President Obama in February warned state chief executives attending a National Governors Association luncheon at the White House of the dire consequences of so many into-the-bone cuts in state education budgets.
"We've all faced some stark choices over the past several years, but that is no excuse to lose sight of what matters most; and the fact is that too many states are making cuts to education that I believe are simply too big," said the President, according to CNN. "Nothing more clearly signals what you value as a state than the decisions you make about where to invest. Budgets are about choices, so today I'm calling on all of you: Invest more in education, invest more in our children and in our future."
In a New York Review of Books article titled "The Miseducation of Mitt Romney," veteran educator Diane Ravitch sounds the alarm if the Republican's presumptive presidential nominee is able to carry through on his advertised threats to public education.
Ravitch is a one-time Assistant US Secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton, a former education adviser to President George H.W. Bush and a rock star within the education reform movement when I was still active during the 1990s. She says of Romney: "If you think that turning the schools over to the private sector will solve their problems, then his plan will thrill you."
That's because what Romney's plan offers, says Ravitch, is not reform but privatization: vouchers for private and religious schools; privately-managed charter schools; and for-profit online schools.
There is also the usual GOP boilerplate: Contempt for teachers unions; putting commercial banks back in charge of the federal student loans program; holding teachers and schools alone accountable for students' test scores; lowering entrance requirements for new teachers - anything, says Ravitch, to prove to the Republican Party's base of religious evangelicals "that he really is conservative."
In Massachusetts, we too had a limited provision for publicly-funded charter schools, whose number has now doubled to about 70 since I worked in education - with an equal number of pilot or "Commonwealth" charter schools now open that are more closely administered by the school districts themselves.
But Romney's plan sees privatization as an alternative to public schools that educate about 80% of all school children nationwide, not a supplement to them. Yet, at the same time, says Ravitch, Romney wants to take credit for the fact that Massachusetts leads the nation in reading and mathematics on federal performance tests, even though the results are based on reforms which are entirely different from the ones Romney is now proposing for the country.
The success of the Massachusetts schools was gained by raising standards for new teachers, not by lowering them as Romney wants to do, says Ravitch. Nor did Massachusetts eliminate teacher tenure as Romney proposes. And there were also limits on class size that Romney seems to think don't matter at all -- presumably because any restrictions on student/teacher ratios might eat into the profits of all those new private entities Romney intends to empower with the task of teaching our kids, for a fee.
But worst of all, she says, are Romney's proposals for private-school vouchers, which Ravitch calls "red-meat for the right wing base of the Republican party, especially evangelicals."
In making the case for vouchers, Ravitch says Romney exaggerates the available evidence about their success when his claims are not "flatly false" altogether, as were his assertions that a Washington D.C. voucher program had students reading 19 months ahead of their peers in just three months. Not true, she says.
Vouchers have been "the third rail of education politics" ever since the 1950s, says Ravitch, and have been regularly rejected by voters whenever the issue has been put to a statewide referendum. So now, Republicans have started going around voters and using Republican-dominated legislatures to enact school vouchers directly.
That's what Republicans did in Governor Bobby Jindal's Louisiana, where nearly 400,000 students -- more than half the school population in that state - are eligible to attend private or religious schools at public expense given the way "low-performing" schools were defined.
The problem, says Ravitch, is that only about 5,000 slots in private and parochial schools exist. That's led to the farce of one school offering to triple the number of students it will take, even though it has no facilities or teachers to handle the new students while its current students receive instruction mostly via DVDs.
Another school, the Eternity Christian Academy, currently has only 14 students but has agreed to take in about 135 voucher students. According to Reuters, the school's students now "sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks."
One such "science" textbook explains, according to Reuters, "what God made on each of the six days of creation." The students are not exposed to the theory of evolution, says Reuters, because as the pastor-turned-principal explained it: "We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children."
Ravitch notes that other schools approved to receive state-funded vouchers use social studies texts "warning that liberals threaten global prosperity." Also typical are Bible-based math books that don't cover modern concepts such as set theory, or biology texts built around refuting evolution not explaining it.
What this underscores is that the conservative attacks against public education are motivated far more by ideological and theological concerns than financial and pedagogical ones.
For conservatives, especially right wing and religiously fundamentalist ones, so called "government-run schools" are the forbidden fruit of those modern, secular societies organized around the scientific method and the factual re-telling of history that social conservatives want to replace with traditionalist, faith-based alternatives.
That became clear in Texas, where the state Republican Party has come out against "critical thinking in public schools." For the Texas GOP, Knowledge-Based Education, Higher Order Thinking Skills Education, Outcomes-Based Education and other instruction methods which they say "focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority" are the educational equivalent of those fluoride-in-the-water conspiracies that once launched a thousand John Birch Society bi-weeklies.
Cynthia Dunbar is another Lone Star loon, a militant fundamentalist who wrecked havoc as chairwoman of a conservative-dominated Texas Board of Education that committed educational malpractice by inflicting pseudo-history on millions of Texas school children.
Dunbar educated her own children at home and at private Christian academies, saying to send them to the public schools would be like "throwing them into the enemy's flames."
She made explicit the fundamentalist's contempt for the public schools (even while running them) when she called public education a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion" and asserted the establishment of public schools "is unconstitutional and even tyrannical."
"We are fighting for our children's education and our nation's future," Dunbar declared. "In Texas we have certain statutory obligations to promote patriotism and to promote the free enterprise system. There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God. We had to go back and make some corrections."
According to the (UK) Guardian, several of those "corrections" included state-approved history standards that marginalized Thomas Jefferson for favoring the separation of church and state while highlighting the "significant contributions" of pro-slavery Confederate leaders during the Civil War.
There are 86 references to "free enterprise" in the Texas history standards but none to "capitalism," a word which apparently conservatives think carries certain negative connotations. "Minimal government intrusion" was hailed as the source of the commercial boom of the 19th century while no mention is made of such government-funded internal improvements as the Transcontinental Railroad.
Slavery, too, is largely forgotten as a cause of "The War Between the States," nor is there mention of the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, or sharecropping. The term "Jim Crow" appears nowhere. Racial segregation is mentioned only in passing. The internment of Japanese Americans is lumped together with the relatively trivial imprisonment of select Germans and Italians during World War II. And in the Texas public schools, Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism is finally vindicated.
The curriculum reviewers appointed by the liberal and moderate members of the Texas school board were all professors of history or education, reported the Wall Street Journal. Reviewers appointed by the conservatives, on the other hand, were mostly heads of conservative Christian organizations.
The conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which issues annual report cards on history instruction in the states, gave the State of Texas a "D."
The history curriculum cooked up by conservatives was a "confusing, un-teachable hodgepodge," ruled the Institute, "a politicized distortion of history" that was "unwieldy and troubling" and offering "misrepresentations at every turn."
Which all goes to show that when conservatives cannot destroy an institution from without they take it over in order to wreck it from within.
Along the front of the Massachusetts State House where I once worked, only five figures from our state's history have been immortalized in bronze: Daniel Webster, orator and senator; General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker, wounded at Antietam and humiliated by Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville; Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, both martyrs for religious freedom in the Puritan Bay Colony; John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States; and Horace Mann, father of public education.
The people of Massachusetts have cherished education ever since John Adams used just that word in our state's Constitution to describe the support he thought the citizens of the Commonwealth should always give to their public schools -- "wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties."
Horace Mann himself would later write: "if ever there was a cause -- if ever there can be a cause -- worthy to be upheld by all of toil to sacrifice that the human heart can endure, it is the cause of Education."
Conservatives of an earlier era, like Mann and Adams, understood the centrality of public education to a great society. How different they are from the oxygen-starved conservatives of today who think a little learning to be a dangerous thing.