It turns out your mom was right — one shouldn’t discuss politics and religion in polite society. Of course, in my Russell County family, politics, religion and the price of wheat, cattle, and oil, are the only discussions I remember. It seems we are in a place now where those two topics – religion and politics — are not only discussed but are used as a filter to categorize everyone into camps. It has become so prevalent that my apolitical wife asked me recently, “When did education become so political?” And now she’s sorry she ever asked this political junkie and former history teacher that question, and you may be too.
The fact is, education in America has always been political. And politics in America has always involved religion and race. Just in my lifetime, these issues are inextricably intertwined influences on our education system.
Since public education is a government function, it is inherently political. Some detractors throw the “Government Schools” moniker around like it is some evil insult. In the Gettysburg address, Lincoln reminded us that our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people…” So, if “government schools” is intended as an insult, who is really being insulted? Politics cannot be separated from government, and neither can religion and race be separated from politics.
The little clapboard church in Bunker Hill, Kansas, is a central memory point from my childhood. Fond memories of Vacation Bible School, and being the fat kid in red rover games (the only game we get picked first for) exist alongside a memory of my Dad, at the time a school administrator, coming home to give a sermon on the importance of the government staying out of the establishment of religion. His example of how Fidel Castro misused religious practices to manipulate students has stayed with me for over 50 years. Nevertheless, educators are constantly walking the fine lines drawn in the Supreme Court’s Lemon Test. The who, what, when, and where of school prayer have become political footballs. Human development and sexuality classes, teaching evolution, and LGBT rights have become political for religious reasons.
For Kansans, the intersection of race politics and education reached an apex in the 1954 Brown v. Board case that started right here in Topeka. In a storybook world, segregation and discrimination ended with that verdict. In reality, recent studies have shown that schools today are more segregated than ever, not because of Jim Crow, but because of more subtle redlining laws, discriminatory practices, and self-selection. In an interesting “coincidence,” school vouchers were introduced throughout the South in 1955 as a means of providing white students the opportunity to attend private schools away from black students. In Virginia, public schools were closed for a year because of mandated integration. The seeds of Milton Freidman’s free market theories found fertile ground in the Jim Crow south, allowing the voucher movement to take root and grow into all society. Across America, we still struggle with discussing race and acting on equity in education.
In my family, education has always been seen as answering a higher call. My wife’s question reminded me of that moment when I realized why others do not view it that way. In our democracy, healthy disagreement works to improve the system. I have come to realize questions about practices lead to better practices, more research, and stronger systems.
Unfortunately, our current political environment has developed into us against them. If you disagree with me, you are an immoral, un-American, evil-doer. If I hold a contrary position on an issue, then we must disagree about everything. As education leaders, we cannot allow all or nothing national politics to contaminate healthy disagreement and respectful debate about how to best serve all our students. In the past few months I have witnessed our KASB Legislative Committee and Delegate Assembly have healthy, respectful debate about difficult issues. We should let the tenor of these discussions be a model.
As we move forward as a system, we must remember that education is by its nature political, but politics doesn’t have to be ugly. By listening and learning from each other, we can move forward and make positive improvements for all of our students.