Vail Daily column: Right wing’s stealth take-over of school boards
Conservatives have found a magic formula to win local school board elections. They replay a plot from the 1950s TV Superman show. Amiable Clark Kent, a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, goes into a telephone booth. He exits as Superman with a huge letter “S” on his chest. This fearless crusader bends steel bars with his bare hands to handcuff crooks. Superman asserts law and order to restore the American way.
Since the early 1990s, conservatives have co-opted Superman’s strategy. They use stealth to pack local school boards, propelling Tea Party candidates to victory.
During campaigns, these school board candidates gently speak of restoring the American way of patriotism and free market economics. Softening their tone, they don’t rile the opposition. Neither do they disturb a large, lethargic voting bloc that skips the ballot box.
This stealth strategy’s key component speaks primarily to the conservative base that votes as a bloc in high numbers. In the early 1990s, Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition, outlined how stealth wins school board elections. “We’re trying to generate as large a voter turnout as possible among our constituency,” divulged Reed, “by communicating with them in a way that does not attract the fire of our opponents.”
Illinois State University historian Andrew Hartman, in his book “A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars,” recounts how this stealth strategy initially “worked to perfection in Vista, California, a suburb of San Diego, where conservatives gained a three-person majority on the five member school board in 1992.”
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Once seated, a battle raged over texts that teach about evolution. The school board’s majority wanted students indoctrinated with a “Creationist Creed,” — that the opening chapters of Genesis are based on scientific fact, whereas Darwinian evolution is “merely theory.” These conservatives were recalled in 1995.
Does history repeat itself in Jefferson County, Colorado? Conservatives won three seats on a five-member school board. Since taking office, they have caused a ruckus. With their stealth campaign exposed, many voters asleep in the last election are irked. They have signed an approved recall petition which comes up for vote in November.
Once seated, these conservative school board members become bare-knuckled fighters. They demanded revision of Jeffco schools’ curriculum, specifically with respect to Advanced Placement U.S. history. They advocated history texts with “materials (that) should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
This language sounds familiar. Conservatives have used it in Texas since the 1960s in their cultural war to control how U.S. history is taught.
Didn’t colonial patriots arouse civil disorder, cause social strife and disregard King George III’s edicts, which led to the Revolutionary War? This is a part of our national past that students must be taught.
The conservative stealth campaign can be traced back to President George Washington’s No. 1 nemesis. Anti-establishment colonials thought Washington’s administration bungled foreign policy and were heavy-handed in orchestrating local affairs. They settled for nothing less than local control in government.
In fact, conservatives who demanded local control of government uncorked Washington’s explosive temper. He railed against them in his 1794 message to Congress in which the president blamed these anti-federalist conservatives for threatening the existence of the nation.
Our first president’s heirs have had it with the Jeffco School Board’s majority. They have forced a right wing partisan political agenda on a school district that previously distinguished itself nationally for its educational excellence.
Top-notch teachers have left Jeffco’s schools for better opportunities in neighboring school districts. They are discouraged by a 10-month contract and a 1 percent pay increase after years of frozen wages.
The conservative Jeffco school board’s majority won seats because of covert funding that’s difficult to trace. The Colorado chapter of the Koch brothers’ “American for Prosperity,” has dumped mega-bucks into local campaigns. David and Charles Koch stealthily sponsor candidates. They run expensive TV ads that appear non-partisan. Pictured are candidates with their kids, wishing every child might benefit from down-home family values that protect tradition, teach about market-driven economies and instill patriotic values.
Such candidates distrust public education. They send their children to private schools or to for-profit charter institutions that mix patriotism with evangelical Christian ethics. Some home school their kids around the kitchen table.
Thomas Jefferson advocated robust public education because he realized an informed citizenry made the Republic flourish. Early in his legislative career, conservatives shot down Jefferson’s ambitious plan for public education because they wanted no new taxes.
Who does? Except when such taxes afford students, rich or poor, the ability to think clearly, take personal responsibility, listen to opposing convictions and protest when a comfortable conservative majority isn’t fair or above-board.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.