It seems as if the school culture wars have never been fiercer or more bizarre. Conservatives are rejecting textbooks — even math textbooks — for including “prohibited topics” and attempting to “indoctrinate students.” Politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) are accusing teachers of targeting “White babies” with Marxist teaching. State leaders are calling teachers “groomers,” accusing them falsely of intentionally sexualizing children to satisfy their own predatory desires. The pitch is feverish, apocalyptic. It feels like a critical moment in a nationwide war for control of America’s public schools.
It’s not. Conservative activists would like nothing better than to call their attacks on public education a “war,” but, in fact, America’s school culture wars ended long ago and conservatives lost. The battles in today’s headlines are something different: part of a desperate retreat, an attempt to loot as many resources as possible from public schools on the way out the door, in the grim recognition that conservatives can only destroy what they can never control.
A century ago, a true school culture war raged. Conservatives in the infamous Ku Klux Klan waged a campaign to seize control of every facet of public education nationwide. They planned to spread White supremacy by dramatically increasing public school funding; they even hoped to outlaw private school alternatives.
In the 1920s, the KKK claimed millions of members across the country. They controlled state governments from Indiana to Colorado to Oregon. They relished their reputation as vigilante enforcers of America’s religious and racial hierarchy, and they had their eyes set on imposing their strangled vision of “100 percent Americanism” in the nation’s public schools.
Unlike today’s conservatives, they did not try to weaken public education. To the contrary, they saw strengthening public schools as their most important goal. As Klan leader Hiram Evans preached in 1923, “the greatest duty of America today is to build up our educational system.” At the federal level, Evans called for a new Cabinet-level Department of Education with a then-extravagant $100 million budget to improve the quality of local public schools.
Not only would public schools be better, the Klan promised, they would also be mandatory. In a dozen states, from California to Michigan, the Klan pushed laws to make private education illegal. As the Klan’s list of enemies grew in the 1920s to include recent immigrants, particularly Catholics and Jews, they feared that private schools — especially Catholic ones — would undermine their ability to dictate the messages they wanted all American children to receive. In Oregon, they succeeded. The state passed its anti-private school law in 1922.
The Klan dreamed of forcing all children — no matter what race or religion — to receive a Klan-controlled education. As Evans crudely put it, the Klan’s dream was to “take every child in all America and put him in the public school of America … [w]e will build a homogenous people, we will grind out Americans like meat out of a grinder.”
At the local level, the Klan made its vision of public education clear. They took over local school boards in cities and towns nationwide. Once in control, they fired Catholic teachers and made racial segregation more complete.
The Klan pushed for a new, “patriotic” history textbook as well. Evans complained that textbooks, particularly those used in Catholic schools, had “been so perverted that Americanism is falsified, distorted and betrayed.”
At every level, the Klan’s goal was nothing less than the total transformation of American society through the reimagining of its public schools. It was more than a protest. It was a real culture war, an attempt to turn public schools into Klan schools and Klan schools into the nation’s only schools.
Perhaps most important, the Klan was not alone. In the 1920s, the Klan plausibly claimed allies in a variety of mainstream organizations. The Klan’s preferred U.S. history textbook, for example, had been commissioned by the American Legion. And though Evans expressed it far more violently, he did not create his education policy on his own. He copied it from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher organization, a group that called immigrants in 1918 a “peril to free institutions … nurtured upon alien ideals.”
With such prominent, mainstream allies on its side, the Klan fought a true war for America’s public schools. In the end, though, the Klan lost.
The Supreme Court threw out the Klan’s Oregon public school law in 1925, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters. The justices concluded that the law asserted too much state control over education. It took away parental rights and diluted the power of the educational market.
Mainstream fellow travelers soon abjured any relationship with the Klan. Conservatives in the American Legion withdrew their support of their Klan-supported history textbook. The book, they concluded, was “filled with incomplete and inaccurate statements,” and it attacked too explicitly “foreign-born citizens and the descendants of recent immigrants.” The National Education Association, too, denounced the Klan’s efforts to criminalize private schools.
Despite Evans’s grand promises, there was no new Department of Education. With small-government conservative Republicans in the White House throughout the 1920s, there was no huge injection of federal money into local schools. At the state and local levels, Klan governors and school boards soon lost, their educational plans stymied and abandoned.
Today we face yet another round of bruising and confusing battles about public schools. Activist groups such as Moms for Liberty have tried to ban books, even children’s books about sea horses, objecting to descriptions of sea horse couples “twist[ing] their tails together and twirl[ing] gently around.” “Don’t Say Gay” bills have spread across the country, potentially restricting teachers’ ability to even discuss gender and families in school. Cynical strategists such as Chris Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, have openly declared their goal to sow “universal public school distrust.”
In Florida, conservatives have gone further than sowing distrust; they have helped pay for it by making more public money available to pay private-school tuitions. Their leader, Gov. Ron DeSantis, would like nothing more than to have his policies seen as a war. He relishes his self-promoted image as a warrior. As he put it: “I don’t care what Hollywood says. I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I am not backing down.”
But destructive attacks like these are not a war for control of public education. We’ve seen what that looked like. In a war for public education, both sides try to get more money into the public system, not out of it. In the 1920s war, in the name of “100 percent Americanism,” extremists tried to force students into public schools, not give them tuition for private ones.
Today’s battles are different. Conservative attacks on public schools represent a decidedly minority viewpoint. As polls have shown for years, most parents are happy with their children’s public schools. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, over 4 out of 5 parents said their schools “handled the pandemic well.” And contrary to conservative charges that schools are exposing children to too much information about race and sexuality, a large majority (71 percent) of respondents say that schools are teaching about race either the right amount (37 percent) or too little (34 percent), and about sexuality the right amount (40 percent) or too little (31 percent).
The history is clear: Today’s conservatives are attacking public schools, but they are not fighting a war to control them. But their tactics make perfect sense when we see them for what they are: an attempt to pillage the nation’s public education system and divert funds into private schools that conservatives actually have the ability to control.