How Segregation Helped Create The Religious Right and the School Privatization Movement
Introduction: In 1953, a year in advance of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that would rule racially segregated public schools unconstitutional, Georgia Governor Herman Talmage laid the groundwork for a voucher scheme that would privatize Georgia's public schools.
Following the election of New Jersey's new U.S. Senator, Cory Booker, StudentsFirst head Michelle Rhee emitted a series of chirpy congratulatory tweets which proclaimed, among other things, that "education is the civil rights issue of our time".
Rhee might just have a point, but as an article from the October 2013 issue of Rolling Stone explores, through their support for school privatization schemes Rhee and Booker (who enthusiastically endorses StudentsFirst) might not be on the better side of the issue.
In The Hidden War Against Gay Teens, Rolling Stone's Alex Morris explores the growth of taxpayer-funded Christian fundamentalist schools, funded by neo-voucher schemes in 12 US states, that actively practice anti-gay discrimination -- barring LGBT students from attending and even teaching that they are hated by God. Morris crisply explains,
"Georgia, along with 11 other states (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, Rhode Island, Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, New Hampshire, Louisiana and, most recently, Alabama), has adopted laws – sometimes referred to as "neovouchers" – to grant dollar-for-dollar tax credits to people who donate money to provide children with scholarships to private schools. In theory, such a plan has the potential to help a lot of students, but in practice, especially in deeply religious places like Georgia, it has also meant that millions of dollars have been redirected from public funds to privately run Student Scholarship Organizations, which can then funnel the money to schools with strict anti-gay policies. Because the money goes straight to the SSO and never actually enters the public coffers, it's free and clear of being considered a "public fund" – allowing church and state to technically be kept separate. All of which may sound fishy, but consider this: It's fully legal because the laws make it so. And, as the school-choice movement gains ground, it's certain that other states will soon pass similar legislation."Alex Morris' October 2013 Rolling Stone article also documents viciously anti-gay content taught by these neo-voucher funded Christian fundamentalist schools:
"The Accelerated Christian Education's 11th-grade science materials include a section on "Man's Corruptions," in which students are taught, "In Old Testament times, God commanded that homosexuals be put to death. Since God never commanded death for normal or acceptable actions, it is unreasonable to say that homosexuality is normal." A biology textbook published by the Bob Jones University Press begins a section on homosexuality by quoting Romans and goes on to say that "God calls homosexuality a sin and condemns those who engage in it." Such textbooks, and others with a similar stance on homosexuality, are part of the core curriculum in Georgia's Christian schools."
The Talmadge Plan
So where did these voucher schemes come from ? As it turns out, the original idea seems to trace back to a reactionary plan, hatched by staunch pro-segregationist racists such as Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge, that was never implemented but was designed to privatize all of Georgia's public schools in order to thwart to desegregation mandated by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.
Earlier this year, I came across a mention so intriguing that I was compelled to break a cardinal rule and buy a new book, at full price. That book was White Flight - Atlanta And The Making Of Modern Conservatism, by Kevin M. Kruse (2005, Princeton University Press).
On page 132, Kevin Kruse describes,
"At the heart of their plan to defend schools segregation, for instance, stood a revolutionary scheme called the "private-school plan." In 1953, a full year before Brown, Governor Talmadge advanced a constitutional amendment giving the general assembly the power to privatize the state's entire system of public education. In the event of a court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would instead receive grants to attend private, segregated schools. "We can maintain separate schools regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court", Talmadge promised, "by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision."
This is mind boggling, because the mechanism Talmadge envisioned, to protect Georgia's racist regime of segregated schools, is exactly the mechanism now used to channel taxpayer dollars to private schools in twelve states across the union.
Let me explain - in brief, the reason that neo-vouchers have been deemed to be constitutional is that the taxpayer money funding these schemes never actually goes into state coffers; taxpayers, both individuals and corporate, give the tax money, that they would otherwise pay to the state, instead to private nonprofits which disperse scholarships to students.
Court decisions have ruled that these schemes are not funding radically sectarian religious schools (which would be unconstitutional) - they're simply providing scholarship funding that enable students to attend those schools: a dubious and, as a practical point, virtually meaningless distinction.
It's not even necessary to rely on Kruse' tight scholarship to understand this underlying basic, horrid truth - that a plan hatched over fifty years ago to institutionalize racism, and segregated schools, has recrudesced and is in fact spreading, albeit in a nominally "non-racist" guise; here's a video of the late Governor Talmadge himself describing his planned segregationist voucher scheme:
[see my partial transcript at the end of this post]
Kevin Kruse, again from page 132, lays out the intensity of planning that went into the scheme to retain Georgia's segregated schools through a voucher-funded private school system:
"During the 1956 legislative session, for instance, the General Assembly strengthened the plan with several new laws. Legislators laid out a plan to transfer all public-school property and functions to private hands. No detail was left untouched. Procedures for fire marshal examinations of private schools, for instance, were reworded and made to conform to the standards for public ones. Likewise, the legislature amended the state retirement program to ensure that all public-school teachers would maintain their coverage at private institutions. If the courts ordered their schools to desegregate, the governor could thus switch everything to a nominally "private" system without missing a beat."
Then, Kruse drops a bombshell of a thesis - suggesting that this was the origin of the modern school privatization movement, at least in Southern states:
"As the private-school pan made clear, massive resistance had the potential to reshape the political and social landscape of the South. Although its proponents framed their resistance as a way to stop the clock on racial change and preserve the customs of the past, in truth the movement represented the first significant step toward a new conservative politics more attuned to the future. For it was in their challenge to integration that white southerners in Atlanta, and across the region, first considered major changes that they otherwise might never have contemplated--including complete abandonment of public education, and introduction of a system of tax breaks and tuition grants to fund the scheme."
Now, over a half century later, Talmadge's scheme is being implemented, and in many of the states which had active segregation back in Talmadge's day.
The Road To Neo-Voucher Segregation
The Talmadge plan would have created an entire regime of private schools by government fiat. But it was never implemented -- the historical arc of Southern "massive resistance" against desegregation took another route.
Following the public relations debacle of the 1925 Scopes Trial, Protestant fundamentalism retreated from the public sphere, to build its own private schools and institutions of higher learning. But eventually, events caught up with the movement:
Many who study the modern religious right as an American political movement that arose in the latter half of the 20th Century attribute its emergence, in part, to anger over the aftermath of a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Green v. Connally, which ruled the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code does not grant tax-exempt status (or allow for tax deductible contributions) to private schools that practice racial discrimination.
Then in 1975, under the presidential administration of Jimmy Carter, the IRS moved to revoke the tax exempt status of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University - which only dropped its ban on interracial dating in 2000, following an uproar over presidential candidate George W. Bush's visit to the school.
Stung by the Carter Administration's actions, because many conservative evangelicals and even fundamentalists had backed Carter's presidential bid, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals began their long reentry into electoral politics.
As key architect of the religious right Paul Weyrich recounted, "I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation."
Weyrich's admission was subject of an extended treatment by evangelical historian Randall Balmer, who in his 2006 book The Kingdom Come - An Evangelical's Lament - How The Religious Right Distorts The Faith and Threatens America writes,
"In the 1980s, in order to solidify their shift from divorce to abortion, the Religious Right constructed an abortion myth, one accepted by most Americans as true. Simply put, the abortion myth is this: Leaders of the Religious Right would have us believe that their movement began in direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Politically conservative evangelical leaders were so morally outraged by the ruling that they instantly shed their apolitical stupor in order to mobilize politically in defense of the sanctity of life....
Balmer describes being invited to a 1990 Washington, D.C. conference, attended by key leaders of the emerging religious right including Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, and Paul Weyrich, at which Weyrich - who since his work with the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign had sought to draw evangelicals into politics - pegged the pro-segregationist roots of the movement he helped engineer:
"[Weyrich] declared, in effect, that the origins of the Religious Right lay in Green v. Connally rather than Roe v. Wade. I quickly concluded, however, that his story made a great deal of sense. When I was growing up within the evangelical subculture, there was an unmistakably defensive cast to evangelicalism... The IRS attempt to deny tax-exempt status to segregated private schools, then, represented an assault on the evangelical subculture, something that raised an alarm among many evangelical leaders, who mobilized against it.
Balmer's frontal assault on the pervasive myth, cultivated by the religious right, that the movement arose in opposition to Roe v. Wade has not to this day been fully assimilated into mainstream political awareness, even though the religious right has come to exert a pervasive and even destabilizing impact on American electoral politics.
"During the meeting in Washington, D.C., Weyrich went on to characterize the leaders of the Religious Right as reluctant to take up the abortion cause even close to a decade after the Roe ruling. "I had discussions with all the leading lights of the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, post–Roe v. Wade," he said, "and they were all arguing that that decision was one more reason why Christians had to isolate themselves from the rest of the world."
Summing up, Balmer levels this searing indictment:
"The Religious Right arose as a political movement for the purpose, effectively, of defending racial discrimination at Bob Jones University and at other segregated schools. Whereas evangelical abolitionists of the nineteenth century sought freedom for African Americans, the Religious Right of the late twentieth century organized to perpetuate racial discrimination."
Amidst the tremendously complex architecture of the movement which emerged from that racist backlash Balmer describes, within the movement we know as the "religious right", is a key sector: education.
From the mid-1970s and up to the present, leaders of the movement founded new schools and universities -- such as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and Pat Robertson's Regent University, and myriad K-12 Christian private schools and academies. Fallwell's and Robertson's schools, and other such fundamentalist institutions of higher learning are now absorbing, each year, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding which, like the funding that flows through neo-voucher programs, is premised on the same thin technical distinction -- that it does not directly fund these schools but, rather, provides students tuition and loan money to attend them.
These institutions tend to champion Young Earth Creationism and deny evolution, and oppose LGBT rights (some quietly, some overtly); and they generally promote the raft of issues dear to the religious right as a movement -- opposition to government taxation and regulation, promotion of Laissez-faire capitalism, opposition to the environmental movement and the feminist movement, and promotion of a Christian nationalist and "biblical" worldview discussed by journalist Frederick Clarkson in a landmark essay published Spring 2007 in Public Eye magazine, History is Powerful - Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters:
"The notion that America was founded as a Christian nation is a central animating element of the ideology of the Christian Right. It touches every aspect of life and culture in this, one of the most successful and powerful political movements in American history. The idea that America's supposed Christian identity has somehow been wrongly taken, and must somehow be restored, permeates the psychology and vision of the entire movement. No understanding of the Christian Right is remotely adequate without this foundational concept.
So, to sum up -- the modern religious right movement which began, per its own key leaders, as a racist backlash against court-mandated desegregation, went on to found fundamentalist schools that - as As Alex Morris' Rolling Stone story lays out - are now receiving, with the enthusiastic backing of Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst, funding through neo-voucher programs, in what amounts to a new, state-supported anti-gay, segregationist private school system.
The principle underlying difference between the privatization plan created in Georgia in the 1950s and the current neo-voucher system, beyond surface distinctions, is this: the Talmdage plan was reactive - it sought to protect the established segregationist order. The neo-voucher-funded fundamentalist schools both establish a new, anti-LGBT segregationist regime but also further a wider project -- the goal of "reclaiming America", and remaking it as the once and future Christian nation.
LGBT Students and Science Last
"In accordance with the Statement of Faith and in recognition of Biblical principles, no "immoral act" or "identifying statements" concerning fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, or pornography, will be tolerated. Such behavior will constitute grounds for expulsion... " -- Official school policy at Cherokee Christian Schools, a Georgia private school currently receiving state tax money under a tuition tax credit program that was expanded in 2011 by the StudentsFirst 2012 "educator of the year" former Georgia state senator "Chip" Rogers.
In 2013 Michelle Rhee's pro-school privatization organization StudentsFirst nominated TN state representative John Ragan, who a year earlier had compared LGBT sex to murder and child-abuse, "Educator of the Year".
In early 2012, Ragan had co-sponsored a Tennessee bill (HB1153) which would have allowed forms of school bullying that expressed "religious, philosophical, or political views." Responding to a January 2012 letter from a Tennessee lesbian high school student who was concerned about the "license to bully" bill, Representative Ragan suggested that LGBT sex was behaviorally similar to rape, murder, child-abuse, and overeating.
After receiving his 2012 StudentsFirst "reformer of the year" nomination, Ragan soldiered on to co-sponsor another TN state legislature bill, the "don't say gay" bill (HB1332), which would have not only blocked discussion of homosexuality in Tennessee schools but also required school officials to tell parents about students who are gay or who simply were suspected of being gay.
It was a notable public relations debacle - Ragan was exposed as a die-hard anti-gay crusader of the religious right and embattled school privatization champion Michelle Rhee incurred the wrath of both LGBT rights advocates, and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party (nonetheless, StudentsFirst still supports the nomination.)
In an apparent attempt at PR damage control, in April 2013, StudentsFirst staff member Eric Lerum boasted of StudentsFirsts' alleged support for gay rights, tweeting, "We were 1st ntl edreform org to support anti-bullying, to my knowledge. Whole staff did It Gets Better video."
StudentsFirst continued to stand by its nomination of Ragan, despite his position in the vanguard of Tennessee anti-LGBT legislation, until June 6th, when StudentsFirst head Michelle Rhee wrote, on the StudentsFirst website,
"[John Ragan's] introduction of ill-conceived and harmful legislation including HB 1332 — which would have cultivated a culture of bullying — does not represent the type of leadership we look for in our legislative champions.
But - unnoticed until now - StudentsFirst's 2012 "Educator of the Year", former Georgia state senator "Chip" Rogers was just as problematic, and for similar reasons.:
StudentsFirst's nomination of Rogers as "Education Reformer of the Year" originally came under fire because then-Senator Rogers had sponsored three separate pieces of anti-immigrant bills, "one of which would cut off all state services to illegal immigrants" according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But immigrants were not the only group in Rogers' legislative crosshairs.
Although Tennessee Rep. Ragan's failed antigay legislation earned considerable notoriety, StudentsFirst's "Education Reformer of the Year" for 2012, former Georgia Senate Majority Leader "Chip" Rogers, has arguably played a more substantive role in battling LGBTI rights - by helping expand (see page 10, linked PDF) Georgia's tax credit program that, as reported by the New York Times on January 20, 2013 - channels millions of state tax dollars to virulently anti-gay Georgia private religious schools that use creationist educational curricula filled with inaccuracies, historical revisionism, heavy political slant, denigration of non-Protestant fundamentalist religious beliefs, and bizarre pseudo-scientific claims.
In a statement concerning Rogers' 2012 nomination as "Educator of The Year", StudentsFirst's Vice President Tim Melton praised Rogers' support for "innovative approaches to learning" and declared, "Sen. Rogers has played an invaluable role as a strong and devoted ally in driving education reform initiatives in Georgia."
"Georgia's tax credit scholarship program has diverted more than $170 million in taxpayer funds to cover the tuition costs of students in private schools during the last four years... This program of educational tax credits is providing public financing to a large number of private schools in Georgia that have draconian anti-gay policies and practices."
In effect, Georgia's tuition tax credit scheme is financing a rebirth of school segregationism that explicitly targets gays rather than blacks. According to the Southern Education Foundation January 2013 report,
"At least 115 private schools participating in Georgia's tax-funded scholarship program have explicit, severe anti-gay policies or belong to state and national private school associations that promote anti-gay policies and practices among their members. These schools constitute approximately one-fourth of all private schools that are currently affiliated with SSOs in Georgia's tax-funded scholarship program. There is also a larger number of religious schools, many involved in the state tax credit program, that use textbooks and curriculum materials in the classrooms condemning both homosexuality and gays.
Neo-Vouchers, Privatization, and a New Civil Rights Movement
In recent years, LGBT rights advocates have explicitly compared the battle for gay rights to the Civil Rights movement and, indeed, Georgia's growing tuition tax credit program itself carries troubling echoes of the Peach State's pro-segregationist past :
Following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, then-Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge had warned that "blood will run in Atlanta's streets." Declared Talmadge, "We intend to maintain separate schools in Georgia, one way or another."
That very year, 1954, Talmadge's term as governor ran out, and the Georgia constitution barred him from a second term. Former governor Talmadge went on to a long career as a member of the U.S. Senate, where he voted against the 1964 civil rights and the 1965 voting rights bills.
While Talmadge's segregationist voucher scheme was never implemented, the lineage carries on - through voucher and tuition tax credit schemes rapidly spreading across the nation, propelled by massive amounts of corporate cash and championed by strategists of the Christian right, notably Dick DeVos and Betsy DeVos, head of the pro-privatization group American Federation For Children.
According to People For The American Way Fellow Peter Montgomery,
"Religious Right leaders and anti-government ideologues have shared a decades-long dream: to dismantle public education through a system of vouchers that would divert taxpayer funds out of public schools and into religious schools and other private academies. For some, privatizing education is primarily a religious or ideological project. For others, the billions of dollars that flow through public schools is a tempting source of cash."
As researcher Rachel Tabachnick explains, in a Public Eye article on the spread of "school choice" initiatives across America, tuition tax credit schemes were conceived by pro-school privatization forces, following the decisive voter rejection of school voucher initiatives in California and Michigan in the 2000 election, as a rebranding tactic to move past the racist stigma associated with vouchers.
In 2002, during a speech to the Heritage Foundation in which he outlined a state-by-state "stealth" strategy to advance school privatization, Amway fortune heir Dick DeVos warned "We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities".
"Welfare for the rich"
In the 2011 legislative session, StudentsFirst's 2012 "Educator of the Year" Senate Majority Leader "Chip" Rogers helped pass legislation enabling financial expansion of the Georgia tuition tax credit program, which has since come under increasing criticism, for its apparent purpose - as a tax subsidy for private schools that ultimately drains money from Georgia's public school system and seems to violate the spirit of Georgia's state constitution, by funneling tax money to sectarian religious schools.
Beyond gay rights and church-state separation concerns, programs such as Georgia's raise issues of economic fairness:
In a February 28, 2013 report, the Washington Post suggested that state tuition tax credit programs may amount to "welfare for the rich". Wrote author Valerie Strauss,
"Call it welfare for the rich. Why? Wealthy businesses and individuals are the folks who get the tax credits for putting up the cash to pay the tuition. Furthermore, the amount of money for tuition made available for tuition by private scholarship organizations often does not actually cover the full cost of attending a private school. Poor families can't make up the difference. Guess who can."
Strauss' Washington Post story followed a May 22, 2012 New York Times report from Stephanie Saul, which noted only a small percent of Georgia's tuition tax credit program money benefits poor children and observed that, nationally, tuition tax credit programs serve a number of less-than fully altruistic goals:
"Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs... redirected nearly $350 million [in 2012] that would have gone into public budgets...
Tea Party Republicans first ?
StudentsFirst's 2012 endorsement of Former Georgia Senator "Chip" Rogers initially hit heavy criticism last August because, while StudentsFirst officially supports the immigration reform DREAM Act, Senator Rogers was author of three draconian anti-immigrant bills and was identified in a 2004 Southern Poverty Law Center report as being part of a growing movement of "xenophobic hatred" in Georgia.
Although Michelle Rhee has touted her StudentsFirst effort as bipartisan, the slate of candidates it backed in 2012 suggests otherwise.
In the 2012 electoral cycle, 90 out of the 105 candidates nationally who were financially backed by StudentsFirst as "education reform" candidates were Republicans, many of whom were on the far right. One was "Chip" Rogers, who received $1750 from StudentsFirst and $4800 from the pro-school privatization group American Federation For Children. In the same year StudentsFirst gave $6500 to help reelect Tennessee Representative John Ragan.
Chip Rogers' tenure in the Georgia Senate did not long survive his reelection or his selection by StudentsFirst as a hero of education "reform".
In October 2012 at a private Georgia Republican caucus session, Senator Rogers organized and presided over a 4-hour presentation led by a former Georgia Tea Party member who gave an extended Powerpoint presentation in which he warned that the nonbinding United Nations Resolution known as Agenda 21, which encourages sustainable development, is in fact part of a United Nations conspiracy to impose a totalitarian one world government.
The presentation claimed the Obama Administration planned to implement the evil plot using Cold War-era mind control techniques.
Following negative publicity over the event, which was partially filmed by a Georgia public-interest group which publicly released the footage, Senator Rogers opted, in November 2012, not to run for a third two-year term as Georgia Senate Majority Leader. The following December, Rogers resigned his senate seat and subsequently was appointed, amidst considerable controversy to head the Georgia Public Broadcasting corporation.
Former Senator Rogers' October caucus session was even more extreme than media coverage suggested. The session also featured a screening of a one and a half hour conspiracy theory-packed documentary video named "Agenda: Grinding America Down", by evangelical activist Curtis Bowers.
Bowers' video depicts liberals, progressives, and the Democratic Party as part of a covert communist plot to infiltrate, subvert, and destroy American democracy, free enterprise, the family, and Judeo-Christian civilization -- a grand conspiracy alleged to include the feminist movement, the "homosexual movement", the environmental movement, the anti-war movement, Moveon.com, Media Matters For America, A.C.O.R.N. and, needless to say, President Barack Obama.
In the video's introduction Bowers intones,
"History has proven beyond any doubt that the free enterprise that freedom produces more for anyone willing to work than any other system. So why would the left still be pushing their socialist agenda on us ? I mean, it's really just microwave communism. There's really only two possibilities. They're either ignorant, or they're evil."
Partial transcript, Talmadge video
footnote #1: this is my original story introduction, which I rewrote October 20, 2013.
"School privatization schemes, hatched during the racist Southern backlash against the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, are now both undermining the urban public schools that many African-American students attend by siphoning taxpayer money off in neo-voucher schemes that fund white-dominated wealthy suburban schools and are also funding a new segregation regime that discriminates against LGBT students and even teaches that they are hated by God. Michelle Rhee's national pro-school privatization group StudentsFirst appears to be all for it."
How Segregation Helped Create The Religious Right and the School Privatization Movement | 6 comments (6 topical, 0 hidden)
How Segregation Helped Create The Religious Right and the School Privatization Movement | 6 comments (6 topical, 0 hidden)