Some Republican prospective presidential candidates this month turned to an unusual constituency in hopes of scoring Iowans’ caucuses votes: Parents who home-school their children. But in their bid to appeal to Christian-values voters, four hopefuls ended up taking aim at a proud American legacy that made us unique in the world: Public education.
Speaking at a Christian home schooling conference in Des Moines, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal slammed everything from restricting public education dollars to public schools to Common Core educational standards to accreditation policies that don’t hold Biblical teachings on par with college academic curricula.
As young children in the audience cried, squirmed or struggled to make sense of it all, Cruz called school choice “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” Huckabee said, “Decisions for your child’s education should not be in the hands of government, but of mothers and fathers.” Santorum exhorted: “We don’t need education standards or Common Core. We need parents!” He described home-schooling parents as “pioneers” and promised, “I’m going to make sure that you have control of the educational system from here on out!”
In fact, the real pioneers were those who took American education out of private homes and into schools after the Revolution. The colonists had relied on the family, church and community for education, though the success of that tended to depend on family income and education. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” President John Adams declared in 1785. “There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it — not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
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By 1870, every state had free elementary schools, and Americans had one of the highest literacy rates. Public funding, local and state control, an academic curriculum and separation of church and state were all key to mass public education. With proponents such as John Dewey, schooling came to be seen not just as a way to develop individual skills, but as a vehicle for social reform. In 1918, everyone was required to complete elementary school, and most states passed a constitutional amendment forbidding the use of tax money for parochial schools. Now, candidates courting Republican votes want to scrap that wall of separation. Some would allow tax dollars to follow a child whose family chooses private school or home schooling over public school.
Huckabee also was joined at an event by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, who became reality TV stars after birthing and home-schooling 19 children. Said Huckabee: “They exemplify the family you’d love for every family in America to be like.” He said they were saving the state millions by keeping their kids out of public school. “Shouldn’t we be grateful for that and be giving them back some of that money?” he asked.
No, we shouldn’t.
The Duggars may be great parents who’ve done a remarkable job of caring for and educating their children. But they made the choice to school them at home. Had they chosen public school, they would have had the benefit of taxpayer dollars. Siphoning money away from public to private schools would cause already fragile public schools to fail. Public education needs all the resources it can get.
And is it wise to make role models of people who don’t practice family planning and end up with such large families? How many parents could manage or afford it without their own TV show? And how many have a solid enough educational foundation or teaching skills to give their kids what they need to be truly educated? As it is, America is falling behind other countries in our grasp of math, sciences and technology. Now states, including Iowa, are exempting home-schooled children from testing and other requirements.
I asked Huckabee whether he was advocating having so many kids. He said yes, for parents who can handle it, adding, “I would never want the state to say the ideal family is X number of children.”
But there’s a big difference between government mandates and what’s in the best interests of families and society in the face of finite resources, financial burdens and the challenge of giving adequate attention to each child. India, for example, has tried to overcome cultural attitudes favoring big families with billboards promoting two or three children as enough.
If people turn to public assistance to help feed large families, these same politicians would be the first to criticize them for having so many kids. And you can’t just advocate big families for the rich.
Perhaps this is a subtle way of encouraging families back into traditional roles with stay-at-home mothers, because one of the great contributions of public education was liberating mothers from the responsibility of home-schooling their children. But it’s doubtful any of these politicians would be holding up a large Muslim family that taught their kids their religious values for emulation. It seems the real intent here is finding the backdrop to frame a narrative about a supposed war on Christianity. But in the process, the prospective presidential hopefuls are waging war on America’s history of progress.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for The Des Moines Register. Reach her at email@example.com.