Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Moms for Liberty may be on the wane. Jennifer Berkshire, a lecturer at Yale's Education Studies Department is wary of writing the group off because these moms have a purpose far bigger than the banner issue it's run on, which is notably a dud.
Jennifer Berkshire: We know from polls that there is almost no single issue that unites people across party lines in opposition like book banning. That it is incredibly unpopular, and at a time when we don't really agree on anything, that's pretty remarkable. I do think that that has had an effect. I'll give you an example. When a parent's bill of rights came up in Congress earlier this summer, you saw congressional Republicans racing to get away from the idea that it was basically an embrace of book banning, but you still see all kinds of efforts at the state and local level to limit access to particular books.
Right now, the kind of organized efforts is to have parents show up at school board meetings and read passages from books and then demand that the books be pulled off of shelves right away.
Brooke Gladstone: Even though Moms for Liberty's preferred candidates lost in November, and the press sees a dim future for the group. You think the obits are premature. Why?
Jennifer Berkshire: Because we are judging the success or failure of Moms for Liberty by the wrong metric. We're looking at how they faired in school board elections and saying, "Hey, look, their candidates keep losing. That means they're a dud." What my co-author and I argue, is that Moms for Liberty is really part of a broader ecosystem that's aimed at sewing distrust in our public schools. That effort has had enormous success.
I would point you to something like recent Gallup polling. We know, it's no secret that American trust and institutions has plummeted across the board, but something like only 26% of Americans say that they have faith in public schools. Among Republicans, it's even lower, it's 14%. Groups like Moms for Liberty have played a huge part in exacerbating the erosion of that trust.
Brooke Gladstone: In fact, you've observed that even their electoral losses have an upside because every time there's a headline like progressives' sweep to power in school board elections, it suggests that public schools are partisan institutions.
Jennifer Berkshire: That's really the goal in these campaigns, is to send a message that we cannot agree on anything anymore, and that that's reflected at every level of what our schools teach. Let's go with school privatization, with school vouchers, with what are called education savings account. I'll go to my red school, you go to your blue school, and we'll just live our separate lives.
The more we see the headlines and the constant fighting over what gets taught and who gets to decide, the more it plays into this larger narrative that schools have become partisan and that the goal is actually to take them back and make them partisan in a different direction.
Brooke Gladstone: Here's what partly confuses me. You have these electoral losses, but you have Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, recently saying that they're just getting started. The group's ramping up for 2024.
Jennifer Berkshire: They're not losing all of their elections. They're still winning a quarter of a time. If you are on the right, you are fed a steady diet of school-related outrage stories. I'm on mailing lists for a number of these publications, so all day long I get alerts. It could be about oppression Olympics or some teacher refusing to let parents know about pronouns. Now it's about the Middle East. You have this really, really energized base for whom these issues are a priority.
In many ways, the Moms for Liberty dilemma reflects the larger dilemma within the Republican Party. Election cycle after election cycle, the issues that animate the base are not fairing well in swing states. In fact, they seem to be animating opposition to the extent that their candidates are losing. As long as these are the issues that animate the base, the groups are responding to that.
Brooke Gladstone: In terms of the larger project then, where's the money coming from? Who's behind the wheel?
Jennifer Berkshire: The Heritage Foundation has been an early and very loud backer of Moms for Liberty. There, I think it's really instructive to see that they are the leader of the project 2025 that's laying out the agenda for a next Trump administration. You can look at their education platform, it is not about taking back school boards. It's about dismantling public education entirely. A Heritage scholar penned a very influential op-ed last year in which he made the case to really lean into the culture war. That this was the greatest opportunity that proponents of things like school vouchers and education savings accounts have ever had.
I think it's really important to understand Moms for Liberty as part of that larger ecosystem. In 2021, Christopher Rufo gave a really influential speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan called Laying Siege to the Institutions.
Brooke Gladstone: Christopher Rufo is of the Conservative Manhattan Institute and is also credited with popularizing the notion of critical race theory as a pernicious influence in education.
Jennifer Berkshire: That's correct. He was arguing that basically beginning in the '60s, that all of our major institutions, including higher education, corporations like Disney, and K-12 education, have been captured by the left, and that the right has to lay siege to them. Arguing for what he calls universal school choice. He makes the case that really the only way we're ever going to get to that policy goal is by sewing universal public school distrust. He absolutely put his finger on what we're seeing right now. We now have 10 states and more are coming where these sweeping universal school choice policies have been enacted. And that basically means that instead of kids going to traditional public schools, the funding goes directly to parents no matter how wealthy those parents are. Then they decide not just where kids go to school, is it going to be a private religious school, some kind of independent school, but it's up to them to define what school is, period. It can just be purchasing things on Amazon. What we're seeing in all of these states is that the families who are taking advantage of these sweeping new programs are affluent families who are now getting their private school tuition paid for.
Brooke Gladstone: Wasn't this voucher money supposed to go to low-income kids, to marginalized kids? You're saying that the money is going to the wealthiest people in the state. How do you know?
Jennifer Berkshire: As unregulated as these programs are, that minimal data is something we have access to. There's been great coverage of this, including a recent story in The Wall Street Journal by an education reporter named Matt Barnum, that what we are seeing in state after state is that in the early phases of these new programs, that the parents who are most likely to take advantage of them are not the parents of low-income and minority kids in the public schools despite that being the big sales pitch, that instead they are affluent parents whose kids already attended private school. When lawmakers are making the case for these programs, they are making the Moms for Liberty arguments.
Brooke Gladstone: What's the incentive behind tearing down the public school system because it's expensive?
Jennifer Berkshire: Well, there are some people who have never liked the idea of public education because it's the most socialist thing that we do in this country. We tax ourselves to pay for it and everybody gets to access it. That's not a very American thing to do. Then you have conservative religious activists. They see a real opening, thanks to a whole string of Supreme Court cases to use public dollars to fund religious education. Then you have people who don't believe in public education for other reasons. Education is the single largest budget item in most states. If your goal is to cut taxes way back, if your goal is to give a handout to the wealthiest people in your state, spending less on education is going to be an absolute requirement.
The same states that are enacting these sweeping school voucher programs, if you look at states like Iowa and Arkansas, they've ushered in huge tax cuts for their wealthiest residents. That means that within the next few years, there will no longer be enough funds available to fund their public schools, even at a time when they have effectively picked up the tab for affluent residents of the state who already send their kids to private schools. What's going to happen? We are going to see more and more of an effort to shift the burden of paying for education onto the shoulders of the "consumers." That's the parents. Think about the way we pay for higher ed. We treat it as a private good and its users are expected to pay for it themselves. I think that's where we're headed with K12 education.
Brooke Gladstone: You mentioned earlier how it's just like socialism to some people, that it's not very American, which suggests that the hostility to public school may have something to do with the ethos behind public education, which is to create an educated electorate and to advance the common collective good.
Jennifer Berkshire: I think that's such a key observation. There's a great book that came out recently, it's called The Big Myth, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, and I know you interviewed them on this show. One of the arguments that they make is that the original parents' rights crusade in the US was actually in opposition to the effort to ban child labor. The groups really driving that opposition, like the National Association of Manufacturers, these conservative industry groups, what they were opposed to was an effort to muck up what they saw as the natural state of affairs that would be inequality.
This is all happening at the same time that we have new laws on the state books, basically requiring parents to send their kids to public schools, and these industry leaders look around and they think there are some kids who just are meant to work in factories or they're meant to work in mines. If you're going to say that everybody has to get an education, you are getting in the way of that natural order. I think what is so striking today is how much of that kind of thinking you hear coming back to the fore.
Brooke Gladstone: If you never believed in promoting equality, then you'd want to return to the original educational model which we had, where rich people paid for it themselves. In this particular case, is there inequality in the fact that both rich and poor are getting vouchers to choose their place of education?
Jennifer Berkshire: I think to answer that question, we have to predict what the future is going to look like. I was mentioning a little bit ago that these same states that have enacted these big programs have also cut taxes.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. We're talking about Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina.
Jennifer Berksh: The more parents are expected to shoulder the burden of paying for schools themselves, the more we're going to see inequality explode. I'll give you an example, in addition to the research that shows us that the parents who are taking advantage of these programs are affluent parents who already sent their kids to private schools, another thing we're finding out is that schools in these states are now raising tuition. They look at their customer base and think, "Well, if somebody was paying $11,000 before they got the voucher, they're not going to have any trouble paying an additional, say, $5,000." That is guaranteed to explode inequality.
Brooke Gladstone: How do you think journalists can more responsibly report on the story of Moms for Liberty and the larger effort to deep-six public education?
Jennifer Berkshire: I think this is a tough topic for journalists for a couple of reasons. One is that education journalism tends to be a world unto itself. The people who live there and report on it have been tasked with covering schools really over the past 20, 30 years in a very particular way. That is to judge their success and their failure by how they do in terms of raising standardized test scores. Now suddenly, we are seeing a fundamental shift, basically a values argument from the right that, "We're not going to care so much about standardized tests anymore, we're going to care about things like religion and what parents want. As customers, they can vote with their feet." You have education journalists who are suddenly in this brave new world of ideology and politics and they're really uncomfortable with it.
Then you have the reporters who are comfortable in that world of politics and understand the right, but to them, education is a mystery. I think that in many ways this explains why the coverage of a topic like Moms for Liberty has so often been lacking. We heard over and over again stories about these candidates running, but much less about how poorly they fared and why, and I'll give you a specific example. ProPublica did an amazing piece about a DEI director for a Georgia school district who was basically hounded out of her job before she even started by angry white parents. Well, some of those parents then ran for school board. What we never heard about was that locals overwhelmingly rejected them. To me, that indicates that there is some fundamental part of this story that we have not been told.
Brooke Gladstone: What about the coverage of the larger goal, the larger project? I understand why it was perhaps for the National Association of Manufacturers, they were going to lose free labor and a system of inequality that made that labor forever abundantly available, but why now?
Jennifer Berkshire: For people who have been opposed to public education, sometimes dating back decades, the fallout from the pandemic and the culture wars have really created an opening to push through policies aimed at dismantling public schools that are actually really unpopular with the public. As long as the coverage and the focus remains on things like book banning and trans athletes and bathrooms and pronouns, the fact that people are losing this institution, a pillar of our democracy just remains out of view.
Brooke Gladstone: Jennifer, thank you very much.
Jennifer Berkshire: Thank you so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Jennifer Berkshire lectures at Yale's Education Studies Department, and she co-hosts the Education podcast, Have You Heard? That's the show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Candice Wang with help from Shaan Merchant. Our technical director, Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Brendan Dalton. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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