The conservative political movement has continually used schooling, especially homeschooling, as a cudgel in a larger political war over race, religion, and sex.
“The firestorm that you’re about to see,” Steve Bannon said recently, “is the American mothers. When you’ve got to go back to school and Fauci’s been talking about vaccinating the kids and using the school, going back to school as a forcing function between the mask and the CRT (critical race theory).”
Bannon’s podcast guests then urged parents to sign a pledge to homeschool their children during the week of Sept. 13 as a part of “peaceful noncompliance” under the hashtag of #ParentRising to protest school mask and vaccine mandates.
It’s not the first time that Donald Trump’s former chief strategist has put together women, race, and education. It was an undercurrent of his 2010 Citizens United movie, Fire from the Heartland, which featured conservative leaders like Phyllis Schlafly, Michele Bachmann and Dana Loesch, who’d each been vocal advocates for homeschooling as a socially conservative respite from all that was supposedly wrong with public education. And now it’s key to Bannon’s 2022 congressional electoral strategy.
But this story has been told long before Bannon entered the national stage. In fact, it features in what experts have called the mecca of the conservative movement: Kanawha County, West Virginia, and the Textbook War of 1974. Others, like journalist Rick Perlstein and education historians Gillian Frank and Adam Laats, have revealed the similarities between what happened in Kanawha County and what’s happening today, but the close connection to the homeschooling movement has often been left out.
The short, painful version of this history centers around the choice of reading materials for local public schools and violent opposition to including civil rights leaders such as Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. Locals, like school board member Alice Moore, were incensed by these new readings, which they perceived as vulgar, and were ready to fight. The protest Moore organized to oppose the textbooks, though it started locally, soon became national. Much like Bannon has today, groups like Paul Weyrich’s newly-formed Heritage Foundation, the John Birch Society, and even the KKK saw a cause they could get behind.
When Moore and her allies couldn’t get the readings struck from the fall curriculum, they called on parents to keep their kids at home. One in three students did so at the start of the fall as protests quickly grew, and not of the peaceful sort. Anti-textbook protesters blocked school buses, sprayed racial epithets on buildings, and marched together with the Klan and the Confederate flag. They even detonated bombs at the Board of Education. This was a militant resistance to public education, fueled by racism and elevated by powerful national groups.
A recording saved on YouTube shows one of the protests organized at the state capitol by future California congressman Robert Dornan, then a conservative activist for Citizens for Decency Through Law. After reciting the pledge of allegiance, Dornan shouts “Parent power!” to the crowd.
Dornan then invites Marvin Horan, a minister from Kanawha who was later convicted of conspiracy to bomb a county school, to speak to the crowd. “Send them to school and it will only ruin them,” Horan exhorted. “We must stay out of school until the books are gone… We must close the schools.”
There are many echoes of this 50-year old controversy in the recent conflict over how to teach about race and racism in schools. Though dynamite has not yet been used this year, intimidation and violent threats have disrupted numerous school board meetings. Tying this agenda to mask and vaccine mandates has only strengthened the resolve of protesters.
Yet, there is one dimension of the political legacy that is especially telling right now. Once Kanawha school officials agreed to allow parents to opt out of the civil rights readings, county schools returned to some level of normalcy. Alice Moore, however, was not satisfied.
“That doesn’t mean anything” the New York Times quoted her as saying at the time. The war was not over. Moore concluded that, “Parents may be forced to educate their children in their homes.”
Moore clearly saw the future of education in the state. At the time, compulsory education laws made homeschooling nearly illegal in West Virginia, but within a decade, pressured by advocates of parent rights, the state adopted new rules that allowed parents to claim an exemption to officially educate in the home. Last fall, one in six West Virginia students were homeschooled, triple the rate from the previous year. Nationwide, the U.S, Census found that homeschooling enrollment increased from 3.2 million to 5 million since the pandemic set in, according to one survey, and experts suspect the total could be as high as 8 million children.
Ultimately, whether it is 1974 or 2021, the conservative political movement has used schooling, especially homeschooling, as a cudgel in a larger political war over race, religion, and sex.
“First it was protests against the rules that closed schools, now it’s protests against the rules for keeping schools open.
Whether it was Paul Weyrich’s “Letter to Conservatives” that valorized the separatist streak in some homeschoolers as the movement’s only hope or Gary North, who believed homeschooling offered a way to “train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality,” or Grover Norquist, who saw homeschool parents as an untapped bloc of voters opposed to Hilary Clinton, homeschooling has never been merely an educational reform.
In actuality, many homeschool parents aren’t especially political and as a group they are far from an ideological monolithic. I found in researching my book, Homeschooling the Right, that just 60 percent of those parents voted for Donald Trump in 2020, about the same percentage as in 2016.
But national advocates, especially the most conservative ones, see in homeschooling a tool of opposition to change. Opting out of a specific part of a curriculum, be it a textbook or a lesson on systemic racism, or public schooling altogether, serves them as one weapon in a larger war against demographic, cultural, and religious changes.
There’s a telling aspect of Bannon’s biography that relates here. He grew up 300 miles east of Charleston in Richmond, Virginia, and you can see how his upbringing figures in his world view. He explained his childhood in a Frontline interview:
“Our neighborhood became, it was kind of, you know, white, working class, lower middle class, old, internal suburb of an old city, Richmond. So I was inside the city limits, very close to downtown, and it became predominantly black in the ’60s. And my parents, you know, wouldn’t leave; that was our neighborhood.”
For Bannon, it would seem, schools are battlegrounds of belonging and ownership. Forbidding schools from teaching about racism is a way to defend the neighborhood, whether it is in Charleston or Richmond.
But millions of the families that will homeschool their children this fall, including rising numbers of Black and Latino families, don’t have such a clear political agenda. They just want to educate their kids and keep them safe.
Far from those overstretched families’ home-based classrooms, activists will see those educational choices as an opportunity. Rising numbers of homeschools, chiefly a function of the deadly consequences of the pandemic, can be interpreted in many ways. If history is a guide, some will interpret it as a statement about resistance to social change and an endorsement of the fight against teaching about racism. Some, like those at the Walton Family Foundation and Charles Koch Institute, will double-down on these choices, encouraging more financial support for homeschooling and placing greater financial strain on schools and weakening community support in the process.
As we’ve seen in the ever-changing politics of the pandemic, tactics can change quickly but the larger agenda remains the same. First it was protests against the rules that closed schools, now it’s protests against the rules for keeping schools open. When the government is the enemy, supporting parents is not in fact the goal but simply a battle cry.