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Robb: The fight over schools


This column is reprinted from Robert Robb's Substack site. To visit that site, click here.

Republicans, nationally and in Arizona, have made K-12 schools a front in the culture war and generally seem to be profiting politically from doing so.

While I don’t like the martial metaphor, the culture war is a real and important thing. There is a relentless movement to undermine and displace the American ethic and aspiration of being a meritocracy buttressed by expanding opportunity. The proposed replacement is a rigid identity lens of race, gender and sexual orientation, treating people less as individuals and more based on their group identity. And that treatment — by government, employers, educators — needs to be compensatory. Equity, not equality. 

“Woke” is a useful shorthand for advocacy of the replacement ethic. And woke ideology has permeated many major institutions in the United States. It drives Democratic Party politics and governance where Democrats are in charge. The universities have become woke indoctrination factories. Big businesses have adopted woke employment practices, including mandatory training sessions inculcating its perspective. The traditional media are now run internally according to woke principles and increasingly report on events through a woke lens. 

So, I don’t minimize the importance of resisting the spread of woke ideology and reversing the tide in favor of retaining an American ethic of meritocracy buttressed by expanding opportunity. However, I do question the extent to which K-12 schools should be a front in this battle and the tactics Republicans are deploying against them. That’s particularly the case here in Arizona where the right policy response — universal school choice — has already been adopted.

I don’t doubt that woke ideology has crept into K-12 schools. From time to time, you read of authenticated and disturbing instances of it. But, as a general rule, K-12 schools haven’t become woke indoctrination factories like the universities. There are exceptions, but those seem to be generating a remedial backlash at the school board level. 

To combat wokeism in K-12 education, to the extent it exists, Republican lawmakers are attempting to enact legislation micromanaging what occurs in the classroom. In Arizona, there are bills addressing classroom discussions of race and gender, use of pronouns, the posting of classroom curriculum and instructional materials, and what books can be available in the school library or used in the classroom. There are penalties prescribed, for teachers, administrators, and schools. 

Some of these ideas are in a bill Republicans recently passed in the U.S. House, attempting to make a national mandate of them. Some have already been adopted in some states. 

The national bill isn’t going anywhere, given a Democratic Senate and president. And Katie Hobbs will veto any that make it out of the Arizona Legislature.

That, however, doesn’t mean that they aren’t consequential. Republicans think they have a winning issue. This is likely to remain a salient political debate for a while.

That will occur in the context of a severe teacher shortage, which is a greater threat to the education of primary and secondary students than woke indoctrination, at least at the level it currently exists. 

The teacher shortage is partly about pay, but also about working conditions. Doing the job as required on paper would take 60 to 70 hours a week. Summers off don’t compensate for that. I’ve advocated that a serious time management study be done to document what teachers are required to do and how much time it takes. Then, give priority to lesson preparation, classroom instruction, and grading, and cut other things sufficiently to reduce the job to a 45 to 50 hour week, at a maximum. 

The anti-woke bills Republicans are pushing contribute to the adverse working conditions, even if they don’t make it into law. Some would add administrative burdens to already burnout levels of them. And some threaten teachers with discipline and even loss of livelihood for failing to comply with requirements fraught with ambiguity. None of which fosters optimism about the future or a commitment to the profession. 

Most teachers are probably liberal. And Arizona’s teachers’ union has gone from being pretty pragmatic to being increasingly partisan and militant. The shame of Doug Ducey’s governorship was his failure to stand up to a teachers’ strike.

However, the vast majority of Arizona’s teachers just want to help kids get an education and a good start on life. We should be making their jobs easier rather than harder.

That’s particularly true here in Arizona, where there is robust school choice. Arizona already had the most expansive charter school laws and system in the country. The universal vouchers to attend private schools was the final element needed to make the system complete.

Parents who are worried about what a district school might expose their children to can easily, at least in the urban areas, find a charter or private school where that won’t be a concern. Arizona generously underwrites homeschooling and other options as well.

Conservatives used to have the insight that not all problems are subject to, or appropriate for, a political solution or legislative remedy. And the dangers of unintended consequences. Trying to fight woke ideology in K-12 education by attempting to micromanage through legislation what occurs in the tens of thousands of classrooms in the state isn’t guided by those insights.

Arizona has already empowered parents with the most powerful tool to fight and deter excessive wokeism in K-12 education: the ability to take the education dollars for their child and move them elsewhere.