Education, a new political battleground in the United States

For Jon Baker, this Tuesday, May 3 is a bit special. Jon is 74 years old, 74 years at full speed. It was in Asia that he came of age in the mid-1960s, enlisted in the navy in the middle of the Vietnamese quagmire.

Since then, he has held so many jobs that he finds it hard to keep track of them. “A hundred, I would say”, he says, pouting. In recent years he has devoted himself to the restoration of houses. Which was not easy, as evidenced by the cast that immobilizes his left wrist.

Decentralized education, under the supervision of “school boards”

At a time when others are choosing rest, Jon Baker, white hair and arms in a sling, discovers a new role: that of candidate. The former soldier got into politics. At the local level, sure, but he still had to craft a message and speak at rallies to present his views on education.

In the United States, public education – primary and secondary – is managed by the county (including the definition of programs), under the supervision of a “school board” elected by the entire population. It is this responsibility that he aspires to, at home in Tennessee.

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Her children left the playgrounds a long time ago. But whatever. “It is high time to hold teachers to account,” he said. For the sake of transparency, he even campaigns for classes to be permanently filmed and recorded, so that parents do not miss anything. “After all, we know that it all works since the Covid”, he slips.

Representatives of angry parents

Republican Party member Jon Baker is running for Hamilton County’s Sixth District, which covers the city of Chattanooga and surrounding areas. That is more than 350,000 inhabitants, 79 schools, nearly 2,800 teachers and 44,500 students. But in his district, Jon is not alone in the running on the Republican side. He must therefore go through a primary, which takes place on May 3, and which opposes him to two other novices: a retired teacher and a young mother, owner of a small plumbing company.

Usually, the election of “school boards” arouses few vocations. This is no longer true since the Republicans recently embarked on a new chapter of the “culture war”: they accuse teachers of turning their students’ heads on certain subjects, such as the fight against racism or the question of gender. And the applications are piling up.

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To tell the truth, very little distinguishes Jon from Cindy and Delores, his adversaries for a day, as some fifty voters could see recently during a debate organized in the suburbs of Chattanooga. The three suitors presented themselves as evangelical Christians angry at the “experts” who hear parents being told what to do, even when it comes to health.

Although the United States is approaching one million Covid deaths, the mask still does not have good press. But the worst is elsewhere: “Teachers don’t learn to read and write anymore – in fact, the level is dropping. They spend most of their time ‘indoctrinating’ students. the three candidates took turns.

America’s Divisions Win Schools

The small crowd enjoyed it. This debate was organized by Moms for Liberty, a very conservative organization founded in early 2021 to defend “the rights of parents”. He is one of the new actors in the nebula of the American right. Its local branch opened in Chattanooga in May and reportedly has 400 members.

Its vice-president, Robyn Kremser, does not trust public education. She also homeschools her three children – ages 13, 9 and 3. “About 30 years ago the federal government began to take over the schools, to instill its ideas in the students, assures this elegant young woman. Thanks to the Covid and virtual lessons, parents became aware of what was happening in the classrooms. »

On the right of the American political spectrum, this discourse is gaining ground. It crystallizes in particular on certain books. Like that of the African-American author, Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give (1), in Hamilton County’s sophomore English curriculum. On the Moms for Liberty website, all passages judged “inappropriate” are underlined. Mainly the coarse language, but also the allusions to the George Floyd case.

The book, which evokes police violence, would be supposed to push to the riot. “They teach white children to feel guilty for being white, guilty of slavery, segregation, strikes Robyn Kremser. This is the “critical theory of race”. It serves to divide us. »

Critical race theory (CRT), an obscure concept to ordinary people, is the new favorite red flag of the American right. “The CRT has become the favorite banner of Republicans and the American right, without anyone knowing what we are talking about”, laments Marcus Mauldin, professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

At UTC, one of his courses deals specifically with controversy in politics. “CRT is only taught at university. It’s a way of approaching many subjects from a racial angle, in connection with the Frankfurt School (2). It obviously has nothing to do with what the Republicans are talking about. he gets irritated.

Books, issue of the “school war”

Moms for Liberty are trying to get certain books removed from curricula, but also from libraries. Which makes Taylor Lyons, Chattanooga founder of Moms for Social Justice jump. Committed to the left, this organization was created to help teachers have more books on their shelves. “It is important that children have access to as many books as possible, she explains. Especially in these poor parts of the United States, where many people have few books at home. We work with the American Library Association for the selection of books. »

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But this association is the other enemy of Moms for Liberty. They accuse him of being the armed wing of teachers, and of encouraging students in particular to question their sexual identity. Certain graphic novels, sometimes raw, are in their crosshairs, denounced as “obscene” and “pornographic”. “It is essential that children who ask themselves questions have access in school libraries to stories that speak about them, so that they understand that asking themselves this kind of question is not abnormal”, replica Taylor Lyons.

Between Moms for Liberty and Moms for Social Justice, dialogue is impossible. At the public meetings held by the Hamilton County school board once a month, invective sometimes rained down. Often the room is too small. Jon Baker, if elected, promises to get a much bigger venue. The courtyards are no longer spared by the passions of America.

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A highly decentralized education system

Public education in the United States is essentially a local jurisdiction. It is largely the responsibility of the county, with great autonomy for the services responsible for education (recruitment of teachers, programs, etc.). The county is the largest administrative subdivision of the states. There are, for example, 96 counties in Tennessee (population 6.8 million) and over 3,000 nationally.

In matters of education, federal power is very limited. The role of the Ministry of Education in Washington, created in 1980 by bringing together departments that had hitherto been scattered across several ministries, is much more limited than in France. With only 4,400 employees, it mainly intervenes in the policy of subsidies, as well as in the field of research and statistics. Within the Republican Party, there are many who are campaigning for its abolition, seeing it as a harmful extension of the role of the state.

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