Dr. Joyce Alonzo heard the news while returning to Texas A&M’s campus after a guest lecture in Galveston. A&M’s chancellor, John Sharp, had received a call directly from the Lt. Governor asking that he investigate Dr. Alonzo for negative comments she made about him in the lecture. Dr. Alonzo was placed on administrative leave while the university launched an inquiry.
Though the alleged content of Dr. Alonzo’s comments remain unclear, we have a better picture now of what happened. One of the attendees of Alonzo’s talk in Galveston was a daughter of the Texas Land Commissioner, Dawn Buckingham. The young Buckingham apparently observed a thought crime and reported it to her mom. Mom then reported the professor’s anti-regime comments to the Lt. Governor.
An investigation would clear Dr. Alonzo, sort of. The kid who kicked this off apparently couldn’t provide any specifics about Alonzo’s offensive comments and no one else attending the lecture provided any corroboration. However, in a regime like this no one who’s been denounced is ever vindicated. Comments from the university’s general counsel concluding the investigation in Alonzo’s favor also included this chilling line: “Be thoughtful when you make a reference to any state official or state office.”
This comes on the heels of an embarrassing incident at the same school in which a highly distinguished black professor hired to lead the Journalism department was fired just after a splashy welcome. Basically, a bunch of donors found out she was black, and not “Tim Scott” or “Diamond and Silk”-black, but like, actually black. They spoke and the university listened.
All across red America, Republicans are vandalizing their university systems. Installing partisan hacks to university boards, harassing professors, threatening to destroy the tenure system that protects intellectual freedom, Republicans are using every lever of influence to turn state universities into trade schools attached to semi-pro football teams.
They’re going to succeed. Universities are inherently fragile, but public higher education in the former slave states was a particularly bold endeavor. Sustaining a rich intellectual culture behind an iron curtain of state-sponsored bigotry is impossible. A flowering of intellect and creativity that bloomed briefly from roughly the seventies into the present will fade quickly. Under pressure from an oppressive political environment, these schools will come to resemble Soviet and Chinese universities, churning out young people with strong engineering and technical credentials who’ve never read a book.
Why do Republicans hate education? There are three categories of people active in Republican politics today, religious nuts, racists and grifters. This is the same alliance that built the original political systems of the slave states. All three depend on a poorly educated, disorganized and credulous public. Nothing threatens their goals more than education.
A need to maintain national relevance used to constrain Republicans local ambitions. No longer.
Republicans are beginning to realize that the high-water mark of their national influence was reached somewhere around the fall of 2003. They can perhaps win a fluke national election with the right candidate if they split the popular and electoral votes like a diamond-cutter, but there is no hope of building a GOP agenda with national appeal. Even if they fumble their way into the White House, they can’t govern.
Republicans are the new Confederate Party. In national politics their only goal is to weaken or destroy the federal government. Meanwhile, at home in their red strongholds, they are now free to build a 21st century Confederate vision.
Free public school systems only came to the slave states with Reconstruction. While Massachusetts set up its first comprehensive public education system in the 1820’s, such an idea was anathema in the South. Mississippi didn’t adopt free public Kindergarten until the 1980’s, and the Governor who signed that bill was promptly voted out of office. As an alien institution pressed on the slave states by a US occupation, hostility and suspicion of public schools never quite ended. When the US began insisting after World War II that these schools be opened to black students, suspicion ripened into animosity.
Public education in the US never stopped being a Northern project. How many of the world’s most influential textbook publishers are based in Dixie? Where are college entrance exams prepared and published? The College Board, which sets standards for Advanced Placement materials, is based in New York City. All of the oldest and most prestigious institutions for secondary schools and universities are based in the North or in Britain. To this day, public education all the way to the college level is a Northern institution tolerated, tentatively, in Southern states.
Republicans now enjoy total control of most of the South and the rural Midwest. They’ve held this control long enough to purge from their ranks the old Republicans (RiNOs) who cared what people thought of them elsewhere. Republicans like the Bush family, who wanted to be treated with respect outside the borders of their state are gone now. In this atmosphere, Republican leaders could be forgiven for imagining that they could finally rid their land of the scourge of public education. Under the banner of “school choice” Republicans are pursuing plans to drain public school systems of their funding, handing that money instead to parents who can take those resources to whatever storefront religious madrassa fits their preferences.
Under this scheme, public schools would retain all the sunk costs of their buildings, transportation systems, federal mandates and staff salaries while the money to support that infrastructure drains away. Private education entrepreneurs and evangelical churches get a flood of cash. Public schools wither and close. Politically connected school owners get rich while a broader institution seen as hostile to Republican goals shrinks away.
But there’s a problem.
There’s an amusing subtext to the Republican war on education. One of the reasons we’re seeing so much energy directed at university systems is that Republicans are meeting surprising resistance to their real prize. Sure, Republicans hate universities, but the Holy Grail is dismantling public education at the primary level. Despite almost unanimous support for the project in principle, these efforts are still failing on the ground outside Florida. Much of the smoke being thrown at higher education is an expression of frustration as Republicans struggle to meet their real goal.
In Texas, for example, this Republican layup keeps bouncing off the rim. All of the state’s leaders back privatization. Republican voters say they back privatization by overwhelming numbers. Yet the project keeps failing in the legislature. Republicans failed to anticipate how much many of their voters depend on public schools for their livelihoods.
One out of every ten people with a job in solidly red Scurry County, just south of Lubbock, work in the public school system. Add the hospital system and you’re up over 20%. In Cleburne, Texas, just south of Fort Worth, the schools are the largest employer. Go town to town across the most stridently Republican portions of the state and you’ll find economic decline, population loss, and public institutions like schools and hospitals as a leading source of income (apart from federal benefits, the other main source). Even out in Reeves County, in the rapacious grip of the shale boom, schools and hospitals provide a fifth of all employment.
The most solidly Republican counties across the country tend to be propped up by federal subsidies, hospitals and school systems. Threaten schools and you threaten a lot of Republican families.
Everyone in these Republican areas seem to agree over the need to slice the head from the public school indoctrination dragon – just not in their town. In Cleburne you can be pretty confident that 80% percent or more of those public school employees are Republican voters, complicating Republican plans to kill off public education. Salaries, benefits and employment protections down at Reverend Darryl’s Academy of School, tucked into the strip mall behind the Applebees, will never come close to the still-modest pay offered down the road at Corsicana High.
Gutting the incomes of Republican families is a tough sell, but then comes the killer problem. Destroy the public school system and you lose the last source of public entertainment across much of the state – high school football. Republican plans to gut public education are running into a buzzsaw of opposition over its near-certain impact on Texas schools’ most valued mission: football.
What happens to the quality and relevance of high school football when Odessa Permian and Midland Lee are drained of players? When private schools poach top players into their teams offering benefits not available to the publics, community interest is fractured and that tradition fades away. When all the best players have drifted to Jimmy Ray Gunrack’s Institute of Higher Values, what’s the point of the Marshall – Longview game?
For now, the only state that’s succeeded in dismantling public schools is Florida. Elsewhere, this great Republican dream keeps running into a surprising obstacle – Republican voters. Republicans are the masters of persuading their voters to destroy themselves. With a little time they’ll crack this resistance, but in the meantime they’ll vent their frustration kicking sand in the eyes of university professors.