Splits on the Right

Special Report: What Do They Mean For Education?

By Barbara Miner

Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition.

Rethinking Schools is pleased to present an 8-page pullout on the divisions in the conservative movement and their implications for education.

The presidential primaries have revealed the fault line in the Republican Party over issues such as immigration, NAFTA, and abortion. While education has escaped such scrutiny, there are clear splits between the various forces in the conservative movement. William Bennett and Pat Robertson may look somewhat similar, but their views differ significantly.

Although the Pat Buchanan candidacy is fading, the issues that propelled his insurgency still have a deep base of support. Throughout the country, controversies ranging from standards to creationism to homosexuality are tearing apart school boards and legislatures. These controversies will remain no matter who wins the Republican nomination in August — or the presidency in November.

In addition to an overview analysis, we have three pages of resources outlining the think tanks, foundations, and major organizations of both the economic right and the religious right. We also have an extensive listing of progressive groups monitoring the right.

In writing our special report, Rethinking Schools interviewed activists from around the country. We would like to thank them for their invaluable support.

The presidential primaries have revealed the fault line that runs through the Republican Party between what are generally known as economic conservatives and social conservatives.

What might this mean for education?

Media scrutiny has spotlighted disagreement between the economic and social conservatives on abortion, NAFTA, the role of big business in American life, and the willingness to espouse blatantly white supremacist and anti-Semitic views. But the Republicans seemingly are of one mind on education: abolish the U.S. Department of Education, return educational authority to the states and localities, and support privatization and vouchers. Even Colin Powell, the man the social conservatives loved to hate, supported publicly funded vouchers for private schools.

But this unity, built in part on the opportunism that always flourishes in an election year, masks important differences among conservatives on education issues.

Different terms are used to describe the split in the Republican Party: traditional vs. religious right, economic vs. social, mainstream vs. far right, Old Right vs. New Right. In education, it is most useful to view the cleavage as between the religious right — which not only bases its views on a literal interpretation of the Bible but which seeks to institute a theocratic form of government — and those who remain secular in their orientation despite rhetoric that often matches that of the religious right.

“The key difference is in the word religion,” argued George Kaplan, an educational analyst in Washington, D.C., who has studied the religious right. “The Lamar Alexanders and Checker Finns of the world don’t give two hoots and a holler about religion,” Kaplan said, referring to Alexander, the former Republican presidential hopeful, and Finn, one of the foremost conservative education reformers in the country. “You’ll never hear them talking about bringing up children under a strictly religious interpretation of the Bible. Their basic impulse is privatization — to get government out of education, not to get religion in. But the religious reformers want religion in the schools, in particular their specific view of religion.”

The religious right is clear in its internal documents about its goal of an authoritarian theocracy. As Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, has bluntly stated: “There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world. How can there be peace when drunkards, drug dealers, communists, atheists, New Age worshipers of Satan, secular humanists, oppressive dictators, greedy money changers, revolutionary assassins, adulterers, and homosexuals are on top?”

In line with the mainstream media’s description of the split in the Republican Party, this article will refer to the two major groupings as the religious right and the economic right. The term religious right refers to those Christian-based groups such as the Christian Coalition and far-right allies such as the Free Congress Foundation led by Paul Weyrich. (The paramilitary right is generally considered a distinct phenomenon, although it maintains strong links to some groups within the religious right.) The economic right refers to secular, more traditional conservatives — a broad grouping which has more internal contradictions than the religious right and which encompasses libertarians, entrepreneurs, free-market ideologues, so-called “moderate” Republicans, and cultural conservatives. It is particularly important to understand the cultural orientation of many of those aligned with the economic wing of the Republican party — especially in education, which by its very nature is concerned with the transmission of culture and values to a new generation.

Even though the Republican Party is increasingly aware of the divisions within its ranks, differences over education policy still remain muted. What is most striking is that on education, Republicans have coalesced around key issues such as privatization, vouchers, and opposition to federal programs. Differences over censorship, homophobia, and home-schooling, for example, have been downplayed. It remains to be seen how long this will continue — particularly on the question of standards, where the split between economic and religious conservatives is most apparent.

Chip Berlet, who has researched the right wing for over 20 years and is currently with the watch-dog group Political Research Associates, argues that progressives must begin to exploit the contradictions within the right. “It’s a coalition and like all coalitions, there are points of unity and points of divergence,” he said. “What has allowed them to operate, in part, is that their points of difference have not been scrutinized sufficiently.”

It is beyond the scope of this article to develop a progressive response to the economic and religious conservatives, and RethinkingSchoolshopes in coming issues to present various perspectives on how to move forward. We also wish to underscore that these are not pristine categories. As in every policy debate, forces will not line up perfectly and one must analyze the specifics of any particular issue and controversy.


To understand the politics of 1996, some background is essential.

Conservatives have traditionally been divided into three main groups, according to Charles Kesler in his introductory essay for Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought: traditional conservatives, neoconservatives, and libertarians. These groups form the core of what is referred to as the economic right.

Kesler notes that conservatives “have always found it easier to identify what they are against than what they are for,” and traditional conservatives were noted for their opposition to communism and to the New Deal. Their views have found expression most articulately in the National Review, founded by William Buckley in 1955.

The 1995 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC. Ralph Reed at work.

The neoconservative movement sprung up in the 1960s and 1970s, founded by former “liberals” alarmed by what they considered the excesses of the anti-war, civil rights, and women’s movements. These origins explain in part the cultural/social emphasis of many neoconservatives, who are predominantly concerned with social policy, not economic issues. Originally viewed as to the left of traditional conservatism, the neoconservative movement has steadily moved rightward over the years. Many, including the “god-father” of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, now argue that the movement is virtually indistinguishable from traditional conservatism.

Some of the most prominent education reformers tend to be associated with the neoconservative movement and many served in the Reagan and/or Bush administrations. These include Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, co-founders of the Educational Excellence Network affiliated with the Hudson Institute; former education secretary and former presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander; and William Bennett, former education secretary and drug czar and now best-selling author. Bennett is perhaps the most complex, and his focus on culture and morals allows him to act as a bridge to many religious conservatives. At the same time, Bennett has angered many religious conservatives because of his criticism of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in California in 1994 and his suggestion that the Republican Party platform drop its call for a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

Libertarians, meanwhile, are distinct from both traditional conservatives and neoconservatives. More ideologically driven, libertarians oppose government regulation of the marketplace and champion individual liberty and choice. The libertarians tend to support vouchers and privatization based on ideological principle, while other conservatives often support such policies in the belief that private business and private schools will provide services more efficiently and will foster increased “competition.” While libertarians are the religious right’s most consistent allies in the fight for school vouchers, they are at odds with the religious right over social concerns such as gay rights and the right to abortion. Leading libertarians associated with education include the pro-privatization Reason Foundation in California and economist Milton Friedman, who made the case for school vouchers in the 1950s.

The religious right is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics and came to national prominence during the Reagan administration. Reagan, in fact, was the first Republican to ride to national power through his appeal to both economic and religious conservatives and his retirement left the economic/religious coalition battered. During the Reagan era, the religious right was part of a phenomenon known as the New Right, to distinguish it from the traditional or“Old” Right. The New Right combined sophisticated marketing and direct mail techniques with a political message that stressed issues such as “pro-family values” and “busing;” it particularly appealed to racist elements in the white working class and attempted to blame the movements of the 1960s for a breakdown in the social order. Its failure to address economic causes for the problems facing the country dove-tailed nicely with the orientation of more traditional conservatives. Furthermore, by appealing to bluecollar Democrats, the New Right was seen as a crucial ally in realigning American party politics and building the Republican base beyond the country club crowd.

Some of the most well-known religious conservatives from the Reagan presidency have faded, in particular Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. But the groups today known as the religious right have their roots in that era. These include groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition, the American Family Association, National Association of Christian Educators, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and Focus on the Family (see listing, page 18). The Christian Coalition, while relatively new, emerged from the ashes of the Moral Majority and has become the most powerful and sophisticated of the religious right organizations.

In analyzing education, it is also important to mention a force that, while generally aligned with the economic wing of the Republican Party, has a distinct identity and a decidedly bi-partisan approach: the business community.

Business interests, in particular representatives of larger corporations, are not as eager to give up on public schools, and advocate reforms such as school-business partnerships, school-to-work, and curriculum standards. Many in the business community have also resisted more grandiose voucher and privatization schemes, in part for economic reasons. “There is a real economy of scale to the structure of public education and business people are often quicker to recognize this than the ideologues,” according to Ann Bastian, an education policy analyst at the New World Foundation. “Many business people also don’t want to come up with the tax dollars to pay for children in private schools because the costs would be prohibitive in the short run.”

As the presidential primaries are making clear, no one knows exactly how the splits between religious and economic conservatives will play themselves out. One difficulty is that events are moving faster than analysts can keep up with. Another is that the rise of the religious right has so dramatically shifted the terms of debate that perspectives which used to be considered far-right have moved into the mainstream (and issues formerly promoted by conservatives have been adopted by many liberals). For example, economic conservatives have always tried to distance themselves, however unsuccessfully, from the blatantly racist positions associated with populist politicians such as David Duke and Pat Buchanan. Yet two of the more sophisticated racist analyses in recent years — The Bell Curve co-authored by Charles Murray and The End of Racism by Dinesh D’Souza — were written by fellows at the American Enterprise Institute, which is generally viewed as one of the more centrist of the conservative think tanks (see listing, page 16).


Economic and religious conservatives agree on a range of education issues. They both support vouchers and tax dollars for private and religious schools; they support privatization and charter schools; they have an antipathy toward federal education programs, in particular those designed to promote equity; and they want to return education to the states and localities.

Even before the GOP presidential field was narrowed down, there was striking unanimity on education policy. The eight leading Republican candidates in the race in early February, for instance, all promised to abolish the U.S. Department of Education and all supported vouchers.

The economic and religious conservatives also have found broad unity in a rejection of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They both argue that the federal government tilted too far to the advantage of poor people and people of color, and that liberals tilted too far to the left on cultural issues. “In the absence of anti-communism, it seems as if anti-equity has become the glue that holds together these various forces on education issues,” argues Harvey Kantor, a professor at the University of Utah specializing in education history.

Although they don’t necessarily articulate anti-unionism as an explicit strategy, economic and religious conservatives both understand that breaking the power of the teachers unions is essential to cementing Republican control over state and federal education politics. The unions not only are important allies of the Democratic Party, but are one of the few forces which can match the financial and organizing resources of the right. Economic conservatives also know that unions want decent wages for the members, which drives up the cost of education. The religious conservatives, meanwhile, believe that the unions, in particular the NEA, have opened the school doors to secular humanism and practices such as cooperative learning, whole language, the teaching of evolution, and sexuality education that acknowledges the existence of homosexuals and sexually active teenagers.

Unity between the economic and religious conservatives is due partly to the fact that on many issues, they agree. There is clearly a broad center where the two wings overlap. As the Wall Street Journal noted in a Feb. 14 editorial calling for unity between the two wings of the Republican Party: “Most religious conservatives back free-market economics, and most economic conservatives deplore the liberal culture’s frequent denigration of traditional values.”

The unity is also based on opportunism, however, particularly by economic conservatives who have been reluctant to confront the bigotry, white supremacy, homophobia, and theocratic authoritarianism of the religious right. The opportunism rests on the understanding by both wings that maintaining their coalition is crucial if the Republican Party is to successfully dominate the country’s political structures. As Kesler notes in Keeping the Tablets: “The paramount goal of conservative politics over the past 40 years, though seldom articulated, has been to build a conservative Republican majority. This goal is paramount precisely because without it all the other things that conservatives have sought to accomplish— the specific domestic and foreign policies on which conservative politicians and research institutions lavish so much attention — cannot be accomplished over the long run.”

Many religious conservatives, meanwhile, are willing to accommodate a less than-ideal presidential candidate because they realize that the next president will potentially name as many as three Supreme Court justices, and that changing the make-up of the court is key to overturning rulings affecting not only abortion but separation of church and state.

There are important educational policy differences between economic and religious conservatives, however. The differences are not only over specific issues but, most fundamentally, over the religious right’s goal of imposing a specific religious interpretation on what can and cannot be taught in schools.

National Religious Broadcasters Conference in Nashville, in February 1995.

The winter 1995 member newsletter of the Heritage Foundation, which is generally aligned with the economic wing, highlights some of these differences. Reporting on a membership survey on a host of issues ranging from the budget deficit to tax policy, the Heritage Members News said: “When it comes to education reform, 70% support school choice programs, while 86% said we should dismantle the Department of Education in order to return power to local school boards. Forty-three percent support setting national standards for education, while 16% support abolishing compulsory education laws.” Nothing was mentioned about school prayer, sexuality education, creationism, sexual preference, phonics, secular humanism, and other education issues that are high priorities for the religious right.

The Heritage Foundation’s survey is in line with the priorities of the economic right, which is primarily concerned with cutting taxes, privatization of government services, and reduction in government social programs — especially federal programs that redistribute resources and serve the needs of low-income people and people of color.

In education, the economic wing also stresses the need to return to “excellence” and “standards,” which are often used as code words for a curriculum focused on Western civilization and traditional interpretations of history, an emphasis on the needs of “gifted and talented” students rather than “at-risk” students, and an emphasis on traditional conservative morality, such as condemning divorce and single parenthood. (Again, it is important to remember that specific people and organizations cannot be forced into pre-arranged categories. For example, Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, parts company with the economic conservatives when they support privatization and vouchers, but is quite comfortable working with people like Finn and Ravitch on issues such as standards, where all three argue against multiculturalism and promote traditional curriculum views.)

Deanna Duby, director of education policy for People for the American Way, notes that one critical difference between the two conservative wings is that the religious right stresses education based on rote obedience and memorization, and prefers to provide children ready-made answers instead of encouraging them to think for themselves. This approach is at odds with those economic conservatives who agree that children must improve their problem-solving skills, and who are not necessarily opposed to whole language, sexuality education, or drug prevention programs as long as academic “excellence” is not compromised.

“One of the beliefs that underlies a lot of the religious right’s work is that they really don’t want any discussion at all about certain issues,” Duby said. “They believe that if children are exposed to an idea, or even hear about it, they are vulnerable to being swept up into something different from their parents — that if you hear about sexuality, you are going to have sex, or that if you hear about homosexuality, you are going to become gay.”

Progressive educators familiar with the religious right argue that their differences with the economic right sometimes appear to be based on rhetoric and emphasis — for example, how strongly they criticize self-esteem programs or push for school prayer. But those differences stem ultimately from a fundamental split over the role of religion in education. In particular, the leaders of the religious right are adamant in their desire to introduce their specific form of religion into the schools — either by taking over the public schools and remolding them as religious schools, or by pushing through vouchers for religious schools.

Economic conservatives “believe that the free market drives civilization, while the religious right believes that God drives civilization,” notes Berlet of Political Action Research. “Just because God is driving the same way right now as corporate capitalism is a fortunate coincidence for the right.”

Kaplan agrees that a theocratic vision is at the heart of the religious right’s agenda. “The religious right movement is heading for a theocracy, and for them the schools must be based on religion,” he said. “Fundamentally, it is the children who matter to the religious right, and they are obsessed with their children receiving religious instruction based on the literal interpretation of the Bible.”

Lee Berg, a Baptist minister who has studied the religious right for over 20 years and who now works with the human and civil rights division of the National Education Association (NEA), argues that too many people underestimate the extent to which the religious right is committed to a theocracy and a government based on literal interpretation of Biblical principles. Berg points out that many of the top leaders in the religious right have been strongly influenced by Christian Reconstructionism. The movement, in essence, seeks to replace democracy with a theocratic form of government. It argues that secular law is always secondary to biblical law, and that it is the duty of Christians to see that God’s law is paramount throughout society. While the movement has received minimal attention in the mainstream media, it is often considered the driving ideology of the religious right.

“While the reconstructionists represent only a small minority within Protestant theological circles, they have had tremendous influence on the theocratic right (a situation not unlike the influence of Students for a Democratic Society or the Black Panthers on the New Left in the 1960s),” writes Berlet in the new book he has edited, Eyes Right! “Reconstructionism is a factor behind the increased violence in the anti-abortion movement, the nastiest of attacks on gays and lesbians, and the new wave of battles over alleged secular humanist influence on the public schools.”

The defining text of reconstructionism, Institutes of Biblical Law, is an 800page tome written in 1973 by Rousas John Rushdoony. By providing a theological basis for Christian involvement in politics, it helped spur the growth of the religious right. The flavor of Rushdoony’s approach can be captured in this excerpt: “The only true order is founded on biblical law. All law is religious in nature, and every non-biblical law-order represents an anti-Christian religion.”

One reason that differences between the religious and economic right are sometimes unclear is that the religious right has become media savvy and has learned to couch its views in high-sounding rhetoric. When one reads literature distributed to its members, however, one often gets a different picture.

A not untypical tract is the book, A Guide to the Public Schools for Christian Parents and Teachers and Especially for Pastors, by Robert Simonds, president of Citizens for Excellence in Education/ National Association of Christian Educators. The book notes that there are three ways to educate one’s child: home-schooling (“the only truly biblical plan to educate our children”), Christian schooling (“the next best thing”) and public schooling. Simonds says he understands why parents might use the public school, “the most convenient school,” but says this of public schools: “Morally, children are exposed to many unnecessary courses on human sexuality; occultic New Age indoctrination including necromancy (under hypnosis, talking to the dead); witchcraft; black magic; T.M.; eastern religions, etc. Social and psychological programs, diaries, visiting morgues, writing their own obituaries and grave-stone inscriptions, etc., as English assignments, have duly and rightfully upset parents.”

No matter how much the William Bennetts of the world may choose to align with the religious right, it’s hard to imagine that they believe such nonsense.


Of the various education issues, the biggest split between economic and religious conservatives is over standards. The issue has surfaced most recently over Goals 2000 — and the power of the religious right is such that the majority of Republicans have back-tracked from publicly supporting Goals 2000, even though it has its roots in a bipartisan reform initiated by the Bush administration.

Goals 2000 evolved from a 1989 summit when, for only the third time in U.S. history, a President convened the nation’s governors to discuss a single issue. The topic was education. From that gathering emerged a bipartisan consensus on the need for national standards and assessment. Prominent economic conservatives such as Chester Finn were major architects of the plan, which under President Bush was called America 2000. President Clinton proposed a similar package, although he dropped Bush’s support for vouchers for private schools and changed the name to Goals 2000.

While the economic conservatives (including the cultural conservatives contained within that wing) now emphasize that they support only voluntary national standards, the religious right is even opposed to voluntary measures. It has launched a virulent campaign against national standards, in particular Goals 2000, and argues that they are the first step on the slippery road to the government’s total control of children. For instance, a pamphlet out of Kenosha, Wis., links Goals 2000 with the much-hated OBE and promises: “No Compromise! Goals 2000/OBE is red, white, and blue socialism.”

Equally strange — and indicative of the conspiracy theories that permeate much of the religious/far-right literature — the Sept. 13 Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Montana carried a story about a woman who claimed she was a “sex slave” for Goals 2000. The woman said that William Bennett and Lamar Alexander prostituted her to different governors at a Goals 2000 convention, and argued that Goals 2000 will turn children into objects of government mind control. When the woman told her story to a meeting of Citizens for a Free America, a militia group, she was given a round of applause, according to the article.

Major religious right organizations have also targeted Goals 2000. The Weekly Standard, the new conservative magazine edited by William Kristol, noted in a Feb. 5 article: “At a news conference last June, Thomas DeWeese of the Virginiabased American Policy Foundation captured the general tone of the attacks when he described the effect of programs like Goals 2000 on schools: ‘The indoctrination methods … start in kindergarten, where students are filled with horror stories of ozone holes, dying species, homelessness, and war.’”

The article went on to note: “If some of the charges seemed overheated — conservative historian Diane Ravitch called them ‘bizarre, almost paranoid’ — they worked.” Opposition to Goals 2000 has been so strong that even though the legislation was watered down to where it was almost meaningless, the religious right pressured a number of states and localities to refuse Goals 2000 money. In California, for instance, Gov. Pete Wilson has refused to touch a $42 million education grant from Washington because the money comes from Goals 2000.

Yet standards are essential to the education agenda of the economic conservatives and the broader business community. They are not categorically opposed to a federal role in education so long as it is focused on accountability and efficiency and not on programs such as bilingual education and Title 1, which provides extra money for low-income schools and which has been funneled primarily into urban schools. (Nor is the religious right opposed to government intervention to enforce its rigid views of morality.)

The business community’s commitment to standards was underscored recently by IBM chairman Louise Gerstner Jr. Along with Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, Gerstner is sponsoring a private gathering of governors and business leaders at IBM headquarters in late March, focused in large part on reviving Goals 2000. “The single most important thing we need to do to get back on track is to create a set of standards against which we can measure performance,” Gerstner told The New York Times in a Feb. 21 article.

John Gorman, chair of the Business Roundtable Education Task Force, has also stressed the need for standards and has explicitly reiterated the task force’s support for Goals 2000. (The Roundtable is a grouping of the country’s largest and most powerful corporations.) In a commentary in Education Week last June, Gorman summarized the task force’s 9point agenda for a successful education system: standards, performance and assessment, school accountability, school autonomy, professional development, parent involvement, learning readiness, technology, and safety and discipline. He then went on to write: “But we do believe that one component — high standards — is the most central of the nine.” (Not surprisingly, Gorman’s agenda did not address religious right priorities such as school prayer, creationism, or vouchers.)

The stance toward standards by conservative education reformers such as Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch was clouded in part by last year’s attack on the proposed history standards. The attack was led by Lynne Cheney, a neoconservative who headed the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Bush administration and who unveiled the history-standards project in 1991, along with then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. Ravitch also joined the attack and played a prominent role in the history standards’ 99-1 condemnation by the U.S. Senate.

Some viewed Cheney’s and Ravitch’s attack as a sign that conservative educators aligned with the economic wing of the Republican Party might be weakening in their support for national standards. But the controversy was more complex. As Robert Cohen argues in an article in the January issue of Social Education: “The real problem Cheney has with the history teaching standards is that they are not sufficiently elitist and Eurocentric for her tastes, so that they foster a critical and multicultural approach to history that seems incompatible with conservative Republicanism. This is what makes the standards so alien and distasteful to Cheney and many of her fellow conservatives.”

Finn also strongly defends the concept of standards, although like Cheney and Ravitch he wants to ensure that they reflect a conservative orientation. In an article in the Sept. 25, National Review headlined “Blindspots on the Right” he criticized what he called the “standards are evil” perspective. “The absence of clear standards against which student and school performance can be gauged remains one of the central failings of American education,” he wrote.

Kantor, of the University of Utah, says it’s essential to distinguish between the rhetoric of the economic conservatives and the implications of their policy proposals. “People like Finn and Ravitch profess a concern for equity, but their proposals belie that concern,” he said. “How can you merely call for higher standards and not address the extraordinary differences in resources, the appropriateness of the curriculum, and all the factors that are so varied between better off and poorer communities? To do so is just going to benefit those who are already advantaged.”

Debates over standards are also being played out on the statewide level. David Plank, an associate professor of educational administration at Michigan State University, says that controversies over standards have highlighted the differences in Michigan between the economic and religious conservatives. “The business community is perfectly willing to use the coercive power of the state to oblige students to learn more and teachers to teach more,” Plank said. “But that is exactly where they part company with the values [religious] right, which is extremely apprehensive about what they regard as the state’s encroachments on the prerogatives of the family.”

The Michigan business community was a strong advocate of a statewide mandated core curriculum and pushed through such legislation in 1994 as part of a package of reforms in which the state agreed to increase funding of K-12 education. Under pressure from social conservatives, who came to dominate the elected State Board of Education, last year the mandated core curriculum became only a model and adoption by local districts was made voluntary. However, statewide assessment tests for grades 4, 7, 8, and 11 were kept in place.

Gov. John Engler, a Republican, has been trying to walk a delicate line between the state’s economic and religious conservatives. He let the social conservatives make the core curriculum voluntary, but continued to support the statewide testing. He then successfully argued to the business community “that the tests will drive the curriculum, and that as long as the tests are in place the districts will be obliged to adopt the curriculum,” Plank said.

The business community’s stance is driven in part by “a constant desire to shift the blame for failures in the labor markets to workers and education — that if you get laid off, it’s because you don’t have the right education,” Plank said. “They also tend to believe that the labor markets of the future will require better educated workers and that more is better — more math, more English, more tests, more time in school — to improve their human capital and make the United States more successful in the world economy.”


The unanswered question, of course, is: who is driving the conservative education agenda, economic or religious conservatives? The answer depends in part on where you live and whether you are active at the classroom, district, state or national policy level. It also depends on the power of the religious right in your community and in your state.

Equally important, one must ask: who is using whom? “The economic conservatives think they are using the social base of the religious right for their agenda,” notes Bastian. “And the religious right thinks they are using the policy access of the economic conservatives in order to gain influence in the halls of power. What’s dangerous is that they both build on each other.”

In general, the economic conservatives have focused on state and national policy, while the religious right has consciously adopted a strategy of grassroots organizing. The Christian Coalition, for example, boasts that in many local communities it has raised more money, trained more candidates, and has a larger influence than the Republican Party. This grass-roots strength, in turn, has led to considerable national influence because the religious right has been able to mobilize its people for voting, demonstrations, hearings, phone calls, and letter-writing campaigns.

Duby of People for the American Way also notes that the religious right has targeted education as a top priority, and this is not true within the broader movement of economic conservatives.

“The national religious right organizations have put a very high priority on helping to set local policy for school boards,” she said. “They are putting out an enormous amount of material, whether in radio programs or books, on how to become involved in education. And I don’t think that is going to stop. They have very wisely identified public education as the place where our values as a nation are being formed, and they want their version of values in the schools.”

Rev. Simonds, of Citizens for Excellence in Education/National Association of Christian Educators, claims that his organization helped elect more than 12,000 local school board members between 1989 and 1994. The Christian Coalition has also been active in training school board candidates, and likewise boasts it has helped elect thousands of school board members.

It is not uncommon for hundreds of people to attend school board meetings around issues fomented in part by the religious right, such as Outcome-Based Education, or creationism, or the presence of “age-inappropriate” materials in school libraries — which in practice can mean books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou or Bridge to Terabitha by Katherine Patterson. Even when the right has not been able to impose its agenda, it has stymied reforms it opposes, such as Goals 2000, cooperative learning and whole language, or health curriculum that discusses birth control or sexual preference.

Anti-Gay protest against New York City’s multicultural Rainbow Curriculum.

It is clear in the controversy over OBE, for example, that the business community and their allies in the educational establishment were never sure what hit them, or why a seemingly logical proposal such as evaluating what children know — in business parlance, the outcome — became such an evil. While they may not have understood the logic of the religious right, however, they understood its power. They learned that if they wanted to institute curriculum standards, at all costs they had to avoid words such as “outcomes.” One unanswered question is whether this is also becoming the case with the word “standards.”

In many of the local controversies generated by the religious right, the economic conservatives sit on the sidelines. On the one hand, they do not like to antagonize the religious right. On the other, they understand that the discontent over public education spawned by the religious right often serves their agenda of privatization. “You rarely find the economic conservative rejecting the arguments of the social conservatives, and declaring their arguments to be false,” the NEA’s Berg said.

The economic conservatives, who are most attached to the ruling class, have wielded more influence at the federal and state level. The Contract With America, for example, is a decidedly economic doctrine focused on cutting taxes and eliminating the deficit by cutting social programs. (Interestingly, the Contract With America doesn’t specifically address education policy.) More than 15 years after Ronald Reagan was elected President, in large part by the voting strength of the religious conservatives, abortion is still legal, school prayer is still illegal, and homosexuals are more accepted than ever in U.S. society.

At the state level, the religious right has been thwarted in part by the nature of bipartisan legislative politics. Republicans hold a legislative majority in many states by a slim majority. While the religious right may dominate the Republican party in a particular state, all it takes is for one or two Republicans to defect on a particular issue and it will not pass a state legislature. Because business interests influence not just the Republican but the Democratic Party, they are much better than the religious right at forging bipartisan deals.

Wisconsin is a good example of these contradictions. While the religious right has been active on the local level on issues such as OBE, sexuality education, and phonics, the main emphasis of Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, has been to push the agenda of economic conservatives. He has put a cap on school spending, increased state money going to affluent school districts, exacerbated funding disparities between rich and poor districts, and instituted more standardized testing of public school students.

“The economic interests of the corporations and the wealthy have been served systematically and served well by Thompson’s policies,” argued David Newby, president of the Wisconsin AFLCIO, at a conference this February on countering the right wing. “While he has acknowledged social issues, he has not pushed them.”

In other states, however, the religious right is an increasingly powerful force. In Tennessee, for instance, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum is spearheading legislation that would allow the firing of any teacher who presents evolution as fact. The Eagle Forum is also involved in the controversy in Salt Lake City, where the school board has banned all extracurricular clubs rather than allow a support group for gay and lesbian students.

On both a state and federal level, religious conservatives have let it be known that they are tired of economic issues taking priority, and they plan to demand increased legislative attention to their social issues. In fact, the religious right’s decision to flex its political muscle is one of the reasons for the power of Buchanan’s insurgency — just as it was a significant factor in the short life of the Colin Powell for President campaign.

Berg predicts there will come a time when the economic and religious conservatives have a falling out, “but not until the economic conservatives wake up one day and realize their party has been taken over by the social conservatives. You have to remember that the religious right was brought into politics by the economic conservatives — by Paul Weyrich, Richard Vigurie and others who were upset with the drift of the Republican party and its East Coast liberalism and elitism. They created the beast, and now it’s stronger than they are.”

Even if the economic conservatives are able to dominate the Republican Party’s convention, the religious conservatives will remain a powerful threat. “The social conservatives are not going to go away.” Berg argues. “The Christian Coalition knows you take over a party one precinct at a time, and you take over America one school board at a time. All politics is local, and they haven’t forgotten that.”