On Wednesday morning, a roomful of school children were herded into a congressional meeting room and required to sit through an hour and a half worth of speeches by conservative Members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, Sens. Ted Cruz and Tim Scott, Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Patrick McHenry, Education & Workforce Committee Chair John Kline of Minnesota, and a handful of others. Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana was the emcee.
The Capitol Hill event was in honor of National School Choice Week, whose organizers describe it as a nonpolitical, nonpartisan “independent public awareness campaign” promoting the idea that every child deserves access to an excellent education. Who would disagree?
In other words, it’s a PR campaign, one that wraps itself in the moral mantle of children. But the bright yellow scarves it wraps around its participants are meant to distract attention from the fact that sponsors of this week’s thousands of events include many anti-public education, anti-union, anti-government ideologues, including the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance for Prosperity and others. The President of National School Choice Week, Andrew Campanella, used to work at the Alliance for School Choice, whose board is chaired by deep-pocketed right-wing activist Betsy DeVos and is funded by a who’s who of right-wing foundations.
As we noted during last year’s NSCW:
Education policy is a vast, complicated, and hotly contested arena. Terms like “education reform” and “school choice” sound good, but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless. They can be applied to genuine efforts to strengthen teaching and educational opportunity as well as cynical schemes to destroy public employee unions and dismantle public education altogether.
In particular, “school choice” encompasses a huge array of education policies, from public charter and magnet schools to taxpayer-funded for-profit cyberschools and homeschooling. Even a seemingly specific term like “charter schools” cloaks a more complex reality that ranges from innovation labs co-located in public schools to for-profit chain operations.
Indeed, this year, Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter published “A Smarter Charter: Finding What works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” The book documents that the original vision for charter schools – teachers empowered to be creative in diverse schools that could identify ways to strengthen public education – has been turned on its head. Rather than a teacher-empowering and collaborative paradigm, charter schools are often noted for tightly controlled teachers in highly segregated schools dominated by an ideology of competition with public schools.
There are more collaborative models, just as there are charter schools with strong academic track records as well as those that lag behind the public schools that choice advocates consistently disparage. Important distinctions get lost under the big, vague, banner of school choice. And that’s intentional.
NSCW is about painting in broad strokes and drawing no distinctions, for example, between public magnet schools and for-profit corporations cashing in on the “reform” movement. No distinction is made between giving students choice among their district’s public schools and diverting education dollars into religious academies and online homeschooling via vouchers and other schemes. These do not have the same impact on public schools, or the same levels of public accountability, but in the interest of keeping things simple, and winning public support for across-the-board expansion of these programs, they’re all “choice.”
The problem with this “collective messaging” approach is that it hides the anti-public-education agenda of some “reformers.” Celebrating “school choice” across the board lends credibility to organizations pushing for destructive policies that are not at all popular with the American public. In spite of decades of right-wing-funded attacks on public education, for example, Americans oppose privatization plans like vouchers that transfer public education funds to private schools.
Self-proclaimed reformers often dismiss concerns about privatization as a “red herring.” But you can’t embrace the Milton Friedman Foundation as a partner and then pretend that privatization is only an imaginary threat dreamed up by teachers unions. Friedman has an explicit goal of getting rid of public schools altogether; they see programs like vouchers for poor kids as a tactical stepping stone toward that ultimate goal.
Other supporters of National School Choice Week have included companies that want to tap into the huge flow of public dollars spent every year on education. K12, a member of the “choice”-promoting American Legislative Exchange Council and a company the New York Times has described as “the biggest player in the online-school business,” paid its president more than $5.5. million last year; two other executives each made more than $4 million. A November 2014 investigation by Bloomberg focused on the company’s efforts to turn around “subpar test scores” and declining enrollments.
National School Choice Week promoters say it is nonpolitical and has no legislative agenda, but that’s hard to take seriously given the agendas of its backers. At this week’s event on Capitol Hill, the only Democratic Member of Congress to join the Republican parade was Illinois’ Dan Lipinski, who declined to endorse Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. (Former Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford also spoke.)
Members of Congress at Wednesday’s event talked about pushing legislation this year to expand “school choice” programs, meaning that battles over vouchers, charter schools, and other education issues will be on the agenda this year, including February’s Senate markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “There are currently private school voucher and tuition tax credit programs in 23 states and at least 10 states are looking to create new or expanding existing school voucher programs this year.”
Obviously, not everyone who participates in National School Choice Week activities is an anti-public-education ideologue. People from across the political spectrum are eager to strengthen schools and give students an opportunity for a great education. That includes public school teachers, administrators, and school board members – people who are collectively smeared as “the blob” by some “reformers.” People who are seeking to strengthen public education and make schools better for all children should think twice about making common cause with organizations that see public education as something to be dismantled and corporations that see students as the means to a bigger bottom line.
Over the weekend, likely Republican 2016 presidential candidates stepped up to the microphone at two extremist events to throw red meat at their Radical Right base and prove their ultraconservative bona fides in the run up to primary season.
Union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker won the day with the most well-received speech, in which his biggest applause came when he bragged about his party’s attempts at voter suppression in his state, saying, “we required in our state, by law, a photo ID to vote.”
Former Arkansas Governor and 2008 Iowa Caucus winner Mike Huckabee said states should ignore Supreme Court rulings favorable to marriage equality.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie played up how staunchly anti-choice he is.
Senator Ted Cruz made the case for caucus voters to weed out anyone but extreme right-wing candidates. “Every candidate is going to come to you and say they are the most conservative person that ever lived,” Cruz said. “Talk is cheap.”
And at a separate Religious Right event, hosted by SPLC-designated hate group the American Family Association, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal discussed the need to enshrine discrimination against same-sex couples in the Constitution, promoted Islamophobic conspiracy theories and closed his speech with the statement “our god wins.” That event, titled The Response, perfectly embodied the dangers of mixing religion with politics in the way that the Right so loves to do.
By making political issues – even incredibly important ones, and even ones that are historically divisive – litmus tests for their followers’ religious conviction, they cast their opponents not only as wrong, but as evil and satanic, allowing for no possibility of compromise and making even civil coexistence difficult.
It was a lot of what you’d expect – unfortunately – but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. These are the people who are setting the agenda for one of America’s two major parties – and the one that right now controls both houses of Congress.
Read more and check out video from both events at RightWingWatch.org.
UPDATE: Jon Stewart's can't-miss segment on the Freedom Summit from the Daily Show (video courtesy of Comedy Central):
A poll released last week by NBC/WSJ/Telemundo showed that Latinos prefer to see a Democrat-controlled Congress over a Republican one by a 2 to 1 margin, even while being frustrated with Washington as a whole. That’s no surprise considering the intolerant rhetoric coming from the Right Wing about immigration.
One need only to look at the last few weeks to appreciate the tenor of rhetoric coming from the GOP and its allies:
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As we’re dealing with the refugee crisis on the southern border, right-wing elected officials have amped up their inappropriate, inflammatory rhetoric to dehumanize immigrants and attack immigration reform:
Of course, elected extremists aren’t the only ones making outrageous statements:
The Right Wing's inflammatory rhetoric distorts the reality of the crisis, causing more conflict and damage.
Noted constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky took to the op-ed page of The Hill last week to utterly dismantle Senator Ted Cruz's outlandish arguments against the proposed constitutional amendment to undo the consequences of decisions like Citizens United.
In his not-so-subtly titled op-ed "Ted Cruz should be ashamed," he wrote that while it is reasonable for Congress to debate the merits of a proposed amendment, Cruz’s claims about how the amendment would affect Americans are outright lies and "have no place in an informed debate."
Here’s Dean of UC Irvine School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky:
In a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cruz declared: "This amendment here today, if adopted, would repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment. . . . This amendment, if adopted, would give Congress absolute authority to regulate the political speech of every single American, with no limitations whatsoever."
Similarly, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Cruz said, the amendment "gives Congress power to regulate—and ban—speech by everybody." In remarks at the Family Research Council, Cruz declared: "What it [the proposed amendment] says is that politicians in Washington have unlimited constitutional authority to muzzle each and every one of you if you’re saying things that government finds inconvenient."
The amendment does nothing of the sort. It gives no authority to the government to ban or limit anyone's speech. It provides the government no power to "muzzle" messages the government doesn’t like. It does not change in any way the long-standing First Amendment principle that the government cannot restrict speech based on the content of the message or the views expressed. The amendment would do no more than allow the government to regulate spending in election campaigns.
Chemerinsky goes on to note that he has debated Cruz multiple times and knows that Cruz is "a person of great intelligence," who has had a distinguished legal career. Consequently, Chemerinsky concludes that Cruz's lies indicate that "he knows exactly what the proposed amendment would do and yet has chosen to vilify it by misrepresenting it."
Cruz responded to Chemerinsky in today’s The Hill, with an op-ed entitled “I did not lie.” Cruz accuses Chemerinsky of waging “personal insults” against him, and argues that Chemerinsky’s piece was invalid on a technicality, because he quoted from a slightly later iteration of the bill. Interestingly, Cruz’s response focuses far more on attacking Chemerinsky than on presenting – or clarifying – any valid argument against the constitutional amendment.
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A survey released today by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution finds strong public support, across political and religious lines, for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for people now living in the country illegally.
When asked how the immigration system should deal with immigrants currently living in the country illegally, 62 percent of Americans favor allowing them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, 17 percent favor allowing them to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and 19 percent favor identifying and deporting them.
A significant finding of the survey is that over the past four years, Americans went from evenly divided on the question about whether immigrants threaten American values or strengthen the country, to saying by an almost 20 percentage point margin that immigrants strengthen American society.
So why won’t the House of Representatives take up immigration reform? The poll includes data that explains the lack of action from Republican leaders: the party’s Tea Party base is the group most hostile to immigration reform, and white evangelical Protestants are the religious group most likely to favor mass deportation (30 percent) over a path to citizenship (48 percent) or other legal status (18 percent).
While a majority of Republicans, 51 percent, support a path to citizenship, about 30 percent of Republicans want to deport all immigrants living in the US illegally, compared to only 11 percent of Democrats. Tea Party members are even worse, with as many Tea Party members supporting deportation as support a path to citizenship (37 percent).
Also making action less likely in this election year are declining approval numbers for President Barack Obama, and a troubling lack of enthusiasm for voting in the mid-term elections among voters who most favor reform. Latino voters and voters under the age of 30 are dramatically less likely than Republican leaning groups to say they are sure to vote this year: 30 percent for Hispanic voters and 24 percent for voters under 30, compared to 86 percent for Tea Party voters, 74 percent for seniors and 78 percent for Republicans.
The poll also demonstrates the influence of Fox News within the conservative movement and the GOP. Some 53 percent of Republicans said they trust Fox over any other news source: those Fox News Republicans are more than 20 percentage points more likely than other Republicans to say that immigrants today burden the country rather than strengthen it, and almost 20 percent less likely to support a path to citizenship. There is a similar Fox effect among Independents.
One panelist commenting on the poll results was Robert Costa, a political reporter for the Washington Post, who said that when he or other political reporters are looking to get a comment from a Republican politician, they head to Fox News’s Washington bureau. Costa said he sees obstacles to action on immigration reform next year, as the 2016 Republican presidential primary jockeying heats up, noting that Ted Cruz is pulling the party to the right on this and other issues.
Today, PFAW’s Right Wing Watch posted new footage of Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, Raphael Cruz, denying evolution, claiming that gay rights advances endanger children and warning that the United States government is controlled by Satan. These are only the most recent extremist comments from the senator’s father – a frequent campaign surrogate --- to come to light. Right Wing Watch previously exposed the elder Cruz’s promotion of anti-Obama conspiracy theories and Christian-Nation rhetoric, and last week Mother Jones posted videos of him saying that the president should go “back to Kenya.”
On Friday, PFAW President Michael Keegan joined Rev. Al Sharpton on PoliticsNation to discuss Rafael Cruz’s extremism and why it matters:
There is no shortage of senators opposed to the DISCLOSE Act. But while any of them will no doubt bloviate on why shining a light on campaign ad expenditures somehow limits free speech, junior Texas Senator Ted Cruz has taken his distaste for sunshine to a new level this month by holding the Federal Communications Commission hostage over the matter. Luckily, Sen. Cruz has folded, in part due to his dwindling stock among GOP leaders.
With two seats vacant on the FCC, the Senate Commerce committee held confirmation hearings this summer on candidates to fill the commission. While Michael O’Rielly, an advisor to Sen. Cornyn of Texas, faced a breezy nomination hearing in September, nominee Tom Wheeler’s June hearing grabbed media attention thanks to Sen. Cruz. Mr. Wheeler, a long time industry leader and President Obama’s nominee to chair the Commission, was asked by the senator for his thoughts on the FCC’s role in campaign ad disclosure. When Mr. Wheeler replied frankly that he did not know enough about the matter and could not answer, Sen. Cruz threatened to hold up the confirmation process until he was given a different answer.
Once the federal government reopened this month, the Senate was poised to pass the two nominees so that the FCC could handle its full docket of work. Then Sen. Cruz caused a new shutdown, this time blocking a unanimous consent confirmation vote for Mr. Wheeler because he wanted the presumptive chairman of the FCC to effectively set policy without the resources of the Commission at his disposal. With Mr. Wheeler’s vote tied to Mr. O’Rielly’s, the FCC was thus left without a chairman and its fifth commissioner. In the Senate, there are only two ways to overcome a hold like Sen. Cruz’s. The first is for the senator in question to remove his hold, while the other is to override the senator by way of a cloture vote requiring a supermajority of 60 votes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to call Sen. Cruz on his bluff Monday night. Sources have indicated that, given Sen. Cruz’s particularly vocal role in this month’s government shutdown, he has little clout among his Senate GOP peers. With a losing cloture vote imminent, it looks like Sen. Cruz set up a meeting Tuesday with Mr. Wheeler to hash out the nominee’s thoughts on disclosure with the senator. Mr. Wheeler came out of the meeting saying that this move by the FCC was not a priority, which mollified the Texas statesman. It is worth noting that this does not mean the FCC won’t take up disclosure rules for broadcasters airing political ads under a Wheeler chairmanship.
Sen. Cruz has regarded the FCC as an enemy in his anti-disclosure fight since March when Florida’s senior senator, Bill Nelson (who saw almost $10 million spent against him by outside organizations last November), addressed the issue. Sen. Nelson pointed out during a Committee hearing (at the 2:06:35 mark) that the FCC must require full on-air disclosure of campaign ad sponsors, and that this was not limited to just the umbrella entity (see Section 73.1212 for the authorizing language’s full text). He went on to say that the Supreme Court looked approvingly on disclosure in its Citizens United decision. Sen. Cruz’s response was to call such a reading “overtly partisan,” and that it would “undermine the integrity of the Commission,” which he stressed is non-partisan (2:28:05).
Yes, Sen. Cruz called the FCC non-partisan, then turned around and used it as a partisan tool to lock the Senate up over the matter of campaign disclosure, all while trying to force an agency nominee to set policy before he steps foot in the door.
Both Mr. Wheeler and Mr. O’Rielly got their Senate confirmation votes yesterday.