By Robert Leonard
Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform told National Public Radio in 2001, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
Republicans have been remarkably successful at reducing government effectiveness since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but to what ends?
Let’s start with one that few are talking about: the feverish desire of Republicans to transfer public money intended to promote the general welfare — our tax dollars — into private hands. Especially wealthy corporate hands.
It’s a game Republicans have played for generations. Attempts, both successful and not, to privatize Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are the most commonly recognized, but it goes well beyond this. The privatization of prisons and major parts of the defense and space industries, for example. And now, the public schools in many parts of the country, including Iowa.
Another goal is deregulation — often to disastrous consequences, such as the historic collapse of the Texas power grid, the train derailment and toxic consequences in East Palestine, Ohio, and the SVB and Signature Bank failures.
Because smart regulations may involve costs for corporations that impact their bottom line, yet smart regulations protect us all. By definition, the goal of corporations is to make a profit for the few, and in their purest form, they are amoral. That’s why they resist regulation. Smart regulations require companies to protect the public and internalize costs when corporations would rather externalize costs.
Smart regulations and consumer protections impose morality and the common good on those who seek to avoid it. Private Texas utility companies would rather have thousands of Texans suffer and die than spend the money to build out their infrastructure in a responsible way. Railroad companies would rather risk toxic spills that imperil life and our water supply than pay to have reliable brakes on trains, and bank regulations are seen as too onerous. All the while, Republican legislators applaud and enable it.
A third goal is reduced taxes for the wealthy. It’s a perfect formula. Underfund government, make sure it underperforms, let the underperformance be used to demonize the underfunded government efforts, and then make arguments that public money should be diverted into the private sector instead because the private sector can allegedly do it “better,” which becomes a rationale for even more private investment and lower taxes.
This is precisely what has happened with public schools in Iowa and across the nation. The slow financial strangling and demonization of public schools have set the stage for the direct infusion of millions and eventually billions of taxpayer dollars into the private sector—and that’s just Iowa.
It’s not just that the private sector will profit from the administration of these dollars and from creating curriculum or founding schools. It’s more insidious, being also specifically about putting public money into the pockets of mostly right-wing Christians to help them go to Christian schools — many of which share Republican “values” that marginalize LGBTQ and other minority communities, diminish their historic contributions, and share perspectives on fiscal, tax and environmental policies.
It’s brilliant: Republicans using public money to fund private schools that will teach their ideology. It’s a near-perfect plan by Republicans to maintain power into the distant future by manipulating the minds of our children with taxpayer money.
To be sure, a great many Christians don’t share these Republican “values.” Indeed, most Americans don’t.
The Des Moines Public School system is considering cutting staff and closing buildings in the wake of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ and Iowa’s Republican-led Legislature’s budgeting decisions that have for years kept funding increases below the rate of inflation. Given that the 3% increase for next year is less than half the cost of inflation, many of Iowa’s public schools are looking at some tough cuts.
At the same time, private schools across the state — the vast majority of them Christian — will soon be given an unimaginable and unprecedented infusion of taxpayer cash. Cold, hard, cash, with no strings attached.
As one friend from Oskaloosa told me, “Every year Cedar Rapids Xavier (a private Catholic High School) comes here and kicks our asses in football. Next year they will come kick our asses in tricked-out custom buses.”
Beginning next year, Iowa families, almost exclusively Christian, will have access to up to $7,598 a year in an “education savings account” for private school tuition. There are no income limits after the bill is fully implemented. In three years, every private school student in the state will be eligible for those funds, with cost estimates of $345 million per year.
These public dollars will be put into private hands with little oversight. Private schools will be able to pick their students, do anything they want with the money, while public schools have slowly been starved, and face intensifying scrutiny. Several bills currently being considered or recently passed in the Iowa Legislature propose increasing unfunded mandates that will make teaching in the public schools even more difficult. And it’s not just in Iowa. All across the nation, this scenario is playing out.
In Iowa, all but six of Iowa’s 183 nonpublic schools have a religious affiliation of some kind, the vast majority Christian, including every nonpublic school west of Des Moines. It’s these schools that will be receiving $345 million dollars a year. Who else will profit? Big Ed: private, out-of-state for-profit companies that will be making money hand over fist administering voucher programs, providing course content, and more.
Proponents say it’s about “school choice.” It’s not. School choice is a distraction. So are all of the other attacks on our public schools — on teachers, on the curriculum, on books, on librarians, on the teaching of history and values, CRT, on our LGBTQ community, and much, much more. They are distractions with devastating consequences, but distractions nonetheless.
The distractions are brazen, but part of a time-tested methodology — a variant of the Mohawk Valley Formula. The Mohawk Valley formula is a plan for strikebreaking, purportedly written by the president of the Remington Rand company James Rand, Jr., around the time of the Remington Rand strike at Ilion, New York, in 1936-37.
The process still breaks unions today, but now it is being used to break down government institutions, including our public schools from preschools through the university system. Basically, one discredits the institution in any way possible, say proponents are “red” agitators, or in today’s terms, Marxists, align business interests if possible, demonize the employees/strikers, demoralize them, use a publicity barrage, misrepresent them, lie as needed, make appeals to law and order, and patriotism. And today, Republicans are one-upping Rand, saying that God is on their side.
They have implemented it perfectly. Public school teachers are under-resourced, demoralized, and even called “groomers.” Fox “News” and other conservative media continue the assault every day with lies. And Republicans continue to wave the flag and praise Jesus even though these values are unAmerican and not even close to the Christian values I learned in Sunday school. It’s all window dressing.
It’s not about school choice or anything else they say it is. It’s about diverting public money into private hands and the indoctrination of our children into a right-wing values system that is increasingly a white nationalist ideology. This statement isn’t hyperbole or fear-mongering.
Columnist Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post: “Nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants qualify as either Christian nationalism sympathizers (35%) or adherents (29%).” Thirty-five percent of all Whites are adherents. Put differently, Christian nationalist adherents are a minority but when combined with sympathizers still comprise a stunning 29 percent of Americans — many tens of millions.”
Democrats think it’s all about policy. It’s not. It’s all about power and disruption, and when the smoke clears, the most wealthy and privileged people in the history of the planet — American right-wing Christians, are playing the victim while robbing the poor and middle class to serve the ideology of the current Republican Party and our corporate overlords.
Robert Leonard is the author of the blog “Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture,” on Substack. He also hosts a public affairs program for KNIA/KRLS radio in the south-central Iowa towns of Knoxville, Pella, and Indianola. His columns have been published in the New York Times, TIME, the Des Moines Register and more. This piece first appeared in Iowa Capital Dispatch.