In President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, there was no surprise in how much emphasis he placed on the plight of Ukraine in fending off the unprovoked attack launched by Vladimir Putin. Biden’s theme was simple: We must protect democracy.
In the closing part of his speech, the president said:
Now is the hour.
Our moment of responsibility.
Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself.
It is in this moment that our character of this generation is formed. Our purpose is found. Our future is forged.
Well, I know this nation.
We’ll meet the test.
Protect freedom and liberty, expand fairness and opportunity.
And we will save democracy.
As some observers examined the SOTU, a few things emerged from the rhetoric. In his charge to the nation to be ever vigilant in light of the ongoing destruction of the young democracy in Ukraine, the president uttered the expected vocabulary for such addresses: resolve, character, freedom, liberty, fairness, and responsibility.
But interestingly enough, that ringing close started with the term responsibility and ended with another key term: democracy. Yes, how interesting indeed.
As our nation acts to help an embattled democracy in Eastern Europe, there are lessons to be applied at home with regard to the concepts of responsibility and democracy. In that regard, and in light of the feverish activity displayed by a number of red state legislatures in reacting to the results of the 2020 election, let’s look at a few ways of how NOT to practice and apply responsible measures in a democracy.
Guns. Promote legislation that encourages the proliferation of weapons by allowing individuals to conceal and carry weapons without any kind of training and not require disclosure when in contact with law enforcement. Senate Bill 215, the Ohio version of this type of legislation recently signed by Gov. Mike DeWine into law, is a gift to the National Rifle Association and its Ohio affiliates.
Academic Freedom. We are seeing an assault on academic freedom, a hallmark of higher education, by trying to curtail inquiry and discourse in the classroom. Recently, the Texas lieutenant governor threatened to change state law that “could make teaching critical race theory grounds for revoking tenure for professors who already have it.” Never mind that more than a century and a half ago, John Henry Newman, in his seminal work The Idea of a University, held that “The aim of the University is a true enlargement of mind … the power of viewing many things at once.”
Book Bans. “Round up the usual suspects,” Captain Renault of the Casablanca Police liked to say. Now, in Idaho, librarians could be added to the list of usual suspects under a bill passed by the House. If “material harmful to minors” is distributed to young people, librarians are subject to fine or imprisonment. The Democratic House Minority Leader pointedly asked the bill’s sponsor if a librarian could go to jail for helping a child check out a Judy Blume novel. He received no answer. How ironic that the right has chosen to ban books rather than banning automatic weapons, a spreading pandemic where weapons of mass destruction are purchased across the country with few controls, and where “constitutional carry” trumps everyone’s right to feel safe and secure in any public place.
Voting Rights. During a time of world crisis, where democracy is under assault by authoritarian rulers, and where Ukraine, a young emerging democracy, is being demolished by Russian artillery and tanks, the right to vote and participate in the democratic process has been altered since the 2020 election. Legislatures in 19 states have made it more difficult to vote by limiting absentee voting, reducing the window and hours for early voting, and requiring voter ID. Never mind those who are handicapped or who live in congregant settings and do not have a valid state driver license or other government issued credential. For Republicans, too many people showed up at the last election, where the turnout was the highest in more than a century. There is no doubt that these voting restrictions are a backlash because more people had the audacity to actually vote.
Destruction of Public Education. At the very time we’ve seen state legislatures limit the right to vote, there has also been a parallel and coordinated push to pass school voucher measures as well as expand charter schools. The voucher bills, also called “Backpack” legislation, sends public funds to defray the cost of private and religious school tuition to interested families. In Ohio, under the provisions of House Bill 290, up to $7,500 could be available to allow public funds to be used for private purposes. Among many objections to this irresponsible and dangerous legislation, opponents argue that public school districts will be forced to return to the ballot more often to ask for local taxpayer support to fund public education. Never mind that most state constitutions like Ohio define a system (singular) of common schools, open to every student, and prohibit support for religious schools, as found in Article VI § 2:
The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as, with the income arising from the school trust fund, will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State; but, no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this State.
This compendium of actions by a number of state legislatures represents only the short list of authoritarian measures initiated by Republicans for the purpose of throttling democracy and the democratic process. While all demonstrate the singlemindedness of Republicans in behaving like a wrecking crew, the attacks on voting rights and public education are perhaps the most egregious, as they are clear symbols of our democracy in action. Citizens go to the polls to elect their representatives for city council, mayor, county commission, congress, president … and school board. Yes, that’s a democratically elected school board.
The public doesn’t get to vote for a representative on a charter school board. Nor does the public get to vote for a representative on a private or religious school board. To vote in that fashion and for transparency about the operation and conduct of the school would be an example of democracy. But then who thinks that charter, private and religious schools operate in a democratic fashion, as public schools do?
Here is just one more example of Republican hypocrisy. The same legislators who support bills that would require teachers to publish detailed lesson plans on line are the same folks who would never even think of requiring private and religious schools to do the same, nor require their staff to fully meet state licensure requirements, regardless of the exemptions provided for them in state law.
The lesson, as always with the privatization of public education, is to have it both ways. Take the public money and run — as in run it your own way, regardless of what requirements public entities have to meet. Perhaps Pinocchio put it best as we examine the privatization of public education and the freedom private and religious schools have when receiving public funds:
I’ve got no strings
To hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings
But now I’m free
There are no strings on me
With all respect to Ukraine, these actions show that you don’t need tanks and artillery to destroy democracy. Instead, you can do it one step at a time if you allow a right-wing revanchist legislature to act as a wrecking ball for all that we have enjoyed in this nation for nearly 250 years.
In the 19th century, a number of wits are credited with saying “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” But that’s only part of today’s tragic story.
In addition to life, liberty, and property, there are two other principles under threat: responsibility and democracy. One party, while incessantly promoting freedom and liberty, ignores the principle of responsibility.
Let’s never forget that responsibility is a key element in sustaining democracy. Please show up in November to help drive that point home.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and served as a consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He has additional experience working in marketing communications with a publisher and in association management as an executive with a national professional society. Mr. Smith is a member of the board of Public Education Partners.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.
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