Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

When Conservatives Loved Public Schools

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Nowadays, there’s not much support for public education among conservatives. They believe teacher's unions allow mediocre instructors to hang onto their jobs.

    They think classrooms are laboratories for liberal indoctrination on issues such as global warming, gay marriage and evolution. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he’d be sending his children to the University of Chicago Lab School, libertarian commentator Dan Proft used the occasion to bash the Chicago Public Schools for failing their students. 

    But there was a time when conservatives wanted to require all Americans to send their children to public schools because Catholic ones were a threat to American values. In the 1920s, white Protestants were getting extremely uptight about the torrent of non-Protestant immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Poland, Russia and Germany. They spoke stupid languages, ate weird foods and practiced heathen religions.

    Prohibition cut off the newcomers’ sinful indulgence in beer, wine and whiskey. Immigration was halted in 1924. And the Ku Klux Klan became the most popular men’s club in the Midwest. Unlike its Southern counterpart, though, the Northern Klan didn’t hate blacks. It hated Catholics, seeing their allegiance to the bishop of Rome as a threat to American democracy.

    In those days, public schools were seen as Protestant schools, which was why Catholics established their own separate system. At the height of the nativist reaction, some states actually held Klan-backed referendums which would have banned Catholic education by requiring all children to attend public schools.                

    Today, of course, it’s the other way around, as Protestant evangelicals support school voucher laws that would allow parents to receive tax money to send their children to private schools. No matter where the lines are drawn, public schools have always been a political issue.                 

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