In President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, it’s no surprise how much emphasis he placed on Ukraine’s plight to fend off Vladimir’s unprovoked attack Putin. Biden’s theme was simple: We must protect democracy.
In the final part of his speech, the President said:
Now is the time.
Our moment of responsibility.
Our test of resolve and conscience, of the story itself.
This is when our character of this generation is formed. Our purpose is found. Our future is forged.
Well, I know this nation.
We will pass the test.
Protect liberty and freedom, expand fairness and opportunity.
And we will save democracy.
As some observers scrutinized SOTU, a few things emerged from the rhetoric. In his charge to the nation to be ever vigilant in light of the continued destruction of Ukraine’s young democracy, the President pronounced the expected vocabulary for such addresses: resolve, character, liberty, liberty, fairness and responsibility.
But curiously, this rapprochement began with the term responsibility and ended with another key term: democracy. Yes, how interesting indeed.
As our nation acts to help a beleaguered democracy in Eastern Europe, there are lessons to apply at home regarding the concepts of accountability and democracy. In that regard, and in light of the feverish activity displayed by a number of Red State Legislatures in reacting to the 2020 election results, let’s look at some ways to DO NOT practicing and enforcing responsible measures in a democracy.
Fire arms. Promote legislation that encourages the proliferation of weapons by allowing individuals to conceal and carry weapons without any training and without requiring disclosure when in contact with law enforcement. Senate Bill 215, Ohio’s version of this type of legislation recently signed by Governor Mike DeWine, is a gift to the National Rifle Association and its Ohio affiliates.
Academic freedom. We are witnessing an attack on academic freedom, a hallmark of higher education, by trying to restrict inquiry and discourse in the classroom. Recently, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas 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 universityargued that “The goal of the University is a true broadening of the mind…the power to see many things at once.”
Book bans. “Round up the usual suspects,” Capt. 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 liable to a fine or imprisonment. The House Democratic Minority Leader ostensibly asked the bill’s sponsor if a librarian could go to jail for helping a child read a Judy Blume novel. He received no response. How ironic that the right chose to ban books rather than ban automatic weapons, a spreading pandemic where weapons of mass destruction are purchased across the country with few controls, and where the “constitutional carry” overrides everyone’s right to feel safe in any public place.
Right to vote. In this time of global crisis, where democracy is under siege 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 harder to vote by limiting absentee voting, reducing the early voting window and hours, and requiring voter ID. It doesn’t matter those who are disabled or live in communities and don’t have a valid state driver’s license or other government-issued credentials. For Republicans, too many people ran in the last election, where voter 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 vote.
Destruction of public education. Just as we have seen state legislatures limit the right to vote, there has also been a parallel and coordinated push to enact school voucher measures as well as to expand charter schools. Voucher bills, also known as “backpack” legislation, send public funds to cover 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 the 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 seek local taxpayer support to fund public education. Never mind that most state constitutions like Ohio define a (singular) system of common schools, open to all students, and prohibit support for religious schools, as found in Article VI § 2:
The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by imposition or otherwise, which, together with the revenue from the School Trust Fund, will secure a complete and efficient system of common schools throughout the State; but, no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have exclusive right or control over any part of the school funds of this State.
This compendium of actions by a number of state legislatures represents just a short list of authoritarian actions initiated by Republicans in an effort to strangle democracy and the democratic process. While all demonstrate Republicans’ determination to behave 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 to the city council, the mayor, the departmental commission, the congress, the president… and the school board. Yes it is a democratically elected school board.
The public cannot vote for a representative on a charter school board. The public also does not have the right to vote for a representative on a private or religious school board. Voting in this way and for transparency on the operation and conduct of the school would be an example of democracy. But then who thinks that charter, private, and religious schools operate democratically the way public schools do?
Here is one more example of Republican hypocrisy. The same lawmakers who support bills that would force teachers to post detailed lesson plans online are the same ones who would never even think of forcing private and religious schools to do the same, or requiring their staff to fully meet state licensing requirements, regardless of any exemptions provided by state law.
The lesson, as always with the privatization of public education, is to have the butter and the butter’s money. Take public money and manage it however you want, regardless of the requirements that public entities must meet. Perhaps Pinocchio expressed it best when we examine the privatization of public education and the freedom that private and religious schools enjoy when they receive public funds:
I don’t have strings
To hold me back
To scare me or make me frown
I had strings
But now I’m free
There are no strings on me
With all due respect to Ukraine, these actions show that you don’t need tanks and artillery to destroy democracy. Instead, you can take it one step at a time if you allow a vengeful right-wing legislature to act as a wrecking ball for everything we have enjoyed in this country for nearly 250 years.
In the 19th century, a number of wits are credited with saying “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” But that’s only part of today’s tragic story.
In addition to life, liberty and property, two other principles are threatened: responsibility and democracy. One side, while constantly promoting freedom and freedom, ignores the principle of accountability.
Let us never forget that accountability is a key element in maintaining democracy. Please show up in November to help drive this point home.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and served as a consultant to the charter school office of the Ohio Department of Education. He has additional experience 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 directors of Public Education Partners.
This commentary was republished from Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.