As we all know, thanks to R.G., shots were fired at yesterday’s weekly statewide bigwig breakfast meeting, with Dan Patrick ultimately objecting that Greg Abbott and Joe Straus were “picking on” him. Among the issues of contention, bizarrely, was the Lege’s push to expand pre-K. Doing so is a stated priority of the governor. A bill to that effect passed the House several weeks ago with broad bipartisan support after substantive debate about the size and scope of the proposal. Its companion legislation, similarly, is expected to pass the Senate. And so Abbott, as R.G. reports, was not amused at the broadside issued Tuesday by the Lieutenant Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Board.

Patrick had swiftly issued a statement disavowing any prior knowledge of the council’s letter and expressing his support for “a pre-K program”–hence his dismay, presumably, that Abbott would still be irritated the following morning. Today the Lege was full of rumors about what Patrick knew and when he knew it, but I doubt we’ll ever know the truth, and don’t think it matters. Even if he was blindsided by the letter, he was the one who noisily established the advisory board and empowered the grassroots activists in question to represent themselves as his official advisors. At the same time I don’t see why he would have encouraged them to send this particular letter. As I suggested in my post about the Senate’s vouchers proposal, conservative advocates for education reform fall into two camps. Some, probably the majority, want to improve public education. Others want to end it. Those in the latter camp are a problem for people in the former, like Patrick.  

His grassroots advisors seem to be in the latter camp. The letter is basically a collage of internet rumors, backwards reasoning, paranoid suppositions and lies, marshalled to make the case against a relatively modest proposal to authorize an additional $130 million to expand Texas’s longstanding public pre-K program so that thousands of students who aren’t currently eligible will have the option of attending. The Grassroots Advisory Board elides the “optional” aspect: “This interference by the State tramples upon our parental rights.” It misrepresents Dan Huberty, the author of the House bill. He did say, during the House debate, that Texas hasn’t been able to assess the outcomes of its current program, but he wasn’t saying that outcomes don’t matter. He was explaining why his bill requires school districts to provide such data, as a condition of participation—in other words, he was saying the opposite. (Abbott, similarly, has always insisted on accountability measures in this context; that’s why Wendy Davis charged him with trying to subject 4-year-olds to standardized tests.)

It would be a long and thankless task to fully annotate the letter, so I’ll just summarize the argument: according to the Grassroots Advisory Board, the state’s effort to expand pre-K is part of a long tradition (“historically promoted in socialistic countries, not free societies which respect parental rights”) in which governments seek to remove children (“even younger and more malleable” children as socialism creeps across the land) from their parents’ care and install them in a “Godless environment” and mold them according to the government’s own preferences.

Their overarching concern is one that most Texans share: “TEXAS LEGISLATURE SHOULD PROMOTE HEALTHY FAMILIES, NOT BREAK THEM UP.” Many of us, however, would be hard-pressed to explain how expanding access to public pre-K is an effort to break up healthy families, or how doing so would be “sending a message to the rest of the Nation that parents do not or cannot care for their children as well as the State can.” I was confused by this line of argument the first time I heard it too. Over the years, however, I’ve puzzled out the reasoning, if we can call it that:

As Ludwig von Mises wrote, bureaucracies are self-interested; our government exists by the consent of the people, and is only authorized to advance the common good, but mission creep is inevitable. As David Barton writes, the truth about America’s moral, religious, and constitutional foundation has been attacked and undermined by secularists who object to Biblical principles and would prefer that conservatives forget that America was founded as a theocracy. Some religious conservatives, extrapolating from these arguments, think liberals are using American public schools to inculcate their preferred beliefs in our malleable youngsters.

Evidence for this subterranean ideological agenda, according to these conservatives, can be seen in state-issued textbooks. Democrats want kids to hear that the Civil War was about slavery, and that Cesar Chavez was a hero, and that fossil fuels are bad for the environment. But they throw a fit when the State Board of Education tries to teach kids about creationism or intelligent design, even though 70 percent of Americans believe in one or the other. They refuse to even talk about Margaret Sanger’s interest in eugenics. And they scoff at efforts to celebrate excellent individual Americans, such as the Wright Brothers, or the virtues of free enterprise.

Democrats, of course, have a different perspective on the textbook wars, especially in Texas. And although I agree with von Mises on bureaucracy, I’ve never understood why telling children about the low points of American government would make them more inclined to socialism. But in any case, Barton et al are wrong about America’s constitutional foundation. The American constitution separates church and state, for the protection of both, as does the Texas constitution. And Patrick’s Grassroots Advisory Board is wrong that investments in public education are a plot to grow the welfare state. If anything the opposite is true.

Public education is part of the welfare state, in a sense, but it’s the only part that is also a bulwark against the growth of the welfare state in several critical ways. Educated people are equipped to govern themselves. “In our American republics, where [government] is in the hands of the people, knowlege should be universally diffused by means of public schools,” wrote patriot/Second Amendment enthusiast Noah Webster in 1788. “Of such consequence is it to society, that the people who make laws, should be well informed, that I conceive no Legislature can be justified in neglecting proper establishments for this purpose.” In addition to being equipped for freedom, educated people are autonomous; they don’t need further welfare, or are at least less likely to, because they can take care of themselves without the government’s help. They are also prepared to be effective members of the workforce, without whom Texas businesses would languish. 

Education, in other words, expands and reinforces freedom. It is a corrective to dependency, not a slippery slope. That is why one of the few official purposes of the state government, as laid out in the Texas constitution, is to guarantee that everyone with an education. That’s why today’s Republicans are trying to expand pre-K. I feel silly even writing this post, frankly. “Education is good.” That’s a fundamental precept of modern Texas political belief, rooted in conservative principles, proven by our history, enshrined in our constitution, defended by Republicans and Democrats alike, never seriously contested until the Lieutenant Governor’s Internet Commenters Council came along.

Public schools aren’t perfect; having attended six public schools in five states, I’m well aware that the quality of such schools varies wildly, as do their ideological underpinnings. But the same is true of private schools and parochial ones, from what I hear, and Tim Dunn doesn’t have enough money to send five million kids to St. John’s, so let’s not abolish government schools just yet. Texas 4-year-olds may be better off in “homes and half-day religious preschools and mothers’ day out programs” than in the “Godless environment” known as public pre-school. That’s why enrollment in the public program, which already exists, is voluntary.  And if Patrick’s advisors think that broader access to voluntary public pre-school would be a devastating blow to Texas families, or that it would push us further down the road to serfdom, they’re completely misreading American history, not to mention the legislation itself—which is ironic, under the circumstances. Of course parents should love and care for their children. Sometimes they show it by sending them to school.