“Freedom Caucus” Types Abandon Pretense
We’re not gonna teach 1619 or CRT crap. I know they do all that up in Virginia. The rights of parents, that trumps the rights of kids. Teachers are the experts? Teachers have all the knowledge? Are you kidding me? I know lots of teachers that are very good, but to suggest they are the authorities, you’re on better drugs than me.
-Barney Bishop III, board chair of the Tallahassee Classical School
Florida's GOP wanted to avoid saying what they actually meant, so they said something stupid instead.
-Peter Greene, “Of Course Schools Teach About Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
-Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
We seem to be at a point in the history of the “anti-woke” wars where everyone is so tired and/ or arrogant about their victories that even those building entire public identities around made-up crusades are giving up on hiding their actual agendas, and on trying to make it seem like those agendas really serve any wider societal good.
When South Carolina “Freedom Caucus”chair Adam Morgan (Greenville, SC) visited my classroom last year, he had a (relatively) nuanced take on what he wanted to accomplish by supporting language that would prohibit teachers from addressing/ requiring certain concepts. He was against banning the discussion of concepts, he claimed. His only concern, supposedly, was coercive “indoctrination” of students, where teachers told students they had to adopt a specific interpretation of policy or historical events. Morgan even said he didn’t think parents had historically “had a problem” with teachers who had differing beliefs than their kids, and that he, himself, didn’t really care a whole lot about specific ideas being taught or discussed: “It’s when it becomes ‘and if you disagree with this you’re a bad person’”.
Flash forward a year, and unsurprisingly, the bill Morgan and his fellow South Carolina “Freedom Caucus” members are pushing, which they heavily amended and voted to pass last month, does not actually stop at prohibiting “indoctrination” and does not allow for the open discussion of ideas, regardless of whether students are punished for thinking differently, or whether they encourage students to “feel bad”.
Based on much of the same language— from far-right think tanks like the Heritage Foundation— as more widely-covered laws like Florida’s “Stope W.O.K.E Act,” H.3728 bans the “inclusion” (not the “indoctrination”) of a list of concepts taken directly from Heritage, and it makes it easier for almost anyone to trigger a formal investigation into teachers who are alleged (with or without any factual basis) to have “included” these concepts in instruction. (As Morgan, himself, acknowledged last year, it is entirely possible that a teacher would include these concepts as a part of lessons that address topics Morgan said are necessary to teach, such as the history of the Holocaust. Morgan, at the time, said he had an issue with the idea that a teacher “can’t teach tenets,” and said it was absolutely necessary that teachers use these concepts in teaching about Hitler, and that he would oppose language that prohibited teaching the concepts. But then he voted for H. 3728, anyway.)
As reported by WLTX, the “Freedom Caucus” has taken the credit for passing H. 3728. According to “Caucus” member Representative RJ May, "one of their big wins was passing a bill that banned critical race theory-derived ideas in schools." We went from pretending to oppose the ideological monopoly of any partisan group over ideas discussed in schools, to allowing one partisan group to pick and choose which ideas are acceptable in schools, pretty quickly.
And I’m inclined to give the “Freedom Caucus” the credit they seek. Rep. Raye Felder, an original bill sponsor, described the version that passed the house (amended heavily by the “Caucus”) this way: "To take current events that are represented factually and without bias away from a teachers toolbox is unnecessary and it starts down a communist path". (That Felder went ahead and voted for H. 3278, anyway, shows that maybe the “Freedom Caucus” does have the kind of grip on “moderate” conservatives that they claim they have.)
This is all happening at a time when SC is experiencing its worst teacher shortage in recorded history. The “Freedom Caucus” bill clearly adds red tape and bureaucracy that will make teaching more difficult, and put more strain on school staff. All so twenty (or so) radical legislators can prove their "anti-woke" credentials to national think tanks and out-of-state lobbyists, all so that they can get their names in the paper for something other than passing actual legislation. We can see everything the “Freedom Caucus” is doing, from the broad strokes of a pro-privatization agenda to the specific and increasingly meaningless phraseology about “woke indoctrination,” mirrored in a national movement connected to big money and private interests. In a viral interview this week, the chair of the school board of a Florida charter school attached to Hillsdale College made it fairly plain: “classical education” and “Western tradition” are coded phrases signaling that what rightwing groups really want is to eliminate ideas they don’t like in favor of ideas that help them consolidate power. That’s likely why Adam Mahdavi, the “whistleblower” behind the weird publicity student the “Freedom Caucus” pulled by filing a lawsuit against Lexington School District One last year, has himself been a public champion of “classical education”. (Mahdavi is, himself, Director of New Light Academy, a Christian school that, according to Mahadavi, “partner[s] with an online public charter school that uses a classical curriculum.”) South Carolina, perhaps not coincidentally, may soon see its own publicly-funded Hillsdale charter affiliate.
The “Freedom Caucus” has demonstrated time and again that it does not support “limited government,” does not respect the autonomy of elected school boards, and is primarily interested only in repeating talking points from out-of-state groups like Heritage Foundation, Moms 4 Liberty, ALEC, and National Association of Scholars.
The group has introduced a number of extreme bills in order to delay and prevent bipartisan legislation, such as a hate crime prevention bill, a bill declaring “Women in Hunting and Fishing Awareness Day” (they did this with a cheap, transphobic “joke” amendment) and other commonsense legislation, and has tied up the state budget process with a series of amendments that would have defunded public universities, claiming they were doing so to prevent funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.
Republican House member Micah Caskey criticized the “Caucus,” saying, “Truth: they tried to cut ‘other operating expense’ budgets (no reference to DEI in their amendments at all) and tried to create new bureaucracy w/o any mission or guidelines.”
Similarly, on Twitter, Republican Senator Tom Davis has repeatedly compared one of the group’s bills, which would have established the death penalty for women who receive abortions, to actions of the Taliban.
It's time to tag in reasonable legislators from both parties to shift the focus back where it belongs: making schools safer, improving student access to mental health services, recruiting and retaining good teachers, nurses, and bus drivers. Things that help actual children. Most legislators, whatever their beliefs about how to do so, want all children to have a safe and respectful learning environment. The extreme language in the H. 3728 doesn't achieve this, any more than their extreme (and likely un-passable) bills in other areas accomplish nothing but generating clicks and headlines.
And while members of the “Freedom Caucus,” including Adam Morgan, have claimed H. 3728 doesn’t censor teachers, the plain language of the bill is clearly intendent to chill discussion of concepts related to history, systemic racism, and health education.
The shift makes sense in the context of the ongoing national evolution in strategy driven by the groups that actually wrote the bill language, “conservative” think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and National Association of Scholars. It makes sense to see the “Freedom Caucus” move from the language of “limited government” to retweeting Christopher Rufo, the self-appointed architect of the far right crusade to use “CRT” as a catchall for anything the far right doesn’t like, in order to win a culture war. The Freedom Caucus has halfheartedly suggested they are listening to “constituent” concerns, but there’s almost never any evidence that they’re doing anything more than repeating the same absurd “anti-woke” talking points as every other would-be culture war crusader.
South Carolina teachers and students need your help. If you live in the state, please consider signing this petition to protect students’ Freedom to Learn.
I’ve decided to use quotation marks when discussing this group for two reasons: 1. The group is legally a “legislative special interest caucus” in South Carolina. Their use of the word “caucus” seems intended to give them the patina of legitimacy they desperately crave. I don’t believe it accurately describes what they are doing. 2. The word “freedom” is so clearly a glittering generality when they use it to cover top-down restrictions on speech, reproductive care, and essentially anything else their big-money supporters want them to do.