5 Takeaways from Mike Hixenbaugh’s ‘They Came for the Schools’

He does a masterful job of toggling between the local story of Southlake and the big picture nationally in the right's war on public education.

Mike Hixenbaugh has written a heck of a book about the newest wave of attempts to dismantle America’s public schools. They Came for the Schools is centered on Southlake, Texas, the community that turned out to be the cutting edge of harnessing culture panic for political gains (it is, among other things, the district where an administrator famously told teachers to cover both sides of the Holocaust). It’s the community that pioneered the “Southlake Playbook,” the plan for the far right to take power in a district. 

Hixenbaugh focuses on Southlake, but he also puts Southlake in the national context, showing where this movement spun off into other locales. It’s a good read, and I recommend it. Here are a couple of particular takeaways from the book.

Historical Context (Present)

There’s a tendency to mark the start of current culture panic at the pandemic years of 2020-2021. But Hixenbaugh lays out a fuller timeline quickly and efficiently.

Barrack Obama is elected President, and a whole lot of white folks get uncomfortable. Donald Trump is elected, and a whole lot of built-up pressure and panic gets permission to uncork. The incidents of racism and abuse in schools climb during the Trump presidency, and schools all over country (including Southlake) start thinking, yeah, we need to address this somehow. George Floyd’s murder puts an exclamation point on that idea, but 2020 is also pandemic closings and Trump’s defeat, and folks on the far right see conspiracy, loss of cultural relevance and centrality, and a need to grab power before Those People go too far.

As Hixenbaugh describes it, it’s a series of reactions, and each culture panic reaction is fueled deliberately by power-seeking opportunists, from birther Donald Trump through culture panic guru Chris Rufo. Hixenbaugh does a good job, through Southlake, of stitching together a fuller narrative of how we got here.

Historical Context (Past)

We’ve been here before, and Hixenbaugh walks us through some of the other iterations of culture panic. Here’s Anita Bryant with the old “I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce; therefor, they must recruit our children.”

The desire to silence certain voices, to put cultural and racial minorities In Their Proper Place, to inject certain religious beliefs into school while also sending taxpayer dollars to private Christian schools– none of that is new. They have always been with us in this country.

Big Fish, Small Ponds

One of the recurring themes, from Southlake to Chester County, is that many of these contentious communities are the homes of people used to operating on a big budget national stage, and when they turn their money and resources to local school board races, regular folks can find themselves suddenly swamped. 

That holds true for individuals and corporations. Hixenbaugh highlights the work of Patriot Mobile, a cell phone company that ploughs its resources into backing far right christian nationalists for local school board races and school policy. 

READ: Florida May Provide a Window Into How Pennsylvania’s New Right-Wing School Board Organization Might Operate

There are some stunning stories here, like the teacher who became a whistleblower on NBC news and found that opponents had access to the kinds of high tech resources needed to reverse the voice-disguising tech that the network had used to conceal her identity.

Relentless and Focused

The Southlake conservatives become a micro-MAGA, demanding absolute purity of those they support and relentlessly hound board members, staff, even students who do not fall in line.

Not only does this bar any sort of compromise or attempts to coexist, but the culture panic crew shows an absolute unwillingness to accept any view of events except their own–which is often untethered from reality. Sometimes that means ignoring part of the picture; they are concerned about a school’s response to racist incidents, but not the racist incidents themselves. Sometimes it means a striking lack of interest in any nuanced understanding; their opponents are never people who mean well but may have chosen poorly, but are always evil and terrible. Sometimes they just lie. 

READ: Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

It’s what always makes culture panic movements both dangerous and doomed. Dangerous because they accept neither reason nor compromise, and because they are never satisfied. No book banning group has ever said, “Okay, now that you’ve removed these books, we’re perfectly happy and we’ll stop now.” That is also what dooms them. Their demonization of all opponents and their unwillingness to compromise becomes increasingly off-putting to folks outside the panic and debates. And their demand for complete fealty means that they often turn on their own people. 

Politics and Religion

Hixenbaugh lays out how christian nationalism and right wing politics are merged in this culture panic moment. If you aren’t paying attention to dominionism yet, this book will help explain why you should. In the meantime, you know what I always say – when you mix religion and politics, you get politics.

While some of these folks come across as power hungry and selfish, there are also those who appear to have fallen for the seductive song of “the end justifies the means.” I have no doubt that there are many who sincerely believe that schools and the nation would be better off if christian nationalists had the power and public schools were required to push a particular brand of christianity, and that it’s a goal so important that it should be pursued by any means necessary. Certainly Rufo and others have called explicitly for a certain ruthlessness.

READ: Republican Pennridge School Board Director Wants Students to Be Taught Creationism

The trouble with justified means thinking is that, since we so rarely achieve our ends, we are mostly defined by the means we choose. You may decide to use lying and other tools of politics to advance the kingdom of Jesus, but in the end that just makes you a liar and a politician. 

And More

There’s a great deal more to Hixenbaugh’s book. He does a masterful job of toggling between the local story of Southlake and the big picture nationally. There are some stories of hope here (though not from Southlake itself) and some successful attempts to work to preserve public education as we know it. It’s a clear picture of what’s driving much of the culture panic and the fight to decide what gets taught and who gets to make those decisions. Well worth the read.

This was originally published at the progressive education blog Curmudgucation.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene is a recently retired classroom secondary English teacher of 39 years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and blogs at Curmudgucation.

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