Fox News hosts have begun calling for the wholesale destruction of the K-12 public school system in a drastic escalation of the network’s yearslong campaign against teachers.
Laura Ingraham claimed on her Thursday night broadcast that “a lot of people are saying it's time to defund government education or at least defund it by giving vouchers to parents,” adding, “And I think that just has to happen.” Greg Gutfeld similarly declared that private school vouchers are needed because public schools are “a destructive system,” and he described the National Education Association’s teachers as “the KKK with summers off” during a discussion earlier that day on The Five.
Conservatives have long sought to undermine public education, and proposals to eliminate the Department of Education and strip the public treasury bare with private school vouchers are staples of Republican campaigns. But education policy was not a priority for President Donald Trump, and that debate slipped to the background during most of his tenure.
Fox and its allies have waged an opportunistic assault against public schools and teachers in the years since. Their calls to “defund government education” mark a strident new phase in that effort — and if Republican politicians follow their lead, the party will be courting disaster. The public school system serves nearly 50 million children, and polls show parents overwhelmingly approve of the job their child’s school is doing.
Fox’s new calls to tear down the public school system comes just two years after the network argued that lack of in-person instruction in public schools was a calamity that was hurting viewers’ children. At the time, many state and local governments had shuttered their public schools, seeking to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Fox responded to those efforts by denouncing teachers and their unions, arguing that public schools provided an essential service for students and their parents that should not be infringed upon, regardless of the cost in COVID-19 cases and deaths. The network’s hosts scoffed at the notion of spending more money to try to make classrooms safer from the virus.
Ingraham, for example, said in July 2020 that teachers unions were the “culprits” behind closed schools, explaining: “This is unbelievable. This is like child abuse at some point. From a medical and a common sense standpoint, the decision to put kids back in school should be a slam-dunk yes.”
As the pandemic waned, Fox hosts changed their focus from arguing that lack of instruction was hurting students to arguing that their instruction itself posed a threat. Public school teachers, previously scapegoated as villains for purportedly not wanting to teach, became the villains because of what they were purportedly teaching.
In 2021, Fox personalities and their fellow right-wing propagandists began obsessing over discussions of race in public school curricula, which they dishonestly described as “critical race theory.” The pundits warned that teachers who taught this “critical race theory” would “warp the minds of American children” and “brainwash your child.” Working alongside right-wing think tanks, activist organizations, and politicians, they sought to turn racial anxiety into political energy to win elections for Republican candidates and pass laws changing how race was taught in schools.
The right soon began lumping “critical race theory” together with public school curricula on LGBTQ identity. By the spring of 2022, the network’s personalities had whipped themselves and their viewers into a hateful frenzy targeting LGBTQ teachers and students.
“If you really want to talk to a 5-year-old or a 7-year-old or an 8-year-old about their sexuality and gender, that’s on you,” Gutfeld said in March. “You’re a pervert. You’re a weirdo. I don’t give a damn if you’re a teacher.”
The right-wing media attacks on teachers for teaching about race and gender identity share a common accelerant: Christopher Rufo, a dishonest and demagogic senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute. And the recent calls on Fox for the dismantling of the public education system also take a page from Rufo’s book.
“We are right now preparing a strategy of laying siege to the institutions,” Rufo told New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg in November. He argued that private school vouchers are necessary because “the public schools are waging war against American children and American families.”
Fox has an outsized hold on the GOP, and its politicians have followed its lead through these attacks on public education. But the new calls for demolishing the system altogether are a dramatic overreach and could prove costly for the party.
Polls show that the vast majority of parents largely like their own children’s schools and don’t support these sorts of extreme changes, as Georgetown University professor Don Moynihan, who studies the performance of government institutions, noted in a recent Substack post.
There is a partisan gap in support for public education — but while a majority of Republican respondents in a 2021 Pew poll said public schools have a negative impact on the U.S., larger majorities of independents (61%) and Democrats (77%) said they have a positive effect.
Moreover, Gallup polling consistently finds more than 70% of parents are completely or somewhat satisfied with the education their own kids receive. The figure declined during the pandemic but remains above historic lows.
Moynihan also cited a recent NPR poll which found:
- 88% of parents agree “my child's teacher(s) have done the best they could, given the circumstances around the pandemic."
- 82% agree “my child's school has handled the pandemic well."
- 76% of respondents agree that “my child's school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics."
- Less than 20% believe that schools teach about sexuality, history, or race, in ways that contradict their family values.
Conservatives have tried to bolster their political standing by funding right-wing apparatchiks who present themselves as concerned parents. But parents who don’t work for conservative think tanks or Republican politicians aren’t down for destroying public education, in spite of the right-wing effort to stir up hysteria.