Ethics & Public Policy Center

Leftist Bureaucrats and Foundations Are Displacing Republican Government

Published in National Review Online on January 28, 2021


Last week I laid out the nightmarish plan by the Illinois State Board of Education to turn the state’s schools into leftist indoctrination camps. Never in two decades of writing on education have I seen a more extreme or pernicious proposal than the “Illinois Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards.” The only good thing to be said about this episode is that it shows us what to beware of. The Illinois-teaching-standards outrage is the endgame of the coming push for expanded “civic education” at the state and federal levels. More than that, the ultra-woke Illinois teaching standards, and the bogus Illinois “civics” law they build upon, are case studies in the hijacking of representative government by leftist bureaucrats and foundations.

Typically, when we think about the out-of-control growth of the administrative state, we mean the federal bureaucracy. Well, the “Illinois Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards” are the product of an out-of-control state-level bureaucracy. Relatedly, the misnamed Illinois “civics” law (it should have been called the “mandatory Alinskyite-activism law”) effectively ceded control of the state’s “civics” education to a batch of woke Chicago foundations.

In 2018, I wrote here about an important study by Emmett McGroarty, Jane Robbins, and Erin Tuttle, Deconstructing the Administrative State: The Fight for Liberty. That book went further than most critiques of the administrative state, because it showed how the growth of federal bureaucracy had subverted independent government by the states. The “Illinois Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards” take us to new level, however. They show that even states have begun to cede their legislative authority to leftist state-level bureaucrats eager to usurp the lawmaking power.

You can read about what the Illinois education fiasco portends for state government in this important blog post by Illinois representative Steven Reick, leader of the opposition to the new teaching standards. (By the way, how impressive it is to see a state representative this thoughtful.) Reick explains that, in cooking up this outrageously radical and overreaching new rule, the Illinois State Board of Education far exceeded its legislative writ. The Board of Education gets away with it because the state legislature has increasingly outsourced such matters to the bureaucracy, and to the committee Reick sits on, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), which is supposed to determine whether new rules are consistent with the laws they are supposedly enforcing. We’ve heard plenty in recent years about how Congress is ducking responsibility for tough decisions by ceding power to the federal bureaucracy. Reick shows that the same thing is happening in the states.

The 2015 Illinois “civics” law illustrates another dimension of the problem. As I noted last week, the leftist activists behind the 2015 Illinois civics law cleverly inserted a provision allowing the state to accept private funding for the program. That seemed like a way to save money, but the practical result was that legislative control over the most politically sensitive part of education was effectively farmed out to leftist Chicago foundations.

Here’s a prediction. When the new push for bogus “civics” laws comes to the states, leftist advocates will try to insert provisions allowing for private funding (and therefore control) of the program. That way, curriculum materials designed to turn students into leftist protesters can be funneled to school districts unimpeded. Rich Hollywood and Silicon Valley donors will be able to construct private foundations that effectively control history, civics, and social-studies education in red states, thereby turning them blue.

Obviously, the solution here is for state legislatures to reassert control and stop outsourcing tough decisions to state bureaucrats and foundations. In the immediate term, however, there are things the public can do to restore popular sovereignty. Reick gives the example of an earlier dust-up when a flood of emails from the public forced the withdrawal of a rule that would have criminalized struggling business owners during the pandemic before the rule even reached the JCAR. Reick believes that a similar public response might block the “Illinois Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards.” He even provides a list of email addresses and phone numbers at the end of his post.

I received a much greater than usual response to last week’s post on the ultra-woke Illinois teaching standards, chiefly because the idea is ultra-nutty, and ultra-dangerous to boot. Some of the responses from Illinoisians were understandably discouraged, given the overwhelming Democratic majorities in the legislature. But Reick is on the ground and clearly believes this battle can be won, even if the odds are steep. I’d say fighting back is worth a shot, and for more reasons than one. Stopping this awful rule is step one. The long-term hope is that greater public pushback on the JCAR may convince the legislature to reign in the out-of-control administrative state in the state.

Advocates of the “new civics” claim that students need to be turned into leftist protestors and lobbyists because traditional civics is stodgy and boring. They’re wrong about that, I’ve argued. But I can certainly see why these activists-disguised-as-educators might be hostile to civics rightly understood. Nothing would better prepare the public to combat an expansion of the administrative state than true civic education.

The very plan to enshrine woke (anti-) civics in our schools depends upon a bureaucratic short-circuiting of our republican system. No worries. The kiddies won’t know what they’ve lost if they never learn about it to begin with. You’ve got to hand it to these folks. There is a magnificent consistency to their plan to subvert our constitutional republic by destroying knowledge of our constitutional republic.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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