How politicians have made life worse for educators for years.

The war on teachers is back. This week, in Virginia, new Gov. Glenn Youngkin set up a “tip line” to report teachers who teach “divisive” ideas. And in Florida, lawmakers proposed a bill to install cameras in classrooms to monitor supposedly subversive teaching. That builds on a bill called the “Stop WOKE Act,” introduced late last year and sponsored by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which would allow parents to sue schools for teaching so-called critical race theory. It’s tempting to see these efforts as merely ridiculous, and pranksters immediately flooded Youngkin’s “tip line” with knock-knock jokes and fake tips about “divisive” teaching at Hogwarts. But, as one Virginia teacher reflected, Youngkin’s tactics represented a very serious “threat to education.” That teacher added: “You want to know what I teach, just ask.”

For a full century now, conservative politicians have attacked teachers to score easy political points. This, despite the fact that teachers, as a group, tend to consider themselves “moderate” (43 percent) or even “conservative” (27 percent), and their political views have long tended to match those of their local communities. Nevertheless, scare tactics about subversive teachers have been too tempting for politicians to resist. But although targeting teachers might score a short-term payoff at the ballot box, those attacks have always harmed public schools by driving teachers away.

In the first round of our modern educational culture wars, for example, lawmakers in Kentucky considered a bill to eliminate suspect teachers from their public schools. Their 1922 bill would have banned teaching evolution as well as atheism or “agnosticism.” Casting a wide net, the bill outlawed the teaching of any idea that might “weaken or undermine the religious faith of the pupils” in public schools. In addition, if any alert citizens suspected an educator of surreptitiously teaching science, they were enjoined to report the teacher, who would be interrogated within five days by the school board. If the school board considered them guilty, the teacher would be fired. The bill failed to pass, but only because a few conservative lawmakers received assurances from the president of the state’s flagship university that teaching evolution would be banned in practice, even without the new law.

In the 1930s, too, politicians were quick to accuse teachers of subversive schemes. In 1935, the U.S. Congress passed a law to force teachers in the public schools of D.C. to abjure any mention of communism, either inside or even outside of the classroom. Teachers were required to swear their innocence each time they picked up their paychecks. The law’s sponsor, Texas Democrat Thomas Blanton, even sent questionnaires to D.C. teachers, asking them if they believed in God or belonged to a union. In this case, the response of teachers’ defenders was swift and successful. Critics pointed out that schoolchildren would not be allowed to learn anything about global current events, the Soviet Union, or even the course of the First World War if the law were enforced. Due to the intense criticism, the law was repealed in 1937.

Blanton’s law’s defeat did not deter teacher bashing for long. After World War II, political attacks on teachers only grew more intense. In 1948, for example, the House Committee on Un-American Activities published a quick guide to community spying on local teachers. The committee’s conclusion—the hundredth “thing” it wanted every right-thinking citizen to know—was that the solution to communist subversion was vigilante action. Every American, the committee concluded, must “work in your own community” to unearth hidden communism, “whether in the school system or anywhere else.”

University of Illinois

Plenty of Americans followed their advice. It is impossible to trace all the individual actions, but some organizations kept records of their private attempts to investigate and punish teachers. The Daughters of the American Revolution, for instance, openly encouraged each of its members to “constitute herself a committee of one to oppose by every means within her power the infiltration of communistic teachers in our schools.” By 1950, hundreds of local DAR chapters had begun inquisitions into the practices of their local public school teachers. In Iowa, the state DAR conference resolved that every member would conduct at least one classroom investigation. In Texas, in 1951, the state DAR claimed to have organized 1,695 visits to history classes to sniff out unpatriotic teaching.

What were they looking for? Popular Cold War–era right-wing pamphleteers such as Allen Zoll warned that subversive teaching might look perfectly innocent. Teachers might spout “currently popular herd ideas” to their students. Those teachers might even be unaware of the results of their sneakily subversive teaching, but the results would be the same nevertheless: “a tragically misshapen generation. … without the ability to think for themselves … fit only to be citizens of the authoritarian state.”

A woman in glasses chops down a tree that says "American way of life." Below her, text says: "Progressive education increases delinquency."
A cartoon from Allen Zoll and the National Council for American Education, c. 1949.
Courtesy of Adam Laats

As Augustin Rudd, a right-wing activist from the American Legion, had warned for years, spying on teachers and classrooms required a trained eye. It was easy to miss the use of “weasel words,” meant to awaken American children to the problems in American history and society. Subversive teaching, he warned, was often “very subtle.” Teachers might seem to be discussing innocuous historical subjects such as the conflicts between rich and poor, Black and white. In practice, however, such sneaky teaching left children feeling discomfort about the heroic histories they had been told. The solution, for this legionnaire, lay in relentless surveillance. He called on every post of the legion to “investigate the school situation on its own account.”

Taken as a whole, the results were tragic. Back then, unrestrained spying on teachers, along with accusations of anti-American sentiment, drove teachers out of the profession and out of schools. Some of the cases made headlines, but more often the results were only visible in a desperate shortage of teachers willing to endure the abuse.

The high-profile cases set the pattern. In New York City, for instance, teachers suspected of communist affiliations were driven out of their jobs in the 1940s and 1950s. Most famously, Minnie Gertrude, a 17-year classroom veteran, killed herself just before Christmas in 1948 after enduring interrogation by a congressional committee about her political beliefs.

In 1950, New York City suspended eight teachers, then, in 1951, fired eight more. The investigations deprived the district of some of its best teachers. To give just one example, in 1952 teacher Mildred Flacks had been teaching for 19 years. Her annual evaluation by her principal included the usual glowing praise. “I have long been convinced,” the principal told Flacks in 1952, “that your sincere and effective work, coupled with your skill in the newer methods of elementary education, have been in large measure responsible for the excellence of our elementary department.”

Less than a month later, Flacks was dismissed, victim to the political ambitions of school superintendent William Jansen. Jansen had promised to investigate his schools and purge any suspect teachers, and Flacks found herself in the crosshairs of the hunt.

The effect was felt not only in New York City. In 1949, a national survey conducted by the National Education Association to assess the climate of classroom teaching found that potential teachers were being scared away from the job, in part because of the relentless, unpredictable political inquisition. The 1949 survey concluded that the resulting “shortage of teachers” constituted a “national crisis in education.”

Unfortunately, warnings in the 1940s did not lead to the kinds of profound structural changes needed to address the crisis. For one thing, teacher pay and working conditions were not substantially improved. Just as important, teachers were not protected from baseless accusations, and the attacks never let up. In the 1960s, for instance, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Max Rafferty called teachers “bums” who were focusing too much on America’s faults, instead of “the magnificent, world-changing deeds of our national heroes.” And in the 1980s, right-wing pundit Sam Blumenfeld earned the approval of the Reagan-era Department of Education by calling teachers a dangerous “Trojan Horse in American Education.”

Today’s attacks on teachers are just as misguided and just as destructive. Politicians who set up “tip lines” and surveillance plans for teachers are making the job less attractive than ever. Recent surveys have found that about 1 in every 4 teachers is considering quitting, based on stresses from the pandemic and political pressure. Just like in the 20th century, those teachers represent a precious and irreplaceable community resource; they make up the expertise and experience that make public education possible.

Calling on citizens to snoop on, and report, their children’s teachers is a venerable American tradition; it is also destructive to the goals of public education. Desperate school leaders are already taking desperate measures to find teachers—including calling in the National Guard—yet politicians are willing to make the problem worse, in order to score points in the ongoing war over America’s public schools.