Think Tank Attack 

Why The Sutherland Institute wants to abolish public education.

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The tenants of Independence Square, a colonial-style office building in a quiet Sandy neighborhood not far from State Street, include a doctor’s office, an investment firm and a conservative think tank called The Sutherland Institute. A Utah-based nonprofit concerned with influencing public policy, Sutherland churns through the social issues of the day, assessing the issues of poverty, education and the family—especially the family, which Institute President Paul T. Mero calls “the fundamental unit of society.”

This is a local, public-policy institute in the business of finding family-based solutions that sidestep government, leaving welfare and schooling in the hands of families and shifting the public policy emphasis away from the issues that have long been public policy’s bottom line.

When The Sutherland Institute first hit Utah’s political landscape in 1995, it issued a host of “position papers” and “policy statements,” many espousing the virtues of free-market mechanisms in the then hotly disputed arena of health care. Since Mero took the helm in December 2000, The Sutherland Institute has made a marked shift into debates surrounding moral issues, poverty and, first and foremost, education. Mero fervently believes the most lasting solutions are family-based, and other solutions—including those that rely on nontraditional families—can no longer hold back society’s problems. It’s time, he said, for families to reassert their role as comprehensive social providers. It’s also time for government to back off.

Nowhere is that more true than in the arena of education. Since taking Sutherland’s helm, Mero has authored an 80-page report, Saving Education and Ourselves: The Moral Case for Self-Reliance in Education. In it, he proposes shifting the responsibility for education to individual families. Those with the means to do so would educate their kids themselves—or place them in private schools—while working-class families could send their kids to tax-supported, but autonomous, “neighborhood schools” unburdened by state bureaucracy. But it’s not just public-sector bureaucracy that’s weighing down education in America. In fact, in Mero’s view, teachers’ unions—and that most certainly includes the Utah Education Association (UEA)—are the biggest albatross of all. In a commentary faxed to Utah media early last year, Mero described the state teachers’ union as “the Goliath of Utah politics. Arrogant and ill-tempered, belligerent and battle-tested, entrenched as the leader of an army of government education warriors, and seemingly invulnerable.”

The UEA was not amused and, for a time, the two sparred back and forth when the Legislature passed a bill last year banning employee contributions to political action committees through government payrolls. Titled the Voluntary Contributions Act, this 2001 law prompted both the UEA and Utah Public Employees Association to challenge its constitutionality by filing suit against the state. The UEA felt the law was an attempt by the Republican-dominated Legislature to punish the union after it staged a one-day walkout that year. To find out just how much of the law was built on enmity toward public education, UEA’s attorneys issued subpoenas to the offices of The Sutherland Institute and the Utah Taxpayers Association requesting numerous records and documents. The institute filed a motion to quash it but also hosted a humorous jibe against the union in the form of a contest. Whoever wrote the wittiest, most insightful and “possibly accurate” description of why the teachers’ union wanted Sutherland documents would win $50. A judge later dismissed the UEA’s subpoena in the case. The Legislature this year fine-tuned the act itself, which is now law.

It’s not all smooth sailing for The Sutherland Institute. Mero acknowledges the antagonism toward him, and the institute, that has resulted from his volleys against everyone from gays to public educators. He said he was misrepresented in a daily newspaper article last year, when he helped host a forum on environmental issues the institute co-sponsored with the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Utah Foundation and the decidedly more left-leaning Utah Issues. Mero wanted to make a point about the environmentalist ethic and biblical theology. Instead, he got tagged as stating that environmentalists were anti-Christian.

When Mero gave a March 2001 speech at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building introducing himself to the larger community, he made what he thought were important distinctions between the conservative ethic and Libertarian Party positions. Mero, as well as the institute, believe the family is the fundamental unit of society. Libertarians put the emphasis on the individual. For that, Mero was labeled a “Collectivist Luciferian” by area Libertarians. He took it in stride—with a chuckle, even.

“I don’t even know what a ‘Collectivist Luciferian’ is, but it sounds pretty good,” Mero joked.

But his views, and by extension the institute’s views, on public education are getting more and more exposure. That may come as no surprise in an era of our country’s history when right-leaning policies are on the ascendancy. Armed with a newly secured grant, Mero said The Sutherland Institute will soon be on the ascendancy itself. He plans on adding six people to the staff. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the institute can lobby under strictly defined Internal Revenue Service criteria, and it also can make its influence known on a number of other levels. It formulates ideas, disseminates them to anyone interested, be they citizen or politician. The institute also has hosted community fundraisers.

Now that he has led the institute for almost three years, Mero wants to go beyond the simple writing and distribution of studies and position papers, which he sees as a means toward various ends. The goal, of course, is to reach those ends.

“By 2004, I hope to make this organization a real force,” Mero said. “We’ll be ready to do a much better job of influencing public policy in this state, quantitatively and qualitatively.”

Most public-school teachers may not know Mero by name, let alone face, but a handful are paying increased attention. At a nationwide level, the National Education Association (NEA) has called local right-leaning think tanks such as Sutherland Institute “the biggest little movement in America.” Locally, UEA President Pat Rusk admitted that The Sutherland Institute watches the teachers’ union a lot more closely than the union watches The Sutherland Institute.

“I think it’s a frightening trend,” Rusk said. “It’s typical of what we see nationwide with some of the far-right organizations trying to do away with public education.”

A veteran of the right-wing Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill., Mero is just shy of middle-aged. His mildly anachronistic circle-frame glasses call to mind the FDR-era U.S. Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland, for whom the Institute is named. (Sutherland, who was part of a bench cadre known as the “Four Horsemen,” struck down numerous New Deal policies.)

“We feel that government actually destroys community,” Mero said in one of our conversations. “When you and I get together privately to solve a problem in our neighborhood, it has a much greater lasting impact in our community than if you and I lobbied our political representatives to come in and solve the problem.”

But outside his condemnation of the educational bureaucracy, Mero’s calm demeanor shows few signs of strain. Most of the time he speaks with deliberate, grounded caution, not rushing to impulsive rebuttals or dogmatic conclusions that are, for many of its moderate observers, a hallmark of the far right. But although Mero is a compelling speaker, structuring his arguments clearly, it’s hard to ignore the fringe connotations of his thesis. Government as community wrecker isn’t a concept pushed in the average civics class.

Mero is careful to emphasize that, regardless of the areas where the institute aligns itself, it is, in fact, nonpartisan in the sense that it’s not affiliated with any political party. “We are not party-politics people,” he said. “We’re public-policy people.”

That said, such an angle doesn’t give him or the institute a free ride. The folks at The Sutherland Institute, which also include an 11-member, all-male board of trustees, draw a variety of responses from local politicians and those in the public policy know.

“They are on the far right, intellectually, of most think tanks out there,” said left-of-center Salt Lake County Councilman Joe Hatch. “Many very conservative think tanks in Washington, D.C., would blush if they saw the kind of positions The Sutherland Institute was taking.”

Hatch remembers a council meeting where Mero weighed in on the issues of public-private partnerships involving county government. Mero disputed the allocation of government dollars to assist private initiatives working to combat poverty. Hatch, a Democrat, appreciated Mero’s input but is critical of the institute’s hands-off philosophy. “They don’t think government should be involved in anything that smacks of helping society,” Hatch said.

Not anything, but most things, Mero might point out. As legal guardian to a retarded sister, Mero lived with her for 14 years and then eased her into an assisted-living program. He admits that government programs helped her. “But my philosophy is one of self-government and limited government. We’re obligated to take care of ourselves and our own. We exhaust all private sources of relief, and then the government exists in a limited role as safety net,” he said.

Republican County Councilman Russell Skousen diverges from fellow Councilman Hatch. “You may not agree with their solutions,” Skousen said. “I think they’re one of the few groups I’ve seen who really try to reach out to groups across the political spectrum to come up with a dialogue and to take everybody’s position seriously.”

Even those who differ widely from The Sutherland Institute on ideological grounds credit the organization with intellectual integrity, lending support to Mero’s assertion that he seeks input from people of all political stripes. Ted Wilson, former director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, has worked with The Sutherland Institute in the past.

“They don’t practice my brand of politics,” Wilson admitted. Even so, “Paul [Mero] has made a concerted effort to include a broader range of input into his organization. … If one puts them in the context of being a think tank with a certain bias, a certain orientation, and then you allow for other think tanks to exist on the spectrum, then they have a right to be there.”

Even though Mero’s Saving Education and Ourselves report broadly challenges the existing educational system, he insists the ultimate intention is to get everyone on the same page.

“One of the ideas behind releasing the report,” he said, “is to start a public dialogue and to eventually achieve a consensus on the underlying principles.”

The challenge, of course, is reaching a consensus between people with nearly opposite views. Many of the school reform policies Mero had heard—conservative and liberal—fall short of what’s needed, he said. Examining the failures of both approaches got him thinking about alternative solutions. Mero outlined the arguments he’s heard that are unworkable.

“Typically, if you’re the UEA, your Johnny One Note reform is just going to be more money—that’s all we need. If you’re a businessman, typically your Johnny One Note reform is let’s treat it like a business and put market incentives in the program. Create competition and that will solve the problem.”

Mero rebuts the free-market solution. “The problem with the conservative argument, the market-based argument,” he said, “is that it totally ignores the systemic nature” of public education. “It’s not a business. Public education is not a business, it’s a government program, and it has to be treated like a government program if you want to fix it. Conservatives and businessmen ignore that. They try to apply business models to solve a program with a government model.”

Under Mero’s proposed model, curriculum would be deregulated. “I’d oppose a standard curriculum,” he said, responding to worries that his system could eliminate the democracy-sustaining advantages of a free, public and relatively uniform education.

“A standardized curriculum makes sense when you are still inside the box, trying to think of things to make the system better. A lot of conservative commentators like standardized tests, but they’re still thinking inside the box. It’s a tool of a factory system.”

And the factory system is exactly the source of the problem, said Mero. “When you’re talking about helping families become self-reliant in education, you necessarily have to allow them the latitude to determine their own outcomes, and standardized tests don’t fit that model.”

Instead, Mero advocates breaking down the box—even if, as in Utah, it’s widely considered a sacred one.

“The LDS enchantment with public education really began in the mid-1920s, only after four decades of fighting it,” Mero explains. He said leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fought public education on doctrinal grounds even as the church’s membership moved steadily toward a way of life that embraced it. Mero compares that struggle with the one faced by the Old Testament prophet Samuel, who discouraged the Israelites’ desire for a king. Eventually, “the Lord just said, Let’s give them what they want. It will do them in, eventually, but give them what they want. And Saul became the king of Israel.”

For Mero, there’s a parallel to that story in the progression from early 20th-century social changes—a rise in single and working mothers, a greater social emphasis on material wealth—to Utahns’ ill-founded fondness for public education. Changing family dynamics put the brunt of the responsibility for educating children on the public-school system. Today, education loses out to “the second and third car, the boat, the vacation. That’s tougher to overcome than if it were an ideological choice, because it’s more ingrained in their day-to-day lives,” Mero said.

He cites numerous explanations for America’s devotion to public schooling. Beyond Horace Mann, the suspects are unusual. Mero blames Catholic-haters who wanted “to Protestantize everybody.”

“There were bigots”—the Ku Klux Klan among them—who “wanted to Americanize” hated immigrants. Now, the anti-public education fight has shifted, from the KKK’s first fight to get mandatory public education codified, to other entities.

“Now, we don’t really fight the KKK anymore, we don’t fight Horace Mann, we don’t fight John Dewey,” Mero said. “We fight the UEA for the right to speak on behalf of education.”

Talk like that raises the hackles of Democrats such as Hatch, who doubts such arguments are supported by most mainstream Utahns. “There is strong support for public education, and has been since the Mormon pioneers came into this valley and began to establish public education,” Hatch said.

But regardless of its heritage, Mero sees the end of the road for a failing system. In Saving Education and Ourselves, he compares public schooling to a bloated and overextended welfare program. Why, he asks, should parents capable of educating their children pass that responsibility off onto the state?

Why, ask his critics, shouldn’t they?

“You take that to its logical extreme, and everything in their view becomes a welfare system,” Hatch said.

Another of the natural concerns raised by Mero’s proposals is the possibility of neglect, Hatch argued. “Say I’m a parent, and I say I don’t need reading, writing, arithmetic—don’t need it, don’t value it, and I’m not sending my kids to any damned public school. In their version of society, that is a perfectly legitimate attitude for parents to have.”

That particular hazard doesn’t worry Mero, in part because he thinks the current system doesn’t do much better.

“[Neglectfulness is] a hard definition to get your hands around. Is it neglectful for public education, when a student drops out? When there’s a student that doesn’t learn anything? Do we accuse that system of neglect?”

In issues of child welfare, Mero points out, the state assumes every parent is fit until presented with proof to the contrary. Why treat education differently?

“The contradiction is that you coerce people to be free,” said Mero of compulsory state education. He is conscious of arguments from people like Hatch, who identify in public education a certain egalitarian ideal. But how can a compulsory government program guarantee freedom?

“It’s a contradiction that a coercive system could be the bulwark of democracy,” Mero asserts.

But Americans are nothing if not full of contradictions. And it’s hard to argue with a birthright.

Again, Hatch said, The Sutherland Institute is reducing its arguments to an extreme point, where the only collective that’s of any value is the traditional family, and government should be severely limited. “To 90 percent of America and Utah, that’s not what this country is about. We have responsibilities to each other beyond that,” Hatch said.

Fair enough, insists Mero: “All we’re trying to do here is unburden the system of people who don’t need the system. [Education] can only effectively serve those dependent on it if we unburden it from those who don’t need to be dependent.”

But just as there are right answers and wrong answers, there are also right questions and wrong questions. For UEA President Pat Rusk, the question of who does or doesn’t need to be dependent in regard to education isn’t one she’s willing to entertain. She’d rather ask what the likely outcome would be if The Sutherland Institute’s scenario ever were carried out in reality.

“If we look at other cases where poor people have been put into welfare programs, then society becomes further stratified and more people are left behind. Look what’s happened to health care when we rely on programs to care for the indigent. If we turn public education into a program for poor people only, public education—the very basis of our democracy—will become an afterthought,” Rusk said.

There’s more than one agenda at work with proposals such as Mero’s, Rusk believes. There’s the obvious ideological motive, which can be genuine and well intended, that education is better seen as a private, and not public, concern. But Rusk also believes that conservatives and others fund local think-tank public policy institutes such as Sutherland in an attempt to turn schools into profit centers. This represents a flagrant effort to sacrifice public good for private wealth.

“The NEA has noted that K-through-12 education is a $373 billion industry, 90 percent of which is in the public sector. If you look at the profit motive, there are potentially billions in profit if you can privatize the entire industry,” Rusk said.

Rusk even reads from a 1999 Merrill Lynch investment report: “The education industry represents the largest market opportunity for private sector involvement since health care in the 1970s.”

Far from an armchair critic, Rusk has read The Sutherland Institute’s Saving Education and Ourselves report. She’d like to mount a campaign asking Utah parents everywhere to ask their legislators if they’ve read the report. She then wants parents to ask those same legislators how much of the report they agree with, noting if you’re going to go into battle, you better find out how deep enemy penetration has spread.

“If we find that out, that’s really going to tell us where people stand. We should be holding this [the Sutherland report] up as a litmus test for lawmakers,” she said.

In one sense, the battle already has started. Rusk sees some of The Sutherland Institute recommendations as already being seriously proposed through the latest Utah omnibus education reform bill, sponsored this year by state Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch. The list of proposed reforms edging schools closer to privatization are set to become more familiar over time: independent extracurricular associations, limited state oversight, principals without education credentials, and doing away with district structures and oversight mechanisms.

The current debate over education reform, both nationally and locally, is a subtle cat-and-mouse game wherein politicians work hard to make it look as if public education is continually failing, Rusk said. But of course politicians have to make it appear as if public education is badly in need of repair, said Rusk. It’s the only way to persuade parents that drastic measures such as privatization must be sought. What’s often overlooked when people compare student test scores across nations is that America is one nation where everyone, not just the elite, is entitled to learn.

“Bit by bit, the things The Sutherland Institute is proposing are becoming legislation. It’s all about privatization,” Rusk said. “Yes, there are many places we can improve, but we do a good job. The UEA is a union, and I don’t apologize for that. But we’re also a professional organization. We help train new teachers. We work at getting schools adequately funded. We want to make certain teachers aren’t put in a situation where they are doomed to fail.”

Mero might take solace in the fact that Rusk and the UEA are starting to take him seriously. For his part, he sells his impact short, if only because he understands the full challenge ahead of him, one that expands far beyond the confines of teachers’ unions. The broader goal, if education is to be reformed, is reaching a consensus between people with nearly polar views on educating American society. When Mero finished his report, his staff sent it to educators statewide.

“We sent it out to everyone who we thought might have a problem with the report,” Mero recalls. “We sent it to every principal, we sent it to every member of a school board in the state, we sent it to every state legislator.” The institute also sent it to educational administrators at the state level. The copies sent out totaled 1,000.

“I got one response back,” said Mero, sounding genuinely defeated. “One. It was from an elementary principal in Draper, and she wanted to chastise me. I could tell she didn’t even read the whole thing. The one response I got wasn’t even relevant to critiquing the piece.”

For much of our discussion, Mero gazed, a little wistfully, out the window. Seemingly grounded by his disappointment, he turned in his chair and asked, “What does that tell me?”

Mero’s self-assurance—the certainty with which he vouches for his report—doesn’t come across as arrogant, or even dogmatic. And it’s not because he’s hedging. When he talks about consensus on the underlying principles in his report, he doesn’t mean broad principles, like “improving education.” He’s serious about the specifics, and he’s willing to ask his audience to rethink the fundamentals of the subject they’re considering. While it obviously occurs to him that his ideas spark the ire of people positioned all over the education debate, his evident discouragement at being ignored by the recipients of his report suggests that, in some very basic sense, Mero is a true believer.

“We are not in the business of politics, which has as its primary objective winning,” he said. “We’re about finding lasting solutions. So in that sense, our only enemies are going to be people who don’t want a lasting solution to a problem.”

But the other causes and positions it espouses may obfuscate The Sutherland Institute’s battle to rework public education. Perhaps there is an untapped base of people frustrated with the quality of public education, but if they’re to join Mero in the cause, some might be uncomfortable signing on by association to other Sutherland Institute positions. When he was chief policy advisor to Rep. “B-1 Bob” Dornan, one of California’s most conservative Republicans, Mero wrote a 140-page report titled How Congress Supports and Funds Organized Homosexuality. Since The Sutherland Institute’s arguments hinge on the family unit, debate over what constitutes that unit may threaten the consensus Mero seeks—and the long-term objectives to which that consensus is, by pretty much everyone’s admission, a prerequisite.

Mero sees a lot of fallout from Lawrence v. Texas, the recent Supreme Court decision striking down sodomy laws. For Mormons, it will hit home, he said.

“Sooner or later, after some of those legal dominoes are tipped, there will be a lawsuit against the church for two men to go in the temple and be married. And then the church has some big decisions,” he said.

Mero summarizes the situation with a phrase apt in any discussion about the ceaseless head-butting between conservatives and liberals, education reformers and UEA members. For now, he’s talking about what he sees as the inevitable post-Lawrence legal challenges facing conservatives, but he could easily be referring to any one of the confused agendas that drive politics in a world full of ideologues and idealists. “They will push and push and push,” he said. “They can’t leave it alone.”

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About The Author

Michael Owen

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