AMAC Exclusive by David P. Deavel
Public schools lost about 1.4 million students this past year, Education Week reported, based on analysis of state-level data. While the publication’s reporter put the emphasis on the pandemic (more accurately, it would have been responses of schools to the pandemic), one reason to doubt that public schools will gain ground is the growing number of revelations not only about the poor level of instruction (which has been known for some time) in many schools but also the growing presence of Critical Race Theory in ordinary public schools. The reality is that there are only two courses for Americans regarding public schools: save them through reform and fund families via school choice. In either case we cannot continue to allow a pipeline of taxpayer dollars to flow automatically and exclusively to our present public school system.
Parents during the pandemic learned a great deal about what was going on in the classroom by listening in on Zoom classes. They learned even more from “listening in” on teachers’ public commentary on Twitter or other social media sites about their own work. In August 2020, Matthew R. Kay, a founding teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, a partnership between Philly’s school district and the Franklin Institute, unleashed a Twitter thread worrying about parents finding out what teachers were up to with their students, including this comment: “And while ‘conservative’ parents are my chief concern—I know that the damage can come from the left too. If we are engaged in the messy work of destabilizing a kids [sic] racism or homophobia or transphobia—how much do we want their classmates’ parents piling on?”
Teachers like Kay, a math and science instructor, believe that their task is to advance their own “progressive” understandings of sexuality and race and indoctrinate children—parents’ understandings of those subjects be damned.
While not all public school teachers have this view of their job, the reality is that a great many do. Because of the work of investigative journalist Christopher Rufo and the rebellion of parents in a great many school districts across the country who have listened in on Zoom classes or started to read the materials their schools are using, Americans are now finding out just how much the entire education apparatus has been turning toward these politicized and destructive understandings of the human person. Though there is much to be done on the topic of sex education, the focus this summer has been on the use of Critical Race Theory in education.
Though parents and state-level lawmakers are now fighting back, there is the usual chorus of elite media and education bureaucrats alternating between denials that CRT is being taught and defenses of its justice.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten played both sides at the AFT’s TEACH 2021 conference, first denying that it is being taught in elementary and high schools: “It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists — and, in particular, whether it has an effect on law and public policy.” She then defended it as merely “teaching kids honest history.” Alas for Ms. Weingarten, eagle-eyed viewers of the AFT found tweets from the organization declaring CRT “isn’t ‘divisive’. It’s an irreplaceable lens with which we can view our nation’s difficult history.” The National Education Association, largest of the nation’s teachers’ unions, deleted an agenda item that pledged to “share and publicize” “information already available on critical race theory (CRT)—what it is and what it is not.”
The unions can try to hide their agenda, but there is too much evidence out there to deny what’s going on at all levels. The Legal Insurrection Foundation has recently launched an interactive map showing which higher ed institutions are using CRT training, but it will take a while for the site to catch up with all the schools that are actually doing it. Even where CRT is not being mandated for students and faculty, education professors have long been using it as the primary lens to train teachers and frame policy.
At a school board meeting in Slinger, Wisconsin, one parent revealed that, in the online courses she was required to take to be a substitute teacher, Critical Race Theory was pervasive and that it had consequences for children in the classroom: “You are told and taught that if you have any kind of views that are colorblind that is racist and if you treat children the same that you are racist and that you are not treating them well and that they should have different consequences for the same action based on the color of their skin.”
Curricula are also being exposed. Christopher Rufo recently reported on the discovery that at least thirty public schools across the country are using Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Amanda Higginbotham, which teaches kids that “whiteness” is the devil (complete with illustrations of a figure with cloven hooves and a pointy tail). Pizza Hut was recently revealed to be co-sponsoring a CRT curriculum text that attacks “greedy white men.”
Even where it is not mandated or forbidden, many teachers have pledged to continue to teach it on the sly. On a recent episode of the “Teaching Artist Podcast,” art teachers commented on how they can get around parents and administrators in “conservative” and “rural” areas to teach anti-racist material. In fact, over 5,000 teachers across the country have signed a petition sponsored by the Zinn Education Project (featured on the NEA’s website) pledging to keep teaching CRT no matter whether laws are passed in their states forbidding it or not.
Thankfully, there are a great many places where such laws are being proposed, including Texas, Utah, Idaho, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Arizona, North Carolina, Missouri, and Ohio. While it is good that in many places parents opposing CRT have been able to seize control of school boards, legal obstacles to teaching these divisive programs that directly oppose the equal treatment of all races are necessary.
Sadly, some “establishment” conservatives downplay the danger. David French, along with Kmele Foster, Jason Stanley, and Thomas Chatterton Williams, has written an opinion piece that opposes this legal approach, claiming control over public school education qualifies as “speech codes” that “ban ideas,” a violation of “the fundamentally liberal democratic nature of the American project.” This criticism is odd because it treats public education as if it were the public square in which teachers are thwarted in what they say in their own spare time rather than what they are teaching. One of the aspects of our liberal democratic project is that we the people get to say what goes into our public education.
French et al suggest that in order to counter CRT parents simply “propose new curriculum” or file lawsuits and make complaints based on Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Without control of school boards, where will these proposals go? As Stanley Kurtz observed, complaints to the Department of Education are futile given that it is in the hands of progressives bent on mandating CRT nationally. In fact, the White House signaled its own support for CRT via Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who responded to a question from Real Clear Politics about the NEA’s maneuvers by saying the President supports teaching “history,” including the claim that “there is systemic racism that is still impacting society today.”
As Kurtz also noted, the admission that much of what is taught might go against the Civil Rights Act is an admission that it is destructive to the American project. Why should it be up to parents to propose lawsuits that will take years to wind their way through the courts while their kids are being taught that “whiteness is the devil,” equal treatment under the law is racist, and that any “inequity” (different outcomes among races) is clear proof of injustice? If some of the legislation proposed is overly broad or vague, then French et al should suggest how to fix it, not ask parents to simply abandon the possibility of reform.
Americans should make it their goal to stop the destructive teachings on race (and sex and gender) or allow parents to escape the schools that continue to propagate them. Ideally, they can approach both goals. The American Federation for Children reports progress on school choice initiatives in 20 states this year alone. Making money follow children rather than corrupt institutions is essential to enabling parents control what their children learn. It is also essential to creating a situation in which state-and-local educrats might be forced to listen to what the public does and doesn’t want. Legislation stopping their indoctrination and allowing parents an escape route when rogue administrators and teachers get around it will certainly do something. A million-plus students leave public education every year and pretty soon we’re talking about real money. We might discover that money talks and CRT must walk.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.