"Black kids are turning against white people of all ages,” declared Sherry, an African American mother. “And white kids are hating their parents and their success and their heritage and calling them racist.”
Sherry’s passionate speech was uploaded to YouTube, where it has been viewed over 112,000 times. It’s an addition to a new genre on social media: parents inveighing against critical race theory and “anti-racist education” at local school board meetings. Their message is being heard by state legislatures. Seventeen states have introduced, and seven have passed, laws or regulations colloquially termed “CRT bans.”
Their message has also been received by former President Barack Obama, who took to CNN to evince astonishment at this political development: “Lo and behold, the single most important issue to [Republicans] right now is critical race theory,” he said. “Who knew!?”
But this should not be a surprise. Parents across the country are seeing racial essentialism and partisan propaganda in schools and declaring, as Obama might say, “That’s not who we are.”
Jonathan Broadbent helped to organize parents for the March 8 school board meeting in Beachwood, Ohio, where Sherry spoke. He moved to Beachwood six years ago for its A-rated schools, but he withdrew his children last year. “My wife pays very close attention to curriculum and recommended readings,” he explained. “She saw Ibram X. Kendi and all these books and said, ‘This isn’t just a fad. It’s being infused into everything.’”
Before the school board meeting, Broadbent was approached by parents who told him, “I see it. I’m opposed to it. But I’m not comfortable speaking because I don’t want to be labeled a racist.” Broadbent now volunteers as the northern Ohio coordinator for Protect Ohio Children, a nonprofit organization seeking to expose and fight back against CRT in schools. “First a teacher got in contact with me to funnel information out to me. That led to students, who led to more and more teachers,” he said. Broadbent and other volunteers are in the process of curating whistleblower documents in a searchable “heat map” of CRT in Ohio schools.
One Chinese American mother spoke up at a Loudoun County School Board meeting: “You are now training our children to be social justice warriors and to loathe our country and our history. Growing up in Mao’s China, all this seems very familiar. The communist theory used the same critical theory to divide people. The only difference is that they used class rather than race.”
This mother has astutely assessed CRT, which is cultural Marxism with racial characteristics. It is an explicitly anti-Western, anti-Enlightenment ideology. This is not a claim invented by CRT critics but by its proponents. As explained by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, two of the theory’s founders, in their Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, CRT “questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
This ideology manifests in the classroom in different ways. Sometimes, this is through overtly discriminatory practices such as segregation (rebranded as “affinity spaces,” monoracial gatherings in school) or racial shaming (rebranded as “privilege walks,” in which students line up and take an additional step away from their peers for every supposed example of advantage they've been given in life, read one by one by the instructor). Sometimes, it's through lesson plans that rework classic “oppressors versus oppressed” Marxist ideology, with “whiteness” as the oppressive force rather than class. Sometimes, it's through “action civics,” as opposed to civics education, intended to make students into “change agents” who will undo “systems of oppression.” Sometimes, it's as “diversity, equity, and inclusion” initiatives intended to infuse school culture with CRT philosophy.
Local news reports from across America suggest that the opposition to CRT in schools has been widespread and by no means confined to deep blue locales such as Beachwood, Ohio. In Georgia’s Cherokee County, a packed and “explosive” public meeting resulted in the school board banning CRT. In Carmel, Indiana, an overflow crowd showed up at a school board meeting to object to the district’s newly hired “chief equity officer,” who will spearhead the district’s “diversity, equity, and inclusion” initiative. In Fort Thomas, Kentucky, parents organized on social media to object to a new “equity” course that would feature the writing of Kendi.
A new national nonprofit organization, Parents Defending Education, launched in March to help expose and fight back against Kendi-style “anti-racism” and CRT. For many parents, the first step is knowing what’s being taught. Part of Parents Defending Education’s mission is to help file public records requests so parents can see whether the kinds of lessons and messages they’ve seen on TV or the internet are being promoted to their children. It isn’t always easy. “Sometimes they don’t get a response to their [public records] request,” explained Erika Sanzi, the outreach director. “State law may say they’re supposed to hear back in 10 days, but they don’t hear back. The other barrier is districts trying to charge them exorbitant costs to release the records: We’ve seen invoices as high as $17,000.”
After hearing that her child’s elementary school wouldn’t refer to children as “boys and girls” but would rather use more “gender-inclusive” nouns and pronouns, Rhode Island mother Nicole Solas filed multiple public records requests to understand what students are being taught. According to a local report, a school committee met to consider filing a lawsuit against her to stop her requests.
Parents have reason to be concerned that their school districts are hiding politicized instruction. A whistleblower at the Rockwood School District in Missouri provided Parents Defending Education with an email sent to teachers telling them that in light of parent concerns about CRT, they should hide school materials from their view: “Keep teaching! Just don’t make everything visible on Canvas. This is not being deceitful. This is just doing what you have done for years. Prior to the pandemic you didn’t send everything home or have it available.”
In some school districts where parents have seen under the hood and discovered that CRT ideology has taken sway, parents have come out in force to object. Perhaps the most prominent example has been in Loudoun County, Virginia, where the school board proposed a rule that would penalize teachers for voicing concern about the district’s CRT-infused “equity” plan — even in private. Since 2018, the district has spent more than $422,500 in taxpayer funds on such “equity training” for teachers and staff.
A group of Loudoun County parents filed a suit against the district this month over its “Action Plan to Combat Systemic Racism” on the grounds that it is racially discriminatory and infringes on students’ rights to free speech. In particular, the parents take aim at the “Student Equity Ambassador Program,” which is a newly created position limited to students of color and self-declared “allies,” and the district’s “Bias Reporting System.” Under the system, students can report “bias incidents,” such as “microaggressions,” “offensive language, teasing,” or a “lack of inclusivity” for investigation. With this, attorney Daniel Suhr argues, the district is “imposing controversial political views on students and punishing those who don’t agree.”
In mid-June, as though operating under centralized command and control, liberal pundits declared en masse on Twitter that parents don’t even know what critical race theory means. Education journalists have broadly framed the parental objections as a “conservative backlash” to “racial equity” work. In perhaps the most egregious example, a U.S. News journalist declared, without evidence, that the controversy stems from parents being “really, really upset about what they see as the Biden administration's attempt to reckon with the sprawling repercussions of slavery.”
Whether such stilted coverage is attributable to journalists’ ideological blinders or whether it’s bad faith gaslighting, the media backlash against parents is likely to have two effects on different sets of parents. Some parents may well be silenced and marginalized, for fear that speaking out against racist propaganda will make them the target of racist propaganda. But it will also likely help to harden a new generation of local activists who consider themselves “woke” to the woke establishment’s methods and purpose.
Whether those activists will merely make noise or make a significant difference in their children’s education will depend on whether they organize and run for school board in their communities. The residents of Southlake, Texas, an affluent suburb of Dallas that went 49% for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, have proven that it’s possible and provided a template for effective local activism.
After students were caught on video engaging in a racist chant, the school district created a “diversity council” and adopted a “Cultural Competence Action Plan,” a thoroughgoing plan to reshape the school system in accordance with CRT ideology. Concerned community members launched a petition, formed a political action committee, picked a slate of candidates, and ran a disciplined and focused campaign yielding a blowout electoral victory. National Review’s Rich Lowry has written an excellent profile of the campaign, which could help inspire and inform parents in other communities.
Ryan Girdusky, an author and political consultant, launched the 1776 Project PAC last month to support school board candidates nationwide who are concerned about the penetration of critical race theory into their schools. The PAC is focusing on states with school board elections this year, such as Texas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “They are all off-cycle elections,” Girdusky said. “We’ve seen election turnout in off-cycle elections from the 30-50% range, but the turnout in some of these school board elections can be closer to 15%, so you can do a lot with very little money as long as you can turn out a base of concerned parents.”
The prospect of additional support was heartening to Broadbent and Protect Ohio Children. “The people who have pushed CRT into schools are very well funded and very well organized. The people who are choosing to fight it are playing catch-up. … We need concerned parents who are going to run and win and fight this stuff. That’s mission critical.” It’s critical, Broadbent argued, because purportedly nonpartisan education groups have gone woke. “The Ohio School Boards Association is lockstep with the teachers unions. They love this woke stuff. They are promoting woke training for school board members.”
For his part, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he will “get the Florida political apparatus involved” in school board races. “We’re not going to support any Republican candidate for school board who supports critical race theory.” While school board elections in Florida, and across the United States, are technically nonpartisan, local and state parties can still vet and signal their support for certain candidates.
While some might be inclined to decry this development as the “politicization” of K-12 education, the fact is that K-12 education is already deeply politicized. Low turnout in off-cycle elections enables liberal teachers unions to capture school board elections. An array of foundation-funded, purportedly nonpartisan organizations then push CRT into schools as though it were uncontroversial common sense.
But these doctrines are controversial and deeply unpopular. According to a recent Parents Defending Education poll, 74% of active voters oppose teaching students that white people are inherently privileged and black people are inherently oppressed, 69% oppose schools teaching that America was founded on racism and is structurally racist, and 80% oppose using classrooms to promote political activism. Another poll, just released last week by the Economist and YouGov, found that of the registered voters who reported that they know what critical race theory is, 58% had an unfavorable opinion of it.
These ideas have gained such sway in America’s schools despite their deep unpopularity because of what could be called one of the greatest voter suppression measures of the 20th century: states’ decisions to move school board elections off-cycle. While conservatives might like to pay lip service to “local, democratic control,” the fact is that a deficit of genuine local democracy has allowed school boards and school systems to be captured by extremist ideologues who hold the values of their communities in contempt.
The wave of state laws “banning” CRT has been a step in the right direction, and the wave of local grassroots activism by concerned parents and others is a heartening development. But state laws may prove merely words on paper, and local activism may amount to little more than stirring speeches at school board meetings, so long as off-cycle elections serve as a structural barrier to genuine democratic control. Whether this wave of energy and activism will fizzle, or whether it will result in a substantial culture shift in American public education, may depend on whether state legislatures decide to demonstrate their commitment to local control and civic engagement by moving school board elections on-cycle.
Max Eden is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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