The pundits on television were not talking about public education on Tuesday night, but public school policy loomed large as an election issue nonetheless.
The Wall Street Journal recently previewed the school board election in Frederick County, Maryland: “Three conservative school board candidates have been knocking on doors… in the run-up to the midterms, campaigning with a message that they will curb what they say is the injection of misguided ideas about gender, sexuality and race in classroom instruction…. The group, calling itself Education Not Indoctrination and backed by a political-action committee pumping money into similar efforts around the U.S., will square off in Tuesday’s election against a four-candidate slate supported by teachers unions…. The spirited race in central Maryland mirrors a continuing fight for control of the elected bodies that oversee public schools nationwide… The nonpartisan election site Ballotpedia is tracking about 500 school board races around the U.S. in which candidates have highlighted Covid-19 policies, race in education, or sex and gender issues.”
It may take a while to sort out what happened in all these races on Tuesday, but for an in-depth explanation of what has been happening more broadly in the public school culture war and who’s behind it, please read Paige Williams’ profile of Moms for Liberty in the November 7, 2022 New Yorker magazine.
What is Moms for Liberty? Williams connects all the dots: disruption of school board meetings—policy from the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and ALEC—Christopher Rufo—dark money—right wing media—attacks on a well-vetted language arts curriculum—an assault on honest teaching about racism and the Civil War—and attacks on LGBTQ rights.
Williams locates her story in the Williamson County School District in Tennessee—upscale, suburban Nashville. But Williamson County Schools are a microcosm of a well-funded nationwide phenomenon that merely appears to spring up locally.
In Williamson County, the target is the district’s Wit & Wisdom language arts curriculum—a packaged, widely used reading curriculum, described here by its publisher: “Wit & Wisdom is designed to let students ‘read books they love while building knowledge of important topics’ in literature, science, history and art. By immersing students in ‘content-rich’ topics that spark lively discussion the curriculum prepares them to tackle more complicated texts.”
Although the school district had carefully selected and vetted its curriculum, “seemingly out of nowhere Wit & Wisdom became the target of intense criticism. At first, the campaign in Williamson County was cryptic: stray e-mails, phone calls, public-information requests. Eric Welch, who was first elected to the school board in 2010, told me that the complainers ‘wouldn’t just e-mail us—they would copy the county commission, our state legislative delegation, and state representatives in other counties… It was obviously an attempt to intimidate.”
The school district responded: “(T)he district assembled a reassessment team to review the curriculum and the adoption process. At a public work session in June, 2021, the team announced that, after a preliminary review, it hadn’t found any violations of protocol. Teachers had spent a full workday familiarizing themselves with Wit & Wisdom before implementing it… The review committee ultimately concluded that Wit & Wisdom had been an over-all success… Moms for Liberty members were portraying Wit & Wisdom as ‘critical race theory’ in disguise.”
Williams traces the movement back to its beginning, “when, in early December, 2020, the American Legislative Exchange Council… hosted a Webinar about ‘reclaiming education and the American dream.’ A representative of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, warned that elements of a ‘Black Lives Matter curriculum’ were ‘now in our schools.’… Last November, Glenn Youngkin a candidate for the governorship of Virginia won an upset victory after repeatedly warning that the ‘curriculum has gone haywire’–and promising to sign an executive order banning C.R.T. from schools… Days after the ALEC Webinar on ‘reclaiming education,’ three women in Florida filed incorporation papers for Moms for Liberty, Inc. … A national phalanx of interconnected organizations—including the Manhattan Institute, where (Christopher) Rufo is a fellow, and a group called Moms for America—supported the suite of talking points about C.R.T… Glenn Beck, the right-wing pundit, declared that C.R.T. is a ‘poison,’ urging his audience, ‘Stand up in your community and fire the teachers. Fire them!'”
Williams portrays the chaos, pain and damage wrought by Moms for Liberty in Williamson County, but leaders there warn others that what appears to be local is a much broader phenomenon: “Anne McGraw, the former Williamson County School Board member, told me that the advent of Moms for Liberty ‘shows how hyper-local the national machine is going with their tactics… Moms for Liberty is not in Podunk, America. They’re going into hyper-educated wealthy counties like this, and trying to get those people to doubt the school system that brought us here.'”
What is the ultimate goal? Williams worries: “Progressives and policy experts have long suspected that right-wing attacks on school boards are less about changing curricula than about undermining the entire public school system, in the hope of privatizing education. During the ALEC Webinar about ‘reclaiming education,’ the Heritage Foundation representative declared that ‘school choice’ would become ‘very important in the next couple of years’; controversies about curricula, he said, were ‘opening up an opportunity for policymakers at the state level’ to consider options like charter schools.”
Williams concludes with a warning from Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University: “Is this a blip and we’ll rebound? Or are we chipping away at our largest public institution and the system that has been at the center of our democracy since the founding of this country?”