National Education Policy Center’s New Brief on Critical Race Theory Is a Must-Read for All Americans

The National Education Policy Center’ new brief,  Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory,  is essential reading to support all of us who are puzzled or grieving or outraged by the battle raging across the states about regulating the way public school teachers can teach American history. Or, if you are not aware that these fights have been happening across 26 states, you should definitely read this brief to inform yourself. Far right ideologues are working hard to prevent any discussion about race, racism, and the history of slavery in public school social studies classes.

After all, according to the brief, “Since early 2021, eight states have passed legislation that, broadly speaking, seeks to ban historical information and critical analysis related to race and racism in public school classrooms.” The brief addresses the questions that puzzle many of us.

What is this battle that that is tearing apart state legislatures, state boards of education, and local school boards?

“Since early 2021, eight states have passed legislation that, broadly speaking, seeks to ban historical information and critical analysis related to race and racism in public school classrooms.  Even as many local school boards and state boards of education have been implementing new policies, additional legislation has been or is being, considered in 15 other states and in the U.S. Congress.”  “President Trump issued an Executive Order 13950 in September of 2020 to withhold funding from federal entities that promoted nine categories termed ‘divisive concepts’ as well as race or sex ‘stereotyping’ and ‘scapegoating.’  In December 2020, litigation successfully stayed the order, and in January 2021, President Biden rescinded it. However, at least a half-dozen bills with similar aims and approaches have been introduced in Congress… Republican legislators in 26 states introduced copycat legislation to ban certain types of curriculum… Although the framing of the bills varies somewhat by state, they all attempt to ban the use of ‘divisive concepts’ in employee training programs, in K-12 curriculum, and in certain student activities.”

What is Critical Race Theory (called CRT, for short) and how has the meaning of the original academic concept been turned upside down by far right ideologues?

“Critical Race Theory is an academic legal theory developed in the 1970s by Derrick Bell (and colleagues) to examine how race and racism have shaped American institutions, culture, politics, economics and education and to examine how racism produces and sustains inequality… Given that CRT is a theoretical, analytical framework useful primarily to academic researchers, at first glance it seems an odd target for pundits, think tanks, wealthy donors, foundations, and legislators associated with the ideological right to attack…  The demand that CRT not be taught in schools is absurd, since it would be hard to find a K-12 school that teaches CRT to begin with…  Instead, ideologues are using CRT as a frightening symbol to intensify a collection of cultural and political fears related to race, racism, and the prospect of an increasing number of citizens from marginalized groups participating in the democratic process.”

“Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts.  These organizations include The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute, as well as billionaire-funded advocacy organizations such as Parents Defending Education and the Legal Insurrection Foundation.”  The brief quotes Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo describing how he set out to change the meaning of Critical Race Theory and politically charge his new concept: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic.”

What are the political objectives of those promoting attacks on CRT?

“We see two overall political objectives of the anti-CRT attacks.”

(1) “Mobilizing a partisan base for upcoming elections… Far Right lawmakers and advocates saw early on the political potential of attacks on discussion of racial and gender justice in schools… In this context, the anti-CRT legislation is intended to mobilize the Republican base for the 2022 midterm elections….”

(2) “Thwarting efforts to promote racial justice by deflecting debate away from systemic racism and suppressing information about it… Most such bills allude to the premise that if a school teaches about racism, White children will be scapegoated for being White and so will experience feelings of guilt and embarrassment related to their race, which will in turn prompt fear and resentment of people of color—and thus promote racial division. This framing promotes distrust in government and opposition to government efforts to address racism.”

How can citizens—who believe that American history should be taught accurately and who believe our children should consider how our society can better embody our stated goals of liberty and justice for all—most effectively respond to provocative and highly charged attacks on teachers and public school curriculum?

“Some ways of engaging politically are likely to be more successful than others. Strategies that may seem logical, such as denouncing ‘dog-whistle’ politicians for being racist, or avoiding mentioning race in order to avoid accusations of engaging in ‘identity politics,’ are not necessarily the most effective…. Efforts to reframe the debate, engage with decision-makers… are more likely to be successful. Of particular interest and importance is research supporting messaging that acknowledges race and racism, but establishes the shared stake of Americans of all racial backgrounds in public education; that contextualizes social, economic, and educational inequities; that illustrates why inequities should concern Americans of all racial backgrounds; and that provides specific examples of solutions. Ultimately, only by understanding the political nature of the attacks… can we choose effective political ways to counter them….”

How does the Fight about Critical Race Theory Fit into the Big Picture?

The National Education Policy Center’s new brief additionally presents the history of politically motivated attacks on the honest acknowledgment of racism in public school social studies classrooms—during the McCarthy era, during the Civil Rights Movement, as a reaction during the Reagan era to educational and political liberalism in the 1960s, and after the tragic death of George Floyd last year. The new brief explains the NY Times Magazine articles called The 1619 Project and the backlash led by President Donald Trump to prevent students from reading these articles as part of high school history and government classes.

It is important to remember that the attacks on teaching about race and racism in public schools are motivated more by politics  than they are by educational concerns.  In Let Then Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, a book published in the summer of 2020 as President Donald Trump was mounting his campaign for reelection, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain: “As the GOP embraced plutocratic practices, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize.” (Let Then Eat Tweets, p. 117)

But the implications for our children are not only political; they are educational.  In June, to confront today’s right-wing attack on the accurate teaching of American history, 135 prominent academic and educational organizations released a Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History : “(T)hese bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.  Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration… Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today.”

Philanthropic Dollars Are Funding the Effort to Distract Legislatures and School Boards with a Debate about Critical Race Theory

The concept of Critical Race Theory—that racism throughout U.S. history has been structural and institutional and not merely a matter of personal prejudice—is theoretical and has been taught in colleges, graduate schools and law schools but rarely in the public schools. (See here and here.) More basic educational lessons in K-12 public schools to help students and educators learn about racism and be more sensitive to the needs and history of people from the different cultures who make up our society are neither frightening nor threatening.

The recent brouhaha, which alleges something dangerous about Critical Race Theory and racial sensitivity training, would appear just to have emerged on Fox News and social media. But if that’s true, how is it that more than half the state legislatures are debating legislation or have passed laws to prohibit discussions in public school social studies classes of sensitive subjects that might make students feel uncomfortable or guilty?  And why, last week, did 135 national academic and professional organizations feel compelled to write a letter declaring “our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities.”?

Earlier this week, Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria of Popular Information reported: “This didn’t happen on its own. Rather, there is a constellation of non-profit groups and media outlets that are systematically injecting Critical Race Theory (CRT) into our politics. In 2020, most people had never heard of CRT.  In 2021, a chorus of voices on the right insists it is an existential threat to the country. A Popular Information investigation reveals that many of the entities behind the CRT panic share a common funding source: The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.  The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has no website and its namesake founder keeps a low public profile.”

Legum and Zekeria explain: “Between 2017 and 2019, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation has granted at least $12.75 million to organizations that publicly attack Critical Race Theory… The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has recently been at the forefront of the crusade against CRT.  It is also the top recipient of cash from The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.” The Manhattan Institute received $4.32 million from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation between 2017-2019.  We learn that Christopher Rufo, who appeared seemingly from nowhere on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and openly claimed he has been working to distort and make toxic an academic theory about structural and institutional racism by conflating any number of topics into what he called “a new bucket called critical race theory,” isn’t merely a documentary film maker, as has been reported.  He is a well-paid fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

From Legum and Zekeria we learn: “The right-wing Heritage Foundation, which previously employed Rufo, also receives substantial support from Thomas W. Smith Foundation… In June 2021, the executive director of the Heritage Foundation told Politico that fighting ‘critical race theory’ is one of the top two issues the group is working on alongside efforts to tighten voting laws.'”  Between 2017 and 2019, the Heritage Foundation received $525,000 from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation.

The list of organizations receiving funding from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation is lengthy: the American Enterprise Institute, the Alexander Hamilton Institute, the American Ideas Institute, the Center for American Greatness, the Claremont Institute, the Daily Caller Foundation, The Federalist, Heterodox Academy, the Independent Women’s Forum, Judicial Watch, Turning Point, The National Review, PragerU, The Real Clear Foundation, The Texas Public Policy Foundation, The American Spectator, the Federalist Society, and Young America’s Foundation.

Two other significant recipients must be named because of their reach into public policy. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) drafts model laws to be copied and adapted into legislation by any state legislature. And the State Policy Network (SPN) works with ALEC; its mission is to work actively through its network of politically conservative state policy think tanks to promote coordinated legislation across the 50 state legislatures. Legum and Zekeria report: “The American Legislative Exchange Council… has been hosting webinars to help lawmakers draft legislation banning Critical Race Theory (and) has received at least $425,000 from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation since 2017.  In December 2020, ALEC hosted a workshop in partnership with the Heritage Foundation on ‘Reclaiming Education and the American Dream… Against Critical Race Theory’s Onslaught.'” With so many of nation’s state legislatures and state boards of education considering similar bills and resolutions to ban public school discussion of so-called “threatening” topics, ALEC’s and SPN’s fingerprints are almost inevitable.

Wealthy philanthropists now use their so-called charitable foundations to shape public policy. Most of us are aware that today, philanthropy is not merely investing in charitable grants to needy causes in response to applicants’ requests for support. The seemingly sudden emergence of the idea that something called “Critical Race Theory” has become a crisis in our public schools is merely the latest example of philanthropic dollars spreading ideology.

As a response, we need to consider the words of the leaders of 135 academic and professional organizations who declared last week: “(T)he ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration.”

Who Are the Philanthropic and Corporate Sponsors of Today’s School Deform?

I believe that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—is essential for ensuring that all children are served, and I believe that a strong system of public education is essential as the foundation of our democracy.  In that context, I think it is important to write more about what I support—strong public schools—than what I oppose—the assault on public education by those who would privatize the education of our children primarily for the purpose of making a profit.

However, I don’t think we ought to be naive.  For this reason I sometimes like to look up the source of the money behind the school privatization movement as a discipline to keep myself informed.  In that spirit, let’s check on some of the foundations and corporations that sponsored Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit last week in Boston.

Foundations

The Grand Rapids, Michigan founders of Amway Products, Dick and Betsy DeVos, through their family foundation and Betsy’s organization, All Children Matter, are among the nation’s most persistent promoters of vouchers.  According to Think Progress, “In 2002, Dick DeVos sketched out a plan to undermine public education before the Heritage Foundation, explaining that education advocates should stop using the term ‘public schools’ and instead call them ‘government schools.'”

The Oberndorf Family Foundation devotes itself to school choice and privatization.  According to Think Progress, the Orerndorfs, whose money was earned through SPO Partners, an investment firm, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past five years in school privatization: “Bill Oberndorf… said that the passage of the Indiana voucher law was the ‘gold standard’ for what should be done across America.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, has been a strong supporter of charter networks and the corporate school reform movement with grants to the New School Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund, KIPP charter schools,  and Teach for America.  The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund is the philanthropy of the founders of The Gap.  According to the National Education Policy Center: “The Fishers were early supporters of Edison Schools, and have been major supporters of KIPP and Teach for America… the family also supported a young organization, The New Teacher Project, founded by Michelle Rhee. As noted on the Fisher’s 2011 Form 990, the foundation contributed $250,000 to Rhee’s newest organization, StudentsFirst.”

And there is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the longest and most constant funder of school voucher efforts.  Bradley, a Milwaukee-based foundation, underwrote think tanks and astro-turf organizations behind the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee.  The Wisconsin Center for Media and Democracy has closely tracked the far-right giving of the Bradley Foundation, and quotes a local newspaper investigation: “According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ‘from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.’”

Corporations

Here is Amplify, the school tablet and education data management division of Rupert Murdoch’s The News Corp.  Joel Klein, who revolved right out of his job as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools to his position with the News Corp, worked with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to bring mass charterization, disruptive change through ongoing school closures, and school co-locations to New York City.  Microsoft is also a large contributor.  Jeb Bush has worked with many of the technology firms, including Microsoft, to promote “blended” learning that is said to save money for school districts if computers do some of the teaching and thereby permit larger class size.  Edgenuity, another sponsor, promotes blended learning and sells “blended” curricula that incorporate computers. Intel is another enormous ed-tech company.

Here among the sponsors are a number of corporations who supply standardized tests and grade the tests and manage the data around testing: Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scantron.  Scholastic is selling educational materials to implement the Common Core Standards.   Renaissance Learning produces curricula aligned with the Common Core Standards.  The Education Testing Service, the manager of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests for decades, has also been prominent in the burgeoning K-12 standardized testing market.

Finally there is K12, the nation’s largest, for-profit, on-line charter school with affiliates across the states.  K12 brags about its huge enrollment, but cannot boast about its graduation rates and student achievement. This is the company about which hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson published a scathing critique a couple of weeks ago.