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  In December 2020, litigation successfully stayed the order, and in January 2021, President Biden rescinded it.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.”

When Betsy DeVos Goes on the Campaign Trail for President Trump, Here Is the Ideology She Promotes

If you listened to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Message last week, you know that he lauded school choice and attacked government schools: “The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream… Yet for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”

In the speech, Trump said these words as part of supporting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s proposed $5 billion program for private school tuition vouchers. DeVos’s tax credit vouchers have been the centerpiece of the President’s proposed education budget for several years running, and so far they haven’t actually made it into federal policy.  Instead Congress has continued to support more essential federal programs, Title I for the schools serving children in poverty, and the mandated programming under the Individuals with Disability Education Act.  In the leanest years, Congress has kept these two essential federal supports at least flat-funded.  And in December of 2019, in the final budget for the current year, Congress added $450 million for Title I and $410 million for IDEA. Such modest increases for these essential programs are not enough to help our 90,000 public schools even keep up with the growing number of children qualifying for these programs, but at least Congress has been absolutely clear about its priorities: Neither tuition tax credits nor any other private school tuition vouchers are a current Congressional priority.

But despite that Betsy DeVos’s federal tuition tax credit proposal seems to be going nowhere, we are seeing and hearing from Betsy a lot these days.  As the President pursues his 2020 campaign for reelection, he has been sending Betsy on the campaign trail and to other events aimed at audiences who want more marketplace school choice.  She showed up with Vice President Mike Pence at a Wisconsin event celebrating the recent School Choice Week, and she is making calls to Ohio legislators to ensure they will ram through the rapid expansion of the state’s EdChoice Voucher program.

Late last week, POLITICO’s Michael Stratford described Betsy DeVos playing a new role at Trump political rallies and other events: to enhance the President’s reputation as someone who would strengthen school choice by expanding public spending for private and religious schools.

Here is Stratford’s analysis: “Betsy DeVos may be one of the most hated members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet, constantly mocked by Democrats on the campaign trail.  But away from the multitudes of critics and protesters, DeVos is being deployed like a rock star at Trump events as he makes a concerted push on education issues.  The campaign is using DeVos, a devout Christian, to beef up ties with voters who see her as the fiercest defender of conservative education policies like vouchers and free speech on college campuses.  The education secretary was among the dozens of surrogates the campaign tapped for its show of force during the Iowa caucuses on Monday.  She’s traveled to Wisconsin with Vice President Mike Pence for an official event promoting ‘school choice,’ her hallmark issue in office.  And on Wednesday night, DeVos headlined a lively Women for Trump campaign rally with Pence just outside Harrisburg, PA, at times generating thunderous applause… In full political attack mode, DeVos tore into the Democratic presidential candidates… accusing them of ‘trying to out-socialist one another.'”

It has been a long time since this blog focused directly on the thinking and language of Betsy DeVos and her attacks on government and public education.  Maybe, now that she is being deployed to political rallies around the country, it is a good time for a review.

Trump’s scornful language about “government schools” comes right from DeVos, who, in 2015, before she became U.S. Secretary of Education, told a crowd at the SXSWed convention in Austin, Texas: “Government really sucks, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power.”

In 2017, after she was U.S. Secretary of Education, in a keynote address at the annual meeting of the (far-right) American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Betsy DeVos expounded at greater length about her view of government and the public schools: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them.” “Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me…’Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’ I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  DeVos continued—defining her own philosophy of education as derived from England’s Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. ‘Who is society?’ she asked.  ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families,’ she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people, and people look to themselves first.’” “This isn’t about school ‘systems. This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

Pushed by people like Betsy DeVos (and Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, the Koch brothers, and the American Legislative Exchance Council), our society has moved over recent decades in the direction of promoting individual self-interest at the expense of community responsibility.  While Secretary DeVos’s thinking privileges the individual at the expense of our society, however, public education is premised on a very different idea: that a just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community.  Public schools are intended to serve the needs of particular children and at the same time serve our society by preparing citizens to participate actively in our democracy.  While Betsy DeVos may suggest that the sum of individual choices will automatically constitute the needs of society, there is no evidence that individual choices based on self-interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population.

When Betsy DeVos promotes more choices for parents in an education marketplace, she ignores that competition is one of the defining operating mechanisms of any marketplace. Individuals compete to get ahead; markets always have winners and losers.  DeVos forgets about the need to protect the vulnerable. In America’s public schools, however, laws passed democratically and enforced by government protect public school families who are likely to lose out in a system based entirely on school choice: poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient. Laws also protect the rights of families and children when public institutions violate their rights.

in their 2016 book, American Amnesia, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson disagree strenuously with the kind of philosophy of individualism promoted by Betsy DeVos.  They define the necessary role of government: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion.  Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community.  To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

One governmental role mentioned here by Hacker and Pierson is the role of government regulations, the very kind of regulations on behalf of society as a whole that the Trump administration has spent three years rolling back—from regulations to protect the environment to regulations protecting college students taking out huge loans when they are preyed upon by for-profit colleges, to civil guidance protecting LGBT students. When tax dollars are diverted to private schools through vouchers, students are being supported with government funds in schools lacking regulations to protect the rights of the students. Many private and religious schools do not, for example, provide the kind of special education programs that public schools are required to ensure.

It is also important to remember that while Betsy DeVos claims that “government really sucks,” her proposals for privatizing public education always assume that government will pay for the privatized alternatives.  The money for charter schools and vouchers and tuition tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers is always extracted from the state and local budgets of public school systems.  Political economist Gordon Lafer has documented, for example, that in California, charter schools suck $57.3 million every year from the public Oakland Unified School District.

The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber describes what happens when institutions like public education are privatized: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

As Betsy DeVos promotes individualism and marketplace school choice during this election year, it is important to consider the importance of the social contract as Benjamin Barber defines it.