How the Heritage Foundation Became a Leader of “Red Meat” Attacks on Public Schools Teaching the Truth About American History

I was puzzled last May when Education Week‘s Stephen Sawchuck explained that  the new “Critical Race Theory” controversy was being spun out of places like the Heritage Foundation. I had assumed that the Heritage Foundation dealt mostly with arcane libertarian economic issues and the promotion of small government.

On May 18, to help answer the question, “Just what is critical race theory anyway?,” Sawchuck explained: “One conservative organization, the Heritage Foundation, recently attributed a whole host of issues to CRT, including the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies and organizations, California’s recent ethnic studies model curriculum, the free-speech debate on college campuses, and alternatives to exclusionary discipline….  ‘When followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based,’ the organization claimed.”

How did the Heritage Foundation become pivotal in the racist and politically motivated attack on the honest teaching of American history in public schools?  Yesterday, the Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein and Yeganeh Torbati explained that the Heritage Foundation fired its president and moved closer to Trumpism.

The Heritage Foundation replaced former president, Kay Coles James with Kevin Roberts, who, “most recently led the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation” and who “told the Heritage news organization, the Daily Signal, that his top three priorities at Heritage are ‘education, education, and education.'” “Roberts said he was among the most outspoken members of Gov. Greg Abbott’s… pandemic ‘state strike force’ in pushing for an end to coronavirus-related restrictions.”

Stein and Torbati fill in some history: “The Heritage Foundation has long shaped mainstream Republican policy in Washington. It drafted much of Ronald Reagan’s agenda to slash federal spending and launched a ferocious campaign to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act… The leadership changes mark a retreat from traditional but stodgy fiscal and foreign policy issues in favor of the hot-button education and vaccine debates that increasingly defined the Republican Party in the era of Trump.  The change also comes as Heritage is struggling to compete for right-wing dollars while new think tanks are cropping up around town, including several launched by such Trump acolytes as former White House budget chief Russ Vought and top domestic policy aide Brooke Rollins.”

Stein and Torbati explain the ideological pressures that have driven change at the Heritage Foundation: “Even as Heritage staffers cycled into the federal government to staff the Trump administration, the think tank found itself repeatedly at odds with then-President Trump’s allies. Heritage officials have long decried big government deficits, but Trump added nearly $8 trillion to the national debt, the most by any president. Trump also imposed enormously controversial tariffs on foreign countries, while Heritage has long advocated free trade. Trump took direct aim at the Silicon Valley giants who donate heavily to conservative causes, and Heritage experts criticized Trump’s attacks on China.”

The reporters describe how Fox News pressured for change at the Heritage Foundation: “Tucker Carlson, a Trump ally and arguably the most influential conservative voice in the country, often led the charge. In 2019, Carlson said Heritage ‘no longer represents the interest of conservatives’… In 2020, Carlson included James (then Heritage’s president) in a roundup of conservative leaders who ‘joined the left’s chorus’ in not strongly enough denouncing violence and property destruction at protests of the murder of George Floyd.  James, who is Black, wrote an op ed for Fox News… saying that she does ‘not condone the violence spreading across this country in response to Floyd’s horrific killing.’ She also condemned the ‘ugly racism that stains our nation’s history and afflicts us like a cancer of the soul.’ Carlson called the op-ed a ‘long screed denouncing America as an irredeemably racist nation.'”

Under Kevin Roberts’ new leadership, different priorities have emerged. Stein and Torbati report: “The Think tank is positioning itself to play a key role in the emerging flash points for the party. Roberts has made clear in several interviews that he views cultural questions—including over education and ‘critical race theory’—as top priorities.”

If you look at the Heritage Foundation website today, you will find myriad reports, commentaries, and videos setting up the attack on so called “critical race theory” in public schools.  Here is the inflammatory declaration at the top of the Foundation’s pages on “critical race theory”: “Critical race theory (CRT) makes race the prism through which its proponents analyze all aspects of American life, categorizing individuals into groups of oppressors and victims. It is a philosophy that is infecting everything from politics and education to the workplace and the military.”

It is clear that the position of the Heritage Foundation today is to promote racism itself as the prism through which everyone filters all aspects of American life.

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.”

Stunning Report Rejects School Closures, Charters, and Paternalism of School Reformers

Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage, a stunning report released this week by Journey for Justice (J4J), cuts through the ideological babble on school “reform” and lets us listen as “voices from America’s affected communities of color”—parents, students, and community leaders—tell us how school closures and privatization are affecting them, their neighborhoods, and their children.

J4J is a broad alliance of 36 grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 American cities that include Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, New Orleans, Camden, Paterson, New York City, and Washington, D.C., many of them places listed by school “reform” promoters as part of the Portfolio School Reform Network, where public schools are now being managed— often by appointed school boards and mayoral or state oversight—through school closure and privatization.

Listen to J4J’s commentary: “To justify this radical transformation… the proponents of these policies have taken to talking about them as matters of racial and social justice… As the residents of the communities most affected by school closures and charter school expansion, we must take issue with this rhetorical description.  First, it is appalling that anyone would dare to equate the billionaire-funded destruction of our most treasured public institutions with the grassroots-led struggles for racial equality to which many of our elders and ancestors made heroic sacrifices.  Second, we simply cannot tolerate anyone telling us these policies are for our own good… The communities they’re changing so rapidly are our communities, and our experience with school closures and charter school expansion confirms what an abundance of research has made quite clear: these policies have not produced higher-quality educational opportunities for our children and youth, but they have been hugely destructive…  Third, while the proponents of these policies may like to think they are implementing them for us or even with us, the reality is that they have been done to us.”

The report, whose release was accompanied by the filing of three civil rights complaints (protesting discrimination in Newark, New Orleans, and Chicago) with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, makes the case that school “reform” based on school closure and privatization has been racially discriminatory because, “there are strong tendencies to treat our communities differently than other communities would be treated.”  Reformers have been less concerned about school closures in communities of color; more willing “to destabilize the democratic institutions”; more concerned about cutting costs; more willing to subject poor children of color to unproven experiments; less concerned about ensuring the presence of experienced, well-qualified teachers and small classes; more willing to impose test-driven curricula; less concerned about kids pushed out of school; and more willing to privatize education.

“When the so-called ‘reformers’ use our ‘failing schools’ as justification for closing them, or privatizing them, they claim that the primary failings exist within those schools.  They act as if there were no underlying cause for the often-unsound educational practices, or frequently uneven teaching capacity that exist within our schools  They confuse these symptoms of the problem with the problem itself, which is that our public schools have been persistently under-resourced, under-supported, and undermined for decades, including by many of the same people that now purport to ‘fix’ them.”

J4J details the problems when public schools are closed as well as the disappointments parents discover when the charters that have promised so much let them down by finding ways not to accept students with special education needs or English language learners, or students who are likely to post low scores—or when too many charters control school climate with overly militaristic discipline or through shockingly high rates of suspensions, push-outs, and expulsions.

The report is chilling in its description of how school closures and privatization are destroying America’s big cities and turning urban public school systems into institutions of last resort.  “These policies have placed many of our communities in a vicious downward spiral. The under-funding of public schools, combined with extensive public criticism of those schools, drives families away from public education.  Often, they head to the new charter schools that benefit from favorable media coverage and preferential treatment from policymakers.  That only makes conditions worse in the public schools and the surrounding community, as they typically lose more resources while having to serve more high-need students, and eventually quality educators get driven away.  Those schools are, at that point, frequently identified as ‘under-utilized’ or ‘failing,’ leading to their closure.  However, the closures only reinforce the same dynamics: more attacks on public schools, more cuts in funding, more families being driven away, more deterioration in the remaining public schools and the surrounding community, more educators leaving, more schools identified as ‘under-utilized’ or ‘failing,’ and thus more closures.  Over and over this downward spiral has played out in our communities, producing one round of school closure after another.”

What can be done?  The report’s authors ask for six very significant steps including asking the U.S. Department of Education to replace its four required punitive school turnaround models (that feature firing teachers, closing schools and privatizing schools) with a “Sustainable School Success” model that would support and improve struggling schools. They ask the U.S. Senate to hold a hearing on the impact of school closure and privatization.   And they ask President Barack Obama to change course radically by calling for a national moratorium on school closure and charter school expansion.

I am delighted that an enormous coalition of community organizations in cities across the United States is questioning the direction of the school reforms being pushed today by the Obama administration and suggesting sensible steps that would help us begin to change course.  These groups express regret that, “perhaps the most significant development in this realignment of forces (that accelerated the implementation corporate school ‘reform’ across America’s cities) was the election of President Obama and the ‘reformers’ successfully convincing him to not only embrace this viewpoint, but to greatly accelerate its implementation.”