What Does Today’s Battle Over “Critical Race Theory” Have in Common with the Old Battle About Evolution?

Jill Lepore’s Why The School Wars Still Rage, in the March 21, 2022, New Yorker Magazine, examines in historical perspective today’s attack on public school teaching about so-called divisive topics and “critical race theory.”  Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard University.

Lepore traces a direct connection between the battle a hundred years ago over the teaching of evolution in public school science classes and today’s fight about the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” and divisive concepts in social studies classes: “In the nineteen-twenties, legislatures in twenty states, most of them in the South, considered thirty-seven anti-evolution measures. Kentucky’s bill, proposed in 1922… (was) the first. It banned teaching, or countenancing the teaching of, ‘Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism, or the theory of evolution in so far as it pertains to the origin of man.'”… Evolution is a theory of change. But in February—a hundred years, nearly to the day, after the Kentucky legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill, Republicans in Kentucky introduced a bill that mandates the teaching of twenty-four historical documents beginning with the 1620 Mayflower Compact and ending with Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech ‘A Time for Choosing.’… In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history.  Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state.”

So what does Lepore believe is the ultimate goal of extremist organizations like the Heritage Foundation who are working to inflame parents agitating about what to teach children and adolescents about the history of our nation and our society?  “(T)his fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about ‘parents’ rights,’ and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.”

In some detail, Lepore traces the long fight at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century by parents seeing to protect their own rights against the right of the state to establish compulsory school attendance and vaccine mandates. The teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution became part of this battle: “When anti-evolutionists condemned ‘evolution,’ they meant something as vague and confused as what people mean, today, when they condemn ‘critical race theory.’ Anti-evolutionists weren’t simply objecting to Darwin, whose theory of evolution had been taught for more than half a century. They were objecting to the whole Progressive package, including its philosophy of human betterment, its model of democratic citizenship and its insistence on the interest of the state in free and equal public education as a public good that prevails over the private interests of parents.”

The battle over parents’ rights continued into the rebellion against racial integration that followed the 1954, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as Mississippi Senator James Eastland argued that: “‘Free men have the right to send their children to schools of their own choosing’…. By the end of the nineteen-fifties, segregationists had begun using a new catchphrase: ‘school choice,’ maybe because it would have been confusing to call for ‘parents’ rights’ when they were also arguing for ‘states’ rights.'”

What are parents really protesting when they mob school board meetings and press legislators to introduce laws against the teaching of “divisive” concepts? “A century ago, parents who objected to evolution were rejecting the entire Progressive package. Today’s parents’-rights groups like Moms for Liberty, are objecting to a twenty-first-century Progressive package. They’re balking at compulsory vaccination and masking, and some of them do seem to want to destroy public education. They’re also annoyed at the vein of high-handedness, moral crusading, and snobbery that stretches from old-fashioned Progressivism to the modern kind, laced with the same contempt for the rural poor and the devoutly religious.”

But on a deeper level, Lepore believes parents are attacking the public purpose of public schooling in an attempt to protect their own personal parochialism and bias. Parents’ fight to assert their rights as individuals over the rights of the public defines both the old battle over teaching about evolution and today’s “critical race theory” controversy:

“(A)cross the past century, behind parents’ rights, lies another unbroken strain: some Americans’ fierce resistance to the truth that, just as all human beings share common ancestors biologically, all Americans have common ancestors historically. A few parents around the country may not like their children learning that they belong to a much bigger family—whether it’s a human family or an American family—but the idea of public education is dedicated to the cultivation of that bigger sense of covenant, toleration, and obligation.”

Lepore continues: “In the end, no matter what advocates of parents’ rights say, and however much political power they might gain, public schools don’t have a choice: they’ve got to teach, as American history, the history not only of the enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 and the English families who sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, but also that of the Algonquian peoples, who were already present in both places, alongside the ongoing stories of all the other Indigenous peoples, and those who came afterward—the Dutch, German, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Cambodian, Guatemalan, Japanese, Sikh, Hmong, Tunisian, Afghani, everyone.  That’s why parents don’t have a right to choose the version of American history they like best, a story of only their own family’s origins. Instead the state has an obligation to welcome children into that entire history, their entire inheritance.”

New Reports Confirm Charter Schools Promote Racial Segregation in CT and NC

For more than half a century since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our society has believed we value policies that support racially integrated public schools.  In the past two decades, however, the rapid growth of the publicly funded but privately managed charter school sector has promoted racial segregation.  Reports released this month from Connecticut and North Carolina document that when parents choose schools in the charter marketplace, they tend to segregate their children in schools dominated by large majorities of children of their own race.

Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, describe Connecticut School Integration that has been accomplished in the public schools and intentionally diverse magnet schools that were the result of remedies in Sheff v. O’Neill, the 1989 school funding and desegregation lawsuit in Hartford.  “The Sheff case was a long struggle by a group of outstanding civil rights lawyers, plaintiffs and local residents who supported the change and those who worked with them… The efforts have not eliminated segregation or ended racial achievement gaps but it is the only state in the Northeast that is going in a positive direction and it has created voluntary processes that have clearly reduced severe segregation in a time devoid of national leadership.”

While the extraordinary inter-district magnet schools with specialty curricula and the inter-district enrollment program that Sheff created have increased the mixing of students from city and suburb and demonstrated that black, white and Hispanic students can happily and successfully learn together, Connecticut’s charter sector, by contrast, has become highly segregated.  Orfield and Ee explain: “A 2014 report by Connecticut Voices for Children concluded that ‘a majority of the magnet schools and technical schools were ‘integrated’… but only 18% of charter schools.’  In fact ‘the majority of charter schools were instead ‘hypersegregated’ with a student body composed of more than 90% minority students.'”  Orfield and Ee recommend that in Connecticut, where public and magnet schools have become more integrated, “Charters should come under the state’s diversity policies and requirements and should have goals, recruitment strategies, public information and transportation policies to foster diversity including diversity of language background.”

In a second paper, published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, scholars from Duke University document that segregation of charters has been an accelerating trend in North Carolina.  The paper, “The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina,” by Helen F. Ladd, Charles T. Clotfelter, and John B. Holbein, is behind a paywall, but an early draft, can be downloaded here from among the papers presented at the 40th annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy.  The Duke researchers describe a study conducted between 1999 and 2012 and conclude: “The state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time.”  The authors also conclude that rising test scores in North Carolina’s charters are not the result of improved school quality—as has been suggested by promoters of charter schools—but are instead the result of a shift in population as many charters have come to enroll students with higher average family income: “Our analysis of the changing mix of students who enroll in charter schools over time… leads us to believe that a major factor contributing to the apparent improved performance of charter schools over the period (of the study) may have as much or more to do with the trends in the types of students they are attracting than improvements in the quality of the programs they offer…  Taken together, our findings imply that the charters schools in North Carolina have become segmented over time, with one segment increasingly serving the interests of middle class white families.”

Reporting on the Duke study for the Washington Post, Jeff Guo explains that North Carolina laws governing charter schools may be contributing to the diminishing number of minority students in North Carolina’s charter schools: “One problem is that disadvantaged students have less of a chance to attend a charter school.  First, they or their parents have to be plugged in enough to know which are the good charter schools and motivated enough to apply.  Then, they need to have the resources to actually attend the charter, because unlike regular public schools, charter schools in North Carolina do not have to offer transportation or lunch to students.  For poor students who rely on school buses and free meal programs, the costs associated with attending a charter school may discourage them from the opportunity.”

As school districts across the South have remedied de jure segregation and been released from their court orders and after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2007 that race cannot be the sole basis of voluntary desegregation plans to remedy segregation by race, neither the federal government nor the states have been proactively supporting school integration.  It is another thing altogether, however, when market-based charter schools, which are said by their promoters to be public schools, are freed from the existing civil rights policies that govern public schools and that our society still claims to value.