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.”

Stunning New Report and Website Expose Connected State-by-State Web of Privatizers

As an advocate for public policy, I believe it is more important to know more about what I am for than about what I am against.  Let me begin by naming what I am for: public schools—universally available, publicly funded, and accountable to the public.  I also believe that our most important priority in the United States, as far as public education goes, is to improve—not punish—the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.  These are the places where many children live in neighborhoods where extreme poverty is concentrated.

But knowing about the forces on the other side of this highly polarized debate is also important, and this week a new website was launched to help with the task of learning more about the privatizers: stinktanks.org, a joint project of the Center for Media and Democracy (which also houses the valuable ALECExposed site) and ProgressNow.  The goal of stinktanks.org is to expose the State Policy Network (SPN), a tightly connected web of think tanks across the states that are being funded by far-right ideologues with the purpose of promoting privatization and unfettered free markets, and undermining government, regulation and the public good.

While these organizations have ties with the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and while they are actively promoting the same agenda, they are lesser known.  If you live in Ohio, you may have heard of the Buckeye Institute; if you live in Pennsylvania, you may know about the Commonwealth Foundation, or if you live in Michigan perhaps you have learned about the Mackinac Center, but you likely don’t realize how funding for all of these groups is connected to the same philanthropists, and how their interests are being pursued state by state by state. The new website features an interactive map of the states.  By clicking on any state, you’ll access a one page description of that state’s SPN member’s agenda and its funders. You will also find a more detailed report about a number of the state think tanks.

For example, if you have been paying attention to Michigan, you know that destroying workers’ rights, privatizing public schools, blocking healthcare, destroying public pensions, opposing minimum wage laws, and lowering corporate taxes is being pushed by Michigan’s governor and many in the legislature.  Perhaps you won’t be surprised then to discover that the Mackinac Center devotes itself to promoting this very agenda.

This week, to launch the new “stink tanks campaign,” The Center for Media and Democracy and AlecExposed.org released a stunning national report, Exposed: The State Policy Network—The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government.

Here you will learn more about the extensive role of the Koch Brothers and others in the secretive world of far-right funding.  “The largest known funders behind SPN and its member think tanks are two closely related funds—DonorTrust and Donors Capital Fund… They are what are called ‘donor-advised funds,’ which means that the fund creates separate accounts for individual donors, and the donors then recommend disbursements from the accounts to different non-profits.  It cloaks the identity of the original mystery donors or makes it impossible to connect donors with recipients…. For example, a relatively unknown Koch family foundation called the Knowledge and Progress Fund gave $4.5 million to DonorsTrust between 2007 and 2010, but what organizations received that funding from Donors is unknown.” (p. 18)

None of these state organizations focuses solely on privatizing education; they all pursue a complex agenda.  You will learn, however, that several of these groups have representatives on ALEC’s Education Task Force: the State Policy Network itself, the Goldwater Institute (AZ), the Pacific Research Institute (CA), the Independence Institute (CO), the James Madison Institute (FL), the Illinois Policy Institute, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, the Mackinac Center (MI), the John Locke Foundation (NC), and the Freedom Foundation ( MN).

The report describes the goal of the State Policy Network as creating an echo chamber across the states: “While SPN is a national organization with 63 affiliates and over 100 associate members, it remains a closely connected network.  It is not uncommon for think tank members to share board members, “scholars,” or staffers, nor is it uncommon for the think tanks to share research materials, coordinating their agenda and tailoring national research to fit into state-related politics.” (p. 9)

The report wonders how groups like like ALEC and these state advocacy organizations continue to operate as tax-exempt, 501C3 non-profits:  “Acknowledging the group’s political power, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin called the SPN member Idaho Freedom Foundation a ‘do’ tank.  Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of SPN member think tank the Goldwater Institute, told the National Review, ‘We’re in the business of applied policy.’ Applied policy appears to translate to changing state laws. Although most do not register lobbyists, many SPN members advance legislation through ALEC and outside of ALEC” (p. 13)