The following remarks, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity, were delivered as part of LPE’s panel discussion, Historicizing the Assault on CRT: The Right vs. Public Education. For more on the topic, see accompanying posts by Aziz Rana and LaToya Baldwin Clark.
Public education has not always been treated as central to the study of law and political economy, in part because of a tendency, even in heterodox spaces, to equate “economy” with “markets.” And yet, it is precisely this absence of markets that has long captured the attention of venture capitalists and neoliberal economists. As Milton Friedman once decried: “The elementary and secondary school system is the single most socialist industry” in the United States.
In this talk, I situate the current right-wing mobilization against critical race theory (“CRT”) in schools within a longer-term conservative effort to marketize public education—and the multi-faceted ways in which racial appeals have featured in that effort.
Today, conservatives invoke race in two seemingly contradictory ways when talking about public education. They make appeals to white people about the harms of race-conscious education. At the same time, they make appeals to people of color about the harms of failing public schools. In both instances, conservatives propose the same solution: a “free market” in education. For those who believe in the value of public education and public employment, we need stronger answers about why the public remains worth it.
To begin to conceptualize the recent attacks on CRT within a law and political economy framework, we just need to take a closer look at the money and the networks behind it. Many of the individuals and organizations stoking the backlash to critical race theory are those who, at least in name, are not primarily focused on race. Rather, they are “economic conservatives.” Christopher Rufo—who a recent New Yorker article named as the “inventor” of the anti-CRT panic—is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, “a leading voice of free-market ideas.” And while the Manhattan Institute currently devotes an entire section of its website to the “problem” of critical race theory, its education advocacy has long focused on privatized school choice.
Another pundit from the Manhattan Institute, Jason Riley, recently laid out a strategic vision in the Wall Street Journal for how conservatives might use the current crises in public education as a political wedge-issue. Backlash against both critical race theory and COVID-19 restrictions, he claimed, could bring in midterm wins for Republican candidates: “Republicans ought to embrace the opportunity to explain to voters why the best response—to everything from racial propaganda and incompetent education bureaucrats to mask mandates and learning gaps—is more school choice.”
As I noted at the outset, this anti-CRT advocacy is not the only racial appeal conservative organizations are currently making. They simultaneously claim to speak on behalf of disenfranchised low-income Black and brown parents, insisting that school choice furthers their interests too. The prolific Christopher Rufo concluded another recent article decrying public education by quoting an anonymous teacher at a Philadelphia elementary school. According to Rufo, this teacher confided that they had “come to realize that no policy hurts African-Americans more than the public school system and the teachers’ union.”
For whatever ails you—the rise of “racial propaganda,” which conservatives claim traumatizes white children, and the very real failures of the public education system to equally or adequately serve many students of color—the conservative remedy is the same: opting-out.
These arguments, it is important to note, are being made in a context in which many people are opting out of public education. CRT backlash follows in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during which the number of homeschoolers doubled; enrollment in virtual charters, managed by for-profit corporations, increased, and, as a result, traditional public school enrollment declined substantially.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that some of the communities passing the most draconian anti-CRT provisions are also experiencing massive declines in traditional public school enrollment. Consider Oklahoma, where the Board of Education recently adopted a resolution threatening teacher suspensions and district defunding for any instruction that makes an individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Charter enrollment in Oklahoma increased by 78% over the past year.
While it may be easy to dismiss this alliance between white nationalism and neoliberalism as a marriage of political convenience, it has deep-rooted discursive foundations. Almost two hundred years ago, English jurist Henry Maine argued that the move from status to contract was an equalizing one; it allowed low status individuals to choose something better for themselves. And part of the neoliberal normative claim has always been that “free” markets benefit minorities and other historically oppressed groups most of all. In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman’s ode to the free market, he wrote, “the general rules of private property and of capitalism have been a major source of opportunity for [Black people] and have permitted them to make greater progress than they otherwise could have made.”
I center Milton Friedman here because his mid-twentieth century arguments against “government schools” and in favor of consumer choice are credited as providing the “intellectual foundations of the modern school-choice movement.” Moreover, as the historian Nancy MacLean has recently argued, Friedman’s approach to education helped empower white supremacists to continue their opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education in more palatable, more constitutionally viable, terms. They learned from Friedman that “all they had to do was cease overt focus on race and instead deploy a neoliberal language of personal liberty, government failure and the need for market competition in the provision of public education.”
For the putative educational-turned-racial (or racial-turned-educational) libertarian, then, the fundamental claim is that a free market has the capacity to satisfy all “tastes” in racial education. Those with a taste for critical race theory can choose a school that provides it. Those with a taste for uncritical race theory can choose that too. According to Friedman, Rufo, and the like, the result of this choice will be more freedom and less inequality.
The problem, of course, is that we live in an interconnected society, “the inescapable network of mutuality” once described by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems unlikely that the polity can survive a choose-your-own-adventure approach to racial education. Moreover, for those who believe in democratic governance, the abandonment of the difficult work of cultivating shared public values in favor of market “choice” is troubling. Finally, from an anti-subordination perspective, it strains credulity that an education system in which money is directly (rather than just indirectly) tied to educational quality would do anything to improve the lives of poor students of color.
There is more at stake in these debates than just educational quality, though. Arguably, one remnant of the neoliberal era, which even some on the left have yet to shake, is an overly-romanticized vision of education as a panacea for inequality. But educational disparities often do as much to justify inequality as to cause it, and increasing levels of inequality in the United States are largely attributable to bad jobs, not bad education. As such, it is important to remember that public schools are sites of public employment too.
As sites of employment, public schools could not be more consequential. Education is one of the most union-dense sectors in the entire economy. And those unions—with their warts, and their imperfect histories—are nonetheless a major source of countervailing power within an unequal United States. In the ongoing legal and ideological battle against teachers’ unions, racialized arguments also abound. But as I recently wrote on this blog, contrary to the conservative argument that unionized teachers deprive poor Black and brown kids of educational opportunities, data shows that union density increases socio-economic mobility in the next generation. Perhaps even more importantly, unions protect the livelihoods of working-class Black and brown people.
Under current conditions and absent radical labor law reform, a move towards more privatized schools will almost certainly mean decimation of these unions, and in turn, a sharp decline in working conditions. In the wild west of deregulated charter schools—the gig economy of the education world, where everything is the same except the working conditions—this is already evident. Only 11% of charter schools are unionized. And charter school teachers tend to make less, work more, have greater turnover, and report lower job satisfaction than teachers in traditional public schools.
The anti-CRT hysteria will ultimately abate, but it will leave in its wake whatever structural changes it foments. It will also leave behind a set of ongoing questions about the relationship between racial equality, liberal democracy, and markets. Should we each be able to choose what our children learn about race? Or does that question perhaps obscure a more fundamental one—who gets to decide what choices are available to us in the first place?