Educational “Ownership” and the Backlash to CRT

PUBLISHED

LaToya Baldwin Clark (@DrMamaEsq) is an Assistant Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law.

PUBLISHED

LaToya Baldwin Clark (@DrMamaEsq) is an Assistant Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law.

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.

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In the aftermath of then-President Trump’s September 2020 Executive Order, conservatives around the country took on the President’s call to excise discussions of race and racism in all forms of government. While Trump initially targeted federal contracting and employees, his intent was clearly to arm his tens of millions of supporters with fodder to challenge all public discussions of race as a social force. And, for the most part, he was successful.

Much of the anti-CRT activity centers in public schools, with districts throughout the country instituting their own anti-CRT policies. Many of these policies parrot the Executive Order’s language about “divisive concepts” and racial “scapegoating” while also claiming falsely, that CRT, a complex intellectual framework, is being taught to school children as young as in the elementary years. And anti-CRT activists often distort what CRT really is, declaring it is about hating White people, sowing division, and anti-Americanism instead of a systematic approach to understanding the endurance of racial subordination.

Remarkably, anti-CRT sentiment is brewing from the bottom up rather than top-down. Community members use their status as parents and taxpayers to push school boards to enact these anti-CRT policies and resolutions. They are overwhelming school board meetings, sometimes with violence, and running conservative slates of school board candidates, often in places that haven’t seen a competitive race for the school board in years. Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race was fueled in part by a groundswell of parent organizing around control over curriculum content in public schools.

The danger of anti-CRT activity lies in its practical consequence of whitewashing history, limiting children’s exposure to important topics, and maligning a rich intellectual tradition. But it is also dangerous because it feeds into the notion that education isn’t just a social public good, but instead has defining aspects of property. In my previous work, I’ve argued that school district officials often feel significant pressure to bend to the will of parents and community members. The educational apparatus encourages a fiduciary-like role for school administration to protect the “investment” local taxpayers have made into education. As a result, school administrators see themselves not as education professionals and experts but merely as agents of parents and other community member principals.

The fact that this backlash against CRT is playing out in public schools is predictable. Broader conversations and controversies about race and racism have always found a home in our public education system. And the way we “do” public education—through residency requirements, property tax funding, and the nebulous idea of local control—encourages parents and community members to see public education as a property entitlement, and thus a valuable resource that should be under their control. Top-down political pressures combine with the bottom-up mobilization of economic resources, resulting in a refusal to address (or even discuss) racial and economic stratification.

At the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA Law, we are currently working on compiling and tracking this local activity to provide a rich dataset of the anti-CRT school activity that is sweeping the nation. We’ve identified anti-CRT local school board activity in 24 states and counting. These districts are in red, blue, and purple states, defying an easy partisan explanation. Many media accounts show school boards acting in response to complaints and pressure from parents and community members. School board members often have no educational experience, making them easy targets for unhappy parents and community members. In some districts, administrators promoting inclusive practices are hampered by their school boards.

For example, in June of this year, parents in Douglas County, Colorado, pressured the Superintendent and several principals to cancel upcoming anti-racist staff training and publicly declare that it would not teach CRT in their schools. Before this activity, the district implemented an equity policy, including the canceled training. The school district had also paid the Anti-Defamation League to use its “No Place for Hate” anti-racism curriculum, which is now in flux as to its implementation. One editorial celebrated the training’s cancellation—which occurred just hours after a contentious school board meeting—as a demonstration of the “power of citizen activism.”

In Cherokee County, Georgia, parent protestors against CRT pressured the school board to halt their ready-to-go diversity, equity, and inclusion plan, including hiring an administrator to oversee implementation. In addition, parents demanded that if the district made a job offer to this person, the district must rescind that offer.

And in Clarkstown, New York, a Superintendent was fired by the school board after parents expressed their anger over his plan for a diversity task force, which they falsely deemed to be implementing CRT into classrooms. The Superintendent also planned to use the ADL’s No Place for Hate curriculum to discuss systemic racism and address bias in the schools. Parents cheered his firing at the school board meeting. 

These examples illustrate how community members use their status as parents and taxpayers to argue that their views on education should carry the day and that administrators are obliged to protect parents’ visions of what public schools should be. Under this view, education belongs to parents and the community. Because education belongs to them, they are entitled to have their wishes granted, even when those wishes contradict the pedagogical judgment of educational experts. Parents use education as property when they weaponize their ownership status—of their homes, children, and ultimately their schools.

The loudest voices generally take the day. This dynamic happens everywhere, but this especially happens with parents and schools. The loudest voices typically belong to those with all the social, cultural, and economic capital they need. These parents can best mobilize the resources that arise from the race and class privileges they possess to ensure that it is their vision playing out in their children’s schools. As long as education is understood as those parents’ property and school administrators as their fiduciary agents, we will continue to see attacks on the social good of public education increasing across the country.

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