Education in the United States, at least for K-12, has been relatively guarded against being used for political rhetoric. Rather, politics has sometimes been used as a tool to stimulate discussions and debates in classrooms. Topics for such activities have been limited to something that everyone can agree on, such as what can be done to keep the vicinity of schools clean or how to help peer students to have a healthier diet.
Paula McAvoy, an associate professor of social studies education at North Carolina State University, said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) that the key point of utilizing politics in education is to teach the process of democracy. “It really is the process of deliberation that is the major skill being taught […] They’re learning how to form arguments, how to weigh evidence,” she said.
However, schools are becoming more cautious to host “political classrooms,” all the while politicians have been increasingly utilizing education as a political battleground to gain more votes. The fierce political conflict last year — which still continues — regarding the critical race theory (CRT) in schools is a great example.
The main idea of CRT is that racism is a systemic problem in the U.S. deeply carved into laws and institutions, rather than a matter of individual bigotry. The proponents believe that historic patterns and systemic momentum continue making disadvantageous playing fields for people of color in many parts of society. The theory had been mostly discussed among scholars as a cross-disciplinary intellectual movement until some critics accused of it infiltrating K-12 education in the U.S.
Robin Steenman, the president of the anti-CRT group Moms for Liberty, argues that public schools in the U.S. are injecting progressive ideologies into children, making them “hate their country, each other, and/or themselves.” She points to the in-class use of books like “Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation” and “The Story of Ruby Bridges” as an example of “both explicit and implicit anti-American, anti-white, and anti-Mexican teaching.”
Her group filed an official claim to the Tennessee Department of Education in June last year. The department declined to investigate since the complaint was regarding the 2020-2021 academic year, while the agency was only authorized to handle matters from 2021-2022.
Despite the initial setback, the conservative’s push against CRT in Tennessee has accelerated. The McMinn County Board of Education in the state removed the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from its governing classrooms earlier this year in January. The board stated that it banned the book because “of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”
Art Spiegelman, the author of “Maus,” responded to the board’s decision that his book indeed contains disturbing imagery because it is about a “disturbing history.” He commented to the New York Times that he felt as if the board is asking, “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”
The conservative groups’ challenge against public education is not only limited to teachings on race nor is it confined to Tennessee; protests were held across the country, questioning how race(ism), gender, and sexuality are taught in classrooms. The state of Florida, for instance, rejected 54 math textbooks on the ground that they include CRT. Florida Department of Education went as far as to describe them as “publisher’s attempts to indoctrinate students” in their official news release.
The American Library Association announced that it tracked “729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals.” The association reported that, with most attempts being against those written by or about Black or LGBTQ+ people, last year saw the highest number of attempted book bans since it started data gathering 20 years ago.
Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University, commented on the growing trend of politicizing education. He mentioned that Republican politicians have been supporting “the conservative, largely white, religious or evangelical parents,” strengthening such groups’ voices and nationalizing their complaints. “And often, Republican politicians are frankly opportunistic about ginning up support for themselves, for their candidacies … because these are issues that animate their base,” he elaborated.
Their efforts are producing tangible results. Although most of the conservative candidates were not successful (with about 28 percent of the 275 politically identifiable candidates, according to Ballotpedia), several ultra-right candidates for positions in education administration were elected. For example, Al Loma, a pastor at Victory Outreach who posts numerous anti-LGBTQ, anti-vaccine, and pro-gun memes on his Instagram, was elected for Colorado Springs School District 11 Board of Education At-large.
Republicans and their supporters have, in fact, been especially successful in legislation. Education Week, an organization providing K-12 education news and information, reported that 42 states have taken steps to eliminate CRT or have introduced bills to limit how racism and sexism are discussed by teachers in classrooms since January of last year. Of them, 17 states have effectively instated bans and restrictions.
As the anti-CRT and anti-equity education efforts spread across the country with practical results, so has the aggression on educators who support the previously racism- and sexism-conscious curriculums. The National School Boards Association wrote to President Biden in September last year, asking him to step in and for protection.
However, instead of empathizing with the school board members under seemingly ever-intensifying threats of violence for their beliefs, a few state affiliates criticized the group for some of the wordings in the letter. Less than a month later, the group removed the letter from its website and replaced it with an apology.
Meanwhile, many educators are fighting back against the politicization of education by correcting a fundamental misunderstanding — there is no CRT embedded in primary and secondary education. Michael Thomas, former superintendent at Colorado Springs School District 11 who left his job in dismay with some conservative school boards’ campaign against him, pointed this out. “When people are conflating equity with critical race theory, they’re grossly mistaken,” he said.
Some parents have also formed an organization in an opposition to conservatives’ growing shadow on education. Revida Rahman and Jennifer Cortez founded One WillCo, an organization to support and help students of color to raise their voices, in Williamson County in Tennessee where Moms for Liberty also started.
Rahman said, “All you have to do is explain to children and they get it. We don’t give our kids enough credit to handle the conversations that we have.” Cortez agreed with her co-founder, “I can understand why some might think this is divisive because it feels uncomfortable. But the truth is, it’s better if we can talk about it and learn how to talk about it.”
The future of primary and secondary education in the U.S. can be expected to be decided within this year. In a few months on November 8, 2022, 35 out of 100 Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be contested. Depending on the midterm election outcome, American education will either continue its racism- and sexism-conscious education or become “color-blind.”