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Janresseger: Today’s Bitter Divide—in Our Society and in Our Public Schools

In America Has Legislated Itself into Competing Red, Blue Versions of Education, the Washington Post’s Hannah Natanson and her colleagues identify the growing divide between red states—whose legislatures are banning school curricula that recognize the history of racial inequity, intentionally include the stories and histories of Black, Brown, and American Indian students, and cover human sexuality—and blue states whose curricula aim to reflect on and correct our society’s history of racism, exclusion, and homophobia.

Certainly the Post’s reporters are correct to acknowledge the growing political divide in public school curricular policy across the states, but they misdiagnose the cause. They explain that online programming during COVID alarmed parents when they saw what their children were being taught, and caused frightened parents to begin organizing: “(T)he onslaught of restrictive legislation in red states began in 2021… inspired in many cases by parent concerns over curriculums…. as some mothers and fathers—granted an unprecedented glimpse into lessons during the era of school-by-laptop—found they did not like or trust what their children were learning. Soon, some parents were complaining that lessons were biased toward left-leaning views and too focused on what they saw as irrelevant discussions of race, gender, and sexuality—laments taken up by conservative pundits and politicians. National groups like Moms for Liberty formed to call out and combat left-leaning teaching in public schools.”

This explanation distorts what happened. Natanson and her colleagues present the emergence of groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education as spontaneous grassroots uprisings of disgruntled parents who didn’t like what they watched when their children’s schools went remote during COVID. These organizations did not just spring up as parents met over coffee or argued in PTA meetings. The organizations are instead offshoots of national networks funded by well known far-right philanthropists and resourced by staff at right-wing think tanks.  Moms for Liberty and the rest are Astroturf—fake grassroots—organizations.

Education writer Jeff Bryant names some of the groups and traces their operating money: “According to an analysis by NBC News, there are ‘at least 165 local and national groups’ connected to protests and incidents of threats and violence directed at public schools. Many of these groups have connections to prominent national rightwing advocacy organizations and think tanks, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and FreedomWorks. In a study of the funding sources for Moms for Liberty, retired University of Massachusetts professor Maurice Cunningham linked the group’s financial records to conservative dark money organizations such as the Council for National Policy (CNP) and the Leadership Institute (LI).”

Cunningham traces the money behind what may appear to be a spontaneous emergence of parents’ groups—Parents Defending EducationMoms for Liberty, and No Left Turn in Education. Cunningham points to clues that these are not local grassroots groups of parents; their websites, for example, betray a big investment in communications. And while the founders of Parents Defending Education (PDE) claim to be a bunch of working moms, Cunningham explains: “PDE took in $3,178,272 in contributions and grants in 2021… Donor’s Trust, a dark money donor associated with the Koch network donated $20,250 to PDE in 2021. The Achelis & Bodman Foundation which funds voucher and charter school programs and targets public education, contributed $25,000. Searle Freedom Trust, another right-wing donor with ties to Donors Trust, contributed $250,000 in 2021. We don’t know all the names on the checks, but we do know that those checks had to be pretty large, that the attorneys and consultants sit at the hierarchy of right-wing operatives, and that the board members and staffers are connected to the highest levels of conservative donors including the Koch network.”

In January,  the NY Times‘ Nicholas Confessore profiled another sponsor of far right attacks on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in public schools and in American higher education: “Centered at the Claremont Institute, a California-based think tank with close ties to the Trump movement and to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, the group coalesced roughly three years ago around a sweeping ambition: to strike a killing blow against ‘the leftist social justice revolution’ by eliminating ‘social justice education’ from American schools.”  When Confessore asked the Claremont Institute for a statement of its policies, he received the following: Claremont is: “proud to be a leader in the fight against D.E. I., since the ideology from which it flows conflicts with America’s Founding principles, constitutional government and equality under the law.” He continues: “By 2022, as Claremont and allies like the Maine Policy Institute and a Tennessee group called Velocity Convergence rolled out early research… (t)heir public reports began to borrow from Mr. (Christopher) Rufo’s rhetoric, attacking ‘critical social justice’ or ‘critical social justice education.”  Confessore adds: “Claremont officials would partner with state think tanks, and with hundreds of former fellows scattered through conservative institutions and on Capitol Hill. They would catalog the D.E.I. programs and personnel honeycombed through public universities. Then they would lobby sympathetic public officials to gut them.”

Not only do Natanson and her colleagues neglect to consider the funding behind the anti-D.E.I. campaign, but they also fail to notice a much broader surging of the open expression of racism and homophobia that seems to have culminated in today’s MAGA era.

In a profound column in the March 2024, Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s President and CEO, Dr. John Jackson and Nicole Rodriguez Leach, the  Executive Director of Grantmakers for Education, explore profound social and demographic trends  that predate COVID: “First, the American classroom has changed… Data from the National Center for Education Statistics tells us that as of 2021, public school students in the U.S. are now majority non-white…. Second, the education justice movement has changed…. As the public school community has diversified, parents, young people, and educators have increased their demands for equitable funding, an end to discriminatory and punitive school discipline policies and (for) the wraparound services and supports needed to make the promise of quality education real for every child…. (Third) the larger racial justice movement, too, has changed… reaching its most recent peak in the summer of 2020 after the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Institutions large and small have shifted their rhetoric, and to a lesser extent their practices, in response to their members, customers, donors, and constituents. The fourth factor is a backlash to the first three, in a pattern that extends back to the Reconstruction Era…. Advances in racial justice are being met with harsh reaction from the radical right.” Perhaps what we have been watching is the culmination of a reaction against the Civil Rights Movement itself.

What we see happening today in the fight about the social studies curriculum in our public schools is mirrored in the nation’s political partisan divide. Last week, Washington Post columnist  Eugene Robinson declared: “The rest of us… should take a moment to ponder the bridge the American right has crossed—a bridge leading to the Jim Crow past. It would be wrong to blame all this on Donald Trump. But by bulldozing the guardrails that used to delimit our political rhetoric, he has given permission for quiet racism to be shouted.”

Robinson highlights the attacks he has heard and received in e-mail responses to his writing about the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. After Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott made a public statement on the collapse of the bridge, Robinson received this comment: “This is Baltimore’s DEI mayor commenting on the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge.” Robinson explains: “‘DEI’ is diversity, equity and inclusion. For the unhinged far right, however, ‘DEI’ has come to mean ‘any Black or brown person who holds a position of authority that we think should have gone to a white man.’… I don’t need to defend Scott; he’s perfectly capable of defending himself: ‘We’ve been the boggeyman for them since the first day they brought us to this country,’ he said on MSNBC of his racist critics… ‘We know what they want to say. But they don’t have the courage to say the N word.'”

Robinson adds: “They might not say it out loud, yet. But the racists now hurl that word to me, in emails and other communications, with a gusto I haven’t seen since the days of Bull Connor and Strom Thurmond.”

The battles happening in local school board meetings and the attacks on the honest teaching of American history, didn’t all just well up because parents watched online lessons during COVID. In a political climate where people feel freer to express their biases, racism and homophobia have surfaced in a widespread reaction to what has been our society’s greater acceptance and inclusion of formerly excluded groups of people. And since the police killing of George Floyd, the fire of bigotry has also been intentionally fanned by think tanks lavishly funded by the far right. The battle about whether our diverse society should be more inclusive and equitable is not merely an education battle, but that broader fight sure is affecting the public schools.

Retired professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, William Ayers describes how public schools, as a core social and civic institution, reflect our society: “Schools don’t exist outside of history or culture: they are, rather, at the heart of each. Schools serve societies; societies shape schools. Schools, then, are both mirror and window—they tell us who we are and who we want to become, and they show us what we value and what we ignore, what is precious and what is venal.”  (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 315)


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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...