‘People are scared’: Democrats lose ground on school equity plans

Moderate and suburban voters share concerns about education changes and say national Democrats dismiss their arguments.

7/26/2021 4:02:00 PM

Objections to new equity plans are not the sole province of conservatives but extend to many moderate and independent voters

Moderate and suburban voters share concerns about education changes and say national Democrats dismiss their arguments.

Elina Kaplan is the kind of suburban mom who made Joe Biden president.An immigrant who came to the United States from the Soviet Union, she is a registered Democrat from San Mateo County, Calif. And she’s alarmed over her state’s new model ethnic studies curriculum, which cites critical race theory as a “key theoretical framework and pedagogy.”

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“I firmly believe that if the vast majority of Californians and Americans knew about this, and about the content of this type of curriculum, this would not be happening. We would not be having this conversation,” Kaplan said.Kaplan, who has launched an email list, set up meetings with state legislators and recruited people to meet with their school boards to discuss ethnic studies, is representative of Democrat-leaning or politically moderate suburbanites interviewed by POLITICO in six states, all but one of which were won by Biden. They are up in arms over their school systems’ new equity initiatives, which they argue are costly and divisive, encouraging students to group themselves by race and take pro-activist stances. Proponents of the initiatives say they are a long-overdue step toward getting rid of systemic racism in the school system.

On the national level, Democrats have insisted that the brush fires over critical race theory — which has become a political punching bag even for unrelated equity initiatives — are largely the work of right-wing activists who willfully misrepresent what it means, and they blame Fox News for fanning parents’ anger. headtopics.com

"That's another right-wing conspiracy. This is totally made up by Donald Trump and [Republican candidate for governor] Glenn Youngkin," Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe said in June.“I don’t think we would think that educating the youth and next and future leaders of the country on systemic racism is indoctrination,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki in May.

But those Democrats appear to be underestimating parents’ anger in places where critical race theory is top of mind. Objections to new equity plans are not the sole province of conservatives but extend to many moderate and independent voters, according to POLITICO interviews with school board members, political operatives and activists in Democratic and left-leaning communities including the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.; Palm Beach County, Fla.; New York’s Westchester County; Maricopa County covering Phoenix, Ariz.; and suburban Detroit.

Parents who are showing up to school board meetings and have helped launch a spate of recall elections say they are angry about a host of issues, including what they see as a myopic focus on diversity at school boards, ongoing frustration over a year of closed schools and school lesson plans that they say are becoming too progressive, too fast. While those complaints have often been branded in the media as “anti-critical race theory,” the causes of the anger are varied, and are being ignored, parents say.

A man holds up a sign opposing critical race theory during a May 25 protest in Reno, Nev. | Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via APThe stakes aren’t lost on Amanda Litman, founder of the Democratic organization Run for Something, which works to elect school board members and other local officials: “This is a perfect storm of something that can appeal to, or draw back in, some of the suburban parents that might have voted Republican in 2016, Democrat in 2018 and 2020, but could be drawn back to the Republican Party in 2022.” headtopics.com

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“We’re trying to argue ‘No, you’re mis-defining critical race theory,’ and that’s not the point,” Litman added. “The point is that people are scared about what their kids are learning.”Critical race theory is an academic discipline that evolved at law schools and universities in the 1980s to examine institutional racism and challenge existing approaches to racial justice. This year, opposing activists started using the term as shorthand to describe a wave of newly adopted efforts to combat systemic racism in schools.

Polling suggests that the majority of voters still aren’t aware of critical race theory. But as the current debate escalates, activists and Republican officeholders are succeeding in giving voters a negative impression of it. As of mid-June, fully a third of voters told pollsters from the firm YouGov they hadn’t heard of critical race theory, and only a third of voters said they’d both heard of it and had a good idea of its meaning.

But opinions among those who’d heard of it were sharply negative. Fifty-three percent said they were “very unfavorable” of it while only 23 percent said they were “very favorable.”People who identified as Republican and had heard of critical race theory were especially negative: 85 percent termed their views “very unfavorable.” But the same was true of 71 percent of independents, the group that was key to Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump, favoring the Democrat by 9 points, according to the Pew Research Center, after Trump had narrowly won the group over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Among Democrats who had heard of critical race theory, most (58 percent) were “very favorable,” while a smaller but still significant 7 percent were “very unfavorable.”

One parent in Novi, Mich., a diverse suburb outside Detroit with prized public schools, said she started reading up on critical race theory after her daughter, a recent high school graduate, started raising the idea of defunding police departments and arguing that rioters who looted stores during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests were justified. headtopics.com

The parent — who asked to not be named because of the heated politics in Novi — said she has in the past voted for Democrats, but she considers her daughter’s ideas “radical.” She and other parents formed an anonymous group to question the school board.

“Based on everything I have seen in the last year, starting with Covid, I cannot continue [voting for Democratic candidates] in good faith,” she said.In Loudoun County, Va., where heated opposition to the district’s plans to implement new diversity initiatives has led to an attempted recall of board members, culminating in a viral school board meeting in June where two protesters were arrested, organizers have similarly noticed support coming from outside the Republican Party. A poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies in early June for the anti-critical race theory advocacy group Fight for Schools found that 48 percent of independent voters and 59 percent of public school parents overall in Loudoun and neighboring Fairfax County viewed critical race theory negatively, while 31 percent and 39 percent of each group had positive views.

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Biden won Loudoun County by 62 percent to 37 percent over Trump, and Fairfax by 70-28.“I know Democrats have a base to worry about, but by dismissing [concerns about critical race theory], it fires up people even more,” said Ian Prior, a former Trump Justice Department spokesperson and Loudoun County parent who in recent months has focused his energy on organizing recalling school board members with Fight for Schools. “Democrats are missing an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, let’s hear you out.’”

As Loudoun became a national magnet for critical race theory opposition, comments to the school board became more vitriolic, and they started coming from outside the district, said Atoosa Reaser, one of six Loudoun School Board members who is facing a potential recall. All six members who are being recalled are supported by the local Democratic Party.

“Even people you helped think that because you have a ‘D’ after your name you should be recalled,” Reaser said,noting that board members have lost support among parents over a series of uproars that started during the pandemic, when school closures left many concerned about their child’s learning, and continued as public scrutiny of Loudoun’s action plans grew.

The battle in Loudoun is making it difficult for the school board to plan for the upcoming school year, Reaser said.“It’s actually detrimental for [critics] to fray our ability to focus on the important issues, like how do we bring students back next year and give them the mental health support that they need,” Reaser said.

Asked about the critical race theory debate in Virginia, state Democratic Party spokesperson Grant Fox pointed the finger back at Youngkin, the gubernatorial candidate, who has recently spent significant time campaigning against it."Glenn Youngkin is focusing his campaign on divisive attacks and controversies about things that aren't happening in Virginia schools because he doesn't want voters to know the truth about his agenda,” Fox said. “If Glenn has his way, he will gut funding for public education in Virginia and leave our teachers and students out in the cold."

In Palm Beach County, which voted 56-43 for Biden over Trump in 2020, a statement intended to increase equity in the district adopted in May quickly devolved into a heated dispute because the district vowed in the five-paragraph statement it would work to eliminate “white advantage.” It sparked hundreds of calls from parents concerned about the phrase, culminating in a school board meeting where dozens of parents testified they wanted “white advantage” removed.

A community activist chants in opposition state of Florida's plans to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools during a June 10 meeting in Jacksonville, Fla. | Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP“My children will never be taught to be ashamed of or apologize for who they are because of their skin color,” one parent told the school board during the meeting.

In May, the majority of Democrats on the school board sided with the protesters and voted to edit the “white advantage” phrase out of the equity statement. But the local Democratic Party took action and censured those school board members with a resolution saying they had betrayed the party’s values. Two school board members declared they would leave the party as a result.

Omari Hardy, a candidate for Congress in Palm Beach County who worked to pass the censure resolution, said Democrats have an obligation to stick to their guns and not play politics with anti-critical race theory activists.“Moderate Democrats have a history of compromising on what should be non-negotiable issues,” said Hardy. “I don’t think that you can make these angry mobs that are going around the country talking about critical race theory go away by compromising with them.”

There is also a larger moral obligation, especially on the heels of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, to preserve racial progress, said Jin Hee Lee, senior deputy litigation director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.“It’s no coincidence that this is happening on the heels of what is maybe the greatest civil rights moment in our history, when there was such a focus on systemic racism and anti-Black racism,” Lee said. “This is a backlash to the incredible movement that happened that spurred a national reckoning about what we are doing when it comes to systemic racism.”

Bion Bartning, a self-described independent and co-founder of Eos lip balm, became involved in the debate over critical race theory after his daughters’ private New York City elementary school began implementing changes that included telling students in a video to “check each other’s words and actions” for bias.

“That’s the opposite of what you want to tell a 5-year-old,” Bartning, who is of mixed race, said in an interview. “I grew up with very liberal values, and believing in the goal where we judge each other by our character and not by the color of our skin.”

Bartning now runs the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, or FAIR, which aims to provide alternative education about race and corporate DEI trainings that do not utilize ideas like anti-racism that have become popular in recent years. Bartning avoids discussion of politics, and FAIR’s board of advisers purposefully includes Democrats such as Harvard University professor Steven Pinker, a donor to Biden’s presidential campaign.

Kaplan, the Democrat based in San Mateo County, had just left her job in the nonprofit sector when friends started sending her links to California’s proposed ethnic studies curriculum, a framework for teachers they believed would be interesting to Kaplan because of her childhood in the former Soviet Union.

Kaplan felt there were numerous issues with the model curriculum. Drafts, for example, included criticisms of capitalism, at one point referring to it as a “system of power” and suggesting students study how capitalism has been used to oppress people. The first draft put little focus on anti-Semitism but included sample teachings about Palestine, upsetting Jewish leaders in the state.

Kaplan has become one of the curriculum’s top opponents, but she decried the “political football” that has become the debate over critical race theory, saying she and others are focused on making on-the-ground changes.“What I hear over and over again is that people who are against CRT in schools are just against talking about racism,” Kaplan said. “We believe strongly in teaching [against] racism, in confronting racism.”

But Democrats should not ignore the potentially potent politics around critical race theory, said Litman of Run for Something, who compared anxiety about critical race theory to the fear of “death panels” during 2009’s Obamacare debate.“The Republican Party historically has used this kind of panic effectively,” Litman said. “And they have managed to unite a few different components of anxiety — racial anxiety, anxiety about schools that came up through the pandemic and who’s managing schools, and this idea of cancel culture — in one.”

“It’s irrelevant what the facts are — it’s the way it makes people feel,” Litman concluded. Read more: POLITICO »

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MaggieSeverns First off, I want to say I appreciate you covering this issue as a member of the left-wing media (I am left-wing), but in all honesty it could have been done much better. I'd like to make a few points in this forum. CRT/DEI ideologues pushing this at K-12 schools rely on good will of the left-leaning liberal-minded community members, most of whom have no idea how discriminatory these DEI programs really are.

Equity sounds a lot like revenge The underlying reporting here is extremely thin Regardless of whether these initiatives are racist (they are)... the equity initiatives in schools notoriously lower the bar for all, rather than raise everybody up. Canceled honors classes, lower passing grade thresholds etc

“Both sides” by any other name…

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