Critical Race Theory is the New Technocracy
At a recent Manhattan Institute event on building new education institutions, Stephanie Saroki de Garcia, the co-founder and managing director of Seton Education Partners, which serves 5000 students in underserved communities including the South Bronx, was asked what students and parents were looking for in their schools. Her answer was forthright and bold. She said the parents her schools serve want safety, respect, character, and civic education. What they don’t want — or at least aren’t asking for — she added, is “antiracist” education. “We have not had a single one of the parents of our 5,000 students that we're serving, saying, ‘We want you to do more of this antiracist work.’”
In the past few days, I’ve run Saroki’s observation past a number of charter school leaders, including some whose schools and charter management organizations are, at least in their official stances and public pronouncements, visibly woke and all-in on antiracism. None took any issue with it. If anything, they amplified her comments. “I don’t think I’ve had one email or call saying ‘I wish my child was taught critical race theory’ or anything like that,” says the leader of one major charter management organization. Parents want a “really clear accounting of our history” and “books that are affirming [with] lots of positive portrayals of Black and Latinx folks,” he adds. “But in terms of ‘Please teach them about systemic racism or white supremacy culture’ I hear nothing around that.”
What’s going on here? If publicly “woke” charter school leaders at schools committed to antiracist work say, at least privately, that their students’ families are indifferent to it, who or what is driving the train? Saroki told Andy Smarick, who moderated the Manhattan Institute event, “This is really coming from elite teachers,” mainly white women, “who are pushing ideology that is not coming from parents.” On this point there is universal agreement. “I hear a ton of it from my staff,” says another veteran charter leader, who also cited pressure from board members and funders. “And to be honest, we hear an increasingly large amount of it from our alumni. They're outspoken and that makes it a little trickier for us.”
Tricky is an understatement. It’s not hard to see the dilemma here. Charter schools, particularly large CMOs, have long relied on a steady supply of energetic and socially committed young people to staff their schools. Young “woke” recent college grads are bringing a very different set of values and ideals than those who made “no excuses” their mantra twenty years ago (there’s also a clear generational divide between veteran charter leaders and young staff). Recruiters are also seeing a different mindset among would-be teachers, who are less inclined to sign up for the brutal hours and high expectations that have historically come with the gig. “There's just a lot of folks who are deciding not to do this work, which is a real concern for me,” one network leader tells me. “So we've been trying to give them a little of this CRT [critical race theory], because they just really want it.”
Taking the long view, if minority parents aren’t asking for critical race theory and antiracist practices in charter schools, and if it’s politically unpopular in public school districts — if indeed it’s mostly the hobby horse of academics and elites — it raises questions about the viability and sustainability of the “equity” agenda. I’ve made no secret of my misgivings about critical race theory and “antiracist” practice, and whether it’s really in the best long-term interest of Black and brown children. So, it’s unlikely its proponents are looking for my advice. But it’s hard not to wonder if deeply committed social justice advocates in education are making the same mistakes that previous generations of would-be ed reformers made, overspending their moral authority to impose on schools priorities and practices parents don’t much like, regardless of their good intent.
Recall that in its halcyon days, ed reform enjoyed a considerable halo effect, moral authority, and prestige with fawning media coverage, movies like “Waiting for Superman,” and broad bipartisan political support behind efforts to close the achievement gap and roll back the soft bigotry of low expectations. With the wind at its back — just like antiracism has enjoyed in post-George Floyd America — the movement failed to recognize when it was overspending its good will and political capital. When testing and accountability changed the nature of American schooling in ways that parents didn’t like, the response was often arrogance and dismissal. Recall Arne Duncan’s infamously haughty comment that “white suburban moms” didn’t like Common Core because they suddenly discovered that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” That kind of arrogance doesn’t play well in a system that still runs largely on popular support.
It seems reasonable to think that vocal proponents of antiracist policies and practices are making the same errors in judgement, indulging in the same “we know what’s best” technocratic groupthink that pushed ed reform off the rails and shattered its coalition. There’s long been a strain of thought in education that attempts to impose social justice aims on schools. And the technocrat’s reach reliably exceeds his grasp. Put the two of those together in the service of a movement that (let’s be honest) is more about politics and culture than teaching and learning, and it seems all but certain that efforts to remake America through the work of its schools faces long odds unless antiracist advocates become more willing to “do the work” of selling their ideas to parents.
Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.