The CRT Panic Isn't Over, It's Shifted Toward Charter Schools and PrivatizationBreaking News
tags: charter schools, teaching history, critical race theory
The wave of moral panic over Critical Race Theory (CRT) that dominated national conversations a year ago seems to have crested. Once a daily topic of political news coverage, concern over CRT has mostly died down. But while anti-CRT fervor no longer makes national headlines, conservatives are continuing their efforts to promote a teaching of American history that ignores the impact of racism—most notably through the formation of anti-CRT charter schools.
In 2021, the anti-CRT movement was alive and thriving. It was something of a surprise star turn for CRT, a relatively obscure academic framework used to analyze how public institutions and policies reflect, codify, and perpetuate racism. Conservative news media couldn’t let it go: in the five months between February to June 2021, mentions of CRT on Fox news increased from 29 mentions a month to 901—a thirty-fold increase.
This attention from conservative news media had a purpose. The furor over CRT was initially in response to the 1619 Project—a collection of recently published educational materials that re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States. In an effort to counterbalance the impact of the 1619 Project, Donald Trump established the 1776 Commission to promote a reactionary curriculum. In January 2021, the commission published their “1776 Report,” a short guide to “restore a patriotic education.” In May 2021, conservatives launched the 1776 Political Action Committee (PAC), with the goal of raising funds to support school board candidates who opposed raising any sort of racial consciousness when teaching American history in public schools. The 1776 PAC had some success, helping to elect over fifty candidates and counting to local school boards nationwide. Around the same time, numerous states, such as Texas, Utah, and Arkansas passed anti-CRT bills to ensure that kids in public schools were not exposed to “left-wing indoctrination.”
In 2022, the public hysteria surrounding CRT has mostly died down. Fox News doesn’t mention Critical Race Theory at the same clip, the 1776 Commission was terminated by Joe Biden, the buzz surrounding the 1776 PAC has quieted, and state-level anti-CRT bill proposals are decreasing. On the surface, it looks like the anti-CRT moment had its fifteen minutes of fame.
Yet, the anti-CRT movement isn’t so much over as it is seeking to focus on making quiet gains, including through its years-long effort to establish charter schools that teach a selective, whitewashed version of American history.
In retrospect, it’s clear why the anti-CRT movement chose charter schools as a weapon in their war over how to teach American history. Charter schools, being publicly funded but independently run, usually by a nonprofit organization, can be a cost-effective way of exerting control over children’s education. Originally conceived of as a way to experiment with teaching methods, charter schools’ relative autonomy gives them wide latitude to use—or, rather, misuse—public funding in ways that might not always serve the public’s best interests.
Indeed, for years, many of today’s CRT critics have used the flexibility of charter schools to advance a narrow, controversial cultural agenda—and to further their crusade against a full and honest history curriculum in U.S. classrooms. One organization that has been particularly active in spurring the growth of anti-CRT charter schools is Hillsdale College—a fundamentalist Christian college and conservative stronghold in academia that seeks to revive what it calls an “American classical education” in K–12 studies. In 2012, the college started expanding into K–12 schools by supporting the opening of several charter schools through their Barney Charter School Initiative. From 2012 to 2020, Hillsdale added only sixteen member schools to its network. Since the rise of anti-CRT rhetoric in 2021, Hillsdale approved sixteen more schools for inclusion in its charter initiative, with six already opened and ten planning to open in fall of 2023—meaning Hillsdale will have doubled their reach in just two years.
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