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Politico reports on vouchers this morning. Vouchers have never won a popular vote. Public opinion polls are mixed, but the response depends on how the question is worded. DeVos and her allies have found her way around the problem: go to the legislature and give strategically to key legislators. In other words, buy their support. It works.

 

VOUCHERS HAVE BEEN A TOUGH SELL – AT LEAST WHEN PUT TO A VOTE: President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to create a massive $20 billion block grant to expand charter and private school options for poor children. But when voters in states across the country have been asked if they want to send public money to private schools through vouchers, they’ve pretty much always said no, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Since 1978, voters in California, Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, Utah and Washington all rejected measures to enact private school choice programs. And the ballot referendums lost big – none of them drew support from more than 38 percent of voters. Voters in Florida and Oklahoma, in 2012 and 2016, shot down efforts to repeal so-called Blaine Amendments – which prohibit states from spending public money on religious schools and can limit a state’s ability to fund private school choice programs. [ED. NOTE: VOTERS HAVE NEVER APPROVED A REFERENDUM TO PERMIT PUBLIC MONEY TO BE SPENT IN NONPUBLIC OR RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS. THE DEVOS FAMILY SPONSORED A VOUCHER VOTE IN MICHIGAN IN 2000, AND IT WAS DEFEATED 69-31%.]

 

– Public polling, however, has been mixed on vouchers, with support levels ranging from 40 percent to 60 percent, said Josh Cunningham, a senior education policy specialist at the National Council of State Legislatures. “It’s probably fair to say that much of the public does not fully understand what school vouchers are,” Cunningham told Morning Education. “If anything, this history shows that going through the legislature may be an easier road towards adopting school choice policies than using the ballot.” Thanks to state lawmakers, there are 17 states (as well as D.C.) that have voucher programs, according to the council.

 

– The legislature is the route that Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to lead the Education Department, has taken repeatedly over the years. DeVos, through her groups, including the American Federation for Children and All Children Matter, has pushed voucher measures – successfully – through statehouses across the country, including in Indiana in 2011. DeVos told the Philanthropy Roundtable last year that “successful advocacy requires coordinating a lot of moving parts: identifying potential legislators, educating them about the issue, getting them elected, helping them craft and pass legislation, and helping with implementation once laws are passed to ensure that programs work for children.” Showering lawmakers with money also helps – and DeVos’ groups have spent millions on candidates who support vouchers. DeVos has been blunt about the power that donations have in politics. In 1997, she wrote in Roll Call that “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return.”

Valerie Strauss posted an article about the lobbying activities of the giant testing corporations. They spend many millions of dollars to ensure that Congress and the states understand the importance of buying their services. It would be awful for them if any state decided to let teachers write their own tests and test what they taught.

 

The four corporations that dominate the U.S. standardized testing market spend millions of dollars lobbying state and federal officials — as well as sometimes hiring them — to persuade them to favor policies that include mandated student assessments, helping to fuel a nearly $2 billion annual testing business, a new analysis shows.

 

The analysis, done by the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit liberal watchdog and advocacy agency based in Wisconsin that tracks corporate influence on public policy, says that four companies — Pearson Education, ETS (Educational Testing Service), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill— collectively spent more than $20 million lobbying in states and on Capitol Hill from 2009 to 2014.

 

When I visited Texas a few years ago, I wondered why Texas paid nearly $500 million to Pearson for five years of testing, but New York paid only $32 million to Pearson for the same five years. I assumed it must be a testament to the high quality lobbyists that Pearson hired in Texas, starting with Sandy Kress, who was one of the architects of No Child Left Behind and very well connected to the state’s power structure.

Some while back, I suggested on Twitter that members of Congress should get merit pay. It doesn’t seem fair that all of them are paid exactly the same, no matter how effective or ineffective they are. The same might be  said of state legislators. Why don’t they get merit pay? They are eager to impose it on teachers, based on student scores, but they don’t want it for themselves.

The problem with the idea is this: how do you judge effectiveness?

A reader has a good proposal:

I think we should push for MORE merit pay, but in this way:  our state and federal legislators should be paid based on how well their constituents are doing.  percent of unemployment, average family income, property values, crime rate, health/illness rates, etc.  Of course, they will complain about how they can’t control these factors, but it’s very similar to what we are judged on.

Jan Resseger provides a useful and disturbing overview of vouchers, which began in 1991 in Milwaukee. The funder that inspired the Milwaukee voucher program, paid its legal costs, and kept it going while it was challenged in court was the rightwing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, led by Mike Joyce. When vouchers were launched thirty years ago, their promoters said they would “save” poor black children who were “trapped” in “failing public schools.” Five years later, Cleveland adopted its own voucher program. Vouchers have not been an academic success, as promised, but libertarians and conservatives continued to demand more vouchers and charters because choice is choice, even when it doesn’t produce the promised results. A while back, while doing research for a book, I interviewed Alan Borsuk, who has been writing about Milwaukee schools for years, and he gave me this summary: the three sectors–charters, vouchers, public–get about the same results, and the results are low for all three sectors (the public sector has a disproportionately large number of students with disabilities who are not wanted by the other two sectors). On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, black students in Milwaukee score at about the same level as their peers in poor, underfunded southern states.

Jan writes:

Milwaukee, the oldest publicly funded, private school voucher program in the United States just marked its 30th anniversary. Wisconsin vouchers have been a model for voucher expansion all over the country, which makes this a good time to review the impact of the growth of diversion of tax dollars to cover private school costs.

In a two part review for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School reflects on the operation and public policy impact of the now 30-year-old Milwaukee voucher program, and more generally on the implications of the growing use of school vouchers.

Borsuk begins by noting that in Wisconsin, vouchers are now so old they have lost some of their luster. He believes the public ought to be watching more closely: “In Wisconsin, the sector wars between public school people and school choice people are kind of old hat. The hottest cup of coffee served in the last generation of education around here seems lukewarm now. But that is also a good reason to re-cap the impact of providing public support for thousands of children to attend private and religious schools….”

Based on his study of the Milwaukee voucher program over its 30 year history, Borsuk offers 10 primarily descriptive observations:

  1. “The voucher movement is big. It started out in Fall 1991 with 337 students in seven schools… By last fall, about 28,000 children, around a quarter of all Milwaukee children receiving publicly funded education, were going to about 115 private schools.”
  2. “It really is school choice… (N)o one has ever been required or assigned to use a voucher to go to a private school… Thousands of parents want their kids to attend private and, most cases, religious schools, and vouchers make that possible.”
  3. “Vouchers haven’t solved the success gaps in education.  One of the primary claims of voucher supporters… was that giving parents more freedom to choose schools, coupled with competition among schools… would drive big improvements in overall academic success…. Nope. Overall, the reading and math scores of students using vouchers aren’t much different than students in Milwaukee Public Schools—and proficiency rates in both streams of schools have been generally unchanged… at depressingly low levels. Whatever is needed to… start up booming academic achievement, vouchers aren’t it.”
  4. “Vouchers have impacted Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) negatively… (O)verall, in large part due to voucher use and charter enrollment, enrollment in MPS has fallen steadily for more than a decade, and that is not good for the system… Also, MPS has a higher percentage of students with special needs and students who have chronic behavior problems than schools in other sectors have.”
  5. “The voucher movement is religious… (F)or the last five years, more than $200 million a year in state money has been spent on vouchers, the strong majority of it at religious schools. Those schools cover a wide range of religions—Catholic, Lutheran, other Christian denominations, Muslim, Jewish—and there are almost no limits on how religion is taught or practiced in those schools.  Both Wisconsin and U.S. supreme courts have ruled it is not a violation of separation of church and state, on the theory that the state is supporting parents choosing schools and not the state choosing schools.”
  6. “Milwaukee taught the country. One important lesson was how not to do vouchers… People with limited or dubious qualifications opened schools… Some schools were outrageously bad.  Many were just mediocre and poorly run.  It was only by launching regulations and creating some oversight that bad financial practices and… bad educational practice was reined in and many schools closed.”
  7. “School choice movement is stable. In the 2010s, it seemed like every two years, when the state budget was developed, big changes were made…. Voucher programs were added for Racine, for the rest of Wisconsin, and for students with special needs… Now, especially with split control of state government, nothing is changing.”
  8. “Vouchers keep private schools going… At many private schools, more than 90%  of students are supported by vouchers of more than $8,000 per student per year… Milwaukee has a much more vibrant private school sector than many comparable cities.  Is this a public good?…  (S)aying vouchers are keeping the private school sector going is stating a fact.”
  9. “Vouchers fractured education politics… The intense battles between public school people… and voucher people meant there wasn’t a united front in responding to the needs of all the children in the city.  The division and divisiveness remain….”
  10. “The voucher school roster has improved… (T)he closing of many of the poorest schools has moved the overall record of private schools in a positive direction.”

Borsuk’s analysis presents a pretty objective analysis of many aspects of Wisconsin vouchers, but he entirely fails to address what across many states is the most serious concern: vouchers eat up a huge and growing portion of state education funding in Wisconsin and other states where voucher programs have grown over the years. Borsuk points out that the Milwaukee school district’s loss of students has been bad for the public schools.  What he doesn’t mention is that as students leave for private schools, in some states they carry the voucher funding out of their local school district’s budget.  But even when the state pays directly for the cost of the voucher, the school district loses the voucher student’s per-pupil state funding, and because many school district costs are fixed, the district loses funds needed for programming for the majority of a community’s students—the children enrolled in the public schools.

While Borsuk doesn’t mention the fiscal impact on public schools of the growth of vouchers across his state, in a 2017 brief from the National Education Policy Center, the University of Wisconsin’s Ellie Bruecker does evaluate the fiscal impact of Wisconsin’s vouchers on the state’s public schools:  “The program as currently structured appears likely to exacerbate existing inequities in state school financing. Taxpayers in many communities will be burdened with higher tax costs without seeing that burden translate into more spending on students attending local public schools. Moreover, the relative amount of money the state allocates to each public school student it supports is likely to decline. As more states enact or expand voucher programs, the case of Wisconsin offers a cautionary tale. Statewide voucher programs have the potential to seriously exacerbate funding disparities in the public system.”

Additionally voucher programs educate the few at the expense of the millions of children who continue to be enrolled in the public schools which lose the funding. For the Phi Delta Kappan, Mark Berends explains that today, while they are expensive, voucher programs serve relatively few students: “The number of school voucher programs has increased dramatically over the last two-decades. In 2000, there were just five such programs in operation in school districts and states… by 2010, the number had increased to 12, and by 2021, it had climbed to 29… (T)he number of students participating in voucher programs… has increased significantly in the last decade, though the total number of students receiving vouchers remains a tiny fraction of the total number of students in the U.S. (about 0.5%).” (Emphasis is mine.)

And while the voucher program in Wisconsin may have reached a stable plateau, in Ohio, like many other states, legislatures are making big new investments in private school vouchers.  Writing for the Columbus DispatchAnna Staver and Grace Deng report: “School choice advocates say… they want Ohio and eventually the country to give a voucher to any kid who wants one. ‘People are cutting their cable and buying individual channels and personalizing what they want for their own entertainment,’ said Greg Lawson, a research fellow at the… Buckeye Institute. ‘It’s about choice. It’s about empowering folks. People want choice in their food, in their entertainment. Education should be that too.’”

Staver and Deng summarize the history of the recent rapid expansion of these programs, “(T)he rules that govern eligibility get a little more expansive every year.  At first, only students assigned to schools in ‘academic emergency’—the state’s lowest rating—for three consecutive years could apply for a voucher. A year later it became schools in either academic emergency or academic watch for three years.  Six months after that, the requirement dropped to two of the last three years. In 2013, lawmakers created an income-based scholarship for all kids regardless of their home district… Today, roughly half of Ohio’s families are eligible for an income-based voucher because the limit for a family of four (is) $65,500 of annual household income.”

In the state budget passed at the end of June, the Ohio Legislature raised the size of each voucher in another program, EdChoice, from $4,650 for students in grades K-8 to $5,500 and for students in high school from $6,000 to $7,500. Previously only 60,000 students could qualify for EdChoice statewide, but in the new budget, the Legislature eliminated any cap on the program’s size  While there used to be a 75 day window for submitting an application for an EdChoice voucher, there is now a rolling window with no closing date.  And beginning with the FY 26 school year students will no longer be required to attend a public school in the year prior to qualifying for a voucher. Today high school students need not attend a public school in the year before qualifying, but as of 2026, no student will need to have attended a public school prior to qualifying.

In Ohio, it never seems to stop. Last Wednesday members of the Ohio House held a press conference to promote House Bill 290, introduced last spring as what its sponsor is reported to have called “a legislative intent bill” for the purpose of promoting widespread discussion of universal vouchers.

Open the link and read the rest. The legislative strategy for vouchers is the camel’s nose under the tent. The first act is to provide vouchers for poor students trapped in failing schools, so there are income limits and requirements that students were enrolled in a low-performing school. In the second act, the income limit for eligible students is raised, or vouchers are enacted for students with special needs (even though these students abandon their federally-guaranteed rights when they leave public schools). Next step, students applying for vouchers need never have attended public schools, so they are not being “saved from failing schools” because they never attended public schools. The ultimate goal is universal vouchers, because choice may be academically ineffective but choice is good. In reality, as Jan points out, choice defunds the public schools that most students attend, so choice is not good after all.

Ashley Parker writes for the Washington Post. She wrote this ominous article.

A year before the 2020 election, about two dozen constitutional scholars and democracy advocates traveled to Washington to work through a range of scenarios where something goes awry on Election Day.

The country’s political system was being tested by a campaign like no other in modern history, with an incumbent president, Donald Trump, who showed little regard for the democratic traditions and constitutional norms that had guided his predecessors — and who repeatedly claimed that the only way he could lose was through rampant fraud.

So the group considered a slew of hypothetical catastrophes: “What do we do if a vigilante group takes over a major county tabulation facility and burns it to the ground? What do we do if there is a military coup?” But, as Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund tells it, the experts were too quick in retrospect to dismiss the outrageous as unlikely to happen in a country like the United States.

“Either we were not creative enough or the norms of civility our nation has seen over centuries were not reliable enough,” said Patrick, a former elections official in Maricopa County, Ariz.

The challenges for American democracy were on stark display almost exactly two months after Election Day, on Jan. 6, when a violent mob of Trump supporters mounted a deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. And the challenges have been clear in the eight months since the riot, as Trump and his allies have intensified false claims of election fraud and the former president has remained the Republican Party’s most popular leader.

Now, as Trump looks and sounds increasingly like he intends to mount a presidential campaign rerun, Democrats and democracy experts are grappling with what such a campaign — and a potential second Trump presidency — would mean for the country.

In recent weeks, Trump has maneuvered to firmly establish himself as the predominant and most powerful figure in Republican politics. He has injected his voice into federal and state campaigns, endorsing several secretary of state candidates who embraced his false fraud claims and worked to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And while still banned from Twitter, he has issued a flurry of angry tweet-like statements through his political action committee.

He has also reemerged at rallies, appearing last Saturday in Perry, Ga., with another rally planned for Oct. 9, at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. Speaking in Perry, the former president promised to “make America great again” and called for “an earth-shattering win in November 2022,” before looking ahead to the next presidential election.

“We’re not forgetting 2020,” Trump said. “The most corrupt election in the history of our country. Most corrupt election in the history of most countries, to be followed by an even more glorious victory in November of 2024.”

In some ways, the concerns among Democrats, constitutional scholars and democracy advocates about what the return of Trump could mean are simply one side of a coin, with Trump supporters representing the flip side.

A majority of Republicans still support Trump leading their party, according to polls. A CNN poll released in September found that 68 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican say democracy is under attack, with about 7 in 10 of them believing that President Biden didn’t win the 2020 election. One side’s nightmare scenario — Trump running in 2024 and reclaiming the presidency — represents to the other side simply the democratic system working as it should.

The threats to democracy that Trump critics envision are largely twofold.

One real risk, they say, is that four years after the failed Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump and his supporters emerge in 2024 more sophisticated and successful in their efforts to steal an election.
“For me, the scary part is, in 2020, this was not a particularly sophisticated misinformation or disinformation campaign,” said Matt Masterson, who ran election security at the Department of Homeland Security between 2018 to 2020. Referring to some of the outlandish conspiracy theories of ballot fraud posited in the wake of the 2020 election by Trump’s allies, he added: “We’re talking about bamboo ballots and Italian satellites and dead dictators.”

In the future, Masterson said, these sorts of falsehoods are going to become more advanced and nuanced — exploiting genuine areas of confusion in the electoral system — and thus harder to combat.

Masterson pointed to the recall election in California earlier this month, in which Trump and the leading Republican candidate, who ultimately lost, both baselessly claimed fraud before the election even took place. The very existence of these false allegations of rigged and stolen elections erode trust in the democratic process and are also likely to become the norm going forward, he added, because of a growing “cottage industry of election delegitimization and pre-delegitimization.”

Newly revealed details of a memo written by John Eastman, a prominent conservative lawyer who worked with Trump in the weeks before the Jan. 6 insurrection, show that efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election were more brazen than previously known. In the memo, first disclosed in “Peril,” the new book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Eastman described the vice president as “the ultimate arbiter” of election results and argued that Vice President Mike Pence had the authority to simply toss out the electoral college votes of certain states, thereby clearing the way for a Trump victory. “Pence then gavels President Trump as re-elected,” Eastman wrote.

The second possible scenario experts envision is more insidious, they say, a sort of slow-boiling frog of American democracy. In this case, Trump — or an acolyte with similarly anti-democratic sensibilities — runs and wins legitimately in 2024, emerging newly emboldened and focused on retribution. Then, the new president, intent on strengthening his own position and punishing critics, begins remaking the political and electoral system, using legal means to consolidate power and erode democratic institutions.

“We often think that what we should be waiting for is fascists and communists marching in the streets, but nowadays, the ways democracies often die is through legal things at the ballot box — so things that can be both legal and antidemocratic at the same time,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a professor at Harvard University and the co-author of “How Democracies Die,” who is working on a successive volume. “Politicians use the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law.”

Perhaps the most relevant modern example, several democracy experts said, is Hungary under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who returned to power in 2010 after a previous stint as Hungary’s leader about a decade before.
Tucker Carlson — who regularly articulates the intellectual heart of Trumpism — traveled to Hungary in August to broadcast his prime-time Fox News show from there, at one point lauding Hungary as “a small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.”

Upon taking power in 2010, Orbán “has steadily chipped away at the linchpins of a liberal democratic system,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan, pro-democracy organization.

“He stacked the courts, he engaged in gerrymandering, he had friends and allies take over the media,” Abramowitz said, referring to Orbán. “So while he has elections, they start from a very, very stacked deck. While it’s not impossible, it’s going to be very, very difficult for him to be dislodged in the normal democratic system.”

The U.S. Constitution, with its protections of free speech and a free press, as well as its prohibition on anyone winning the presidency more than twice, offers a guiding document for preserving democracy. But Trump, during his four years in office, made clear that he wished he had the powers of a monarch or a strongman, repeatedly flouting the nation’s long-held rules and norms.
And he exposed the limits of the system.

Trump, for instance, installed a number of acting Cabinet secretaries when he could not win Senate confirmation for his picks; made clear he expected the attorney general to act as his own personal lawyer rather than represent the interests of the United States; implied that the Supreme Court justices he nominated should rule in his favor out of personal loyalty; and tried to leverage U.S. foreign policy to influence his own political fortunes — resulting in the first of his two impeachments.

A number of traditionally apolitical and nonpartisan federal agencies, too, became embroiled in politics and controversy during Trump’s tenure, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Tim Snyder, a history and public affairs professor at Yale University, agreed that the modern parallels between the United States and Hungary are striking.

“What we’re looking at is actually the typical way that democracies are undone,” said Snyder, who is working on an updated graphic edition of his book, “On Tyranny.”

Asked to respond to the notion that Trump represented a threat to democracy, Trump’s spokeswoman, Liz Harrington, sought to level the same allegation against the current president. “Biden has thrown away our sovereignty at his open border, issued unconstitutional decrees to private companies, and humiliated the United States in Afghanistan,” she said, reiterating Trump’s false claim that the election was rigged to say that Biden and his party “continue to threaten our very constitutional republic.”

Indeed, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report gave the United States a score of 83 — alongside countries such as Mongolia and Ghana — marking an 11-point decline from its score of 94 a decade ago, when it appeared alongside established democracies like France and Germany. Freedom House’s scores are on a scale of 0 to 100.

But Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), whose own state has been on the front lines of post-election fights spurred on by Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen, said that Trump’s behavior while in office — from potentially using the presidency to enrich his own family to smashing through other traditional guardrails — raises concerns that a 2024 Trump victory could lead to a newly fortified and shameless president, eager to further upend democratic norms.

“All these other things that are just not the normal ways that we operate as a country, that are parameters that elected officials are held to — he never was,” Hobbs said. “And the fact that there’s been a lack of accountability for any of that and then, in fact, potentially rewarded by being reelected is highly, highly problematic.”

Experts said that perhaps the most precipitous recent threat to American democracy, however, remains Trump’s election claims.

“Democracy depends on the belief of losers in a given election to trust the process, and to marshal support so they can win another day,” said Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project. “If we have entered a phase where the process is simply not trusted, that is a dangerous situation to be in, where people do not trust elections as being the way that we replace authority.”

A number of Republicans have used Trump’s false claim as a catalyst for overhauling election and voting laws, even in states where the 2020 election ran smoothly. At least 250 laws being proposed in at least 43 states would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting, changes that Democrats say could especially disenfranchise minority voters. There are also some Republican-led efforts pushing to allow state legislatures to overturn election results.

“I do hear from the community and faith leaders the concern that we’re losing the ground we gained through literal blood and tears and death during the civil rights movement and so many struggles, that we’re backtracking,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Texas’s largest county.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said she is ultimately “optimistic” because despite “extreme pressure in 2020,” the efforts of elected officials such as herself to protect democracy and ensure free and fair elections ultimately prevailed. Yet she, too, said that the future “effort to undermine democracy” is likely to “be back in a way that is smarter, stronger, probably more organized, perhaps even more intense and better funded than ever before,” and pointed to the new voting laws as one of the challenges.

Unlike after Watergate, however, no clear or sustained effort exists to broadly protect democratic institutions as the nation hurtles toward the uncertainty of the 2024 presidential election. Ziblatt, the co-author of “How Democracies Die” — a book Biden carried around in 2018, scrawling notes in the margins and dog-earring favorite passages — suggested that some reforms are probably necessary to protect U.S. democracy going forward.

“These are soft guardrails that have constrained politicians in the past, and what the Trump administration has made clear is that we need to harden those guardrails,” Ziblatt said.
But, he added, he worries that some are still too squeamish to come to terms with the potential threat U.S. democracy faces if Trump attempts to regain power.

“If you look at how democracies get in trouble in other places, it’s how executives once in office abuse their office, and I think people just don’t want to think that Trump could get back into the presidency,” Ziblatt said. “There’s a way in which we’re not trying to think of the worst-case scenario, which is Trump gets reelected, but I think what we’ve learned is you have to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”


Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell, a staff writer at the New York Times, echoes growing fear that democracy in America is at risk.

He writes:

Nearly nine months after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election, a question still lingers over how to place it in history: Were the events of Jan. 6 the doomed conclusion of an unusually anti-democratic moment in American political life, or a preview of where the country is still heading?

Richard L. Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law and an expert in election law, believes the second possibility shouldn’t be ruled out. In a paper published this month, he wrote that “The United States faces a serious risk that the 2024 presidential election, and other future U.S. elections, will not be conducted fairly, and that the candidates taking office will not reflect the free choices made by eligible voters under previously announced election rules.”

It could be a bloodless coup, he warns, executed not by rioters with nooses but “lawyers in fine suits”: Between January and June, Republican-controlled legislatures passed 24 laws across 14 states to increase their control over how elections are run, stripping secretaries of state of their power and making it easier to overturn results.

How much danger is American democracy really in, and what can be done to safeguard it? Here’s what people are saying.

How democracy could collapse in 2024

In Hasen’s view, there are three mechanisms by which the 2024 election could be overturned:

  • State legislatures, purporting to exercise the authority of either the Constitution or an 1887 federal law called the Electoral Count Act, swapping in their own slate of electors for president, potentially with the blessing of a conservative Supreme Court and a Republican-controlled Congress.
  • Fraudulent or suppressive election administration or vote counting by norm- or law-breaking officials.
  • Vigilante action that prevents voting, interferes with ballot counting or interrupts the legitimate transfer of power.

These mechanisms are not outside the realm of possibility:

  • Recent reporting from Robert Costa and Bob Woodward revealed that the previous administration had a plan, hatched by the prominent conservative lawyer John Eastman, for former Vice President Mike Pence to throw out the electoral votes of key swing states on the basis that they had competing slates of electors. Next time around, “with the right pieces in place, (President Donald) Trump could succeed,” the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie writes. “All he needs is a rival slate of electoral votes from contested states, state officials and state legislatures willing to intervene on his behalf, a supportive Republican majority in either house of Congress, and a sufficiently pliant Supreme Court majority.”
  • On top of passing voting administration laws, Republicans have also recruited candidates who espouse election conspiracy theories to run for positions like secretary of state and county clerk. According to Reuters, 10 of the 15 declared Republican candidates for secretary of state in five swing states have either declared the 2020 election stolen or demanded its invalidation or investigation.
  • Skepticism of or hostility toward election administration is widespread among Republican voters as well, 78 percent of whom still say that President Biden did not win in November. That conviction, Reuters reported in June, has sparked a nationwide intimidation campaign against election officials and their families, who continue to face threats of hanging, firing squads, torture and bomb blasts with vanishingly little help from law enforcement. One in three election officials feel unsafe because of their job and nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a job-related concern, according to an April survey from the Brennan Center.

“The stage is thus being set for chaos,” Robert Kagan argues in The Washington Post. Given a more strategically contested election, “Biden would find himself where other presidents have been — where Andrew Jackson was during the nullification crisis, or where Abraham Lincoln was after the South seceded — navigating without rules or precedents, making his own judgments about what constitutional powers he does and doesn’t have.”

Some experts worry about democratic backsliding even in the event of a legitimate Republican victory in 2024, Ashley Parker reports for The Washington Post. In such a scenario, Trump or a similarly anti-democratic figure might set about remaking the political and electoral system to consolidate power.

“We often think that what we should be waiting for is fascists and communists marching in the streets, but nowadays, the ways democracies often die is through legal things at the ballot box — so things that can be both legal and antidemocratic at the same time,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a Harvard political scientist. “Politicians use the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law.”

Experts told Parker that perhaps the most proximate example is Hungary under Viktor Orban, who returned to power in 2010 after being ousted in 2002 and over the past decade has transformed the country into a soft autocracy. Admirers of the country’s government include Tucker Carlson, who in August extolled it as a model for the United States, and the high-profile Conservative Political Action Committee, which will host its next gathering in Budapest.

Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London, believes there are many reasons — the threat of primary challenges against Republicans who defy “Stop the Steal” orthodoxy, gerrymandering, the influence of social media — that the Republican Party’s anti-democratic turn might not just continue but accelerate: “There are no countervailing forces. There’s nothing that rewards being a sober moderate who believes in democracy and tries to govern by consensus.”

Duke historian Nancy MacLean, author of the superb Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, wrote recently in The Washington Post about the sinister origins of school choice. Its true purpose was to protect segregation and abolish public schools. (For my view, see this article in The New York Review of Books.)

MacLean writes:

The year 2021 has proved a landmark for the “school choice” cause — a movement committed to the idea of providing public money for parents to use to pay for private schooling.

Republican control of a majority of state legislatures, combined with pandemic learning disruptions, set the stage for multiple victories. Seven states have created new school choice programs, and 11 others have expanded current programs through laws that offer taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schooling and authorize tax credits and educational savings accounts that incentivize parents moving their children out of public schools.

On its face, this new legislation may sound like a win for families seeking more school options. But the roots of the school choice movement are more sinister.

White Southerners first fought for “freedom of choice” in the mid-1950s as a means of defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which mandated the desegregation of public schools. Their goal was to create pathways for White families to remove their children from classrooms facing integration.

Prominent libertarians then took advantage of this idea, seeing it not only as a means of providing private options, but also as a tool in their crusade to dismantle public schools altogether. This history reveals that rather than giving families more school options, school choice became a tool intended to give most families far fewer in the end.

School choice had its roots in a crucial detail of the Brown decision: The ruling only applied to public schools. White Southerners viewed this as a loophole for evading desegregated schools.

In 1955 and 1956, conservative White leaders in Virginia devised a regionwide strategy of “massive resistance” to the high court’s desegregation mandate that hinged on state-funded school vouchers. The State Board of Education provided vouchers, then called tuition grants, of $250 ($2,514 in 2021 dollars) to parents who wanted to keep their children from attending integrated schools. The resistance leaders understood that most Southern White families could not afford private school tuition — and many who could afford it lacked the ideological commitment to segregation to justify the cost. The vouchers, combined with private donations to the new schools in counties facing desegregation mandates, would enable all but a handful of the poorest Whites to evade compliance.


Other Southern states soon adopted voucher programs like the one in Virginia to facilitate the creation of private schools called “segregation academies,” despite opposition from Black families and civil rights leaders. Oliver Hill, an NAACP attorney key to the Virginia case against “separate but equal” education that was folded into Brown, explained their position this way: “No one in a democratic society has a right to have his private prejudices financed at public expense.”


Despite such objections, key conservative and libertarian thinkers and foundations, including economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, Human Events editor Felix Morley and publisher Henry Regnery, backed the White Southern cause. They recognized that White Southerners’ push for “freedom of choice” presented an opportunity to advance their goal of privatizing government services and resources, starting with primary and secondary education. They barely, if ever, addressed racism and segregation; instead, they spoke of freedom (implicitly, White freedom).


Friedman began promoting “educational freedom” in 1955, just as Southern states prepared to resist Brown. And he praised the Virginia voucher plan in his 1962 book, “Capitalism and Freedom,” holding it up as a model for school choice everywhere. “Whether the school is integrated or not,” he wrote, should have no bearing on eligibility for the vouchers. In other words, he knew the program was designed to fund segregation academies and saw it as no barrier to receiving state financing.


Friedman was far from alone. His fellow libertarians, including those on the staff of the William Volker Fund, a leading funder on the right, saw no problem with state governments providing tax subsidies to White families who chose segregation academies, even as these states disenfranchised Black voters, blocking them from having a say in these policies.


Libertarians understood that while abolishing the social safety net and other policies constructed during the Progressive era and the New Deal was wildly unpopular, even among White Southerners, school choice could win converts.


These conservative and libertarian thinkers offered up ostensibly race-neutral arguments in favor of the tax subsidies for private schooling sought by white supremacists. In doing so, they taught defenders of segregation a crucial new tactic — abandon overtly racist rationales and instead tout liberty, competition and market choice while embracing an anti-government stance. These race-neutral rationales for private school subsidies gave segregationists a justification that could survive court review — and did, for more than a decade before the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.

When challenged, Friedman and his allies denied that they were motivated by racial bigotry. Yet, they had enough in common ideologically with the segregationists for the partnership to work. Both groups placed a premium on the liberty of those who had long profited from white-supremacist policies and sought to shield their freedom of action from the courts, liberal government policies and civil rights activists.

Crucially, freedom wasn’t the ultimate goal for either group of voucher supporters. White Southerners wielded colorblind language about freedom of choice to help preserve racial segregation and to keep Black children from schools with more resources.

Friedman, too, was interested in far more than school choice. He and his libertarian allies saw vouchers as a temporary first step on the path to school privatization. He didn’t intend for governments to subsidize private education forever. Rather, once the public schools were gone, Friedman envisioned parents eventually shouldering the full cost of private schooling without support from taxpayers. Only in some “charity” cases might governments still provide funding for tuition.

Friedman first articulated this outlook in his 1955 manifesto, but he clung to it for half a century, explaining in 2004, “In my ideal world, government would not be responsible for providing education any more than it is for providing food and clothing.” Four months before his death in 2006, when he spoke to a meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), he was especially frank. Addressing how to give parents control of their children’s education, Friedman said, “The ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.”

Today, the ultrawealthy backers of school choice are cagey about this long-term goal, knowing that care is required to win the support of parents who want the best for their children. Indeed, in a sad irony, decades after helping to impede Brown’s implementation, school choice advocates on the right targeted families of color for what one libertarian legal strategist called “forging nontraditional alliances.” They won over some parents of color, who came to see vouchers and charter schools as a way to escape the racial and class inequalities that stemmed from White flight out of urban centers and the Supreme Court’s willingness to allow White Americans to avoid integrating schools.

But the history behind vouchers reveals that the rhetoric of “choice” and “freedom” stands in stark contrast to the real goals sought by conservative and libertarian advocates. The system they dream of would produce staggering inequalities, far more severe than the disparities that already exist today. Wealthy and upper-middle-class families would have their pick of schools, while those with far fewer resources — disproportionately families of color — might struggle to pay to educate their children, leaving them with far fewer options or dependent on private charity. Instead of offering an improvement over underfunded schools, school choice might lead to something far worse.

As Maya Angelou wisely counseled in another context, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” If we fail to recognize the right’s true end game for public education, it could soon be too late to reverse course.

Denis Smith worked for many years in the Ohio State Department of Education, finishing his career in the Office of Charter Schools. He writes in the Ohio Capital Journal about the existential threat posed to our democracy and our society by the privatization of public schools. His advice: Be careful what you wish for.

In the last few months, Americans have witnessed a series of assaults by the political right on key parts of the bedrock principles of democracy. Those attacks include new restrictions on voting rights in more than half of the states, the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by thousands of insurrectionists, and most recently, clear evidence that the former president pressured the top leadership of the Justice Department to help him overturn the 2020 election results.

Certainly these scary developments are newsworthy and have garnered banner headlines and filled airtime on the evening news. But these high-profile assaults on our democracy have served to obscure another, perhaps even more serious threat, an added variant and supplement to the seditious behavior of insurrectionists and a twice-impeached president who encouraged their assault on democracy.

In the midst of the chaos caused by angry militia types working to keep in power a rogue administration, and being mindful of the distraction these events have caused, it’s past time to get educated about the future viability of public education.

While the U.S. Capitol was placed under assault some months ago, public education has been targeted for forty years, when Ronald Reagan signaled his followers that the public sector was undesirable and that private enterprise was always preferable in the nation. His attitude was immortalized in his remark that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

This observation has been interpreted by the right as a command from Reagan himself to privatize about everything in the public sector — except the military — as part on an ideology which holds that a private enterprise is always preferable to a public function. That thinking has morphed into a crusade to destroy perhaps the most recognized and common artifact in any community: the public school.

Individual liberty v. community responsibility

For those who know this institution’s place in American history, the terms public school and common school are used interchangeably, and the leading proponent who believed that every community should offer a program of education was Horace Mann, considered the father of American public education. In his role as the first commissioner of education in Massachusetts, Mann believed that “education should be free and universal, nonsectarian, democratic in method, and reliant on well-trained professional teachers.”

As Mann’s nineteenth-century idea of the common school spread across the new American Republic, in villages, small towns and cities where a community’s shared and accepted values were honored and embraced, the little red schoolhouse became an icon, the force that helped to mold the very idea of community.

That was the America we recognized until several decades ago.

Today, attacks by insurrectionists attired in their cammies and state legislators dressed in business suits are hard at work to undermine that very sense of community, of place. Instead of embracing the idea of place, the community and its schools which educated generation after generation, those same legislators mumble vaguely about something they call “socialism” or “government schools” and instead espouse something else called “educational choice.”

That word choice, used often in the same sentence with freedom, serves as the anti-government elixir peddled by legislators to further encourage insurrectionists and religious zealots who do not accept the idea of community – and its public or common schools.

And with the frequent use by the right of such terms as choice, freedom, and liberty, that tattered social fabric we should be concerned about is worn down even more.

Indeed, words – particularly those three – have consequences.

Several years ago, the New York Times columnist David Brooks critiqued the work of author Marcia Pally, who observed that Americans project a prominent duality – a need to explore as well as be “situated” – i.e., having a sense of community. But today, our very sense of community is under stress, a weakened social fabric fueled by politicians who in their continuing mischief and purposeful vandalism promote divisive policies that result in the transfer of public funds away from our common schools to support private, religious, and charter schools.

In spite of these destructive policies adopted by state legislatures that are antithetical to societal cohesion, the need for community comes at the very time, in Pally’s analysis, when the forces of global migration, globalization, and the internet are proving to be transformative and thus challenge the very idea of community, of being situated.

But it was Brooks’ added observation that a fourth force, in the form of individual choice, gained my attention then and now, particularly in the current and growing national atmosphere that proclaims it’s all about me and my freedom to choose, regardless of compelling community needs, including health, safety, and the transmission of a common cultural heritage, as Horace Mann, John Dewey, and other visionaries labored to establish in another, more unified time in our history.

The byproduct of this thinking — that it’s all about me — centered as it is on the individual and not the community, is seen in both the Capitol insurrectionists and the anti-vaxxers. These protesters are seemingly also armed with the idea that personal freedom and individual choice trump any responsibility in caring for the well-being of others, whether by wearing a mask or being vaccinated against COVID.

To hell with elections. It’s all about me and what I believe, we are being told by those who protest the warnings of scientists and public health experts. And to hell with masks and vaccinations. We don’t need tyranny, they tell us.

And while we’re at it, to hell with the idea of community. When it’s all about me and what I believe, there is no room for what you value.

It doesn’t take many dots to connect this thinking with the deterioration of the idea of community, of being situated, and of having common values like the public schools that were created to serve all the youth in a particular community. We hold that truth (or should we use the past tense now?) to be self-evident. Not.

But in all of this, of slogans like freedom and choice, be careful what you wish for.

In my reaction to Brooks and his review, I wrote this in April 2016:

“…how we preserve freedom serves to illustrate the certainty of unintended consequences for conservatives, viz., how can you promote the concept of choice, particularly educational choice, as a desired public policy outcome, while also warning about weakened community cohesion and a frayed, tattered, strained social fabric”?

Five years later, I stand by those words. In light of recent events, that strained social fabric is even more fragile, and approaching an irreparable state of repair. It follows that with such disrepair, the idea of community in this country may soon be on a ventilator.

Cookie-cutter legislation

The enemy, it seems, is within. We witnessed this bashing of democracy with the images of militia-types beating police with flagpoles. Another version of that assault is the introduction of cookie-cutter legislation, some of which was crafted by the Koch-funded American Legislative Council, which exists to destroy education by taking the word public out of it, and replacing elected local school boards with charter schools whose boards are hand-picked by for-profit chains rather than being elected by voters in a community.

When state legislators vote to create educational vouchers that subsidize private and religious school tuition with public funds, they are making a decision to support schools that often teach content that has not been subject to a thorough review process, as public schools are. By contrast, vouchers mean that students can now be attending schools, free from state regulation, that may not even teach science or other subjects, or use instructional materials that do not support appropriate knowledge about our world.

The image of a caveman and a dinosaur, coexisting in an earlier time, as displayed in a Kentucky museum, comes to mind. It’s not too hard to imagine that under a voucher scheme, if a church affiliated with the museum operated a school and offered a curriculum in line with such a view, it could be eligible for state educational choice dollars.

Yes. Your tax dollars. And mine.

But where is the proper public purpose for taxpayer support of such an imagined school? Right now, for example, the proposed expansion in some states including Ohio of so-called educational choice vouchers to religious schools could make such situations possible in the future. One wonders what would happen if private and religious schools would first be required to agree to a set of very detailed assurances, including the teaching of specific courses of study consistent with the curricular offerings of local public schools, before receiving any state funding in the form of educational vouchers.

I think we know the answer to that. It’s called having it both ways – getting public money with no accountability and no strings attached.

The purpose of public schools

And then there is the subject of citizenship and our common heritage. Besides its purpose to produce skilled and literate individuals, public schools have also been charged to prepare young people to be caring and ethical citizens. By contrast, it can be argued that with private and religious schools, their own unique missions may not place civic-related ideals in the top rank, but instead subordinate civic education and awareness to a more narrow or sectarian purpose that mirrors the defining purpose of the school.

But if in the name of freedom and educational choice there is already enough concern about the use of public tax dollars to help fund private, religious and charter schools and thus undermine public education, weaken our democracy, and further damage our social fabric, there is yet another problem created by the actions of state legislatures to fund religious schools through vouchers.

It’s the Establishment Clause.

A product of The Enlightenment, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was crafted by the nation’s founders, who knew that religious wars had consumed Europe in the centuries preceding the American Revolution. Currently, in my home state of Ohio, a coalition of school districts is preparing a court challenge to check the legislature’s intent to expand the state’s voucher program as not only a violation of the constitutional prohibitions against supporting sectarian schools but also a violation of the Ohio Constitution’s purpose to establish a “system of common schools.”

I trust that this language from the Ohio Constitution is illustrative of how other states establish a system of public education.

[Article VI, Sec. 2 Education] The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as, with the income arising from the school trust fund, will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State; but, no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this State.

Certainly, private and religious schools do not meet the definition of a common school that must be supported by public funds, yet in the name of educational choice there is a nationwide movement to expand voucher programs that will support private and religious schools, in spite of any Establishment Clause violation and other legal prohibitions.

So we return to the purpose of the common school as a unifying force to build community and not be a dividing force, as private and religious schools will be, if they are put on an equal footing with public education through support with public funds.

If all of these issues might seem to be troublesome, there is one which will likely prove to cause the most damage: How can you maintain the concept of E Pluribus Unum when public policy seems poised to support all types of schools and thus erode the idea of the common school, in this case the Unum in our national motto, as the essential driver to ensure that children who come from many backgrounds form a single nation through our common schools?

Indeed, we know that the mission of public education is to prepare young people to be skilled, literate, and ethical citizens. But that’s only part of it.

Let’s take a look at the Unum part of the equation. In an essay about the role of public education written two decade ago, Kenneth Conklin, a Hawai’i philosophy professor, raised some concerns about how a fragmented educational system can itself cause a fragmented society.

“If an educational system is altered, its transmission of culture will be distorted,” Conklin wrote. “The easiest way to break apart a society long-term without using violence is to establish separate educational systems for the groups to be broken apart.”

Public tax dollar support of private, religious, and charter schools clearly represent the establishment of separate educational systems. Such tax support violates the very idea of Horace Mann’s common school, the very image of democracy in every community.

Conklin provides some additional advice for us to consider:

“A society’s culture can survive far longer than the lifespan of any of its members, because its educational system passes down the folkways and knowledge of one generation to subsequent generations. A culture changes over time, but has a recognizable continuity of basic values and behavioral patterns that distinguishes it from other cultures. That continuity is provided by the educational system.” (Emphasis mine)

What’s next?

We’re in trouble. A community thrives on consensus, of shared values. The actions of agents of disinformation spreading lies about vaccines have undermined confidence in science and public health. And if we lose a consensus about public education and the shared values it represents, we have lost our democracy.

But there is hope.

In reaction to this assault on public education in Ohio, a group of 85 school districts have joined to challenge the intent of the Ohio General Assembly to greatly expand the Educational Voucher program and put private and religious schools on an equal footing to receive tax dollars siphoned away from constitutionally established common schools. Their position is that Article VI of the Ohio Constitution makes no provision for publicly supported but parallel and competing forms of education supported by public funds.

The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which was itself established twenty-five years ago to ensure fair state funding for school districts irrespective of wealth, is facilitating the legal efforts of districts in challenging the constitutionality of educational vouchers and the blatant violation of the Establishment Clause in establishing funding for religious schools. With so much at stake for future state funding of public school districts, more districts are expected to join this lawsuit in the coming weeks

So what is the lesson to be learned from public support of private and religious schools, along with the privatization of what is left of public education?

Be careful what you wish for.

If you think freedom and choice are the purest ideals to possess and not a sense of community to hold us together, most prominently seen in our public schools, think again. Every vote in every state legislature to offer or expand choice in the end represents a choice for disunion, for a fragmentation of our cultural heritage, a basis for community – and our very nationhood.

We are on the brink. If there is not a counter-movement to roll back this destruction of our communities by the Ohio General Assembly through the planned destruction of the common school, we will get what we deserve.

Yes, be careful what you wish for.

Accurate link: https://ohiocapitaljournal.com/2021/09/16/public-schools-vouchers-privatization-and-educational-choice-be-careful-what-you-wish-for/

Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher in Seattle and a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement. This column appeared on Valerie Strauss’ blog, The Answer Sheet, at the Washington Post. .

I must be honest. I haven’t been this scared about beginning the school year since I was a kindergartner clutching my mom’s hand on the first day of school.


As a teacher in the Seattle Public Schools, I know I’m not alone in my distress as the first day of school approaches. It’s not just the usual butterflies I still get (even after 20 years of teaching) before school starts in anticipation of meeting a whole new group of youths and knowing I will need to figure out how to meet the needs of a very diverse group of learners.

This year’s back-to-school anxiety is generated from two pandemics: the delta variant of the coronavirus and bills banning teaching about structural racism from Republican Party politicians.

Covid has many educators fearing for their lives and the lives of the families whose children they teach. And the bills banning teaching about structural racism have educators fearful for their jobs and their ability to be true to their students about the history of this country.

Beginning in the spring of 2021, a rash of GOP-sponsored bills proliferated in state legislatures around the country with the stated goal of banning any teaching that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “fundamental” means “serving as an original or generating source.” Given the genocide of Native American people and the enslavement of African people in the land that became the United States before its founding, you literally can’t teach about U.S. history without talking about systemic racism.

Already in eight states in the United States of America — Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona and South Carolina — it is illegal to teach the truth to children.

To date, some 28 states have introduced legislation that would require teachers to lie to students about structural racism and other forms of oppression. The state education boards in Florida, Georgia, Utah and Oklahoma have introduced guidelines banning an honest account of the role of racism in society.

The 1619 Project, and two of the organizations with which I organize — the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School — have become some of the primary targets of this right-wing attack.

In addition, individual teachers have come under vicious attacks for daring to teach the truth. Matthew Hawn, a teacher in Tennessee, was fired from his job for assigning a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem by Kyla Jenee Lacey about White privilege. A teacher named Amy Donofrio was fired for having a Black Lives Matter flag in her classroom. At least four administrators in Southlake, Tex., left amid hostile conditions created from a backlash to diversity and inclusion efforts that they were helping to lead.

Even in states without the bills that ban teaching about structural racism — such as Washington — educators are facing a backlash for teaching the truth about American history and current events.
A teacher in the Tri-Cities area had physical threats made against her for signing the Zinn Education Project’s pledge to “Teach the truth — regardless of the law.” (The last part is no longer part of the pledge.) Seattle school board candidate Dan Harder ran a campaign opposing critical race theory in schools. The Chehalis School District passed a resolution that explicitly states students will not be taught that people are “guilty or innocent” based on their race — a straw man argument that suggests educators who teach about racism are trying to shame White people, rather than help youths understand the way multiracial movements can challenge structural racism.

In the face of these attacks, the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School have launched the #TeachTruth campaign in an effort to push back against these racist bills.
A central component of the #TeachTruth campaign is an online pledge to teach the truth — regardless of bills trying to outlaw honest history — that has already garnered more than 7,200 signatures.

The African American Policy Forum has joined with Black Lives Matter at School and the Zinn Education Project; all three groups are planning rallies and mobilizations for this weekend. Additionally, Black Lives Matter at School is organizing a national day of action in schools on Oct. 14 — George Floyd’s birthday — and is calling on educators to teach lessons that day about structural racism and oppression.

As part of this weekend’s action, educators and organizers in Seattle are planning a rally at Yesler Terrace — the first racially integrated public housing project in the United States. Many of my students over the years have lived in Yesler Terrace, and it has housed generations of low-income Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), refugees and people with disabilities. But city policy has undermined the Yesler Terrace project, as organizers of the Seattle rally pointed out in their news release:

Yesler Terrace used to consist of 561 homes for low-income residences. The new development at Yesler Terrace only consists of about 300 apartments that are owned by the Housing Authority and have rent set at 30 percent of the household income. The rest of the apartments are privately owned and rented at market rates. There is less low-income housing in Yesler Terrace now.

Policies that have reduced the number of public housing units available in BIPOC communities — after generations of bank redlining restrictions — reveal the way that structural racism works and why it is so important for students to be racially literate.

Yet when teachers help students understand the way structural racism operates, right-wing politicians howl that they are politicizing the classroom. The reality is, however, that students are already talking about these issues and demanding that educators address them.

Students are asking us about why their schools and neighborhoods are so segregated, why there are so many cases of police brutality, why it is so hard to vote, or why more people of color are dying of covid. Educators can either deceive students about the powerful role of structural racism in answering these questions, or they can help students better understand the world they live in so that they can change it.

For me and many educators around the country, there’s no choice. We are teaching honest history because it’s our duty.

I certainly have apprehensions about the school year starting during a pandemic and knowing that the kind of teaching I do can make me a target.

But I also know what side of history I’m on. As the great educator Septima Clark, called the “Queen Mother” of the civil rights movement, once said: “I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.”

State legislatures and even school districts are banning ”critical race theory,” typically based on misinformation about what it is and what it isn’t. The laws and bans are sweeping, and many teachers assume they are prohibiting
discussions of racism, slavery, the KKK, or anything that might make white students feel uncomfortable. Where such views become law, the accurate teaching of American and world history becomes impossible. There have been many shameful episodes in history, and students deserve to learn about them honestly, not sugar-coated.

The National Education Policy Center posted an interview with Professor Adrienne Dixson, a scholar of CRT, who explained what CRT is and what it isn’t. Here is a small part.

Q: In just a few sentences, what is critical race theory?

A: CRT is a theoretical framework that originated in legal scholarship in the late 1980s. The founding CRT scholars were dissatisfied with anti-discrimination laws and the legal scholarship that informed it because they felt it didn’t adequately address the role of race and racism and relied too heavily on incremental change. CRT was introduced to education in the 1990s to address similar dissatisfaction with research in education that scholars believed did not fully account for race and racism. Moreover, scholars felt that multicultural education had become co-opted and no longer had the potential to adequately address inequities in education writ large.

Q: There are a lot of misconceptions out there about CRT. In a few sentences, please tell us what critical race theory IS NOT.

A: It is not about training people to “be” anti-racist. It is not a static or pre-packaged cur-riculum that is sold to K-12 schools or even universities. It is not focused on making White people feel guilty. It is not Black, Asian, Latinx or Indigenous Supremacy. It is not Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.

Q: What does critical race theory add to our thinking?

A: Critical Race Theory helps us think more carefully about how our policies and practices create barriers that prevent equitable participation and success in the educational enterprise

Education Week posted a story by Stephen Sawchuk about seven local school boards that have passed resolutions to ban CRT. There is quite a lot of confusion about what it is, and districts are taking actions that have a chilling effect on discussions of racism, inclusion, and diversity, as well as honest teaching of history.

Sawchuk writes:

This year’s tumultous debates over whether American racism exists, who perpetuates it, and how it should be taught in K-12 classroom settings has saturated the nation’s thousands of school districts. 

About 26 states now have taken steps to curb various aspects of how teachers discuss with students America’s racist past and how districts fight systemic racism. Many take effect this fall, and some of them contain penalties for teachers and administrators, including the loss of their license or fines. 

But as some of the fiercest critics of race-related teaching acknowledge, the most important level of governance over what is taught, which materials are selected, and what training is provided is at the school district level

Communities are defining “critical race theory” in different ways, drawing on everything from scholarly sources, to popular bestsellers on race, to talking points from conservative pundits and critics.


Jinnie Spiegler of the Anti-Defamation League writes in Education Week about the importance of teaching anti-bias education and the history of systemic oppression.

She writes:

As of August 12, 26 states have introduced bills or taken steps to restrict or limit the teaching of racism, sexism, bias, and the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history. Twelve states have enacted bans, either through legislation or other avenues. Amid the pandemic, these laws add a consequential layer of intimidation, fear, and disrespect for educators. It’s a hard time to be a teacher right now.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that seeks to understand and examine how the law and policies perpetuate racial disparities in society (e.g., health care, education, legal, criminal justice, housing, voting, etc.). We know that CRT is notwidely taught in K-12 schools, nor is CRT a curriculum or teaching methodology. However, the purpose of these laws—beyond politics and inciting energy for upcoming elections—is an attempt to restrict or prevent teachers from teaching about racism, sexism, equity, and other forms of systemic oppression.

These laws can potentially prevent teachers from reading a children’s book about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, reflecting on Black Lives Matter and what to do about police violence, understanding current day hate symbols like noose incidents and their historical context of racial terror, and much more.

Why We Need to Teach About Systemic Racism and Other Oppression

These restrictions are concerning precisely because they contradict one of the most important goals of education—to teach young people how to think critically and foster a more just and equitable society so that all people can learn, live, and thrive. To do that, students need to understand what bias and injustice are, how they manifest in society—particularly in systemic ways through our institutions—the historical roots of bias and oppression, and how those injustices have been historically and continue to be challenged and disrupted.

The laws and resolutions now being passed by states and districts will have a chilling effect on what teachers think they are allowed to teach. Given the vagueness of these laws, many students will be deprived of honest history.