Talking Points

The larger target of anti-critical race theory bills may be public education itself

Conservatives have long disdained America's public education system. They routinely grumble about "government schools" and often spend their policy energy trying to shepherd students to alternatives like charter schools and homeschooling, or to private schools using vouchers. So you have to wonder if, on some level, the recent Republican outcry over critical race theory is a Trojan horse to take down public schools.

Evidence for this idea comes from Tennessee, which is currently implementing a new anti-CRT law in its public schools. As The Washington Post reports, the law doesn't just ban the teaching of concepts like "the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist" — it imposes draconian punishments on schools that allow such teachings to take place. Offending schools could lose up to $5 million from their budgets, or as much as 10 percent of their annual state aid for repeated violations. (As the Post points out, even a $1 million budget cut for a first-time offense would be equivalent to funding for 100 students.) Teachers could also be disciplined or lose their licenses for violations of the law.

The problems here are obvious. Tennessee's schools are already underfunded and the teachers underpaid. And finding violations of the law might turn out to be really easy — one group of parents already has raised objections to a book about Ruby Bridges, the first black girl to attend an all-white school in New Orleans during the first wave of desegregation in the 1950s. It raises questions about whether any truthful recounting of recent history will be deemed kosher. At best, the new law seems likely to chase good teachers away from Tennessee schools, either to other states or out of the profession, rather than risk the aggressive scrutiny they'll face. At worst, the schools could face crippling budget cuts. Either result would have the effect of undermining the public schools, and parents' confidence in them. Is that the point, or just — from a conservative point of view — a nice byproduct of the CRT debate?

There would be a precedent for this. After the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation in 1954, Southern officials responded with a "massive resistance" campaign to defund and close public schools; white students fled to thousands of newly created private segregation academies. Scholars say the conservative school choice movement originated in those efforts. Then as now, race panics are undermining public schools.