How culture wars around critical race theory affect parents, politicians, educators

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

It’s up to Democrats to make schools places where people trust, want to invest in, and send their kids to, says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, author of “Classroom Wars.” Photo by Shutterstock.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Tuesday endorsed the recall of three progressive members of her city’s school board. She said parents have lost confidence in the board and are leaving the district because of how far their children have fallen behind during the pandemic.

This frustration with school boards is happening across the country and is affecting elections. It was a big reason why former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin last week. Why is pandemic fury focused on school boards now? 

Parents on both sides of the political aisle are frustrated right now, according to Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, professor of history at the New School, and author of “Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture.”

“One of the things that's notable about what's happening in San Francisco is that London Breed is using this language of parental frustration from the left, or intra-left fight,” Petrzela tells KCRW. “Her invoking that, and the very real frustrations of San Francisco parents show that parental anger and lack of confidence in what's gone on in public schools for the last 18 months is real. And it's not just some ideological project of the right.” 

Adding to frustration: How critical race theory (CRT) is taught

Petrzela says CRT as a whole hasn’t been presented as the nuanced conversation that it really is. 

“The right has been very successful and skillful in packaging a whole set of educational issues under this thing that they've presented as very scary, right? Critical race theory is this thing where pointy-headed professors are teaching white kids to hate themselves and sewing racial discontentment in this country,” she explains. 

Petrzela adds that she doesn’t believe most schools are indoctrinating children or are trying to make white children feel guilty about the past. However, there has been a curriculum shift in how educators are teaching students about racial justice and structural inequities. As a result, families are becoming more aware of those subjects’ discussion in schools and are resistant to the shift. 

“When you see people on the left kind of turn their nose up in the air and be like, ‘What are you talking about? CRT is only taught in college. Nothing's changed. You're a racist. Or you're just imagining things,’ they actually are doing themselves a disservice and doing education a disservice, because they're denying the fact that changes are happening in schools around curriculum and around these issues.”

Summing it up, she says, “I think that you've got this deliberate effort on the right to make CRT seem scary and like it's taking over our classrooms. But then you have on the left, I think a really ham-fisted way of dealing with that, denying anything's changing. And that's just not true. And so I think the left could do a lot better in reacting to that.”

Parents’ discontentment has been long simmering due to school closures 

“One of the reasons you're seeing parental rights rear its head over education, it’s because for all this time, parents were told here, ‘Go educate your kids. Figure it out. We're not doing it. Schools are closed,’” she explains. ”Now that we're at a moment where parents are being told, rightly or wrongly, you don't have a say over curriculum, I think that that's a particular kind of 180 around the expectations of parents that are rubbing a lot of folks the wrong way.”

Petrzela says that the about-face from parents in San Francisco might be traced to how the traditional Democrat and pro-education communities treated school communities during the pandemic. 

“One of the reasons that a lot of people in cities like San Francisco were so sort of gut-punched by what was happening in education is [because] it seemed that the party that has long been on the side of valuing public education all of a sudden was like, ‘Yeah — literally — education isn't essential. Yeah, learning loss doesn't really matter.’ And that is really wild.”

The future education battle between political parties 

Leading up to the midterm elections, Petrzela predicts that these types of academic conversations will take center stage and be used as a weapon against Democrats: “Republicans definitely have reason to believe that what they're doing is working, and that it's a legible set of threats to a significant contingent of voters. And now [they] can use that to continue to discredit public education, which has been … the agenda of the Republican Party, more privatization, charters, etc. I don't see why they wouldn't continue down that road.” 

She points out that this new approach is a far cry from past Republican talking points surrounding the need for rigorous and factual education for students. “During the Trump years, because Trump was so aggressively anti-intellectual, they had no legs to stand on with that. So we heard almost none of that,” she says. 

Petrzela adds that now, it’ll be up to Democrats to show their dedication to upholding educational standards.

“Right now, the Republicans have the upper hand in this regard. And it's up to Democrats to kind of turn it around and with all urgency, make schools places that people have trust in and the kind of institutions that people want to invest in, pay taxes in, and most importantly, send their children to.”