The National School Boards Association has apologized for a Sept. 29 letter it sent to the Biden administration inferring that irate parents’ actions toward school personnel could be considered acts of “domestic terrorism.”
“On behalf of [the National School Boards Association], we regret and apologize for the letter,” the group wrote Oct. 22, adding that “there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter.”
The statement was a “non-apology,” Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, said in response. The association “did not issue an apology for trying to get the White House involved and the FBI … so, it was really a pretty weak mea culpa on their part,” she said. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Burke joins the “Problematic Women” podcast to discuss the current controversy over K-12 education and how parents are successfully pushing back against the teaching of critical race theory and gender identity ideology.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined today on “Problematic Women” by Lindsey Burke. Lindsey is the director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Lindsey, welcome back to the show.
Lindsey Burke: Thanks for having me back.
Allen: So education, wow. That’s a big topic right now. It’s definitely making the news a lot. And it feels like we’ve reached a tipping point in education, a really, really pivotal moment. So many parents are starting to voice concerns about things like critical race theory being taught to their kids, gender identity. They’re standing up. They are saying, “No more.”
We’ve talked some on this show about events that have played out over the last month. The National School Boards Association sent a letter to the Biden administration. In that letter, they used the words “domestic terrorism” when referring to parents’ actions toward school boards and school personnel. And right after that letter, Attorney General Merrick Garland, he issued a memo to the FBI asking for a probe of really investigating, OK, what’s actually going on with these claims of increased violence?
Lindsey, are school boards, school personnel, are they legitimately facing threats of violence from parents?
Burke: First, I would say, if anybody thought education was a sleepy issue, this year has disabused them of that notion. I mean, everything that you listed. It started with all of the government-induced lockdowns during COVID, and now the call from teachers unions and others for mandates in schools around COVID procedures and then everything with critical race theory. And now, like you mentioned, the Department of Justice and the FBI and the White House getting involved with the National School Boards Association to even consider this idea of labeling parents who are concerned about all of these issues as domestic terrorists, really beyond the pale.
And to your question, no. I mean, we haven’t seen what the School Boards Association has alluded to, which is this idea that parents who are at school board meetings are somehow violent or going beyond what they should be doing.
There was the video that came out of the father who was rightly incredibly upset at a school board meeting and got arrested. Well, it turns out, he was understandably as angry as a father could be over what turned out to be the sexual assault of his daughter in the bathroom.
So that’s the incident that the School Boards Association points to in their letter to try to get the FBI involved in what are across the board parents just exercising their civic duty and their rights and obligations to show up and make their voices heard at a local level of government, the school board level, that is the appropriate level for them to be voicing concerns, and really trying to change the conversation around what’s happening in the public schools that they finance with their tax dollars.
Allen: How widespread is the concern among parents? Because you mentioned the incident with the father. That happened in Loudoun County. That’s a school district just outside of Washington, D.C. It’s one of, if not the wealthiest county in America. That school district just recently implemented a policy that said biological men who identify as women can enter women’s bathrooms.
So in the midst of this whole conversation, this man’s daughter is raped by a biological man. He was wearing a skirt in a bathroom. The father gets upset at a school board meeting and then people start pointing to this man as, “Oh, my goodness, so violent at a school board meeting. School board members don’t feel safe, yada yada.” So are we seeing other incidents like this play out across the country? Is this just a handful of random, bizarre events?
Burke: Yeah. Well, look, what transpired in Loudoun, I mean, Loudoun has become really ground zero for a lot of these concerns, but it’s more than just what we’ve seen recently with the National School Boards Association.
By the way, they issued a non-apology apology over the weekend for the letter and basically the tone of the letter and this idea of parents qualifying as domestic terrorists. But they did not issue an apology for trying to get the White House involved and the FBI, etc. So it was really a pretty weak mea culpa on their part. And since then, 20 state affiliates have distanced themselves from the national affiliate of the National School Boards Association. So seeing some really important movement there.
Look, I mean, if you go across the country, state after state, we’re seeing a lot transpire that parents are unhappy with, particularly around content curricula. I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon. And it is the nature of when you have a government-assigned, government-financed, compelled government-run school system that you’re going to have conflict around the content that’s taught. But what we’re seeing right now is so far to the left of any content we’ve really ever seen in the past pushed in district schools.
Look at California. California, it’s currently voluntary, but school districts throughout the state are already adopting it, but it is their statewide ethnic studies curriculum that really pushes this idea that mathematics should be rooted in critical race theory and that mathematics should be used as a tool to see this power struggle. We see the same thing in Oregon, trying to eliminate graduation requirements around math and reading.
So parents, I think, are just fed up in general around the direction that public education’s going. So again, it’s this long list of issues right now from critical race theory to everything that’s happened with the National School Boards Association to COVID lockdown. So I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon, which, of course, means that among other things, reform within the system, parents also need an immediate exit option through school choice.
Allen: Yeah, yeah. Let’s talk more about that in a minute.
I do want to discuss how we got here because in some ways it feels like this happened quickly. And my guess is that that’s not actually accurate, but it feels like within the last year, parents woke up and realized, “Whoa, a lot of what my child is being taught, a lot of the agenda of my school board doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with real education, and it’s certainly not what I want my child learning.” What was the path to getting to where we are now? How did it happen?
Burke: Well, I think you’re right. It did happen relatively quickly. I think not only did it feel that way, but in some respects, it did happen quickly because of COVID. It’s cliché to say, was there a silver lining around it? But I do think the fact that parents were in the virtual classroom, if you will, with their children throughout 2020, they really got a front row seat to see what their children’s school was teaching. So I think that did hasten the extent to which we saw pushback, rightly so, on the part of parents.
My colleague Jay Greene points out that if you look at parent involvement and just parent satisfaction generally with their child’s public school, if you look at just Middle America, suburban parents, they’ve typically been relatively satisfied. Their schools were safe. They thought they were performing pretty well.
Well, what we’ve seen over the past year, year and a half or so, is that not only do they not like what they’re seeing being taught in their children’s classrooms, but these schools have really fallen down on the custodial function of education. When they keep their doors closed, it means a lot of parents are at home with their children, makes the work situation difficult for them. So it wasn’t only the content, but that lack of custodial care once schools closed their doors. And that impacted families across the board as well.
So yeah, I do think it was pretty quick that we saw, I think, an awakening welcome of a lot of families across the country.
Allen: Yeah. It has been wild to see how quickly so many parents have stood up and said, “Wait a second, I didn’t sign up for this.”
Now, when it comes to that apology that the National School Boards Association issued, they came out, said, “We used language we shouldn’t have used. We’re sorry.” But regarding the investigation that the DOJ has launched and working with state and local officials to look into these threats, is that still continuing? I mean, was there anything in that apology that said, “We’re stopping pressing forward with this”?
Burke: No. I mean, the School Boards Association did not backtrack on that point. They did not suggest that they no longer want the help of the FBI or the DOJ.
Look, I mean, even if nothing really comes of it, even if we don’t see active involvement on the part of, whoever, the FBI, the DOJ, it was enough in and of itself to act as an intimidation tactic for parents. That’s frustrating and scary.
And just the fact that something as clear-cut and important as showing up at your school board to make your voice heard around what your child is taught in their public, government-assigned, government-funded, compelled schools, the fact that this would raise to the level of a federal concern, even if there were things happening in schools to raise it to the federal level of the FBI. At first you would want to look at your local law enforcement agencies, but to elevate it to the extent that they did, that was clear, I think, that’s what it was. It was an intimidation tactic.
So that’s still hanging out there. Time will tell. We’ll see if we get further backtracking. But the fact that 20 of these state affiliates have said, “We no longer want to be associated, we’re pulling out entirely,” or, “We’re considering our relationship,” I mean, the National School Boards Association gets a lot of money from the local affiliates. It’s a member organization. Not, by the way, entirely unlike the teachers unions and their philosophy, the National School Boards Association.
But at the end of the day, the National School Boards Association receives taxpayer funding because these are public school districts that pay $15,000 a year or so, depending on the number of students, to be a member of the National School Boards Association. Well, where does that local district money come from? At the end of the day, it’s taxpayers.
So it’s just one additional layer of concern then to see the National School Boards Association work, honestly, hand-in-glove with the White House to put out this letter to potentially label parents as domestic terrorists, the fact that they are effectively taxpayer-funded makes it that much worse.
Allen: But it sounds like maybe with these other affiliates saying, “We’re not comfortable,” there could be a change of events because people listen to money.
Burke: That’s exactly right.
Virginia Allen: Yeah. Now, this has really raised a conversation of, what is the role that parents have in their child’s education and how much authority should a parent have in deciding what their child learns? The Washington Post published a story last week titled “Parents Claim They Have the Right to Shape Their Kids’ School Curriculum. They Don’t.” Lindsey, what was your reaction when you saw this article?
Burke: I mean, where to begin? It’s wrong from top to bottom. Not only, I know I continue to say, these are taxpayer-funded, parents are taxpayers, these are public government institutions, so of course they should have a say.
But what was interesting in that article was that article references a 1922 case called Pierce v. Society of Sisters. What they leave out in The Washington Post article is the most important line from that case, which said, “The child is not the mere creature of the state.” I think the authors forgot. Maybe they had the Cliffs Notes version of the court case, but that really is the most important line. And that’s absolutely right. The child is not the mere creature of the state. They belong to their parents. Parents are their first and foremost educators. So they should be, of course, involved in what their schools are teaching.
And again, that all comes back to involvement with your local school boards. School boards have so much say over every aspect of the school day, from bus routes to who teaches in the classroom to curriculum and content. So really, I think it’s great to see, it’s inspiring to see families really taking charge. The Washington Post might not like it, but that was quite an article to see.
And what was also rich, there were just so many lines in that piece that were frustrating to me as a reader, but at some point the authors say, “Well, if parents aren’t happy, they can just pay for private school.” Well, where to begin with that? I mean, it’s always important to remember that that means having the ability to pay twice, once in your taxes to pay for the public school that you’ve decided no longer fits your needs and then a second time for private school tuition if your public school’s not the right fit and doesn’t reflect your values, etc.
Not everybody’s in a position to be able to do that, nor should they have to do that. It’s fundamentally this idea of funding the child and not the system and assigning kids to a system that may or may not meet their needs.
So without that level of accountability, the ability for parents to vote with their feet and exit, schools are going to remain just that, unaccountable. So again, all roads, to me, lead back to choice. But yes, that Washington Post article was quite something. Parents should absolutely be involved in what’s taught in their children’s schools.
Allen: Yeah, yeah. And we have seen that over the past year, we’ve seen an increase in parents deciding, “OK, I’m going to homeschool my child. I’m going to make the sacrifice to pay to put them in a private school.” So when it comes to school choice, why … is that the road that everything leads back to for you? Why is that something that you say, “OK, this is actually a real solution to the problems that we’re seeing in public education”?
Burke: Yeah. Well, I think it is the policy condition that makes all of the reform possible, really. Again, if parents don’t have the ability to vote with their feet and to say, “This isn’t working for me,” then you’re basically a captive audience to whatever government school system’s in your neighborhood, which, of course, the school that you can access depends on where you can afford to buy a home.
So it really is critical. I mean, it provides that competitive pressure that Milton Friedman talked about so long ago that really does catalyze schools to be responsive to the needs of parents.
Pat Wolf, who’s a researcher at the University of Arkansas, I think had a really great line quite a few years ago about how choice changes the dynamics. He was looking at the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is a phenomenal voucher program in the District, and he said choice really moved parents from the margins to the center of their child’s educational experience, that they were no longer just these passive consumers of whatever education the state provided them, but they were actively involved, passive recipients to active consumers.
So I think that that really is the heart of it, that schools will continue to receive public money regardless of how well they perform or if they’re safe or if they meet your needs, if families don’t have an exit option. So, fund the child. Allow the dollars to follow them to whatever provider meets their needs. …
I always come back to Milton Friedman on this point, because he really was the modern-day father of the modern-day school choice movement. I think he was exactly right when he said, “Yes, publicly finance K-12 education, but the public financing of education does not require the government delivery of services.”
That’s what we have today. We have government financing and government delivery. So we need to separate that financing of education from the delivery of services. And until we do that, I don’t think we’ll see the types of improvement we all want to see.
One other note on that too, just in the context of the current debate around critical race theory, it is very important that at the same time we have expansions of choice, which we’ve seen amazing expansions over the past year—West Virginia now has a near universal education savings account program in place—but at the same time, it is still the case that right now, if you count kids who are in public charter schools, about 90% of kids still attend public schools. So we do have to be vocal and active and vigilant about the content that these government institutions are imparting on our children and teaching.
So it really is, I think, a two-front battle. It’s both the fight for choice and the fight to make sure that public schools are teaching the values that reflect the values of the community and don’t teach that America’s a force for evil. It’s a force for good. At a very, most basic level, we certainly shouldn’t be imparting that to children.
Allen: Right, yeah. I think that’s such a good point because public education is not going away. One way or another, it’s going to remain. And obviously, for the students that are there, we want them to receive an excellent education, to be taught truth, to be taught how to think and not what to think. Now, I know one of your colleagues, Jay Greene, he has recently delved into what is happening at a K-12 level in regards to diversity, equity, inclusion training. Talk a little bit about his discovery on this.
Burke: Well, this is so interesting, and he’s doing some of the first empirical work looking at how elementary and secondary schools are replicating this phenomenon of diversity, equity, and inclusion faculty growth in higher education. I think people broadly recognize that is something that has happened in higher ed for many years now, that we see this growth in staff that are these DEI, I think Jay calls them diversicrats, but these DEI positions.
So if you look, I took a couple of notes from his paper, but if you look in higher ed, the average university that Jay and his colleague James Paul sampled have more than 45 people who have formal responsibilities for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Now, what is amazing to me is that on average, that is 4.2 times more DEI staff than staff who assist students by law who have special needs.
What I also think is very interesting is it’s 1.4 times larger than the number of professors in these universities’ history departments. So many more DEI bureaucrats than history professors. And then for some of these universities, the numbers are just through the roof. The University of Michigan, they found, has 163 people who are identified with having formal DEI responsibilities on campus. [The University of Virginia], near and dear to my heart, 6.5 DEI faculty for every 100 professors. So we’ve known for a while this is the case in higher ed.
Jay’s new report, also with James Paul, looks at, is this the case in K-12 education? And sure enough, it is. It was really eye-opening for me to see the trend, how it’s made its way into the K-12 space. So they found that in K-12, it’s chief diversity officer tends to be the name around these DEI staff, but they’re prevalent in large school districts. So school districts with more than 100,000 students, about 80% of those districts have a CDI staff member in place.
But even if you look at smaller school districts, 15,000 students-plus, it’s about 40% who have these DEI chief diversity officers or CDOs in place. And the other thing that was really notable about his work with James Paul was that they found it didn’t improve outcomes either in higher ed or in K-12.
In higher ed, universities that had just an abundance of these DEI diversicrats, their campus culture was no more welcoming if you look at surveys among students than those without those DEI staff. And then in the K-12 space, they found that school districts that had them, that their achievement gaps and outcomes between students was actually worse and worsening. So he’s going to continue to track that over the years.
The other thing I think is interesting with all of this work is that when you look at critical race theory, I think we all know it’s not popular among parents, it’s not really popular among teachers. We have surveys on that forthcoming as well. So one of the points that Jay makes is that this seems to be the function of these DEI and CDO diversicrats, is that they’re basically trying to maintain this orthodoxy around critical race theory in higher ed and in K-12 because it’s not very popular. So they’re creating this infrastructure to make sure it’s there in the long run.
Allen: What exactly do they do? Do we know? I mean, are they running trainings? That’s a lot of individuals, certainly, at the college level. And the fact that now so many K-12 school districts have these diversity, equity, inclusion trainers as well, individuals on staff, do we know on a day-to-day basis, how are they “trying to bring about more equality?”
Burke: Right. And like the data show from Jay and James Paul’s work, it doesn’t appear to be the case that they are improving, I don’t know if we want to call it equality outcomes or whatever measure it is, school climate, campus climate. It doesn’t seem to be improving academic achievement, the narrowing of achievement gaps.
So it is a big question: What are these folks doing? It varies from the higher ed sphere to the K-12 sphere, but I think you hit the nail on the head. A lot of it really is trainings.
We know that schools are paying tens of thousands of dollars to critical race theory trainers, to Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo and other folks who are pushing this ideology as well. So it’s a whole infrastructure now between the trainers, the outside consultants that are making $25,000 an hour when they come to do these trainings, all the way down to these CDOs and DEI faculty.
Allen: Yeah. Lindsey, it feels like we’re in a tug of war right now between, you have parents on one side that are saying, “We’ve got to push the brakes,” and then you have a lot of school boards, unions on the other side, they’re saying, “No, we need to be teaching critical race theory, gender identity.” Who’s going to win this tug of war?
Burke: Yeah, yeah. Well, we will see. My money’s always with the parents because they know their child better than anybody else. They want what’s best. They will do whatever it takes to be involved and to make their voices heard. So I think in the long run, we’re going to, when all the dust settles, see that schools are ultimately, if not more, responsive to parents becoming a little more responsive. So I’m optimistic on that front, certainly.
And look, I will say too, it’s always important to think about, we’ve always said the teachers unions are distinct from teachers, that the union heads are distinct often from the political positions and philosophy of the members who they purport to represent. I think the same thing holds for school boards as well in large part.
School board members, if you look across the country, and there have been a few surveys on this now, when it comes to their politics, they’re pretty evenly split. About a third identifies conservative, about a third liberal, and then a third independent. We don’t know what that independent slice looks like, but I think it’s highly likely that the national affiliate, the National School Boards Association, fails to take into account or really represent a lot of the folks on the ground and their local school boards. So I think there’s a similar dynamic there that we see with teachers unions and teachers union heads.
Allen: Yeah. Lindsey, you are doing such great work on this issue.
Burke: Thank you.
Allen: Tell us how we can follow your work, keep up with what you do.
Burke: Yes. You can go to heritage.org/education. We have a lot of resources available on school boards, how to become involved. We have a ton of research between my colleague Jonathan Butcher and Mike Gonzalez and Jay Greene on critical race theory, if you have questions about that, how to get involved there as well. We have an entire microsite, I think we call it, on critical race theory that you can get to from our education page. So, tons of good resources there. We also have a curriculum resource initiative if you’re looking for curriculum to use either homeschooling or to make the case for with your school board. So we have a lot of good resources there too.
Allen: Excellent. Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Lindsey, thank you so much for your time.
Burke: Thank you for having me.
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