Of Tennessee's Governor and Seahorses

A Little Story About CRT and School Privatization

Back in May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a bill banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Tennessee’s public schools.

Of course, Lee hasn’t yet discovered that the reading curriculum his Administration has foisted on Tennessee’s schools supposedly contains its fair share of CRT.

Or, that’s the story coming out of Williamson County, anyway.

As a reminder, the national Moms for Liberty organization is making a full court press here in Williamson County against….elementary school books, which they allege are teaching Critical Race Theory You can watch segments on their own YouTube channel for a full deep dive on their Critical Race Theory 101 event that was held a few weeks ago if you have a few hours to kill.

The group’s members and their social media supporters are constantly decrying the supposed indoctrination that’s taking place through the new reading curriculum being used in WCS. Yet curiously, most of the 30 public commenters they had speak out against the Wit & Wisdom curriculum at Monday night’s meeting focused on age appropriateness of the content, not CRT – they even had props and signs to accompany and illustrate many of the examples.

Yes, an outside group is organizing to change the political makeup of school boards and using the issue of CRT to make their point. Really, as noted in a local blog post about the issue, the group is spending a lot of time focused on seahorse sex:

Moms for Liberty has a real issue with a 1st grade book on seahorses, which they call “a soft introduction to Sex Ed” and “switched gender roles”.

We’re not making this up or even slightly exaggerating or taking this out of context. Please watch this part for yourself because it is a very worrisome book.

Photo by Michal B. on Unsplash

Nashville education blogger TC Weber offers some background on the adoption of Wit and Wisdom:

Two years ago, Tennessee underwent its regular adoption of ELA textbook materials. It was a process that was heavily manipulated by Commissioner Schwinn, the TNDOE’s Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons, SCORE, TNTP, all financed by the Gates Foundation in order to get as many individual districts as possible to adopt the commissioners preferred curriculum. Ultimately the manipulation was able to reverse previous actions that prevented the commissioner’s preferred curricula from making the state’s approved material list. All were deemed High-Quality Instructional Materials and included, well, except for Wit and Wisdom’s K-2.

That took a little more work. In order to facilitate widespread adoption of Wit and Wisdom K-2, Schwinn and the company had to create a supplemental foundational skills piece. To do so they enlisted Common Core proponents, the Liben’s, who rooted their offering in CKLA. That comes directly from the department’s own mouth in their federal grant application.

So, while there should be a controversy about a textbook adoption process gone awry there’s certainly something more at play here. As noted in the Tennessee Education Report piece, it’s not entirely clear why Moms for Liberty isn’t marching on Gov. Lee’s office or challenging the folks over at SCORE on this issue.

Well, except, it is clear. This is really about creating another issue for political advantage. Lee, SCORE, and others suspect that no one will notice that it’s the state’s GOP leadership pushing down this curriculum - plus, a little dust-up over seahorses takes attention away from the messed up process.

But, the real goal seems to be the re-election of Bill Lee and the undermining of local school boards. Lee signed the bill banning CRT so he can’t also be promoting it, right?

To be clear, Wit and Wisdom may or may not be great curriculum. But, that’s not really the point. The point is, there are larger forces at work - groups from outside the state seeking to stir up trouble for political wins. A governor who is taking both sides of an issue and hoping no one notices.

Oh, and just to make the point even more clear, Lee used “emergency funds” earlier this year (after the legislature adjourned) in order to foist charter schools on districts that don’t have them and are unlikely to authorize them on their own.

On Friday afternoon before Mother’s Day weekend and just after the Tennessee General Assembly had adjourned, the Tennessee Department of Education announced 15 grants for charter school applicants – including grants for charter applications in several districts that do not currently authorize any charter schools – Rutherford County, Montgomery County, Millington Municipal, Fayette County, and Williamson County. The grants would allow applicants to plan and design their applications, and the applicants could ultimately bypass local school districts and receive charter authorization from Gov. Lee’s “Super Charter Commission.” The grants could also result in usurping the authority of elected school boards in Shelby, Hamilton, and Davidson counties.

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire take a close look at the current education culture wars and examine the link between the battle over CRT and the ultimate goal of school privatization.

This crusade against public higher education eerily presaged today’s school culture wars. Where Reagan made a target of ethnic studies and tried to keep Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party, from teaching philosophy at UCLA, today’s bogeyman is critical race theory or CRT — a legal theory that has become a vague catchall for grievances of the sort that Reagan weaponized so effectively. To date, laws aimed at restricting how public school teachers talk about race and racism have been proposed in 22 states and signed into law in five.

Public schools, GOP leaders have argued, are teaching children to believe that the country is inherently bad. But just as Reagan used his anti-campus campaign to undermine support for public higher education, his disciples are motivated by a similar cause. For a Republican party that has grown increasingly hostile to public education, the K-12 culture war is also an opportunity to advance the cause of school privatization.

State legislators, meanwhile, have introduced a flurry of bills aimed at cutting funds from schools with curricula that the GOP deems unacceptable. In Michigan, a proposed measure would cut 5% of funding if school districts teach “anti-American” ideas about race in America, material from the 1619 Project, or critical race theory. In Tennessee, a new law empowers the state’s education chief to withhold funds from schools found to be teaching components of critical race theory.

The constant drumbeat that public schools are indoctrinating children, however, serves as a powerful nudge to parents to flee them. If their tax dollars are paying for something they’re opposed to, then maybe privatization isn’t such a terrible idea after all. This was Reagan’s move.

What’s so interesting about the Tennessee case is that the very people (including the Governor and legislators) who imposed a curriculum supposedly rife with indoctrinating content are the same policymakers passing bills and signing laws banning the teaching of such content. That’s a pretty cynical ploy predicated on the assumption that no one is actually paying attention to what’s happening.

Schneider and Berkshire sum it up nicely:

Across the country, Republicans are using the Reagan playbook to roll out a manufactured crisis in the schools. As some observers have noted, many of the staunchest opponents of critical race theory can’t point to a single example of its use in the schools — they can’t even define what it is. That’s because they don’t actually care.

What matters, instead, is generating enough ill will to drive forward the only education policy Ronald Reagan ever cared about: privatization.