Several years after the Black Lives Matter Protests, we face a debilitating social backlash against our collective pursuits toward freedom (Williams, 2021). This backlash takes the form of a rise in book banning and hateful violence. It is seen in the surge of anti-LGBQT+ policies and motivated the January 6 insurrection. It formed the rationale behind judicial opinions prohibiting mifepristone and overturning Roe v. Wade (1973). This backlash is a reflexive social mechanism articulated partly through public policy but not due to popular sentiment. Instead, it stems from the extremist ideology of relatively few people.
Take, for instance, the wave of anti-CRT policies, which seek to restrict the use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related concepts. Supporters of these policies regularly claim that CRT and its correlates lead to political indoctrination, harm children, and promote prejudice. No evidence supports such claims, although teachers may explore histories, identities, and contemporary events from expanded perspectives. However, from 2021 to 2022, some 302 anti-CRT bills were replicated and proposed nationwide (American Index of Educational Gag Orders, 2021).
At that time, eight anti-CRT educational statutes were enacted or proposed in Virginia to restrict so-called “divisive concepts” in public schools. Of those eight statutes, seven failed to pass the Virginia Senate. Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order One is the last remaining anti-CRT mandate in the commonwealth. In this essay, we argue that Executive Order One may violate the Constitution and functions to destabilize trust in public schools. Ultimately, we call on Youngkin to rescind Executive Order One.
United States Supreme Court cases, including Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Pickering v. Board of Education (1968), Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), Plyler v. Doe (1982), Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), and Keyishian v. Board (1967), have set precedents affirming teachers’ and students’ rights in public schools. However, anti-CRT policies violate these precedents and operate through a process Emma Postel calls "indoctrination by elimination” (Postel, 2022-2023, p. 605). This process invalidates the lived experiences of non-White students and restricts the range of topics teachers and students can engage in, making some beliefs more salient than others. Like other anti-CRT dictates, Executive Order One operates this way, breaching teachers’ and students’ 1st Amendment rights by restricting information without due process within sites of knowledge production and transfer.
Executive Order One may also violate the 14th Amendment through a process we call “deprivation by elimination.” Accordingly, Executive Order One abridges the privilege of knowledge, depriving students and teachers of accurate and complex histories needed to make sense of our lived experiences. That is, to deny a person who suffers from inequity the right to learn about inequity is to deny that person the right to engage skillfully with their reality. It is to deny that person the right to find paths toward liberty. On the other hand, examining the formation of one’s privileges and the privileges of others is also necessary for adeptly exploring and navigating the social world. The kind of indoctrination and deprivation by elimination for which Executive Order One calls is the kind where one cannot learn of reality and, so, cannot really learn at all. Indeed, this deprivation restricts information and prevents children and adults from engaging in processes of knowledge, self, and identity formation necessary for their pursuit of freedom.
Signed on January 15, 2022, Executive Order One was Youngkin's first significant political act as governor. As such, it functions symbolically and claims to deliver on a campaign promise to improve public schools and to increase parental oversight of curricula. It directs Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction to eliminate divisive concepts and aims to “ensure Virginia students are given thorough and comprehensive education” without indoctrination (Executive Order One, 2022, p. 4). Pointing toward improving education, it does not offer a way to improve public schools in substantive ways. It cannot do so for the following reasons:
a) It addresses the problem of CRT in schools, a problem relatively few people claim.
b) This problem is based mainly on disinformation.
c) A central intention behind the problem’s production and, thus, of the executive order is to sow distrust in public schools.
The specific strategy of increasing parental oversight appears in the conservative James Copland’s Manhattan Institute's model policy document, titled “How to Regulate Critical Race Theory in Schools” (Copland, 2021). Published in August 2021, this text contains no citation of empirical evidence related to educational quality. However, it cites the Heritage Foundation, a far-right think tank, and several articles written by Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a leading figure in the Anti-CRT Movement. Rufo played a central role in popularizing the fallacy that CRT was taught in K-12 schools, even as evidence to the contrary was and remains abundantly available. He explained his aim in spreading disinformation regarding CRT in schools here: “to get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public-school distrust" (Joyce, 2022). Youngkin may claim otherwise, but Rufo’s statement draws a line from Executive Order One to the intention of fostering distrust in public institutions.
We argue that Executive Order One is in natural alignment with Christopher Rufo’s intent and that the architects, proponents, and purveyors of anti-CRT mandates are implicated in the production and reproduction of disinformation. It should be made clear that none of this essay argues against the fact that public schools require systemic change. Some such changes appear in the first edition of the Richmond Racial Equity Essay series. It is all to say, however, that the architects, purveyors, and proponents of anti-CRT mandates are promoting policies based on fallacy and fabricated to sow distrust in public institutions. Equipped with disinformation, they have clearly articulated their aim to increase demand for alternatives to traditional public schools, including charter schools, private schools, and voucher programs. In simpler terms, Youngkin is implicated in destabilizing vital public institutions.
Throughout Virginia, teachers may want to introduce CRT in their high-school classrooms as part of discussions on American legal history or Black History. They may also want to explore so-called "divisive concepts" like race and racism to develop their students' critical thinking skills and explore more expansive interpretations of history. Indeed, educational researchers note that addressing racism, sexism, and other social ills can promote engagement, learning, and meaningful experiences among White and non-White students alike (Ward-Seidel et al., 2023). As former public school teachers, we found it helpful to use historical and contemporary events that could be considered divisive to discuss history, literature, graphs, and even algebraic functions. We would be less comfortable doing so, considering Executive Order One. At this point, however, our personal comfort seems much less critical than the infringement on constitutional rights or the destabilization of trust in vital public institutions. Though conceived as such, Executive Order One does not represent a solicitation of parental input or an attempt to address students’ needs. It restricts the power of the people such that politicians gain more control over the public while the public incrementally loses its power. Youngkin’s Executive Order One is a writ of disinformation that stems from the intentional disempowerment of public institutions.
Youngkin must rescind Executive Order One. We also ask community members, activists, legal scholars, and lawyers to call into question the constitutional validity of the order. We ask educational professionals to continue transferring liberating knowledge by teaching culturally responsive curricula and accurate histories. We demand that legislators rely on the experiences of all their constituents, not on the perspectives of a small minority of the population. Educational policy must always be based on the needs of the people as the people frame those needs and should, therefore, be informed by the experiences and perspectives of the people. Researchers and academics must center justice within their discourse to help manage periods of backlash like the one we are in now.
We are former teachers in Richmond and DC Public Schools and current doctoral students in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. This essay developed from a collaborative project completed during an educational policy class. The first author’s commitment to this subject stems from his experience as a Black cis-gender man. The second author acknowledges her standpoint in this research as a White cis-gender woman. We aim to center justice within this essay.
American Index of Educational Gag Orders (2021, July 1). https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/u/0/d/1Tj5WQVBmB6SQg-zP_M8uZsQQGH09TxmBY73v23zpyr0/htmlview
Copland, J. (2021). How to regulate critical race theory in schools: A primer and model legislation. Manhattan Institute, pp. 1–19. https://media4.manhattan-institute.org/sites/default/files/copland-crt-legislation.pdf
Joyce, K. (2022). The guy who brought us CRT panic offers a new far-right agenda: Destroy public education. Salon. https://www.salon.com/2022/04/08/the-guy-brought-us-crt-panic-offers-a-new-far-right-agenda-destroy-public-education/
Postel, E. (2022-2023). Indoctrination by elimination: Why banning critical race theory in public schools is unconstitutional. William & Mary Bill of Rights, 31(2), 581-606. https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/ wmborj/vol31/iss2/9
Virginia Executive Order No. 1 (2022, January 15). https://www.governor.virginia.gov/media/governorvirginiagov/governor-of-virginia/pdf/74---eo/74---eo/EO-1---ENDING-THE-USE-OF-INHERENTLY-DIVISIVE-CONCEPTS,-INCLUDING-CRITICAL-RACE-THEORY,-AND-RESTORING-EXCELLEN.pdf
Ward-Seidel, A. R., Pfister, T. A., Sandilos, L., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. E. (2023, April 13). What is meaningful schoolwork? Adolescent perspectives of purpose development. American Education Research Association (AERA) 2023 annual meeting: Interrogating consequential education research in pursuit of truth, Chicago, IL.
Weininger, E. B., & Lareau, A. (2007). Cultural capital. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Wiley-Blackwell.
Williams, D. (2021). Between two litanies: Equity and public education in Richmond, VA. Richmond Racial Equity Essays.https://doi.org/10.21974/GW7R-YQ21
Dennis Williams II, MA, MEd, is a doctoral student in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. For several years, he taught in Richmond Public Schools and served as an adjunct professor in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. A facilitator of mindfulness at the Innerwork Center in Richmond, VA, his research interests are in anti-oppressive education, mindfulness- and compassion-based pedagogy, visual culture, and critical theory. He is also a creative writer, with publications in such esteemed outlets as Johns Hopkins University’s African American Review, Illinois State University’s Obsidian Literature and Art in the African Diaspora, and the first Richmond Racial Equity Essays series.
Scout Crimmins, MEd, is a doctoral student in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. For five years, she taught math and science in DC Public Schools and served as a teacher educator in family engagement for the Flamboyan Foundation. Her research interests focus on teachers’ perceptions on the application of artificial intelligence for the purpose of understanding their instructional practice.
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