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Teachers’ Unions Are Pushing Back Against Attacks on Anti-Racist Education

Unions are pooling resources to defend educators from an onslaught of attacks from Republicans and right-wing media.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 9, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

The president of one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions on Tuesday pushed back against a nationwide campaign by Republicans and the right-wing media to manufacture controversy around critical race theory and anti-racist education in public schools, pledging to defend members who teach “honest history.”

In a keynote speech before the union’s virtual national conference, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten said a campaign by “Fox News and some lawmakers” to “distort history” and “limit learning” is an effort to stoke fears about public schools.

“These cultural warriors want to deprive students from a robust understanding of our history,” Weingarten said.

For months now, right-wing outlets and operatives have conflated critical race theory, an advanced field of study developed by Black legal scholars decades ago, with broader conversations around systemic racism, racial justice, anti-Blackness and United States history in K-12 education.

The campaign has fueled lawsuits, divisive protests and legislative efforts in at least 27 states that seek to restrict education around racism and related topics or ban critical race theory (CRT) from the classroom outright. Fox News alone has already mentioned “critical race theory” more than 1,800 times in 2021. Educators targeted by right-wing legal groups and news outlets say the stories fed through the media about anti-racist education in public schools are often distorted if not completely inaccurate.

“Let’s be clear: Critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or middle schools or high schools,” said Weingarten, an attorney and social studies teacher. “It’s a method of examination taught in law school and in college and helps analyze whether systemic racism exists, and in particular, whether it has an effect on law [and] public policy.”

“But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism and discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic,” Weingarten continued. “They’re bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history. This harms students.”

Weingarten said the union has established a legal defense fund for any member who “gets in trouble” for teaching “honest history.” Weingarten appeared to be alluding to lawsuits recently filed against school districts by right-wing groups and the potential enforcement of laws aimed at restricting what teachers can say in the classroom that were inspired by anti-CRT hysteria and passed in at least six states. Experts have panned these laws as overly vague and unconstitutional, but the consequences for educators remain to be seen.

Weingarten’s announcement comes just days after the nation’s other major teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), was targeted by the right-wing media during its annual conference. Conservative and conspiracy theory outlets seized on reports that the NEA had approved a plan to “promote” and “publicize” critical race theory in public schools, calling it “indoctrination.” They pointed to a resolution adopted by the union last week and picked up by bloggers.

According to text of that resolution, the NEA would seek to “share information already available about CRT — what it is, and what it is not” and create a team of union staffers to push back against anti-CRT rhetoric that is being used to attack public educators. The union also said it opposes attempts to ban critical race theory as well as the New York Time’s 1619 Project on slavery.

The New York Post, a right-wing tabloid, erroneously claimed the resolution conveys the union’s support for pushing critical race theory into the classroom. Instead, the resolution conveys support for “accurate” and “honest” discussions about social studies and history, including “age-appropriate” accounts of unpleasant parts of U.S. history such as slavery and the oppression of Indigenous people. The resolution says it’s reasonable for curriculums to be informed by academic frameworks, including critical race theory. After all, lawmakers are calling to ban from public education one particular academic framework that some educators undoubtedly encounter during their own studies.

In a statement, NEA President Becky Pringle said pundits and politicians known for pushing conspiracy theories have “manufactured outrage” to push a political agenda and stoke fears about public education. Teachers are now being targeted for doing their jobs as result.

“Let’s be clear, educators believe that all students deserve honesty in education, and it is educators — not pundits or politicians — who will know how to best design age-appropriate lessons for students,” Pringle said. “Educators must continue to ensure their students learn the complete and honest history of our country so that they have the skills needed to better understand problems in our society and develop collective solutions to those problems.”

Both the NEA and AFT are opposed to restrictions on what educators can teach students and are pooling resources to defend teachers from the onslaught of controversy and legal actions from the right. Well-funded networks of right-wing think tanks, foundations and legal groups are behind the attacks, which have actively sought to drain resources from individual school districts and have a history of undermining public education. Republicans may also hope that stoking outrage among conservative parents could help them win back Congress in the midterm elections.

In response to the controversy, educators say students should be exposed to accurate information about civics and U.S. history in order to understand the world around them, especially in the wake of the uprisings for racial justice that exploded across the country after George Floyd was murdered by police. Today, 93 percent of college students — including 73 percent of Republicans — say their high school curriculums did not focus enough on the impact of racism on U.S. history.

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