CRITICAL RACE THEORY AND THE SUBURBAN VOTE
A core concern for most suburban parents is the education of their children, a concern heightened during the pandemic by school closures and online "virtual classroom" substitutes. Evidence is mounting of a "COVID Slide" in student proficiency, especially in English and math. The parents know that the online virtual classrooms have proven to be less effective than in-person instruction, and they want to help their children catch up.
Into this environment of concern and exasperation come well-financed right-wing efforts to take over local school boards. The strategic wedge issue: the claim that "critical race theory" is being taught in the schools. The claim is false: CRT is a law-school-level analysis of how legal systems and practices such as bank lending rules and school segregation impact different racial and ethnic groups. Because it requires law-school-level acumen, it is not and cannot be taught in the kindergarten through 12th grades.
It is not sufficient, however, for Democrats to simply counter-claim that CRT is not being taught in suburban schools. This code phrase resonates with suburban parents because of the greater race consciousness that prevails these days. The Republicans have a strong motivation to make the claim: to swing elections, not just for school boards but also for higher offices. Republicans lost the Wisconsin popular vote in the presidential contest by just over 20,000 votes. A pick-up of just a few percentage points in the suburbs would flip the state back to the Republicans as in 2016. The CRT label will be amalgamated with other rhetorical handles to bash Democratic Party candidates, such as "defund the police," voting rights for non-citizens, and labeling policy proposals as "socialism."
During the heat of political campaigns, the threat posed to school curriculum by CRT will be portrayed not only as a threat to the self-esteem of white students but also as a massive shift of time and resources, limiting the time and resources needed to reverse the COVID-slide. The survey done by ALG Research after the recent election of Virginia’s governor Youngkin shows that parents generally were not fearful of honest history, but rather were convinced that more instructional time is needed to reverse academic declines and increase proficiencies in core math and English.
PROMOTE A POSITIVE ALTERNATIVE: BROADBAND AND TUTORING
The Democrats have an opportunity to take control of this conversation. Based upon a long tradition of passionate support for excellence in public schools, they could credibly remind voters that it is they who have been strenuously promoting essential investments to ensure that all students have the assets they need, including laptops, fast broadband access, sufficient supplies, and well-paid teachers.
Research on Tutoring
Recently published research shows how tutoring can augment the effort to recover from COVID. The Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University proposes large-scale tutoring programs. They propose online tutoring services staffed by 300,000 college students and other members of society who could interact with students struggling with their math and English. "Structured tutoring programs can make a large difference in a short time, exactly what is needed to help students quickly catch up with grade level expectations."
(https://www.the74million.org/article/slavin-an-open-letter-to-president-elect-biden-a-tutoring-marshall-plan-to-heal-our-students/). Matthew A. Kraft, and Grace Falken of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, agree: "Tutoring is among the most effective education interventions ever to be subjected to rigorous evaluation." (https://www.edworkingpapers.com/sites/default/files/ai20-335.pdf)
The pandemic-induced decline in achievement hits poor students the hardest, both in urban and rural areas. Unless reversed, educational gaps will widen further, and deepen current income and wealth gaps. The tutoring proposal from Johns Hopkins and Brown would not only upgrade the schools generally but make the more advanced courses in math and English accessible to more students, opening doors to disciplines and professions that are highly productive, pay well, and can lead to greater equality in income and wealth.
LABOR INTENSIVE TEACHING
Core competencies like English composition and math cannot simply be transferred like physical capital. A system-wide tutoring program would help schools provide the resources for students to be immersed in the practices of solving math problems and essay writing, while benefitting from more labor-intensive instruction and evaluation of their work. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona agrees, and urges states to spend COVID money on tutoring.
Democracy is strengthened when honest history dispels some of the delusions of the inaccurately-portrayed past. The core goal of education should be to develop students who can think critically for themselves, and express their thoughts well by applying a strong working knowledge of the core languages of their education: English and math.
Implemented in Wisconsin, the "Marshall Plan for Tutoring" suggested by research powerhouses at Johns Hopkins and Brown Universities would present to parents and students a welcome, positive alternative to the dreary, racially-charged critical race theory assertion.
William L. Holahan is Emeritus Professor and former Chair of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.