Feature 07.17.2020 5 minutes

Wokeness Comes For Charters


Americans must demand their states save these essential schools.

Black and Hispanic students should not work hard or be nice. If you believe that doing so would be to their advantage, that’s probably a sign that you haven’t adequately grappled with your internalized white supremacism and anti-Blackness.

So suggests, at least, the founder and CEO of KIPP, America’s largest and arguably most successful charter school network, which operates 242 schools serving about 100,000 students.

A decade ago, charter schools were a rare bipartisan bright spot. Conservatives liked them because they demonstrated that choice and competition can drive superior results. Liberals liked them because they demonstrated that well-run programs could change the life trajectory of disadvantaged students. What distinguished KIPP from traditional public schools was its ethos: high expectations for academic achievement, strict standards for discipline, and an unflagging insistence that their students had the power to shape their destinies. All this was encapsulated in its pithy slogan: “Work Hard. Be Nice.”

But last week, KIPP retired that slogan, explaining that it ignores the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.”

KIPP’s self-denunciation should be a wakeup call for parents of schoolchildren across the country. In his Mt. Rushmore speech, President Trump sounded the alarm that schools are teaching students distorted, anti-American history. Would that were the worst of our problems.

More important than the facts or fictions our children are taught (and soon forget) is the moral and cultural worldview our schools inculcate.

Perhaps the central tenet of America’s contemporary civil religion is opposition to racial supremacism. And no decent parent could object to schools teaching children to abhor slavery, Jim Crow, or malevolent hooligans carrying Tiki Torches.

But these things were not what KIPP’s CEO Richard Barth had in mind when he “acknowledged the ways in which the school and organizational culture we built and how some of our practices perpetuated white supremacy and anti-Blackness.”

It will sound strange to most parents. Let me translate: that by “white supremacy and anti-Blackness” Barth means encouraging kids to “work hard” and “be nice.” But according to established identity politics ideology, things such as “objectivity,” a “sense of urgency,” “worship of the written word,” “perfectionism,” “intellectualization,” and essentially all the middle-class virtues are “white supremacist.” In America, those virtues have been accepted as moral universals since the beginning. KIPP was designed to help inculcate them in at-risk students on the theory that all students need them to flourish as kids and adults.

But now, KIPP understands its former cultural stance as “anti-Blackness.”

An Anti-American Caste System

It’s difficult to overstate how genuinely racist this is. One of the primary justifications proffered by enslavers for slavery was that blacks were—whether by Nature or because of History—incapable of exercising the virtues necessary for self-government. By intimating that the middle-class virtues are inherently foreign or hostile to “Blackness,” KIPP has taken essentially the same stance and labeled it “anti-racism.”

What’s more, Barth insists the new morality must be enforced across the entire KIPP network. “Moving forward,” Barth writes, “we want employee offer letters to include language that requires a commitment to anti-racism as a condition of employment because everyone who works at KIPP must be committed to anti-racism in their beliefs and in their behavior.”

Setting aside the legal questions involved in the requirement of a political oath as a condition for public sector employment, it’s important for parents to understand what this means. It does not mean that KIPP teachers will commit to not treating the two percent of its students who are white with undue favor.

It means committing to the latest pseudo-intellectual dogma expounded by writers such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, who contend that there is no such thing as “not racist” —only “racist” and “anti-racist.”

What KIPP’s CEO may or may not realize is that institutionally compelled “anti-racism” will spell the end of adult authority in the classroom. If there is only “racist” and “anti-racist,” all morality hinges on who defines “racism.” (Spoiler alert: it won’t be the people who just called themselves white supremacists.) According to critical theory, the oppressed possess special wisdom moral insight; in the context of a school, the students are the oppressed.

Talk to teachers and they will tell you, sub rosa, that students have figured out that they have a trump card to play at any time: calling something “racist.” The lucky teachers have principals who will sit that kid down and explain to him that he shouldn’t just call anything or anyone he doesn’t like “racist.” Anyone who teaches in an “anti-racist” school will not be so lucky.

State Action to Save Charters

Charter schools were once at the forefront of a movement dedicated to fighting the soft bigotry of low expectations. Unfortunately, KIPP seems to have decided that having high expectations was the true bigotry all along.

This is a tragedy for disadvantaged students. But it should also be a wakeup call for conservatives. Because identity politics ideology is coming for traditional public schools as well. We should no longer look at school choice as merely a way to better serve at-risk students, because it’s becoming less clear that they are.

Rather, conservatives should pressure their state legislatures to reform charter school laws to stop favoring incumbents like KIPP and provide space for classical charter schools like Great Hearts Academies to flourish. They should press for legislation and push litigation to see whether, as Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer fears, the recent Espinoza decision provides compelling constitutional support to religious charter schools. They should not be content with means-tested vouchers and tuition tax credits, but should push for universal private school choice and state support of hybrid homeschooling.

Parents concerned for the character of their children and future of our country must start looking at school choice not as a nice idea for someone else’s children, but as an opportunity to build their own institutions, dedicated not to “anti-racism” but to truth, beauty, goodness, and the American way.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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