“No one deserves the school I went to,” says Celia Gottlieb.

Gottlieb is currently enrolled in Middlebury College and working as an intern with New York University’s Metro Center, but she is talking about the high school she attended in Highland, New York, a small community in the Lower Hudson River Valley region of the Empire State.

The Highland Central School District would raise few concerns to the casual observer. Its state data report card says the district graduates 89 percent of its students, above the national rate of 86 percent, with a college, career, and civic readiness level of four, the state’s highest rating. But Gottlieb’s negative recollections about her high school years have more to do with what went on inside the building.

“There was not a single day that I didn’t hear a student openly use the n-word,” she told me in a phone call. “Confederate flags were common. Students had Confederate flags on their cars and on their clothes. One kid wore a shirt with a Confederate flag on it nearly every day and was never told to take it off, even though a student who wore a shirt with an LGBTQ message on it was told to take it off.”

Gottlieb, who identifies as white and Jewish, describes learning a “whitewashed curriculum” in which the only history taught was American and European. She says there were few references in lessons to the legacies of colonialism, even though the influence of the Dutch settlers who founded the town was ubiquitous in the names of the local streets and buildings.

The Reconstruction period following the Civil War—when formerly enslaved Black people enjoyed a degree of prosperity before the backlash of Jim Crow—received only a brief overview, says Gottlieb. There was nothing taught about Black, Native American, or Latinx culture, she recalls. History courses were taught mostly by white male teachers who were often athletic coaches, who wanted to “talk about what was important to them, not what was important to the students,” explains Gottlieb.

The school district is majority white, 70 percent in 2019-2020, but is slowly diversifying—the population of white students was higher, 80 percent, 10 years ago. And there’s evidence the nonwhite students are not as well served. According to its report card, Highland Central School District has been designated a Target District by the state, meaning it “struggled to prepare certain subgroups (such as students with disabilities or certain racial/ethnic groups) but not all of their students with some or all indicators of success.”

Gottlieb didn’t need to look at the data to know that what was going on in her school was wrong. But what she didn’t anticipate was that her commitment to change the culture of her high school would in time land her smack in the middle of today’s culture war over how public schools should address issues of race, inequity, and diversity in institutions that are dedicated to educating all students.

‘I don’t believe anyone believes he or she is a racist’

Gottlieb was not the only student who found her school’s culture oppressive, and she and her like-minded classmates organized an effort to take their concerns to the local school board.

They began by collecting 117 testimonials from students, parents, and teachers reflecting the discriminatory culture in schools. The testimonials are disturbing and revelatory of why students who are not white Christians would have difficulty learning in such a hostile environment.

“One of my former peers throughout elementary, middle, and high school was very dark skinned,” one testimonial reads, “and because of that, many white kids in my grade would talk behind his back and make jokes about how dark his skin is. I remember this occurring from elementary all the way to high school. They’d laugh and joke about how ‘you couldn’t see him in the dark’ and compare the color of his skin to insulting things.”

A Latinx parent wrote, “My son was repeatedly called a ‘wetback’… [and an ‘illegal immigrant’] by [students] who considered this joking. It caused him much embarrassment but as much as I encouraged him to speak out he’d say that these things took place in front of teachers and never were… addressed.”

“I’ve had kids show me Holocaust memes because they think they’re funny,” another reads. “I’ve had students go through the Holocaust data base and find people with the same last name [as mine] to make jokes at me or about me. I’ve had people say I’ve never seen a Jew in real life before and people drop quarters near me to see if I’d pick them up.”

Gottlieb and her fellow activists presented these testimonials to the school board, reading for nearly three hours the significant record of racist and discriminatory behaviors allowed in the school and offering their recommendations. Then they continued to attend every board meeting for the next three months until members demonstrated a commitment to change the oppressive culture in the school.

As a result of this advocacy, the district launched a Climate and Culture/Racial Equity Initiative in 2020 that included hiring outside expertise to advise the district.

“Racism is a truly horrible word that spurs thoughts of intentional actions to harm someone because of their color,” district superintendent Thomas Bongiovi wrote in announcing the new initiative. “I don’t believe anyone believes he or she is a racist, but hearing these personal experience[s] makes it clear that we, as a district, need to dig deeper into the issues of race and equity. We need to do better for our students and families of color.”

Drawing the wrath of a nationwide movement

While Gottlieb’s work for her high school alma mater represents a genuinely well-meaning effort to improve the culture of the school, and thus the academic outcomes of its nonwhite, non-Christian students, efforts like hers have drawn the wrath of a nationwide movement fomented by right-wing organizations that insists any work related to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools is an attempt to promote “divisiveness” in communities and to “indoctrinate” students in ideas, such as critical race theory (CRT), that supposedly discriminate against white students.

“In towns nationwide, well-connected conservative activists, and Fox News, have ramped up the tension in fights over race and equity in schools,” reports NBC News. The NBC reporters count “at least 165 local and national groups” that receive support from “conservative think tanks, law firms, and activist parents” to “swarm school board meetings, inundate districts with time-consuming public records requests, and file lawsuits and federal complaints alleging discrimination against white students.”

So far, none of these right-wing activist groups has targeted Gottlieb or Highland schools. “There was not much visible opposition,” she recalls, to what she was trying to accomplish. But she knows “the haters,” as she calls them, are there, even if “they don’t appear to be organized—yet.”

However, the backlash may indeed be close by, less than an hour’s drive, where the Onteora Central School District has been identified for a “Flagged Curriculum” that supposedly teaches “political activism, false facts, critical race theory, etc.” on What Are They Learning, a website that “allows you to browse problematic curriculum being assigned across the country, and anonymously upload your own examples from your child’s school.”

The website is the creation of Luke Rosiak, according to the podcast of the Family Research Council hosted by Tony Perkins, the organization’s leader. The Family Research Council “bills itself as ‘the leading voice for the family in our nation’s halls of power,’” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “but its real specialty is defaming LGBTQ people.” And Rosiak is “an investigative reporter” for the Daily Caller, “a conservative/Republican news spin organization founded in 2010 by conservative reporter Tucker Carlson and former Dick Cheney aide Neil Patel,” according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch.

The Onteora district’s alleged transgression is that it “pays Morningside Center,” a New York City nonprofit that assists schools with racial equity and social-emotional issues, “to train staff to lead ‘circles’ during class time.” Circles, we’re warned, “are modeled after Native American religious rituals.” Furthermore, the comment on What Are They Learning goes on to say that the district’s “teachings have anti-racist, critical theory underpinning.”

The Highland Central School District has yet to be flagged on What Are They Learning. Visitors to the site are urged to “be the first” to target districts like this that have yet to be designated for parental concern.

The site also links to Parents Defending Education, which has its own “indoctrination map” to flag schools engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusion work, for “resources.” That organization’s founder and president is Nicole Neily, who has a lengthy history of being an employee of organizations funded by right-wing philanthropists Charles Koch and his late brother David, according to Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Structural racism is real

Someone who does know what it’s like to engage in the hard work of making schools more welcoming, inclusive, and just, and then be targeted for political smears by right-wing agitators, is Letha Muhammad, the director of the Education Justice Alliance (EJA) based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“EJA’s work is focused on ending the school-to-prison and school-to-deportation pipelines,” Muhammad told me in a phone call, referring to the well-established understanding that students of color disproportionately experience excessively harsh school discipline practices and the involvement of law enforcement officers in schools, and these experiences often lead to those students being pushed out of the school and into the criminal justice system, or, in the case of undocumented students, into the immigration system.

EJA, according to its website, encourages local school officials to explore alternatives to school suspensions, to protect immigrant and undocumented students, and to invest more in school support staff—such as school psychologists, mental health therapists, counselors, and nurses—to help attend to the social-emotional needs of students.

Much of EJA’s work, Muhammad tells me, happens through empowering students and families to be front-line advocates in the struggle against racial inequity and injustice in schools, since they are the ones being most affected by harsh discipline policies.

Muhammad explains, “We work with young people and families to… share a narrative about the reality of their lives and their needs for support rather than punitive policies.”

It was that work of empowering student and family advocates that made EJA a target of Education First Alliance, a North Carolina-based advocacy group that opposes, among other things, “radical teacher training” in “critical race theory.”

In a post titled “EXCLUSIVE: Foreign Money Funding Critical Race Theory in North Carolina’s Public Schools,” Education First Alliance’s president Sloan Rachmuth reported EJA had been among a group of government and nonprofit organizations that had been “awarded part of a $1.4M grant from Switzerland-based Oak Foundation to ‘combat structural racism within the education system’ in North Carolina.”

The piece alleges that grant money awarded by a Swiss foundation is essentially “foreign control of North Carolina’s school system” and that this foreign agenda is “being carried out by groups like Durham-based Education Justice Alliance [EJA is based in Raleigh] who trains student activists to campaign against ALL school discipline policies and against allowing school resource officers on campus.”

Rachmuth finds it all the more concerning that the Oak Foundation is among the many investors in a massive infrastructure development project rolled out by the Chinese government, and she concocts a guilt by association argument to accuse recipients of the grant, which also includes the North Carolina School Board, of “‘transforming’ the state’s school system into a Marxist system.”

When I asked Muhammad about what her reactions were to the article when it was brought to her attention, she responded, “Wow, the lies. I had heard of [Education First Alliance] but had not really paid any attention to them and was really taken aback by the manipulation of facts to support a particular narrative.”

“What they say about our organization are just lies. We don’t have anything to do with spreading communist doctrine. We do train students to be activists for themselves. We don’t train them in advocating communism.”

To those who oppose the need to address structural racism in the education system, Muhammad wants to assure them that structural racism is real.

“I am a Black woman and mother of three children who have been and are in the public school system. I’ve seen with my own eyes how structural racism shows up in schools. You can’t convince me otherwise. Look at the data and talk to students and parents. There’s just no denying this.”

Yet denying that reality has become ideal fodder for groups intent on inciting white rage.

What the fighting is really all about

It’s not surprising at all that a newly formed and highly organized campaign aimed at public schools follows closely after the reign of former President Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who revealed that modern-day conservatives don’t want to improve public schools as much as they want to undermine and privatize them.

For this reason and others, news stories about these attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion work in public schools are reporting that right-wing radicalism sees a campaign against cultural race theory as a tactic to gain an advantage in a battle with much higher stakes.

NBC reporters place these attacks in an electoral context aimed at “ousting as many school board members” as possible and fomenting the next iteration of grassroots conservative populist revolt “akin to the tea party” movement that radicalized the GOP a decade ago.

Similarly, a report for Time says the conflict is an extension of a decades-long culture war that conservatives believe is “a winning electoral message.”

But what DeVos’s agenda revealed to the nation was that attacking the institution of public education, and furthering its demise, is an important goal of the radical right in and of itself.

Public schools are, after all, one of the few, if not the only, places where people are brought together in a common space that reveals their differences and engages them in sharing these differences and coming to mutual understandings about them. If that can somehow be framed as something negative—by attacking what schools do to accommodate differences—then the right wing is one step closer to achieving its goal to hasten the demise of public education.

But as long as there are people like Gottlieb and Muhammad, who see in public education the potential to rise above our differences and focus on what unites us, then public schools still have a chance at becoming stronger and more enduring American institutions.

“I’m still patriotic in every way,” Gottlieb says, “and there’s a potential in our country to create a more just nation, but that requires a more robust public education system.”

(Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages, CC BY-NC 4.0.)