The wave of moral panic over Critical Race Theory (CRT) that dominated national conversations a year ago seems to have crested. Once a daily topic of political news coverage, concern over CRT has mostly died down. But while anti-CRT fervor no longer makes national headlines, conservatives are continuing their efforts to promote a teaching of American history that ignores the impact of racism—most notably through the formation of anti-CRT charter schools.
Background on the Anti-CRT Movement
In 2021, the anti-CRT movement was alive and thriving. It was something of a surprise star turn for CRT, a relatively obscure academic framework used to analyze how public institutions and policies reflect, codify, and perpetuate racism. Conservative news media couldn’t let it go: in the five months between February to June 2021, mentions of CRT on Fox news increased from 29 mentions a month to 901—a thirty-fold increase.
This attention from conservative news media had a purpose. The furor over CRT was initially in response to the 1619 Project—a collection of recently published educational materials that re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States. In an effort to counterbalance the impact of the 1619 Project, Donald Trump established the 1776 Commission to promote a reactionary curriculum. In January 2021, the commission published their “1776 Report,” a short guide to “restore a patriotic education.” In May 2021, conservatives launched the 1776 Political Action Committee (PAC), with the goal of raising funds to support school board candidates who opposed raising any sort of racial consciousness when teaching American history in public schools. The 1776 PAC had some success, helping to elect over fifty candidates and counting to local school boards nationwide. Around the same time, numerous states, such as Texas, Utah, and Arkansas passed anti-CRT bills to ensure that kids in public schools were not exposed to “left-wing indoctrination.”
In 2022, the public hysteria surrounding CRT has mostly died down. Fox News doesn’t mention Critical Race Theory at the same clip, the 1776 Commission was terminated by Joe Biden, the buzz surrounding the 1776 PAC has quieted, and state-level anti-CRT bill proposals are decreasing. On the surface, it looks like the anti-CRT moment had its fifteen minutes of fame.
Yet, the anti-CRT movement isn’t so much over as it is seeking to focus on making quiet gains, including through its years-long effort to establish charter schools that teach a selective, whitewashed version of American history.
The Arrival of Anti-CRT Charter Schools
In retrospect, it’s clear why the anti-CRT movement chose charter schools as a weapon in their war over how to teach American history. Charter schools, being publicly funded but independently run, usually by a nonprofit organization, can be a cost-effective way of exerting control over children’s education. Originally conceived of as a way to experiment with teaching methods, charter schools’ relative autonomy gives them wide latitude to use—or, rather, misuse—public funding in ways that might not always serve the public’s best interests.
Indeed, for years, many of today’s CRT critics have used the flexibility of charter schools to advance a narrow, controversial cultural agenda—and to further their crusade against a full and honest history curriculum in U.S. classrooms. One organization that has been particularly active in spurring the growth of anti-CRT charter schools is Hillsdale College—a fundamentalist Christian college and conservative stronghold in academia that seeks to revive what it calls an “American classical education” in K–12 studies. In 2012, the college started expanding into K–12 schools by supporting the opening of several charter schools through their Barney Charter School Initiative. From 2012 to 2020, Hillsdale added only sixteen member schools to its network. Since the rise of anti-CRT rhetoric in 2021, Hillsdale approved sixteen more schools for inclusion in its charter initiative, with six already opened and ten planning to open in fall of 2023—meaning Hillsdale will have doubled their reach in just two years.
In these Hillsdale-supported charter schools, students are taught using Hillsdale’s own 1776 Curriculum, released in 2021 and explicitly created to counterbalance the 1619 Project. Counter to historical consensus, the 1776 Curriculum tells students that “the civil rights movement was almost immediately turned into programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders” and “progressivism was a rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” Kathleen O’Toole, assistant provost of K–12 education for Hillsdale college, has gone on record saying that the curriculum at Hillsdale is “what we used to do in this country back when education was working.”
While Hillsdale-supported charters have grown rapidly since 2021, there has been some backlash. In Tennessee, Governor Lee’s plans to open some fifty charter schools across the state were derailed when a video leaked of Hillsdale College President Arryn Lee stating that public school teachers come from “the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges across the country.” This comment sparked bipartisan backlash statewide, leading Hillsdale to withdraw their applications in Tennessee. In Texas, the State Board of Education denied a Hillsdale affiliated charter school in Houston after it was found that its founder gave significant financial contributions to a PAC that backed anti-CRT candidates for Texas State Board of Education.
As the public becomes more aware of Hillsdale and other anti-CRT charters’ plans to spread a politically extreme agenda through K-12 education, these schools may face increasingly strong headwinds. Until then, however, hundreds of students will be entering the doors of a brand new Hillsdale-supported charter school in cities such as Toledo, Columbus, and Tulsa next fall.
Preserving Public Charter Schools’ Connection with the Public Good
This approach to education by Hillsdale (and others) is a perversion of the charter school model, representing a shift from experimenting how children are taught, to what they are taught. As such, Hillsdale’s charter schools aren’t so much attempting to benefit the public good, by teaching effectively or efficiently, but rather trying to subvert it, by teaching a version of American history that preserves white supremacy by ignoring it. The use of public funds in this manner is reprehensible.
Recently, the federal government has signaled it is taking a more restrictive stance regarding the use of its charter school funding. The U.S. Department of Education published proposed new regulations governing competitive Charter School Program (CSP) grants that support expanded access to charter schools in an attempt to ensure applicants provide historically marginalized children with legitimately high-quality public educational opportunities. These regulations included measures such as requiring schools to publicly reveal any for-profit management contracts and more supervision by state entities of the schools that are awarded grants. The new regulations also required applicants for any new school charter to submit their plan to ensure that the charter doesn’t increase racial segregation and isolation in the school district from where the charter would draw its students. In response to outcry from some charter school parents and advocates, the administration has since amended some of these provisions. The resulting compromise created finalized regulations that still look to promote diversity and desegregation, but do not require charter schools to provide a community impact analysis.
The heat of the debate over the new regulations offers a reminder that charter schools are, at base, public schools that receive public funding. As such, regulations shaping their operation ought to be targeted to ensure that these schools truly serve the public’s interest. The 1776 Curriculum isn’t suited to a diverse, pluralistic country like the United States, but rather seeks to support a narrow-minded, conservative political agenda that will only worsen the nation’s social divisions.
While it would undoubtedly be controversial for federal regulators to make “an honest and comprehensive history curricula” a competitive priority for future rounds of CSP grants, it is clear that the charter school sector needs better quality control around the curricular choices made by some campuses. And indeed, while the bulk of the country’s anti-CRT advocacy has been directed at school boards of traditional public schools, it bears noting that charter schools enroll 7.2 percent of U.S. public school students, and provide a pathway for angry conservative activists to insist that schools teach conservative interpretations of history.
It’s time to get back to the roots of what charter schools are meant for—to use their freedom and flexibility to promote innovation and new ideas. Charter schools are meant to be drivers of equity and innovation—not to be used as a political platform for the right wing.