Five-Alarm Fire: Should Philanthropy Do More About Attacks on “Critical Race Theory” in Schools?

Connie Matthiessen has a new article in Inside Philanthropy on the role of funders in resisting the right-wing backlash against anti-racist policies and curriculum in public schools. Our own OTL Network Director Michael Wotorson was interviewed about our work with HEAL Together, as was our longtime grantee partner Letha Muhammad of the Education Justice Alliance.

Last summer, we wrote about the culture wars engulfing education in the United States. We identified some of the conservative think tanks and funders orchestrating and bankrolling attacks on so-called critical race theory, and raised the question that many progressive activists and nonprofit leaders have been asking: Where is philanthropy?

Back then, the funding situation around the critical race theory (CRT) fight was pretty lopsided, with conservative funders pouring fuel on the fire and most progressive grantmakers keeping their distance. Advocates enmeshed in the CRT fight and in broader anti-racism work, we wrote, found themselves wishing they had more extensive financial backing.

Nearly a year later, that fight continues, but we’ve found that a number of funders are stepping into the fray and providing financial backing for anti-racist, pro-democracy work in local communities, including efforts to directly oppose anti-CRT campaigns.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education is leading just such an effort. Earlier this month, Schott announced the Invest Together Fund, created in partnership with the organizations Race Forward and NYU’s Metro Center. The fund’s other backers include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

The Invest Together Fund is part of what Schott calls “a united organizing effort to defend against anti-democratic assaults on public education and invest in a proactive, offensive strategy for racial justice reform in our public education system.”

In the announcement, Schott and partners presented the initiative’s first five grantees: grassroots organizations in Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont and Wisconsin (see list of initial grantees). Since that announcement, five more grantees have been added to the list (another announcement is forthcoming), and many more groups have applied for funding.

“Watching these attacks, we simply knew that we had to do something,” said Michael Wotorson, director of Schott’s National Opportunity to Learn Network. “There are a number of organizations at the community level that are working to try and combat this stuff every day, and they need as much support as they can attract. That’s where we came in: we wanted to support those front-line efforts on the ground so that they can help give voice to folks in local communities.”


“Watching these attacks, we simply knew that we had to do something”

On the front line

Education Justice Alliance (EJA), a coalition of parents, students and community-based organizations in Wake County, North Carolina, is one of the initial Invest Together Fund grantees. EJA’s mission is to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by promoting positive approaches to school discipline. EJA has recently begun addressing the campaigns against critical race theory, as well. “We focus on equitable education for our students, and we see these attacks as an equity issue,” said Letha Muhammad, who directs the organization. “If we don’t have equity in our schools, we’ll never dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Last year, when North Carolina state lawmakers introduced legislation targeting critical race theory and so-called “indoctrination,” EJA joined the opposition. The bill, passed by Republican lawmakers and ultimately vetoed by the governor, would have put limits on classroom discussions of racial issues.

When schools in Wake County opened last year, a number of parents began showing up at school board meetings to protest mask mandates. After the mandates were lifted, some of the same parents began objecting to curriculum in Wake County schools. “At school board meetings, we’re not talking about masks anymore,” Muhammad said. “Now, we’re talking about what books are appropriate and what kids are learning.”

Some parents oppose curriculum that addresses race, according to Muhammad, while others don’t want students to be exposed to books on LGBTQ+ issues. School board meetings have become hostile at times, and Muhammad herself has been a target. At a recent school budget meeting, for example, she got up to argue for more culturally affirming curriculum in the schools.

“I’m a Black woman with Black children, and I know from my own experiences that having characters and stories that reflect lived experience and provide historical context for the community is an empowering thing for students,” Muhammad said. She was making this point during a meeting when she was suddenly interrupted. “A man in the crowd yelled out, ‘pervert!’” she recalled. “He just cut me off, trying to intimidate me.”

A number of the Wake County parents who fought mask mandates and are now opposing anti-racist curriculum have announced that they will be running for the school board later this year. Muhammad said EJA will use the Invest Together funds to expand its organizing work and to inform parents, educators, community organizations and others about the upcoming school board races, the issues, and what is at stake.

The support is critical, she said. “We’re on the front line, and the way to reinforce that line is to expand your reach. I hope philanthropy sees that this is a real threat to public education, and invests significant dollars to help turn the tide.”


“This is a five-alarm fire”

In addition to the Invest Together Fund and its grantees, Stand for Children has been opposing culture war campaigns against anti-racist education in communities across the country. A nonprofit that supports education equity and racial justice, Stand for Children has both a national presence and offices in a number of states. The Center for Anti-Racist Education, a Stand for Children project established in 2021, works to “advance anti-racist curriculum and equip anti-racist educators.”

Stand for Children was part of a coalition of educators, civil rights groups, faith leaders and others that helped stop an Indiana law that would have restricted what teachers could say about race, sex and religion in their classrooms. 

The organization receives funding from many familiar names in the funding world, including the Ballmer Group, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and many others. Jonah Edelman, Stand for Children’s co-founder and the organization’s executive officer, declined to identify which of these funders support the organization’s efforts to counter attacks on critical race theory and anti-racism, because, he said, the funders want to keep the attention on the work itself, rather than on who is supporting it. 

Like other education experts, Edelman is convinced that the interests fueling opposition to critical race theory care little about the issue itself. Instead, they are whipping up grievance to undermine parents’ faith in public schools and increase support for education voucher initiatives being introduced in many state legislatures. The long-term goal is the dismantling of public education — and the erosion of democracy itself.

“This is part of a brazen, nationally coordinated assault on the pillars of our democracy — public education, voting rights and election integrity,” Edelman said. “This is a five-alarm fire that will burn down the basic foundations of our society if people of conscience stand by and hope it will stop or that someone else is going to stop it.”

Edelman pointed out that Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who first began igniting fears about critical race theory, was clear about these broader goals in a recent speech, where he outlined his new strategy: “Laying siege to the institutions.” Discussing the strategy, Rufo said, “To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.” (The New York Times recently reported that Rufo is now at the forefront of efforts in Florida to restrict LGBTQ curriculum in schools, an issue he believes could be even more polarizing than critical race theory. “The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues,” Rufo told the Times.)

At Schott, Wotorson agreed that the frenzy over critical race theory is part of a larger agenda. “A lot of this is in service of those who want to privatize public education,” he said. “And you do that by demonizing public education in every way you can.”


Supporting the work

Meanwhile, clashes over critical race theory continue, and are likely to intensify as the midterm elections get closer. Since January 2021, according to Education Week, “42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.”

Wotorson and Edelman both say that despite efforts by their organizations and others, funding is still lopsided: The interests behind the assault on public education are spending far more than the funders that oppose them. Wotorson is in conversation with funders who have expressed interest in the Invest Together Fund, and he is hoping that more will sign up so additional grantees can receive support.

“If those of us in philanthropy don’t step forward at this moment, given the amazing amount of resources we are sitting on, we are in fact, culpable; we’ll shoulder some of the responsibility if democracy falls,” Wotorson said. “So we have to step in and support this work, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”