Conflict entrepreneurs ramp up attacks on public education

We have all witnessed the dysfunction, vitriol, and attacks on education in the Legislature, at local school board meetings, and even at one of our community colleges, which has landed it on probation and left it without a functioning board of trustees. We have even seen three attempts in the last four years to privatize education by providing taxpayer money to private and religious schools.

So, although we have seen what is going on, we don’t fully understand why it’s going on. What is behind this sudden and unprecedented attack on the public schools which are the heart, soul, and fabric that holds most Idaho communities together and has created productive citizens for the past 132 years? And why the sudden and vicious attacks on our great public colleges and universities which have served the state and its citizens since before Idaho became a state?

To fully comprehend this attack on education in Idaho one must first realize this is not a home-grown war, but one that has been imported into our state by wealthy and influential out-of-state interest groups whose goal is to first destroy the credibility of public education and ultimately weaken and privatize our local schools and higher education institutions.

These out-of-state interests have picked up steam nationally and, in our state, partly because of the turmoil created by the pandemic. These conflict entrepreneurs have adopted the adage, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” And they have discovered that they can use the pandemic and culture wars, especially racial justice, as a wedge issue to advance their goal of abolishing what they call “government schools.”

Furthermore, to better understand how these conflict entrepreneurs have successfully seized on race to achieve their goal, you must meet a 37-year-old man named Christopher Rufo, who until two years ago was a relatively obscure freelance documentary producer living in the small town of Gig Harbor on Washington State’s Puget Sound.

In the summer of 2020, Rufo was homebound like the rest of us during the initial stages of the pandemic, when an employee of the City of Seattle sent Rufo a video of an anti-bias training program sponsored by the city. With time on his hands, he started doing on-line research and found out about an obtuse legal theory that was even more obscure than Rufo – something called critical race theory or CRT for short.

Before continuing, it’s important to understand what critical race theory is and what it is not. CRT is not an outgrowth of Black Lives Matter, or the murder of George Floyd, and it isn’t even related to diversity and inclusion programs. CRT is a theory that was developed in the 1970s, mainly in law schools, which looked at race through the lens of “systems,” or laws and policies that impeded the equal rights of minorities. Those rights, of course, are not a “socialist” plot, as Rufo and others would have you believe. They are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution thanks to Abraham Lincoln, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), and reinforced in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voters Rights Act.

Being the astute communicator that he is, Rufo saw CRT as an opportunity to create a political weapon. He twisted the whole meaning of CRT and tied it like an albatross to a variety of what he called far-left, “Marxist” ideas from the 1960s to create a negative narrative around the words critical race theory. He claimed that these “Marxist” ideas have been imbedded in public schools and public universities across America. He even made the outlandish argument that these “Marxist” ideas had infiltrated many of America’s private companies.

Rufo published an article City Journal, a publication of the influential libertarian Manhattan Institute, regarding CRT, which caught the eye of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson who also saw an opportunity to create a political weapon.

Carlson invited Rufo to appear on his program to talk about how CRT had infiltrated the federal government. Following that, Rufo got a telephone call from President Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows who invited him to the White House to discuss CRT and to help the administration write an executive order banning bias-training in the federal government.

Suddenly, Rufo wasn’t an obscure freelancer living in a small Washington town any longer. He went on the speaking circuit, he was invited to do more national TV interviews and became a “fellow” at some of the country’s best-known libertarian think tanks.

Thanks to Tucker Carlson’s megaphone, CRT became a rallying cry to attack public education at all levels, with the goal of privatizing education in America. Earlier this month Rufo proudly told an audience at Hillsdale College in Michigan that CRT had gone from “zero” name identification to “75 percent” in just 18 months.

By the winter of 2021 CRT had become a major issue in legislatures across America, including in the Idaho Legislature, where there were calls to ban the teaching of CRT in our public schools and universities. Using Rufo’s talking points, this effort was led by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which receives its funding from dark money funds which, in turn, are funded by out-of-state billionaires who want to privatize education.

When the CRT controversy erupted in the Idaho Legislature, few people, especially those who were accused of teaching it, had never heard of it, had no idea what it was, and had to rush to the web to learn more about it. Educators made it clear that CRT was not being taught in their schools, which are governed by locally elected trustees.

But that didn’t stop the Idaho Legislature from passing a bill that banned the teaching of CRT and cutting $2.5 million from the budgets of Boise State University, the University of Idaho, and Idaho State University to punish them for having diversity and inclusion programs in their schools.

It also didn’t stop the Idaho Freedom Foundation and out-of-state groups like Yes. Every Kid, which is also funded by out-of-state billionaires, and others from trying to pass a bill that would start Idaho down the road of privatizing its schools.

It also didn’t stop Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin from forming a so-called “task force” to investigate the teaching of CRT in Idaho. After weeks of investigating, all the task force achieved was helping McGeachin overspend her budget. The controversy also caused the State Board of Education to spend precious time and money to hire an independent firm to see if CRT was being taught. Not surprisingly, the study found that it was not being taught.

But the facts came too late to help the educators. Rufo and the Idaho Freedom Foundation had succeeded in costing our universities money, seeding doubts about our public schools and higher education institutions, and aiding those wealthy out-of-state interest groups that want to privatize our schools.

This spring every Republican candidate running in this year’s May 17 primary has made battling CRT an issue. Even those candidates that are viewed as traditional conservatives have made their opposition to CRT a major focus in their TV ads and campaign brochures sent to thousands of homes across the state.

During the 2022 Legislature, it was the librarians’ turn to get caught in the bullseye of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. They went after librarians because, supposedly, they were making pornographic books available to kids all over Idaho. This must have come as a huge shock to librarians whose idea of a wild night on the town is snuggling up with a good book at home.

The House passed a bill that would put librarians in jail for a year and face a big fine if a child somehow left the library with one of these alleged “harmful” books. Luckily, the bill died in the Senate, but not before the Legislature killed the budget for the Idaho Library Commission because the librarians had the temerity to oppose their bill. Then the lawmakers cut the commissions funding by $3.5 million, including money that would have provided tele-health services to rural Idahoans.

But Rufo and the minions like the Idaho Freedom Foundation that do the dirty work of those out-of-state interests that want to privatize our schools are not done.

After the Legislature adjourned, IFF’s President Wayne Hoffman crowed to his supporters: “Perhaps our biggest victory this session was persuading lawmakers to strip $3.5 million in federal funds from the budget for Idaho Commission for Libraries. By exposing the obscene material the ICFL was distributing, we persuaded lawmakers to pull that funding.”

Hoffman also made it plain he isn’t done. Writing to his supporters, he promised: “The legislative session is now at a close, but we’re still hard at work. This summer, the IFF will be conducting intensive research on K-12 education, obscenities in public libraries, and the college and university accreditation process, which demands “social justice.”

Rufo isn’t done either. In January, Salon.com reported that Rufo tweeted that his new goal is to “bait the Left into opposing [curriculum] ‘transparency,'” to trigger suspicions that public schools have something to hide.

Earlier this month, Rufo renewed his declaration of war on America’s public education system at Hillsdale College. He called his speech: “Laying Siege to the Institutions.” Once again, he argued that “Marxist” ideology had infiltrated the entire K-12 U.S. education system, higher education, and even iconic American companies like American Express and the Walt Disney Company.

So, what does Rufo mean by “laying siege” to our institutions? He explained to the Hillsdale College audience that there was a three-step strategy to his attack.

The first step was to create a “narrative and symbolic war” against these educational institutions and businesses through the use of language. “You have to be very aggressive. You have to fight on terms you define. You have to create your own frame, your own language, and you have to be ruthless and brutal in pursuit of something good.”

“The second (step) is to attack the credibility of the institutions,” Rufo said. He added, “I think you want to create the conditions for fundamental, structural change, to appropriate some language. For example, school choice. To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust. Because in order for people to take significant action, they have to feel like they have something at stake.”

By doing this, he said, people will get mobilized to demand change. He bragged about how the people assaulted their local school boards over CRT in the past 18 months. He even suggested that his followers take over local school boards, as they did with some success in Idaho and other states last year.

“If you put your name on the ballot in the median school district in the United States and you say, ‘I’m the anti-critical race theory candidate, I’m going to get our education system back to the basics of reading, writing, math, et cetera, prioritizing excellence over ideology, you’re going to win in many places, at that 70-30 (percent) level, I think reflecting overwhelming public support.”

The third step, he said, is to create “alternatives” to public K-12 education. For Rufo that alternative is school choice. He wants to take money away from the public schools and give it to parents so they can send their children to private schools and private religious schools. This, he said, would break what he called the “monopoly” public schools have on education.

In essence, Rufo is laying out the playbook we see advocates of privatizing education using across America and in Idaho. Create a controversy by using scary and outlandish language such as critical race theory or “Marxist” ideology infiltrating the 14,000 school districts in America, including the 160 in Idaho. Get the public and lawmakers so worked up over the issue that they confront and attack the local educators and higher education institutions. Then come in with the “solution,” which is to privatize education under the euphonism of “school choice.”

The problem with conflict entrepreneurs like Rufo and the Idaho Freedom Foundation and their fellow travelers is they aren’t just hurting public servants like teachers and librarians – they are hurting our democracy. Too many of our conscientious legislators support these ghost issues even though they realize they are pawns in the game. They are afraid of being on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s hit list for defeat in the closed Republican primary and hounded on social media, so they go along, to get along – and get re-elected.

The other danger is that these conflict entrepreneurs have convinced too many of our citizens – just as Rufo bragged – that these issues are real. This is dangerous because when citizens lose confidence in their public institutions it undermines democracy and leads to chaos, which we have already seen at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene and school boards across our state.

Here’s the bottom line:

If you believe what Rufo and the Idaho Freedom Foundation say is true about CRT or any of these other scary “isms” they freely toss about, then you have to believe that “Marxist” and “Socialist” ideas are actively being taught in schools across Idaho – from Bonners Ferry, to St. Maries, to Grangeville, to Idaho City, to Payette, to Fairfield, to Oakley, to Challis, to St. Anthony and to Soda Springs, and all points in between.

And if Idahoans believe their locally elected school trustees, the superintendent who belongs to their Rotary Club and their third-grade teacher who attends their church are “Marxist” and “Socialist” leftovers from the 1960s and are spreading this thinking in their schools, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn they can buy.

But I think Idahoans are smarter than that once they stop and use their legendary common sense. They know that their public schools are the heart, soul and fabric that holds their communities together. They know that privatizing education won’t serve their communities worth a darn. They know that educators are their friends, neighbors and oftentimes the relative sharing a Thanksgiving meal with them. They know that Idaho’s educators are more connected to their community than an obscure freelancer from Gig Harbor who couldn’t find their town on a map if he tried.

When they realize all this, their good old fashion Idaho independence and home-spun wisdom will kick in and they will kick these phony, snake oil conflict entrepreneurs to the side of the road where they belong.

Rod Gramer

About Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer is president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of Idaho business leaders dedicated to education excellence.

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