Critical Race Theory

Is Critical Race Theory Taught in K-12 Schools? The NEA Says Yes, and That It Should Be.

"It is reasonable and appropriate for curriculum to be informed by academic frameworks..."


The public debate over critical race theory (CRT) is in large part a semantics argument, with the anti-CRT faction attempting to include "all of the various cultural insanities" people hear about in the media under the banner of CRT while the other side protests that it's technically a much more limited concept confined to elite education. Progressives are essentially correct that the definition of CRT is being tortured to match conservative grievances, but conservatives are justified in feeling aggrieved by some of these things, and thus the argument is quite tedious.

That said, the National Education Association (NEA) appears to have accepted the conservative framing of CRT: namely, that it's not merely confined to academia but is in fact also being taught in K-12 schools. And the NEA thinks this is a good thing that should be defended.

At its yearly annual meeting, conducted virtually over the past few days, the NEA adopted New Business Item 39, which essentially calls for the organization to defend the teaching of critical race theory.*

"It is reasonable and appropriate for curriculum to be informed by academic frameworks for understanding and interpreting the impact of the past on current society, including critical race theory," says the item.

Consistent with its defense of CRT, the NEA will also provide a study "that critiques empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society." The implication is that these critiques are aspects of critical race theory, which in a weird way makes this an example of the activist left basically accepting the activist right's new working definition of CRT as "all of the various cultural insanities."

This is no small matter, given that many progressives have rested their entire defense of CRT on the idea that it's a very narrowly defined aspect of elite law school training. Judd Legum, formerly of ThinkProgress, has said the notion that CRT is taught in K-12 schools is a lie. During an extended and furiously unproductive debate on the subject, MSNBC's Joy Reid accused Manhattan Institute scholar Christopher Rufo—the leading anti-CRT activist—of "making up your own thing, labeling it something that already existed as a name, slapped that brand name on it, and turned it into a successful political strategy."

I think this accusation is basically correct, and Rufo occasionally appears to admit as much. But if the NEA asserts that CRT is a much broader concept—encompassing anti-capitalism and anti-ableism—and a vital tool for fostering "honesty" in K-12 education, the organization is essentially validating conservative parents' concerns.

This does not mean that state legislatures are the proper remedies for the problem: For more, read Kmele Foster, David French, Jason Stanley, and Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times. It remains the case that giving families greater choice and control over their children's education vis-a-vis school choice is the best solution to fundamental disagreements about curriculum and teaching practices.

But the NEA is an extremely powerful union and one that works on behalf of public employees, not students or their parents. (As former Reason staffer Corey DeAngelis has pointed out, the organization once voted down a motion that would have made "student learning the priority of the Association.") We should believe its members when they allude to the fact that they are prepared to defend the broader, crazier version of CRT in the classroom.

*Update: Shortly after this story was published, the NEA deleted the New Business page from its website. I have added a link to an archived version of Item 39.