Campaign to Ban “Critical Race Theory” and Restrict Teaching about Race and Diversity Impacts One-Third of U.S. Students Through Local District Conflicts, Controversies, Actions
New study by researchers at UCLA and UC. San Diego details purposeful, interconnected effort to divide communities and restrict K12 teaching and learning about race and diversity. Campaign fosters intimidation and fear among educators trying to support students. Conservative media is a key driver
Ideally, U.S. public schools are places where students from all backgrounds come together to build knowledge and skills to make a better country for all. Yet in 2020-2021 nearly 900 school districts across the United States, representing 35% of all K-12 students, have been affected by local district versions of an intentional campaign to restrict or “ban” what opponents have caricatured as K12 “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), according to a new study published by researchers at UCLA and UC San Diego. This anti-“CRT” conflict campaign has divided communities and intimidated educators, threatening student learning opportunities.
The new study, The Conflict Campaign, details media-fueled, broadly connected, and often powerful partisan efforts to incite and encourage local community members to target teaching and diversity work in schools and districts, often by distorting educators’ work. The study also explores how and where such efforts and restrictions (including restrictive bills at the state level,) have been experienced by educators and, indirectly, their students.
The report finds that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work. Numerous educators told researchers they feel the campaign places them at risk if they discuss issues of race or racism, or promote equity, diversity, and inclusion. Many explicitly worry this climate of fear restricts students’ freedom to learn and exchange views.
“The anti-"CRT" efforts go far beyond simply deliberating different ways of understanding and teaching about race and racism,” said Mica Pollock, a professor at UC San Diego and co-author of the report. “In addition to state legislative efforts, participants organizing nationally and riled up locally are seeking to restrict race-related and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, often by intimidating educators and distorting both scholarship and educators’ actual work. The conflict campaign seeks to pit community members against others in their schools and communities.”
The study centers on restrictive efforts in 2020–2021 that have played out at the local district level, and on national patterns in those efforts. The study draws on an extensive review of anti-“CRT” campaigners’ public documents, including websites, toolkits, Facebook groups, and media appearances. The research also analyses survey and interview data from 275 educators, as well as an interview study of 21 “equity officers” (EOs) in district diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) roles across the country. The study also includes an analysis of a unique data set of more than 10,000 media stories covering “CRT” and public schools between September 2020 and August 2021.
“Conservative media has played a pivotal role in spreading the conflict campaign,” said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and report co-author. “The majority of national news stories about "CRT" and public schools came from conservative news sources, with seven stories for every one story from a national liberal media source. The timeline of the conflict campaign’s growth also demonstrates a strikingly partisan-driven effort.”
The survey of educators found a majority of respondents personally experiencing efforts to restrict learning on race and diversity issues in 2020-21. These respondents described attacks, threats, and intimidation from state legislation, “outside orgs,” and local critics, particularly sub-groups of highly vocal parents sometimes fueled by politicians. Equity officers said that at times they feared for their personal safety. In states with passed or pending restrictive legislation, teachers described their colleagues as intimidated, “terrified, confused, and/or demoralized.” Some described school or district leaders who had themselves advised “avoiding” specific texts or topics.
While such intimidation was widely felt, it did not prevail everywhere. Some communities affirmed a commitment to schooling that enhances the ability of students to participate in a multiracial democracy.
“How leaders responded made the difference,” Pollock said. “Some educators described local leaders and community members successfully backing up the right to teach and learn about race and diversity. But if higher-ups didn’t offer explicit support for the right to learn and teach, even vocal minorities or individual critics could have large effects. Some teachers said they would avoid ‘controversial’ topics or stay silent on issues they otherwise would have taught, on topics as broad as race and race and gender, ultimately restricting students’ freedom to learn and talk about our society, our history, and one another’s lives.”
The study also shows that the school districts most likely to be impacted by localized conflict campaigns are those experiencing the highest levels of demographic change. School districts in which the percentage of white student enrollment fell by more than 18% since 2000 were more than three times as likely as districts with minimal or no change in enrollment of White students to be impacted by local district versions of the conflict campaign.
“This study shows that the conflict campaign has created a heightened context of hostility to teaching and work on race and diversity, threatening opportunities to learn,” Rogers said. “Moving forward, what will be taught by teachers and learned by students depends on local district and school-level leadership and strong support from the broader community.”
“To chart a path forward," said Pollock, “educators, students, and parents need to reject the conflict campaign’s efforts to divide them. They instead can unite the majority of Americans around a clear vision of public schools rooted in accurate historical facts, where barriers to opportunity are openly discussed, and where everyone is treated like they belong and matter.”
The Conflict Campaign: Exploring Local Experiences of the Campaign to Ban “Critical Race Theory” in Public K12 Education in the U.S., 2020-2021 is co-authored by Mica Pollock, Professor of Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and John Rogers, Professor of Education at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies and the director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. The research and author team includes doctoral students Alex Kwako, Cicely Bingener, Jaleel Howard of UCLA and Andrew Matschiner, Reed Kendall, Erika Reece, and Benjamin Kennedy of UC San Diego.
The study and executive summary of the findings are available online at https://idea.gseis.ucla.edu/publications/the-conflict-campaign/