Posted on August 2, 2021

Democrats Lose Ground on School Equity Plans

Maggie Severns, Politico, July 26, 2021

Elina Kaplan is the kind of suburban mom who made Joe Biden president.

An immigrant who came to the United States from the Soviet Union, she is a registered Democrat from San Mateo County, Calif. And she’s alarmed over her state’s new model ethnic studies curriculum, which cites critical race theory as a “key theoretical framework and pedagogy.”

“I firmly believe that if the vast majority of Californians and Americans knew about this, and about the content of this type of curriculum, this would not be happening. We would not be having this conversation,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan, who has launched an email list, set up meetings with state legislators and recruited people to meet with their school boards to discuss ethnic studies, is representative of Democrat-leaning or politically moderate suburbanites interviewed by POLITICO in six states, all but one of which were won by Biden. They are up in arms over their school systems’ new equity initiatives, which they argue are costly and divisive, encouraging students to group themselves by race and take pro-activist stances. Proponents of the initiatives say they are a long-overdue step toward getting rid of systemic racism in the school system.

On the national level, Democrats have insisted that the brush fires over critical race theory — which has become a political punching bag even for unrelated equity initiatives — are largely the work of right-wing activists who willfully misrepresent what it means, and they blame Fox News for fanning parents’ anger.


But those Democrats appear to be underestimating parents’ anger in places where critical race theory is top of mind. Objections to new equity plans are not the sole province of conservatives but extend to many moderate and independent voters, according to POLITICO interviews with school board members, political operatives and activists in Democratic and left-leaning communities including the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.; Palm Beach County, Fla.; New York’s Westchester County; Maricopa County covering Phoenix, Ariz.; and suburban Detroit.

Parents who are showing up to school board meetings and have helped launch a spate of recall elections say they are angry about a host of issues, including what they see as a myopic focus on diversity at school boards, ongoing frustration over a year of closed schools and school lesson plans that they say are becoming too progressive, too fast. {snip}


Polling suggests that the majority of voters still aren’t aware of critical race theory. But as the current debate escalates, activists and Republican officeholders are succeeding in giving voters a negative impression of it. As of mid-June, fully a third of voters told pollsters from the firm YouGov they hadn’t heard of critical race theory, and only a third of voters said they’d both heard of it and had a good idea of its meaning. But opinions among those who’d heard of it were sharply negative. Fifty-three percent said they were “very unfavorable” of it while only 23 percent said they were “very favorable.”

People who identified as Republican and had heard of critical race theory were especially negative: 85 percent termed their views “very unfavorable.” But the same was true of 71 percent of independents, the group that was key to Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump, favoring the Democrat by 9 points, according to the Pew Research Center, after Trump had narrowly won the group over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Among Democrats who had heard of critical race theory, most (58 percent) were “very favorable,” while a smaller but still significant 7 percent were “very unfavorable.”


In Loudoun County, Va., where heated opposition to the district’s plans to implement new diversity initiatives has led to an attempted recall of board members, culminating in a viral school board meeting in June where two protesters were arrested, organizers have similarly noticed support coming from outside the Republican Party. A poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies in early June for the anti-critical race theory advocacy group Fight for Schools found that 48 percent of independent voters and 59 percent of public school parents overall in Loudoun and neighboring Fairfax County viewed critical race theory negatively, while 31 percent and 39 percent of each group had positive views.

Biden won Loudoun County by 62 percent to 37 percent over Trump, and Fairfax by 70-28.

“I know Democrats have a base to worry about, but by dismissing [concerns about critical race theory], it fires up people even more,” said Ian Prior, a former Trump Justice Department spokesperson and Loudoun County parent who in recent months has focused his energy on organizing recalling school board members with Fight for Schools. “Democrats are missing an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, let’s hear you out.’”

As Loudoun became a national magnet for critical race theory opposition, comments to the school board became more vitriolic, and they started coming from outside the district, said Atoosa Reaser, one of six Loudoun School Board members who is facing a potential recall. All six members who are being recalled are supported by the local Democratic Party.

“Even people you helped think that because you have a ‘D’ after your name you should be recalled,” Reaser said, noting that board members have lost support among parents over a series of uproars that started during the pandemic, when school closures left many concerned about their child’s learning, and continued as public scrutiny of Loudoun’s action plans grew.


In Palm Beach County, which voted 56-43 for Biden over Trump in 2020, a statement intended to increase equity in the district adopted in May quickly devolved into a heated dispute because the district vowed in the five-paragraph statement it would work to eliminate “white advantage.” It sparked hundreds of calls from parents concerned about the phrase, culminating in a school board meeting where dozens of parents testified they wanted “white advantage” removed.

“My children will never be taught to be ashamed of or apologize for who they are because of their skin color,” one parent told the school board during the meeting.

In May, the majority of Democrats on the school board sided with the protesters and voted to edit the “white advantage” phrase out of the equity statement. But the local Democratic Party took action and censured those school board members with a resolution saying they had betrayed the party’s values. Two school board members declared they would leave the party as a result.