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Addressing disinformation about SFUSD’s Equity Audit

(A note to the reader: This post is not a short read. But, it is every you need to know about the forces working to undermine racial justice work in our city, in our schools and in our country, all in one place. I will probably work on breaking it up later. For now, I’m just glad to get it out to all of you!)

SFUSD’s equity audit moves forward

Last Wednesday, I attended the second official SFUSD Equity Audit Action Committee (EAAC) meeting, convened by the Education and Civil Rights Initiative, a project of the University of Kentucky and NAACP.

Participants seemed visibly relieved that the meeting went smoothly and without interruption. (The previous inaugural meeting of the committee had been hacked mid-meeting with hate speech and pornographic video.)

Dr. Gregory Vincent reviewed the goals and purpose of the audit and informed committee members about what they could expect moving forward. (Click here to view the presentation or click the image below.)

I invite the public to follow this process. Any member of the community may view meetings and comment during the public comment period at the end of each meeting. (For more information about meetings see the SFUSD Equity Audit Action Committee webpage.)

Participant questions reveal concerns

That said, I wanted to lift up some important observations made by participants during the meeting and share information to support the process and educate our SFUSD community.

During the Q&A portion of the meeting, several committee members raised concerns about the credentials of the organization conducting the audit. Dr. Gregory and his team assured them that he and his colleagues have numerous credentials and are doing their work within the context of a well respected university which has a well-established peer-review process for approving survey protocols.

As it states on the University of Kentucky website:

“The Educational Equity Audit process uses multiple methods (surveys, focus groups, policy analysis) to assist schools and districts with the identification of institutional policies and procedures that result in disparate and discriminatory impacts on students’ educational opportunity and experience. “

A concerning pattern.

While I believe the questions about transparency and credentials were well-intentioned, they fit into a larger pattern we are seeing across the country and in our city. Opponents of Civil Rights have often used disinformation and doubt to undermine the work of achieving racial equity in our institutions, and especially our public schools. These questions also fit into a larger pattern of racial gaslighting that happens when we try to change systems that perpetuate racist outcomes.

As a seasoned civil rights leader in our city, Reverend Dr. Amos Brown highlighted these concerns during the meeting. Additionally, he reinforced the importance of addressing the misinformation that is purposefully being spread about the Committee in order to undermine its work.

Another committee member also reaffirmed this observation when she stated noted an unfortunate truth, that even in a purportedly progressive city such as San Francisco, local media often characterize initiatives to address racism as “controversial”.

Claims about organized disinformation are not “conspiracies”, they are well documented and are becoming more and more prevalent each day. The only antidote to disinformation is education. Thus, the more informed our communities are, the less likely they are to be manipulated.

Those who’ve been following the work of this committee since it’s inception know that all the this foot-dragging, questioning and gaslighting is not in our heads.

The “parent” astroturf groups behind anti-CRT initiatives

In light of this, I am sharing just one example of the propaganda being written about SFUSD’s Equity Audit. I found an article on the Parents Defending Education website, a national organization devoted to reclaiming “our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas.” The organization states that, “Through network and coalition building, investigative reporting, litigation, and engagement on local, state, and national policies, we are fighting indoctrination in the classroom — and promoting the restoration of a healthy, non-political education for our kids.”

To put it plainly, Parents Defending Education is a right-wing parent astroturfing group dedicated to fighty the suppposed teaching of Critical Race Theory, commonly known as CRT. (Watch a simple video on anti-CRT efforts and their impact on educators across the country in the Education Week video.)

The article titled “Going Woke at Mostly Minority Lowell High School” is a part of a “Consultant Report Card” which seeks to expose consultants supporting antiracist work going on across the county.

The article tells the terrifying tale of how the University of Kentucky and an “activist” school board worked to infiltrate CRT work of into one of the nations premier high schools.

“…in San Francisco, Lowell High School students were asked to submit anonymous comments on race and “inequity” on a school platform, Padlet. It was an assignment with a hidden agenda, because the school, like many other high-achieving schools with test admissions, has been under fire for years for its smaller percentages of black students, while being a school with a mostly minority student demographic. According to school data, Lowell’s 2021-2022 student body was 71.8 percent minority — including 42.4 percent Asians, 15 percent multiracial, 12.5 percent Hispanic and 1.9 percent black — with 25 percent white and 3.2 percent from other races.

Instead of looking at the pipeline issues of school systems failing black students at younger ages, critics had increasingly gone after the schools’ test admissions, using the COVID-19 pandemic and the “equity” debate following George Floyd’s killing, as an opportunity to eliminate test admissions and move to lottery admissions

Now, on Inauguration Day, the activists got just the anecdote they needed to push their agenda. The comments deteriorated into sophomoric exchanges.

At a Lowell High School PTA meeting, a Lowell father asked if there would be an investigation into the incident. But without an investigation, the school board moved forward with a solution – and a consultant.”

Dun, dun, dun! (Insert ominous music and eyeball emoji here.) 👀

At this point, I need to take a break to note some really glaring word choices. “Sophomoric exchange” must be a polite way of saying “anti-Black and anti-Semitic hate speech and pornographic images of a contorted man giving himself oral sex.” (You say tomato, I say…ewwww!)

But seriously, when Black Student Union leaders texted Board President López and I images of the cyber attack, my stomach dropped. I literally felt nauseated.

I have worked in education for almost 25 years and have never seen such reprehensible imagery and language directed at students. What made it even worse was the fact that it occurred on not just any Inauguration Day, but the inauguration of our nation’s first female Vice President, Kamala Harris.

I wrote a piece about this on Medium. Contrary to what the Parents Defending Education article would have you believe, the resolution outling the equity audit process was the product of intensive work with SFUSD community members. It was a result of multiple failed attempts to get appropriate action from school site administrators. The “activists” involved in authoring the resolution were parents, grandparents, civil rights leaders, educators and current and former Lowell students. I wrote:

When school administrators failed to reach out directly to BSU leaders and began minimizing the incident as “hacking”, students launched an email campaign to request help from city leaders. (Be advised, the linked Google Doc contains disturbing images.)

You can read more about this incident in this SF Examiner article.

In response to student and community demands after a community meeting convened by the SF NAACP which led to two administrators abruptly leaving the meeting, my colleagues and I reached out. Based on their input we worked with Student Delegates to the Board, the San Francisco branch of the NAACP (SFNAACP) and other antiracist educators to draft the Response to Ongoing Pervasive Systemic Racism at Lowell High School Resolution.

Parents Defending (Racial Progress) in Education

So, who is Parents Defending Education and why are they writing about SFUSD? The ant-CRT website describes the purpose of its Consultant Report Card initiative in ominous tones:

“Every week, we got scores of reports from distressed parents, students, teachers, grandparents, principals–just about anybody and everybody touched by the divisive teachings that have sprung from the controversial ideology called critical race theory.

At Parents Defending Education, we wondered how such a poison had penetrated our educational system so quickly and so deeply. We started investigating, following the money and connecting the dots”

For the record, the Consultant Report Card is not only devoted to more than just anti-CRT work. It also includes a report on a workshop full of LGBTQ content that was shared during a winter professional development for teachers in Springfield Public Schools in Missouri. This “controversial” content included the Gender Unicorn, sexuality and resources for trans students.

Parents Defending Education is just one of many astroturf groups founded to support parent organizing to disrupt school boards in an effort to dismantle progress on racial equity, LGBTQ rights and other progressive policies.

(Note to self: Black families are “activists”. White families are “parents.” That is unless you are trans. Then, apparently, you don’t exist.)

Anya Kamenetz, of NPR.org wrote an article about the phenomenon of anti-CRT groups popping up across the nation:

In several states and districts around the country, protestors have been disrupting school board meetings. They’re opposed to mask policies. Vaccine mandates. LGBTQ rights. Sex education. Removing police from schools. Teaching about race and American history, or sometimes, anything called “diversity, equity and inclusion” or even “social-emotional learning.”

A look at the groups supporting school board protesters nationwide, by Anya Kamenetz. NPR.org

Kamenetz also notes that Parents Defending Education president Nicole Neily has a background working at the libertarian Cato Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum, another right-wing group that “has produced a template letter for activists challenging school mask mandates.”

The war on educators

Diane Ravitch, an education historian, an educational policy analyst, and a research professor at New York University shared information about Parents Defending Education in a post featuring Dr. Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, who specializes in unmasking Dark Money groups.

In Radical Right Ramps Up War on School Boards, Superintendents, Principals, and Teachers he wrote:

A new professedly “grassroots” group called Parents Defending Education has joined the right wing assault on public education. It combines white supremacy with a vicious plan to launch personal attacks on elected officials, administrators, and teachers. Just another day in corporate education reform.

This group says it is fighting to restore “healthy, non-political education for our kids.” What they mean is anything that critically examines America’s racial history or present. 1619 is out, Trump’s 1776 project to promote “patriotic education” is in. Ibram X. Kendi and anti-racism? Definitely out. Wally and the Beav, in.

Parents Defending Education is a campaign to direct and manage attacks on educators who candidly raise questions of race and the need for work and sacrifice to place America on the road to racial progress. When I first saw Parents Defending Education’s website my thoughts immediately turned to an extremist front named Campus Reform. It’s a slime factory funded by Charles Koch and other billionaires that gins up attacks on college professors—especially those who research and write about race.

“Most attacks are leveled against faculty of color, or those whose research and teaching focuses on issues of race. Most start with a handful of organizations explicitly created to monitor and intimidate college faculty (most prominently Campus Reform and the College Fix); from there they travel to sympathetic right-wing websites and news outlets (also created by activist donors committed to undermining public institutions like universities), before arriving at Fox News. Most attacks that gain traction involve college administrations sanctioning faculty and condemning their speech.

University administrators hear from legislators, alumni, local media, parents, etc. The professor attacked gets inundated with hateful email, phone calls, and social media attacks, including physical and death threats. Professors have had to cancel lectures; Trinity College closed down temporarily due to threats.”

Does this sound familiar, San Francisco?

A new McCarthyism

There is so much more to this story. In a similar vein to the Koch funded work of Campus Reform at the higher a education level, Parents Defending Education supports parents in reporting school boards, administrators and teachers. Here’s a sample from its Expose page:

“Why are our schools adopting destructive and radical “woke” curricula

“In order to begin reclaiming your school, you and other like-minded parents should also get organized. There many steps that you can take, from asking a question at school up through launching your own local parent organization. Below are some resources we’ve developed to help you get started — from using social media to expose what your school is doing to pitching stories to the media to asking tough, public questions of school officials. Everything you do helps to create accountability and oversight.”

Here’s a page for you to report an incident to Parents Defending Education. Why, the group might even include you in their litigation campaign!

Read more of Diane Ravitch’s piece here: Maurice Cunningham: The Rise of an Astroturf Rightwing “Parents” Group”.

Education is the best antidote to disinformation.

It’s important to view these attacks with a larger perspective. Despite the numerous achievements we have made in San Francisco, SFUSD, like many districts across the country, is still battling the same forces working to dismantle progress on racial equity in our schools.

Many of the same people leading anti-CRT efforts across the country, are also at work spreading disinformation about equity work at Lowell High School and within our district.

I spoke with Seattle-based, Garfield High School ethnic studies teacher, Jesse Hagopian, is working with the Zinn Education Project to protect educators from attacks they are seeing across the country as a result of anti-CRT legislation.

In this Seattle Times article he states:

“Young people put together the greatest lesson plan that I’ve seen in my lifetime in terms of organizing rallies and protests and teach-ins and speak outs. And these events shine the light on structural racism and institutional racism in a way that hadn’t been done in my lifetime. And many educators were forced to ask: ‘How does this fit into my classroom?’”

But, he said, “This uprising really scared racists because they saw the conversation and the consciousness start to change in this country.”

I spoke with him via Zoom and he explained how the tactics we are witnessing are straight out of the McCarthyism playbook. He explained that during the McCarthy Era, bands of parents descended on school boards and purged public schools of educators who were labeled communists.

Sound familiar? Sort of makes you wish you paid more attention in US history right?

This is exactly why we need robust teaching in our public education system. Whitewashed histories prevent us from identifying important patterns in our country’s history and, thus, prevent us from achieving the “beloved community” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many other Civil Rights leaders have worked so hard to create.

He told me his organization is supporting scores of educatorswho are now being targeted and doxxed for purportedly teaching CRT. (We’re talking regular classroom teachers, principals and even superintendents!)

As the African American Policy Forum states on its website:

As of September 2, 2021, twenty-seven states have introduced some form of gag order measure with respect to racial justice, critical race theory, and the teaching of racial injustice in American history, with fourteen states having fully passed some version of them.

Twenty-four states have introduced some form of gag order with respect to teaching concepts related to gender justice and equality among sexes. Seven states have introduced legislation to specifically ban teaching the New York Times’ 1619 Project, and six have introduced bills either imposing “patriotic education” or demanding access to public schools for “patriotic youth societies.”

As a result of these widespread attacks, the Zinn Education Project (coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change), Black Lives Matter at School, and the African American Policy Forum teamed up this past summer to create a Pledge to #TeachTruth Media Toolkit to support educators in defending themselves and their work.

The African-American Policy Forum has also launched an #TruthBeTold initiative to collect stories of educators under attack.

I encourage folks to check out the resources that are collected on the Zinn Education Projet page and share them with other community members. One resource is of particular relevance is a whitepaper developed by Kevin Kumashiro. This whitepaper, titled Understanding the Attacks on Teaching: A Background Brief for Educators and Leaders does the scholarly work of defining how and who is behind these attacks. Additionally, it lists resources for shifting false narratives and attacks against anti racist education. It enourages us to get involved in countering all the right-wing propaganda:

Raise Public Awareness! To build a stronger social movement that supports teaching for
democracy and justice, more educators are needed to do what they do best: teach the truth, raise awareness, and change the narrative, including in the public arena.

In summary, there is still much work ahead. Stay tuned. Educate yourselves. Share information with others in your community. And speak up to correct disinformation!

I will end with an African-American Policy Forum video which encapsulates the importance of this challenge we face.

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