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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

Bigotry Is Bigotry, Even If You Call It Equity

Exposing instances of prejudice could go a long way toward mending the public’s trust in schools
By Rick Hess — September 08, 2022 3 min read
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The last few years have featured countless warnings about the dangers of bigotry in schooling, especially subtle manifestations of institutional bigotry—such as those which may be embedded in dress codes, grading practices, and school discipline. They have thundered that even seemingly innocuous norms must be scrubbed in the name of equity. And while I fear some of this can have pernicious effects (as when dangerous behavior is tolerated or academic rigor is reduced in the name of equity), the issues raised are serious ones.

That said, I’m struck that many of the voices which have warned about the dangers of subtle forms of bigotry are now silent when educators are caught red-handed in acts of overt bigotry that don’t reflect their vision of “equity.”

Last week, Project Veritas released two videos and transcripts in which two educational administrators—one in a Connecticut public school and one at a tony New York City private school—proudly bragged about their prejudices and their efforts to translate those into school practices and policy. (Readers may have noticed the AP story in EdWeek on Friday.)

The assistant principal of an elementary school in Greenwich, Conn., was videotaped explaining his discriminatory approach to hiring teachers. He says, “If they’re Catholic? Conservative. . . . You don’t hire them.” Instead, he explains that he looks for skilled progressive teachers who are “savvy about delivering a Democratic message without really ever having to mention their politics.” He adds, “For one position, I think we had 30 applicants. So out of all those applicants, I don’t think I interviewed anybody over the age of 30 . . . the older you get, the more set in your ways, the more conservative you get.”

As you can imagine, much of this flatly violated state nondiscrimination law. The assistant principal was immediately put on administrative leave, and the Connecticut attorney general launched an investigation into the hiring practices of this elementary school. Other Connecticut officials— Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, state department of education spokesman Eric Scoville, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, also a Democrat—have condemned the statements in the video and are supportive of a full investigation. Outside of Connecticut, however, reaction has been noticeably quieter.

At New York City’s private Trinity School, the director of student activities was caught boasting that “it’s definitely a school where conservatives would not feel comfortable.” She continues, “Unfortunately, it’s the white boys who feel very entitled to express their opposite opinions and just push back. Well, there’s a huge contingent of them that are just horrible. And you’re like, ‘Are you always going to be horrible or are you just going to be horrible right now?’” She adds, “I think they need to go. . . . I think they’re really awful people.” She muses, “We need to find some, like, Dexter, sort of like a vigilante, taking people out. . . . You know the show, ‘Dexter’ [about a serial killer vigilante]? . . . We just need some vigilante Dexters. Like, here’s your community of targets.” Trinity School announced an investigation into the comments made by the director, who has been put on paid leave. Once again, reaction from national education leaders—including the private school community—has been lacking.

Last year, in testimony before the U.S. House, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona insisted that “prejudice of any kind has no place in our schools, and as educators and leaders, we have to . . . ensure that our schools are safe from any type of harassment or prejudice.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has warned, “If people of conscience stay on the sidelines, [right-wing] extremists could well succeed in their drive to weaken public education.”

Here’s a chance to say, “Dammit, we mean it. Regardless of the politics.”

It shouldn’t be tough for Cardona, Weingarten, professional educator groups, and various “equity”-minded organizations to find a moment to simply declare, “This is wrong. It’s never OK for educators to exclude or demean any student or any teacher based on their race, gender, faith, or beliefs. We actually mean that, whether or not it comports with our politics.”

At a time when we’ve seen an unprecedented collapse in public trust for schools—especially on the right—calling out this prejudice is not only a moral imperative. It could also go a long way toward healing some of our frayed trust, toward remedying the suspicion that inclusion is only a sometime thing. If the self-proclaimed anti-bigots can’t bring themselves to denounce this kind of in-your-face bigotry, they shouldn’t be surprised if plenty of observers conclude that their agenda is more political than principled.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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