Despite a rapid explosion of suburban developments over the last 20 years, beef, grain and produce farms continue to operate near many schools in Chandler, Ariz., as seen on March 3, 2021.
Equity & Diversity

Suburban Public Schools Are Now Majority-Nonwhite. The Backlash Has Already Begun

Chandler, Ariz., where the public schools were 49.9 percent white at the start of this school year, embodies the tensions roiling suburban America
By Benjamin Herold — March 17, 2021 19 min read
Equity & Diversity

Suburban Public Schools Are Now Majority-Nonwhite. The Backlash Has Already Begun

Chandler, Ariz., where the public schools were 49.9 percent white at the start of this school year, embodies the tensions roiling suburban America
By Benjamin Herold — March 17, 2021 19 min read
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Forest Moriarty paced inside the headquarters of the Chandler Unified School District, a black cowboy hat atop his bearded white face and an empty gun holster displayed prominently on his hip.

Watching warily was Lindsay Love, the first Black woman to serve on the Arizona district’s governing board, who had already been forced to take extra safety precautions at her day job due to repeated online threats and harassment.

The board’s January 2020 meeting hadn’t yet begun. Already, though, the chamber was packed with residents of this upscale suburb just southeast of Phoenix. A cross-racial coalition of parents, teachers, and students spilled out of the available seats and onto the floor, preparing to voice their support for Love, a leading champion of the district’s efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. On hand to push back were members of Purple for Parents, the conservative and mostly white group Moriarty founded in 2018.

“I view it as inherently anti-capitalist, inherently anti-American,” Moriarty would say later of the direction he saw public education heading. “There is an extreme anti-European-American bias.”

“I consider them to be a hate group,” Love said of Purple for Parents in an interview.

Such are the stakes for the future of K-12 education in America’s fast-changing suburbs. Just as their white populations have begun to age and decline, thousands of communities like Chandler have experienced an explosion of youthful diversity. As a result, the nation’s suburban schools are now majority-nonwhite, according to a new analysis by the EdWeek Research Center. As of the 2017-18 school year, white students made up 48 percent of public-school enrollment in the suburbs of America’s 25 largest metropolitan areas, the analysis found. That’s down more than 10 percentage points since 2006-07. It’s also down roughly 20 points since 1999, based on comparisons with a previous study led by Erica Frankenberg, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University.

“These are dramatic shifts,” said Frankenberg, who advised the Education Week Research Center on its analysis.

With the seismic demographic changes has come increased attention on the experiences of suburban students of color, who frequently report being on the wrong end of racial slurs, unfair discipline, and persistent opportunity and achievement gaps. Although Hispanic and Asian families are driving much of the demographic change across suburbia, they often remain dramatically underrepresented on local school boards and district leadership cabinets. As a result, the push for greater equity has often been led by Black parents and advocates.

That’s mostly been the case in Chandler, one of hundreds of suburban districts to recently embrace such reforms as diversity training and curriculum reviews.

Many proponents say those efforts don’t go far enough. Still, in suburb after suburb, vocal factions consisting mostly of white parents have fought hard against even modest equity measures.

In an interview, for example, Moriarty described the training program adopted by Chandler Unified as “absolute craziness” and left-wing indoctrination at fundamental odds with the conservative values and Constitutional rights he holds dear. The resulting tensions have helped feed a broader collision that he believes could lead to “hot”—i.e., violent—civil war in this once-staid community of shopping centers and single-family homes.

Regardless, Moriarty suggested he’s disinclined to give ground.

“The fact that somebody goes to a school board meeting [and] freaks out because I have an empty holster, that’s not my problem,” said the one-time Chandler Unified parent and recent candidate for Arizona’s House of Representatives.

“I would never set aside my rights to let somebody else feel comfortable. That’s not how it works.”

Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial enrollments rise across suburbia

In 2012, Penn State’s Frankenberg and UCLA professor Gary Orfield co-edited a groundbreaking book called The Resegregation of Suburban Schools.

The researchers studied public-school enrollment patterns in the suburbs of the nation’s 25 largest metros. Between 1999 and 2006, they found, the share of white students in those areas declined by almost 9 percentage points, indicating significant racial change. Still, Frankenberg and Orfield determined, white children constituted a solid majority—almost 60 percent—of suburban public-school students during the 2006-07 school year.

Education Week worked with Frankenberg to update that earlier study. The new analysis examined enrollment patterns in roughly 30,000 public schools between 2006-07 and 2017-18. The results represent a conservative estimate of the shifts during that period.

Still, they paint a picture of sweeping demographic change.

In little over a decade, the number of white children enrolled in suburban public-school systems in the country’s largest metros declined by 1.4 million, a drop of 20 percent, with the result that white students are no longer the majority.

During the same period, the number Hispanic, Asian, Pacific-Islander, and multiracial students increased by 1.4 million. The share of Hispanic students in suburbia rose 7 percentage points, to just over 27 percent.

Strikingly, the EdWeek Research Center also estimated that about 40 percent of suburban public-school students in the nation’s largest metros were eligible for a free and reduced-price school lunch in 2017-18. That was up from about 30 percent in 2006-07.

The shifts are a harbinger of broader societal changes: The U.S. Census Bureau now projects the nation will be majority-nonwhite sometime before mid-century.

They also represent a sea-change for suburban communities, many of which have in recent years seen an uptick in hate-related graffiti and other incidents in their public schools.

“Places like Chandler were historically constructed to allow white people to amass value in their homes and move up the ladder through their schools,” said R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociology professor at New York University and the author of Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling.

“When families from different backgrounds eventually start to occupy those spaces, they’re treated as if they don’t fully belong.”

From ‘quaint little rural community’ to booming multicultural suburb

Through the late 1980s, white children accounted for at least 70 percent of Chandler Unified’s total enrollment.

By October 2020, that figure was down to 49.9 percent.

Despite a rapid explosion of suburban developments over the last 20 years, beef, grain and produce farms continue to operate near many schools in Chandler, Ariz., as seen on March 3, 2021.

Current Superintendent Camille Casteel began working in the district as a 1st grade teacher in 1971. At the time, Chandler’s total population was just over 13,000. Many of those people were white, with conservative politics that were often hard-right.

“It was just a quaint little rural community, with cattle and sheep and cowboys,” said Casteel, who is white.

Over the next decade, though, the population doubled. Intel built a huge campus in the area, bringing in thousands of high-tech jobs. Motorola soon followed. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people living in the area tripled again. By the turn of the century, Chandler’s population had ballooned to 176,581, and the once-sleepy town had been transformed into a bustling extension of nearby Phoenix.

Among those arriving during the height of this transition was Forest Moriarty.

A self-described Army brat, Moriarty had spent most of his childhood on overseas military bases, living alongside a diverse mix of families from all over the country. He said that upbringing drilled into him the expectation that people of all races should be treated equally.

“We had a common unifying factor of all being Americans,” he said. “I didn’t even know what racism was until I moved back to the United States.”

I said, 'Have you ever heard of Rosa Parks?’ And then I got punched.

At age 13, Moriarty started public school in California. On his first day, Moriarty recalled, he walked to the rear of his school bus to find a seat. A group of African-American students told him white kids weren’t welcome back there.

“I said, ‘Have you ever heard of Rosa Parks?’” Moriarty recalled. “And then I got punched.”

By the time he was 16, Moriarty’s family had moved to a quiet neighborhood in suburban Chandler. The town was hospitable to people of all backgrounds, Moriarty maintained, pointing to the area’s increasing diversity through the early 1990s.

“Everybody felt welcome,” he said.

Lindsay Love, a Chandler Unified School District school board member, poses outside her office on March 3, 2021, in Mesa, Ariz.

Lindsay Love, however, remembers things differently. Her father’s job with Motorola brought the future school board member to Chandler in 1999, during the middle of her 8th grade year.

At the time, the town was still reeling from the “Chandler Roundup.” Local law enforcement had joined with federal immigration authorities to patrol the town on bicycle, stopping anyone they believed to be Hispanic and demanding proof of citizenship. A total of 432 undocumented immigrants were arrested and deported. Numerous citizens and legal residents were also stopped, leading to lawsuits, a U.S. Senate hearing, and an acknowledgement by Arizona’s attorney general that far-reaching civil rights violations had been committed.

Inside Chandler’s public schools, meanwhile, Love said she experienced racial harassment and insensitivity first-hand.

She recalled white classmates trying to touch her hair. A kid in gym class called her a gorilla. A white English teacher even asked Black students to grant their white classmates permission to use the n-word as they read and discussed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

“That was the experience of a lot of children of color,” Love said. “Chandler was still pretty racist.”

Parents of color organize for equity and inclusion

By the 2017-18 school year, white children represented a slim majority of Chandler Unified students. Hispanic children accounted for well over a quarter of the district’s enrollment. Asian, Black, multiracial, and American Indian children accounted for another 19 percent.

Racial, cultural, and ideological tensions that once got swept under the rug began spilling out into the open.

In January of that school year, for example, a video of white students at Santan Junior High chanting “[Expletive] all n_____s” was posted on Snapchat. It quickly spread around the Chandler community.

In part because the video was filmed off school grounds, Chandler Unified leaders responded tepidly, declining to punish the students involved and waiting a month to form a social-justice advisory panel. (“In hindsight, I wish we had denounced it right away,” said Casteel, the superintendent.)

Dissatisfied, a group of Black families went to the school themselves. Helping lead the effort was Janelle Wood, a former Chandler Unified parent who founded an organization called the Black Mothers Forum. Rather than attend to the group’s concerns, Wood recalled, a Santan administrator suggested they were embarrassing her in front of white families on hand to pick up their children.

“These were all well-educated Black parents, who had contributed over the years to the school,” Wood said. “They were appalled.”

It was like, what the hell is going on with this district? I wanted to address the system that was impacting my clients.

An organized effort to change the district’s culture and policies took off.

Love, for example, decided to run for school board. A social worker and trauma therapist with a transgender nephew in Chandler schools, she’d been hearing for years the same types of stories that were now all over the local headlines.

“It was like, what the hell is going on with this district?” Love said. “I wanted to address the system that was impacting my clients.”

The Black Mothers Forum and other groups also began pushing Chandler Unified’s leadership to accept that existing campaigns around kindness and tolerance were insufficient.

In early 2018, the district issued a diversity and equity report. Across the board, racial disparities were stark. Black and Hispanic children made up nearly a third of the district’s enrollment, but just a quarter of the students in honors and advanced classes. Black and Hispanic students also accounted for just 11 percent of Chandler Unified’s gifted population, while receiving half of all suspensions meted out by the district.

Dr. Adama Sallu stands for a portrait at Conley Elementary School on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Chandler, Ariz..

The school board adopted a resolution in support of racial equity. Adama Sallu was hired to be the district’s first equity director. Chandler Unified contracted with an outside vendor called Corwin Consulting to deliver a training program called “Deep Equity” to all its staff members. Dozens of additional strategies, from diversifying the district’s curricular materials to instituting a new policy that all children be screened for gifted programs, were also listed on the district’s “equity roadmap.”

The work started strong, said Sallu, who is Black and was born in Sierra Leone.

“Your child might work for Intel and have colleagues in Israel or Costa Rica or South Africa,” she would tell skeptical white parents. “They need the skills to engage.”

“Deep Equity” draws the ire of Tucker Carlson

In early 2019, however, uneasiness with some of Chandler Unified’s new priorities intensified into a steady drumbeat of resistance.

Moriarty had initially formed Purple for Parents to counter the #RedForEd movement, which pushed for higher teacher pay in Arizona and other states. The more he investigated the groups behind the movement, however, the more problems he saw. One example: Moriarty came to believe that the same social-emotional learning strategies that had once helped his two children with autism navigate everyday social situations were now being used to train the general student population to embrace gay marriage.

He firmly supports racial equality, Moriarty insisted. But he vehemently disagrees with the approach Chandler Unified and other public-school districts have embraced in pursuit of that goal.

“This is all just progressive, leftist, far-left-leaning, social-justice engineering stuff,” he said.

Members of Purple for Parents began showing up to board meetings to demand the district terminate its contract with Corwin, whose training program they described as anti-white. The group’s members also decried what they described as attempts to silence conservative speech within Chandler Unified schools.

In March 2019, for example, administrators at Perry High told students to put away a flag honoring President Donald Trump during a “Party in the USA”-themed school spirit day, sparking protests.

At first, said Perry history teacher Jason Myers, a 19-year classroom veteran, navigating the crosscurrents was challenging, but manageable. A few months into the Corwin training program, for example, he found Chandler Unified administrators to be receptive when he raised concerns that some teachers who poured themselves into their work felt they were being unfairly labeled as racist.

“I always felt heard and recognized,” said Myers, who is white.

In November 2019, however, Tucker Carlson got involved. During an extended segment on his top-rated cable-news show, the Fox News host railed against Corwin’s “Deep Equity” program. Millions of viewers heard a monologue that began:

“If you don’t have kids in school you might imagine that the worst trends in American education are pretty much confined to our most liberal cities. You know, in Seattle, math is racist. In New York City, gifted and talented programs are oppressive. In Berkeley, God knows what they’re doing.

The left has abandoned education in favor of naked political propaganda. You know that, but it’s comforting to think it’s not happening near you or your children.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. It is happening probably right down the street from where you are. Now an investigation by this show found a radical new curriculum in schools across the country, from Arizona to Iowa. The program is called ‘Deep Equity.’”

Carlson, who is white, went on to say that Corwin’s program forced teachers to embrace “racial activism.” He presented images from the company’s training materials (which Chandler Unified officials later said they didn’t actually use), claiming the program demanded participants accept that many white people are defined by their “ignorance and supremacy.”

“Feel sick yet?” Carlson asked.

Almost immediately, Sallu said, her inbox began blowing up with angry emails.

Casteel and the district’s governing board backed off their support for Corwin, saying they would develop their own equity training materials instead.

The hostilities soon went public.

“Our board meetings became insane,” Sallu said. “Just absolutely insane.”

Experts see a ‘slippery slope’ from backlash in public schools to other right-wing activism

The board’s January 2020 meeting was held in a low-slung building on one of Chandler’s palm-tree-lined streets, right next to the local YMCA. Love and her colleagues sat behind a raised wooden dais, looking out at a buzzing crowd of student activists and local teachers and parents in purple T-shirts.

Chaos erupted almost immediately.

More than 80 people had signed up to deliver public testimony. The board’s vice-chair sought to limit the number of speakers. Dozens of pro-equity advocates responded by interrupting the meeting with loud chants of “Let us speak.” Chandler police were called in to maintain order.

Eventually, a compromise was reached. Speakers were given one minute each. For well over an hour, parents, teachers, students, and residents debated Chandler Unified’s position on equity, as well as sex education and LGBTQ visibility and a host of other hot-button issues that had become interlocking fronts in the culture war raging through their suburban community.

“This program pushes a divisive and destructive message that pits us against each other,” said Myers, the Perry High history teacher, who praised the board for ditching Corwin.

“You do not get to keep information from us because you don’t like it,” countered a transgender Chandler High student with pink hair, angry at how marginalized groups were overlooked in the district’s history curriculum.

One white parent said Love was the main person in Chandler guilty of racism. A man in a purple baseball cap emblazoned with the words “MAKE EDUCATION GREAT AGAIN” demanded that Love resign her board seat.

You stand here and cry and rail against the concept of white privilege, all while knowing deep down in your hearts that you wouldn’t walk a week in my skin if you had the choice.

A Black doctor from Chandler spoke out in disgust.

“You stand here and cry and rail against the concept of white privilege, all while knowing deep down in your hearts that you wouldn’t walk a week in my skin if you had the choice,” she said.

Towards the end of the meeting, Moriarty, still wearing his black cowboy hat and holster, strolled to the podium. He thanked the board for canceling the Deep Equity program.

“Teaching our kids that everybody has to have equal outcomes is obviously an immature way to handle child rearing,” he said.

Then Moriarty looked towards the equity advocates in the crowd.

“Too bad, guys,” he said.

In the months that followed, the conflagration over public education in Chandler fed into the larger fights consuming Arizona and the nation, over COVID-19 restrictions, police killings of Black Americans, and the 2020 presidential election. Such cross-currents are common, said Lewis-McCoy, the NYU professor.

“We see a slippery slope,” he said. “Across issues, right-wing organizing draws on white people’s sense that their place is being challenged and they have to fight back.”

Moriarty described questions about such linkages as a “typical leftist media move” to smear him and the organization he founded.

During the controversies that roiled suburban Phoenix throughout 2020, however, he was often near the center of the action.

In April, for example, Moriarty took part in a rally urging Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to lift restrictions on business activity instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Roughly 500 people gathered at the Arizona capitol. Some entered the building’s lobby and went to Ducey’s office, demanding to meet. Moriarty addressed the throng outside, telling them the governor’s order to close hair salons and restaurants reflected the same “spirit of tyranny” that had led to the enslavement of the Israelites described in the Bible.

“Let my people go,” he said, leading the crowd in a chant.

Then, in October, the Arizona Republic reported that Moriarty and several other members of Purple for Parents had been active participants in a private Facebook group affiliated with the Patriot Movement AZ, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed a hate group. Members of the Facebook group had shared conspiracy theories, racist and Islamophobic rhetoric, and posts about preparing for violent domestic conflict, the Republic reported.

A local libertarian activist, for example, reportedly wrote that America was already in the midst of a civil war.

“(Checks Ammo) I’m good,” Moriarty responded, according to the Republic story.

For Love, the Chandler Unified board member who had watched warily as Moriarty displayed his empty holster at the school board meeting that kicked off 2020, the report was confirmation that something ugly and threatening had been unleashed in suburban Chandler.

“The cat is out of the bag,” she said.

Likewise, Sallu, the Chandler Unified equity director, said she is worried about “forces that would shatter our nation rather than share it,” quoting the poem delivered by Amanda Gorman at President Joe Biden’s inauguration two weeks after a right-wing mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. Like other equity advocates, Sallu said, she believes deeply in the idea of America. She came to this country for its promise that everyone gets a chance to rise.

“But there are those who don’t want that,” she said. “They’ve been told that they are the true Americans, and that America belongs to them.”

For his part, Moriarty said he was part of hundreds of Facebook groups and couldn’t be held responsible for everything posted in each of them. He also noted that Arizona allows its citizens to carry weapons in most places, but not public school buildings, so he’d been careful to leave his gun in his car before that January 2020 board meeting. “Racial stuff” played a relatively minor part in the concerns he shares with thousands of other conservative suburban parents, he maintained.

Still, Moriarty said, there’s no doubt that many straight, white, Christian families in places like Chandler are angry over being “prosecuted from a narrative perspective” in the public schools their children attend. Many parents want to exit such “toxic environments,” he said, but feel there are few places left to go.

All the while, the demographic transformation of suburbia keeps accelerating. By 2017-18, fewer than 6 percent of suburban white public school students attended schools that are at least 90 percent white, according to the new analysis by the Education Week Research Center. That’s down more than 10 percentage points from 2006-07.

As the resulting tensions simmer and boil, cultural and organizational shifts within K-12 schools keep following. Chandler Unified, for example, recently hired six new principals of color. Sallu has also been organizing round tables on making the district’s curriculum more inclusive.

Maybe the backlash that suburbs like Chandler experienced in 2019-20 was an anomaly.

But what if the unrest continues, or gets worse? Could the collisions that follow really push America towards civil war?

Moriarty paused before answering.

“You have mutually exclusive ideals circulating in the country,” he concluded. “There’s no reconciliation between the two thought processes.”

About This Analysis: The Education Week Research Center worked with Penn State professor Erica Frankenberg to examine demographic changes in roughly 30,000 public schools across America’s 25 largest metropolitan areas between 2006-07 and 2017-18. During that period, some suburban schools closed, opened, or changed their attendance zones. Students in the closed schools were disproportionately white, and students in the new schools were disproportionately non-white. The boundaries of some metropolitan statistical areas also were redrawn, and the National Center for Education Statistics adjusted some of its racial/ethnic classifications (adding “two or more races” and “Pacific Islander,” for example). As a result of such changes, Education Week’s analysis represents a conservative estimate that likely underplays the population shifts in the areas studied.

Benjamin Herold was a 2019-20 Spencer Fellow in Education Journalism at Columbia University. His book on suburban public schools and the American Dream will be published by Penguin Press in 2022.

Research Analyst Alex Harwin and Interns Xinchun Chen and Yukiko Furuya of the EdWeek Research Center conducted the data analysis for this project.

Data visualizations by Gina Tomko and Emma Patti Harris.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as Suburban Public Schools Are Now Majority-Nonwhite


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