The Texas School District That Provided the Blueprint for an Attack on Public Education

In October, 2018, on the night of a high-school homecoming dance in Southlake, Texas, a group of white students gathered at a friend’s house for an after-party. At some point, about eight of them piled together on a bed and, with a phone, filmed themselves chanting the N-word. The blurry, seesawing video went viral, and, days later, a special meeting was called by the board of the Carroll Independent School District—“Home of the Dragons”—one of the wealthiest and highest-rated districts in the state. At the meeting, parents of Black children shared painful stories of racist taunts and harassment that their kids had endured in school. Carroll eventually convened a diversity council made up of students, parents, and district staffers to address an evident pattern of racism in Southlake, although it took nearly two years for the group to present its plan of action. It recommended, among other things, hiring more teachers of color, requiring cultural-sensitivity training for all students and teachers, and imposing clearer consequences for racist conduct.

As the NBC reporters Mike Hixenbaugh and Antonia Hylton recounted in the acclaimed podcast “Southlake,” and as Hixenbaugh writes in his new book, “They Came for the Schools: One Town’s Fight Over Race and Identity, and the New War for America’s Classrooms,” Southlake’s long-awaited diversity plan happened to emerge in July, 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police brutality across the United States. It was also the same month that a journalist named Christopher Rufo published an article in City Journal headlined “Cult Programming in Seattle,” which launched his campaign to make “critical race theory”—an academic discipline that examines how racism is embedded in our legal frameworks and institutions—into a right-wing panic button. A political-action committee called Southlake Families PAC sprang up to oppose the Carroll diversity plan; the claim was that it would instill guilt and shame in white children and convince them that they are irredeemably racist. The following year, candidates endorsed by Southlake Families PAC swept the local elections for school board, city council, and mayor, with about seventy per cent of the vote—“an even bigger share than the 63 percent of Southlake residents who’d backed Trump in 2020,” Hixenbaugh notes in his book. Some nine hundred other school districts nationwide saw similar anti-C.R.T. campaigns. Southlake, where the anti-woke insurgency had won lavish praise from National Review and Laura Ingraham, was the blueprint.

“Rufo tapped into a particular moment in which white Americans realized that they were white, that whiteness carried heavy historical baggage,” the education journalist Laura Pappano writes in her recent book “School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education,” which also digs into the Southlake controversy. Whiteness could feel like a neutral default mode in many communities because of decades of organized resistance to high-density housing and other zoning measures—the bureaucratic backhoes of suburbanization and white flight. Today, the Carroll school district, though still majority white, has significant numbers of Latino and Asian families, but less than two per cent of the district’s students are Black.

In this last regard, Southlake is not an outlier, owing largely to persistent residential segregation across the U.S. Even in highly diverse metro areas, the average Black student is enrolled in a school that is about seventy-five per cent Black, and white students attend schools with significantly lower levels of poverty. These statistics are dispiriting not least because of ample data showing the educational gains that desegregation makes possible for Black kids. A 2015 analysis of standardized-test scores, for instance, identified a strong connection between school segregation and academic-achievement gaps, owing to concentrated poverty in predominantly Black and Hispanic schools. A well-known longitudinal study found that Black students who attended desegregated schools from kindergarten to high school were more likely to graduate and earn higher wages, and less likely to be incarcerated or experience poverty. Their schools also received twenty per cent more funding and had smaller classroom sizes. As the education reporter Justin Murphy writes in “Your Children Are Very Greatly in Danger: School Segregation in Rochester, New York,” this bevy of findings “lends support to the popular adage among desegregation supporters that ‘green follows white.’ ”

These numbers, of course, don’t necessarily reflect the emotional and psychological toll of being one of a relatively few Black kids in a predominantly white school. Other recent books, including Cara Fitzpatrick’s “The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America” and Laura Meckler’s “Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity,” have also considered how those costs have been weighed against the moral imperative of desegregation. This is the axial force of a lineage that runs from the monstrous chaos that followed court-ordered integration in the nineteen-fifties and sixties and the busing debacles of the seventies to the racist slurs thrown around at Southlake. As my colleague Louis Menand wrote last year in his review of Rachel Louise Martin’s “A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation,” “It was insane to send nine Black teen-agers into Central High School in Little Rock with eighteen hundred white students and no Black teachers. . . . Desegregation was a war. We sent children off to fight it.” To Rufo and his comrades, there was no such war left to be fought; there were only the bitter-enders who hallucinate microaggressions in the wallpaper and whose books need to be banned from school libraries. A mordant irony of Rufo’s imaginary version of critical race theory is that Derrick Bell, the civil-rights attorney and legal scholar who was most closely associated with C.R.T., eventually came to be skeptical about school-integration efforts—not because racism was effectively over or because legally enforced desegregation represented government overreach, as the anti-C.R.T. warriors would hold today, but because it could not be eradicated. In a famous Yale Law Journal article, “Serving Two Masters,” from 1976, Bell cited a coalition of Black community groups in Boston who resisted busing: “We think it neither necessary, nor proper to endure the dislocations of desegregation without reasonable assurances that our children will instructionally profit.”

Hixenbaugh bookends “They Came for the Schools” with the experiences of a mother who decided to move her family from Los Angeles to Southlake, despite no family or community ties, so that her three Black kids could benefit from its top-flight local schools and beautiful green spaces. Years later, she watches from the stands at Southlake’s Dragon Stadium as her youngest child takes the stage to receive his high-school diploma, walking past seven school-board members “who’d voted to kill a diversity plan meant to teach students how to be kind to people who looked like him.” The young man would be off to college soon, back in L.A., and his mom was putting their house on the market. If she could do it all over again, she tells Hixenbaugh, “I wouldn’t have come.”

In the years before Brown v. Board of Education was decided, the N.A.A.C.P.—through the brave and innovative work of young lawyers such as Derrick Bell—had brought enough lawsuits against various segregated school districts that some states were moving to privatize their educational systems. As Fitzpatrick notes in “The Death of Public School,” an influential Georgia newspaper owner and former speaker of the state’s House declared, in 1950, “that it would be better to abolish the public schools than to desegregate them.” South Carolina, in 1952, voted 2–1 in a referendum to revoke the right to public education from its state constitution. Around the same time, the Chicago School economist Milton Friedman began making a case for school vouchers, or public money that parents could spend as they pleased in the educational marketplace. White leaders in the South seized on the idea as a means of funding so-called segregation academies. In 1959, a county in Virginia simply closed down its public schools entirely rather than integrate; two years later, it began distributing vouchers—but only to white students, as Black families had refused to set up their own segregated schools.

Despite these disgraceful origins, vouchers remain the handmaiden of conservative calls for “school choice” or “education freedom.” In the run-up to the 2022 midterms, Rufo expanded his triumphant crusade against C.R.T. into a frontal assault on public education itself, which he believed could be replaced with a largely unregulated voucher system. “To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public-school distrust,” Rufo explained. He had been doing his best to sow that distrust during the previous two years.

Twenty states currently have voucher programs; five states launched universal voucher programs in 2023 alone. But reams of evidence show that vouchers negatively impact educational outcomes, and the money a voucher represents—around eight thousand dollars in Florida, sixty-five hundred in Georgia—is often not nearly enough to cover private-school tuition. In practice, then, vouchers typically act as subsidies for wealthy families who already send their children to private schools; or they pay for sketchy for-profit “microschools,” which have no oversight and where teachers often have few qualifications; or they flow toward homeschooling families. Wherever they end up, they drain the coffers of the public schools. Arizona’s voucher system, which is less than two years old, is projected to cost close to a billion dollars next year. The governor, Katie Hobbs, a Democrat and former social worker, has said that the program “will likely bankrupt the state.”

Back in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has become the Captain Ahab of school choice—he fanatically pursued a voucher program through multiple special sessions of the state legislature, failed every time to sink the harpoon, and then tried to use the rope to strangle the rest of the education budget, seemingly out of spite. Abbott’s problem is not only that Democrats don’t support vouchers but that they’ve also been rejected by Republican representatives in rural areas, where private options are scarce and where public schools are major local employers and serve as community hubs. (Southlake’s state representative, a Republican with a background in private equity, supports Abbott’s voucher scheme—a bizarre stance to take on behalf of a district that derives much of its prestige, property values, and chauvinism from the élite reputation of its public schools.) White conservatives in Texas and elsewhere were roused to anger and action by Rufo-style hysteria. But many of them may have realized by now that these invented controversies were just the battering ram for a full-scale sacking and looting of public education. ♦

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