Critical race theory isn’t taught in Pa. K-12 schools, but it permeated local school board races

The 1776 Project Political Action Committee, which opposes introducing the 1970s theory that examines history through a racial lens, endorsed candidates running for school board in seven states ahead of the Nov. 2 election — including 18 people vying for seats in the commonwealth

By: - November 7, 2021 6:30 am

 (*This story was updated at 12:30 a.m. on Monday, 11/8/21, to note that Ryan Girdusky is no longer employed by One America News Network)

Pennsylvania public schools aren’t teaching critical race theory, but the concept has become a rallying cry for federal and state Republicans, and it seeped into municipal races this election cycle.

The 1776 Project Political Action Committee, which opposes introducing the 1970s theory that examines history through a racial lens in K-12 classrooms, endorsed candidates running for school board in seven states ahead of the Nov. 2 election — including 18 people vying for seats in Pennsylvania. 

Unofficial results show nearly a dozen won their respective races in the municipal election, spanning seven districts in four counties across the commonwealth.

“It’s more important than ever that we stop critical race theory because the left is coming for our kids,” mailers sent by the committee ahead of the municipal election said, promoting candidates running for school board in Centre County.

1776 Project PAC Founder Ryan Girdusky — a conservative writer, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, and previous reporter for the far-right media outlet One America News Network — targeted voters with mailers and mass text messages.

The PAC also endorsed school board candidates in Colorado, Kansas, Ohio, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Virginia. On Thursday, the committee claimed that 75 percent of endorsed candidates were victorious, saying they’re “changing the face of school boards across the country” on Twitter.

“Our strategy was to get Republicans to vote,” he told the Capital-Star. “So, we directed all of our mailers to just Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with the goal of getting them out to vote, and they did. That was our entire goal. In some of these close elections, maybe it made a difference. In other places, maybe they just won; they would have won without us. But I think that it probably helped a little bit.”

What is critical race theory?

After experiencing what they considered a “lack of racial progress” after the civil rights movement, scholars developed critical race theory in the 1970s and 1980s, the Associated Press reported. The concept, which is taught in graduate and post-graduate courses, examines how race and law intersect and the idea that institutions were built to maintain white people’s dominance, thus ensuring race-based unequal treatment.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, explained to Vanity Fair in July that the theory is “based on the premise that race is socially constructed, yet it is real through social constructions.” The concept studies how society looks and operates — and why, she said.

“These are the kinds of questions the other side doesn’t want us to ask because it wants us to be happy with the contemporary distribution of opportunity,” Crenshaw told Vanity Fair.

There is little evidence to show that critical race theory is taught in K-12 public schools; however, ideas related to the concept — such as the consequences of slavery — are discussed in classrooms, PBS reported.

School boards and educators have become the target of misleading claims about critical race theory. The concept, along with COVID-19 policies, prompted parents to turn out at the polls last week.

Trump has railed against critical race theory and claims that students “are being subjected to a new curriculum designed to brainwash them.” GOP lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate have joined in on the debate over the concept. The U.S. Senate introduced a resolution condemning requirements that teachers be trained in critical race theory. An analysis by Education Weekly shows that at least 25 states have considered limitations on how teachers cover race and racism in the classroom.

In Pennsylvania, a so-called school transparency bill, which would require districts to post all curriculum and course material online, is making its way through the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Why did the 1776 Project PAC get involved in school board races across the United States?

Describing PAC contributions as “not a small sum of money,” Girdusky told the Capital-Star that critical race theory isn’t being taught in K-12 schools the same as it is in college courses. Instead, he claimed children have learned to “understand themselves in terms of privilege” through diversity and inclusion programs that incorporate critical race theory into their lessons.

“It’s being practiced, which is more dangerous than being taught,” he said.

According to its website, the 1776 Project PAC claims that those in favor of critical race theory support views that are “incredibly hostile to white people, Western civilization, classical liberalism, the enlightenment, the founding of America, and capitalism.”

Every candidate promoted by the committee running in the Bellefonte Area School District — Jeffrey Steiner, Jon Guizar, Andrea Royer, and Jack Bechdel — won seats on the board of directors.

Dubbed the “Win4Bellefonte” ticket, the candidates ran amid an ongoing debate over the school’s “Red Raider” nickname and Native American logo used throughout the district.

Royer and Bechdel launched their campaign in response to calls from alumni who started a petition to change the “Red Raider” name in June 2021. Guizar, current board president, and Steiner, a board member, voted against changing the name in April.

Their qualifications, as described by the 1776 Project PAC: “They support education, not indoctrination in our schools. They will fight against critical race theory from being taught to children and give parents a voice in their children’s education.”

Though restoring the “Red Raider” name and imagery used throughout the district was at the core of the “Win4Bellefonte” campaign, the candidates also promoted school facility updates, learning gaps resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and investments in education as part of their platform.

Girdusky said Kathy Evey, treasurer for the “Win4Bellefonte” slate, reached out to him about an endorsement.

Summarizing an email from Evey, Girdusky said the group claimed to “reject critical race theory and group identities,” “notions of racial objectives, as well as victim groups.”

Evey also told Girdusky that “Win4Bellefonte” candidates “believe each student should strive to be the best version of themselves, believe students should have equal and equitable access to opportunities. And we believe you can accurately teach history and then guide students to rise above the notion of race oppression and group identity,” he said.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to endorse them and then spend some money on their behalf,” Girdusky added.

Election officials in Montgomery County, a Democratic stronghold, are still tabulating results for the most recent municipal election. However, the 1776 Project PAC declared a premature victory for at least two of the candidates endorsed in the race for Perkiomen Valley School Board. In a since-deleted tweet, the PAC announced a “clean sweep of anti-CRT candidates in the district.

In March, the “Flip4PV” slate members — Jason Saylor, Don Fountain, Jason Geddes, and Rowen Keenan — issued a statement condemning critical race theory. They described it as a “toxic and destructive orthodoxy.”

PAC-endorsed candidates also won in Allegheny County’s North Hills School District, including Elizbeth Nease and Michael Santucci. In October, Nease said critical race theory “does nothing but divide us.” Nease also supports keeping the district’s Native American mascot and thinks the school curriculum should be public so parents can monitor what kids learn.

The PAC supported three candidates for the Methacton School District Board of Directors, all of whom — Jessica Bradbury, Greg Young, and Marissa Ruggiero — are projected to win.

“I think that in my districts, you know, it’s looking like some of them will win,” Girdusky said. “So, did my strategy work? I don’t know, but they’re going to be very close elections. Hopefully, I contributed to getting Republicans out.”

What comes next?

Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based Democratic political consultant, told the Capital-Star that critical race theory is “the latest straw man argument” used to mobilize conservative voters.

“Critical race theory isn’t taught in public schools,” he said. “It’s a legal term, not an academic term. It will have minimal, if any impact, on what it means for education in local communities.”

Despite a few lingering tabulations at the time of reporting, results for the municipal election, though unofficial, are mostly final.

Harry Breon, a Bellefonte resident who helped organize the “Win4Bellefonte” slate and formed a “Keep the Bellefonte Logo” Facebook group, celebrated the candidates’ victory on Wednesday. He also stressed that their work is far from over.

“We won. Now, we can move forward and do the things that we set out to do — taking care of keeping the name and the logo,” Breon told the group’s more than 3,000 members in a video. “But more importantly, showing financial responsibility and bettering the education of our youth. That’s the most important thing right now.”

During an interview on Thursday, Jordan Emely, a 22-year-old Democrat who ran unsuccessfully in the Bellefonte school board race as a candidate supportive of changing the “Red Raider” and addressing curriculum to better address history, said campaigning was tough with insults from the opposing side.

The “Win4Bellefonte” candidates rooted their platform in “tradition,” he said. And when it came to changing the “Red Raider” identity, the candidates thought tradition was being stripped away. But tradition isn’t always the best way to make decisions. Emely, who was also the Bellefonte mascot when he was a student in the district, thought the “Red Raider” identity symbolized contributed to negative stereotypes of indigenous people.

Though taking a break from politics and campaigning, Emely plans to engage with the new board as the “Win4Bellefonte” slate joins the district’s decision-making process. And he is not worried about the candidates serving as directors.

“It is of utmost importance for me to make clear that I wish the victorious candidates nothing but strength in decision making, peace of mind in times of conflict, active and productive participation in public forums and interviews for transparency within our community,” Emely wrote in his concession statement — adding that he hopes “they choose to move our district forward into its fullest potential.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.