U.S. President Joe Biden is pushing “lefty social engineering” and “wokeness” with his education policies. American schools are indoctrinating America’s children with divisive “critical race theory.” Teachers unions are delaying the return of in-person instruction for their own selfish ends. Or this is how conservatives in the United States have talked about the politics of schooling in recent months—the latest evidence of how the nation’s classrooms feature in its hyper-polarized culture wars, which have long included fights over the left-wing leanings of colleges and universities. Republicans see a political opportunity. But is education a winning issue for them now?

Rick Hess, who directs education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, certainly sees an opening for his fellow conservatives. He argues that the recent trend of “anti-racist” education is harmful to students and woefully out of step with mainstream Americans—a potential liability for Democratic politicians, who are making little effort to distance themselves from these teachings. He further notes that the “school choice” movement—which supports private-school vouchers and other alternatives to traditional public schools—is enjoying a banner year in state legislatures. At the same time, Hess says, Democrats are seen as having a more proactive education agenda—especially at the national level, where the narrative on education in America tends to be set—while Republicans are perceived as mostly oppositional.

Graham Vyse: There’s a lot of conservative criticism of what’s called “anti-racism” education. Delivering the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s address to Congress last month, Senator Tim Scott said, “A hundred years ago, kids in classrooms were taught the color of their skin was their most important characteristic—and if they looked a certain way, they were inferior. Today, kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them—and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor.”

What’s new about today’s “antiracism,” and why do you call it “a strange, sophomoric assault on civilization itself”?

Rick Hess: It has nothing to do with fighting racism. It’s the “anti-racists” who want schools to organize children in “affinity groups” based on pigmentation. Schools are organizing students and staff by race to have different conversations so white children can learn to confess for sins of people who shared their pigmentation once upon a time.

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