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The Hidden Racial Bias in K-12 Education

August 28, 2023

The Supreme Court might have ended race-based affirmative action in higher education, but as students return to the classroom this fall, the next frontier in the debate over discrimination in education and at work is already at our doorstep in K-12 public schools.

In his majority opinion in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.” The only way to achieve that constitutional imperative is for public school boards and superintendents to take a close look at the way they staff America’s K-12 classrooms.

A new report from the National Opportunity Project identifies widespread discrimination in public school employment practices. After reviewing responses to a litany of public records requests, evaluating job posts, and examining hiring criteria, the National Opportunity Project found that school districts are using divisive social and political ideologies, and in some instances race, to drive hiring decisions.

The biased K-12 hiring practices often stem from the en vogue “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” or DEI, initiatives that have been adopted by school boards and administrators in recent years. Once thought to be prevalent only in higher education, research by the National Opportunity Project demonstrates the trickle-down effect of discriminatory higher education practices; they eventually are adopted by K-12 public schools.

Many school districts fail to prioritize candidates’ educational and professional qualifications, and instead focus on applicants’ answers to questions about poorly-defined political causes such as “social justice” and “equity.” For example, in suburban Chicago, Evanston Township High School requires that “applicants must demonstrate a commitment to social justice, equity, excellence and high expectations for all students.”

In Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, teacher candidates are asked, “What does equity mean to you? How do you plan to keep equity at the center of your classroom?” Responses that show strong agreement with DEI concepts like “equity journey,” “equity work,” and “understand that race is a social construct” are rated more highly on a scoring rubric. This is just a small deviation from the race-based numerical rating system that was outlawed by the Supreme Court more than 20 years ago in Gratz v. Bollinger.

Hiring committees are also instructed to assemble teaching staff that reflect certain politics, social ideologies, and racial backgrounds. City Schools of Decatur in Georgia directs school leaders to staff hiring teams for racial and gender equity by “ensur[ing] that there is at least one person of color and one woman or gender-fluid individual on the interview panel. Individuals who embody other aspects of diversity should be included as well.”

The practical effect of these policies is that teachers in many of America’s K-12 schools are not being selected based on their teaching ability or experience connecting with our country’s youngest and most vulnerable. Instead, we’re selecting teachers based on subjective, quasi-political, and sometimes illegal criteria that have nothing to do with reading, writing, and math. Plus, these types of hiring practices stifle true diversity and result in a homogenous teaching staff educating from only one ideological perspective.

America is the land of opportunity, a place where free speech and free thought are to be protected and encouraged. No matter your political stripes, we all should find these hiring practices alarming and at odds with our fundamental values.

What’s more, as the Supreme Court recently reminded us, straightforward racial discrimination is unconstitutional. And trying to smuggle such discrimination through code words like “equity” is still problematic. As the Supreme Court has stated, “What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly. The Constitution deals with substance, not shadows.”

It’s past time to address these discriminatory hiring practices in K-12 schools. The college students fighting to end affirmative action wanted all students to be seen for who they are beyond their demographics. In the same vein, what makes good teachers must be determined by examining their qualifications, their track records, their education, and their commitment to achieving the best outcomes for their students. Teacher applicants should not—and considering recent Supreme Court precedent, cannot—be judged, ranked, or hired based on their race, gender, creed, or political views.

This article was originally published by RealClearEducation and made available via RealClearWire.
Patrick Hughes is founder and president of the National Opportunity Project, a nonprofit government watchdog and education organization.
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