No child is guaranteed success in life, but students in Eanes Independent School District, located in the rolling hills of West Austin, will have an easier time attaining it than many of their peers. The neighborhoods that feed into Eanes are some of the state’s richest. All but one of the district’s nine schools won an A rating from the state in 2019, the last time grades were handed out.
About 99 percent of the 2021 senior class at Westlake High School was accepted to college, superintendent Tom Leonard tells the audience at the June 22 meeting of Eanes’s board, recapping another year of high achievement. The robotics team won a state championship, he adds, which could improve the school’s third-place standing in the Lone Star Cup, awarded to the state’s winningest schools. Westlake also won a state football championship, and the boys’ golf team won state too, as it has four years running. By the standards of Texas public schools, Eanes is an idyll.
Soon after Leonard stops speaking, however, loud yelling commences, and it continues for the better part of an hour. According to most of the 38 people who have come to give public testimony, the district’s schools have become beholden to “post-Marxist critical theory,” as one speaker puts it—“an updated version of Marxism focusing on differences between people.” The school board, says another, has opened the doors of Eanes to “antifa and BLM,” forces that “salivate after war” and “burn down” communities.
On the agenda today are two items that might seem unlikely reasons to go to battle. One is the contract of Mark Gooden, a professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University, in New York City, and, since 2020, the diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant for Eanes. The second is a rewrite of the district’s mission statement. After workshopping the document for more than a year, the board had settled on “Unite. Empower. Inspire . . . Every Person, Every Day.”
In the burst of self-reflection that followed the summer of George Floyd, many districts hired DEI consultants. Gooden, according to Eanes board president John Havenstrite, looked at Eanes’s data, met with community stakeholders, and provided recommendations. Schools in Eanes did not appear to discipline children of color at a higher rate than white children, as many others do, or place disproportionate numbers of white students in advanced-placement courses. Gooden did recommend training for teachers and staff on how to approach racial issues, among other sensitive topics. That didn’t happen, for the most part, because of the disruption of the pandemic.
But the parents at the June meeting see Gooden’s involvement, along with the new mission statement, as evidence that Eanes is becoming excessively woke, if not antiwhite. Gooden, they say, embraces critical race theory, and by letting him run riot, the whole district has become tainted with it.
Before this past year, CRT was a term you’d hear mostly in discussions among academics, especially legal scholars, about the ways in which racism has shaped various institutions and practices in the United States—for example, the “redlining” of minority neighborhoods, where banks would not make loans. Now it’s become a catchall term encompassing fears that our youth are being taught to hate America through constant recitations of its sins and that whites should be considered irredeemably racist. That the Legislature passed multiple laws earlier this year to “move to abolish” the teaching of critical race theory in schools, as Governor Greg Abbott put it, has only inflamed those concerns.
Why, the parents want to know, does Eanes need a diversity program at all? “I was raised as a minority in school,” one parent says. “I’m a Jew, okay? I was the only one in my school most of the time. I’m just fine, by the way.” A father says that when he was young, he was told to “suck it up” when he was bullied. The kids in Eanes who have complained of being taunted with racial slurs, he says, should toughen up a bit. Expressing the idea that the diversity program is intended to make white people feel ashamed of being white, one woman reminds the school board members, “You guys are all white,” and demands to know, “Are you feeling guilty?”
The most pointed anger, though, is directed at Havenstrite. Because of the number of people who have asked to speak, he has ruled that each will have one minute to hold forth, instead of the customary three. Every time he cuts off a member of the public, the crowd shouts, “Let them speak!”
This leads to the ugliest moment of the night. After twenty minutes of diatribes from angry adults, a sophomore at Westlake High gets her turn to speak. “Increasing diversity education is important in a district that is becoming more diverse,” she says. “It’s important to make clear we’re making an active effort to move forward.” Before long, her time is up, but she keeps going. The crowd, unhappy with her message, starts jeering. “One minute! One minute!” they holler over her. “I’m sorry, your time is up,” a voice calls out in a mocking tone. “If they don’t get the time, she doesn’t get the time!” A nearby woman grabs for the mic, attempting to wrest it away from the student.
The roomful of ostensible grown-ups drowns out the student. She’s choking up as she steps down from the mic. The kids are all right, probably. They usually are. These parents, though . . .
The most bitter and deranging political conflicts invariably involve local politics, often filtered through issues in which very little seems to be at stake. Congress can debate wars that cost trillions and remake entire continents with as much vim and vigor as the mid-morning panel at a morticians conference, but Americans regularly shoot one another at homeowners’ association meetings.
It’s long been said that all politics is local. But that feels less and less true, especially in Texas. A person can hardly be expected to run for justice of the peace in this state without developing position papers on the various fronts of the culture war. This year, two of the most heated debates in American life—the controversy over CRT and the question of how to live with COVID-19—have converged on school board meetings across Texas.
The June skirmish at the Eanes board meeting was one episode in a struggle that has dragged on for a year and a half and which has grown increasingly personal and nasty. Things continued to deteriorate all summer. At the next school board meeting, in August, the same folks who vigorously opposed Gooden’s contract vigorously contested a requirement, eventually instituted by the board, that kids in the district wear masks. Then, at a back-to-school event, an Eanes parent ripped a mask off a teacher’s face, an incident that became national news.
Eanes is one district among many, nationally and statewide, where things have gone off the rails—though thus far in Texas, the school board wars haven’t involved militias or threats of physical violence, as they have elsewhere. When Highland Park ISD, in Dallas, debated mask policy in August, a student testified that he’d feel uncomfortable going back to school if his cohort weren’t wearing masks; adults in attendance shouted him down, yelling “Sheep!” and “Homeschool!” In September, furious protesters shut down a meeting of the Round Rock ISD board that had been called to discuss the district’s COVID precautions, with some troublemakers having to be forcibly removed by police.
At a meeting of Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, a former candidate for a seat on the board lambasted the first Black principal of Colleyville Heritage High School, James Whitfield, accusing him of believing in “the conspiracy theory of systemic racism.” Parents and activists demanded Whitfield’s termination. The board placed the principal on leave without explanation, chalking it up to a “personal issue,” and more than a hundred students demonstrated in support of him. In a lengthy Facebook post, Whitfield wrote that the blowback wasn’t new: district officials had asked him in 2019 to remove a photo of him kissing his wife, who is white, from social media because parents had complained. (The request, a district official claimed, “had absolutely nothing to do with race.”)
Schools and school boards have always been places in which big questions in American life are thrashed out—sometimes to the point of bloodshed. In the 1840s, a conflict between Protestant and Catholic Philadelphians over what version of the Bible should be used in public schools spiraled out of control, culminating in cannon fire and more than a dozen deaths. The Scopes Monkey Trial, in 1925, killed only William Jennings Bryan but marked the end of an epoch in American life.
At least once every generation, Texas has seen crusades to kick communists or Chicano activists or other purported wrong thinkers out of the education system, and for more than a century the state’s conservatives have sought to shape curricula and textbooks in public schools to reflect their values and priorities. (One of our prominent textbook crusaders, Norma Gabler, urged schools to shy away from the story of Robin Hood, an unrepentant believer in wealth redistribution.)
But the recent furor is the most intense Texas has seen in a long time. And it’s largely directed at school board members, who, while elected, are essentially unpaid volunteers. The public ought to “understand the kind of pressure that the folks who are trying to make public policy are under right now,” says Havenstrite, who got elected before COVID and has watched as the Eanes trustees have become subject to enormous social pressure. “Emotionally, it’s a strain,” he says. “I have friendships that may or may not survive.”
Many school board members in Texas run for office because their children attend school in the district, and as communities have become polarized around issues that come before the board, their kids have been drawn in too. “The kids all know who is on which side of the masking issue, and that’s really sad,” Havenstrite says. Some of the community reaction has crossed boundaries in ways that make Eanes trustees wonder if they’re at risk of something more serious. One received a printed-out picture, sent anonymously in the mail, of her daughter at a Westlake football game not wearing a mask.
More and more, politics is defined by comparatively small groups of comparatively loud individuals dominating the discourse, when it is unclear whether they speak for anyone but themselves. The school board meetings degenerating into screaming matches all over the state often involve, at most, a few dozen angry protesters. Some are not even parents of children in public schools.
The cloistering effect of social media gives groups that speak primarily to one another the sense that they represent a “silent majority” instead of a vocal minority. In Eanes, that frustrated faction takes the form of “Eanes Kids First,” a private Facebook group in which the angriest folks in the district convene daily to encourage one another and demean those they regard as enemies—teachers, other parents, school staff.
When Jennifer Horn Stevens, a former Republican apparatchik and the ad hoc spokesperson for the bloc of the irate, emails board members, she shares the missive with the group and is lavished with praise for it. “Tell the truth to this community,” she wrote on September 17 to [email protected] in a characteristic note. “Stop the shenanigans.” Reports of racism in the district were fake news, she went on, while the school board was “promoting books such as ‘Whiteness Is a Bad Thing,’ ” she said. “Do your job or resign.”
The group makes plain the attitudes and anxieties that are driving the furor. “If the board . . . were really serious about Equity,” writes one member of the group, “they’d give a POC [person of color] from a poor neighborhood their house and expensive cars.” Gooden, writes another member, “needs to look at countries that are dominated or controlled by POC (African countries) before he calls us oppressive.”
On July 25, Corbin Casteel, a member of the group and another local Republican activist, posted an ominous letter, commenting, “We’re next.” The letter, originating ostensibly from a group called Dallas Justice Now, was directed toward parents in Highland Park ISD, a district that’s as wealthy and high-achieving as Eanes. It admonished white parents for their privilege “earned through oppression” and asked them to pledge that their children would not “apply or attend any Ivy League School” or, indeed, any university in the top fifty of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. The letter contained an implied threat that any rich cracker so bold as not to sign the pledge would be exposed to the public.
The letter caused shock and dismay on “Eanes Kids First.” “Omg, are we in Cuba now,” said one parent. “This is the definition of Marxism,” said another. “What the actual f— is this?!” wrote Stevens. “Hell no.” For a moment, everyone’s fears were made manifest.
But the letter was a fabrication, written to freak people out. There is no evidence Dallas Justice Now is real or that its spokesperson, “Michele Washington,” is either, though the letter received breathless coverage in right-wing media for weeks. In fact, as the fact-checking site Snopes reported, the group’s website was developed with the help of a Utah-based company that consults for Republican politicians.
That’s a lot of effort to rile up folks who want to be riled up. But these are potent issues, and there’s growing institutional support for efforts to “take back” school boards. In Carroll ISD, a political action committee called Southlake Families raised more than $200,000 in 2020 to support candidates opposed to the school district’s DEI initiative. Earlier this year, Stevens ran for a position on the Eanes board, and though she lost, she raised a sum that dwarfed any other campaign the district has seen—upward of $130,000.
The threat the loud and the angry pose isn’t necessarily that they win outright but that they tire others out—that they make public service too burdensome, too painful, too tedious. If, then, you think your local elected officials are doing a decent job trying to muddle through a demoralizing and unprecedented period, it might help to let them know, maybe at one of the meetings where they’re getting yelled at. Just get ready to duck.
This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Critical Race Fury.” Subscribe today.