When James Whitfield, the black principal of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, wrote a letter to the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in the days following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, he received only positive feedback. “Education is the key to crushing ignorance, hatred and systemic racism”, he wrote.
A year later, he would be unemployed.
In July 2021, Stetson Clark, a school board candidate, accused Whitfield of teaching critical race theory using that same letter at a controversial board meeting. Clark said Whitfield had “ideologies that divide” and was”encouraging the disruption and destruction of our neighborhood.”
The former principal received a disciplinary letter from the district and was placed on paid administrative leave a few weeks later. “When asked to provide evidence of CRT teaching, they don’t have a shred of evidence to support their case,” Whitfield said. In September of last year, he chose to resign and reached an agreement with the school district in which he would be on paid leave until his official resignation next year.
“What’s happened to me is really the emergence of far-right fringe groups all over the country,” Whitfield told HuffPost.
“These groups accusing me of teaching CRT are so absurd,” Whitfield said. “They would take everything we were doing with diversity, equity and inclusion, repackage it and just spread fear.” But the accusations about the CRT, college-level academic theory, and “student indoctrination” kept coming.
Whitfield’s ordeal is part of a disturbing effort by right-wing extremists, leaders and warriors to discredit public educators. And it’s not unique to Texas. Kim Morrison, a high school teacher in Missouri, told her the contract was not renewed after assigning a worksheet titled “How Racially Privileged Are You?” to his high school students. In Tennessee, Matthew Hawn was let go for teaching his students about white privilege.
“They would take everything we were doing with diversity, equity and inclusion, repackage it and just spread fear.”
– former Texas manager James Whitfield
But as culture warriors target teachers and other educators for teaching students about racial justice or being inclusive of the LGBTQ community, another crisis is unfolding.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 300,000 teachers left the profession between February 2020 and May 2022. There is a nationwide teacher shortage — and the culture war is making it worse.
“There are so many dire working conditions that took decades to create,” said Karen White, deputy executive director of the National Education Association. “And they’ve been exacerbated by COVID and right-wing extremists.”
With low salaries and a lack of resources for students, teaching has long been an undervalued profession and the shortage of teachers has grown every year. But now, following intense pressure from parents and conservative politicians, teachers are caught up in the cacophony of right-wing culture warriors – whether they like it or not.
In South Dakota, the state still had 300 educator positions just a few weeks before the start of the school year. Florida still had to fill nearly 6,000 spaces in June. Just days before most students start school in West Virginia, Debra Sullivan, a member of the board of directors of the public school, said“We have to bring bodies into the classroom.”
Virginia, where Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won last year’s election in part by flattering parents wrongly concerned about CRT and other culture war issues at school, reports that there are more 10,000 open positions in the school system and many of them hold teaching positions.
While many factors push would-be teachers to pursue other things with their lives, many education advocates feel the culture war is helping to push them away.
“Many teachers feel disrespected in Virginia and pursue other careers with much less stress and higher pay,” said the Virginia Education Association said. “Elected officials have a platform to change the tone of public dialogue on education and should use it to focus on how to improve student outcomes, not cultural issues that only seek ‘to divide us.’
According to a national survey from the NEA and the RAND Corporation, 61% of principals and 37% of teachers said they had been harassed because of their school’s pandemic policies or for teaching racism or prejudice in the first half of the year school year 2021-22. They reported that most bullies were relatives of their students.
Of course, it’s not just lessons on racial justice that conservatives are aiming for. “These people called the teachers groomers, pedophiles and questioned their professionalism,” Whitfield said.
In Oklahoma, Tyler Wrynn has quit following an outcry a TikTok video he posted to support LGBTQ students whose parents wouldn’t accept them. A Republican called it “predatory” and some parents said the content was “inappropriate”.
“The pandemic, combined with the political culture wars, has made the past two years the toughest in modern times for educators,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in July.
In a July survey of AFT membersoverwhelming majorities said that educators becoming targets of political or ideological attack was a very serious or somewhat serious problem in their schools.
“Our students deserve better and our educators deserve better,” said White.
Florida, which has passed perhaps the most notorious set of laws dictating what educators can tell their students in the past year, has turned to veterans for help. Facing a shortage of 9,000 teachers, the state legislature passed a law that would allow veterans to earn a teaching certificate and a $4,000 bonus. All they need is a bachelor’s degree. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis also said he wants to expand the program to law enforcement officials.
It’s unclear how serving in the military or police work can translate into teaching in the classroom. “Obviously in Florida, if you can breathe, you can teach,” White said.
But stay, some Florida districts have increased their class sizes.
And it’s not just Florida that’s making changes because of the shortage. In Virginia, a the beloved elective had to be canceled because the district could not find an instructor, and a quarter of Missouri schools now have four-day weeks.
The noise surrounding culture wars in the classroom can sometimes be easy to ignore. Parents who object to a biography of Michelle Obama for children or other seemingly ridiculous things are not exactly five-alarm fire. “It’s easy to dismiss as nonsense,” Whitfield said. “You just put your head down and say, ‘We to know it’s crazy.'”
But there is a danger in ignoring even the small things. “If you let enough fools out without fighting back, you’ll have a hard time getting back.”
And teachers and other educators truly believe it’s a fight – a fight that’s been going on for more than a generation.
“This is just the next iteration of it,” Whitfield said. Conservatives have spent decades undermining the public school system by tying it to property taxes and promoting school vouchers under the guise of school “choice,” which would not only hurt public schools, but line their pockets.
“The goal is to slowly destroy public schools,” Whitfield said. “That’s been their goal since the integration of the schools.