Education Secretary Names Latest ‘Boogeyman’ To Divide Schools

Education Secretary Names Latest ‘Boogeyman’ To Divide Schools

WASHINGTON ― U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Tuesday that he believes attacks on diversity programs in public schools are part of a larger campaign to “decrease the confidence in our public schools.”

In a roundtable discussion with Black journalists at the Department of Education building in Washington, Cardona referred to the rollback as a “boogeyman” that opponents of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have created to sow division in America’s schools — not unlike the debates over COVID masks and the teaching of critical race theory.

“There are very deliberate attempts to seek division in our schools so that a private option sounds better for parents. So we created a boogeyman,” Cardona said. “Four years ago were the masks. [Critical race theory] was a year after that. [Now,] DEI, banning books. Every year, there’s something to stoke division in an attempt to disrupt our public schools and decrease the confidence in our public schools.”

Since the beginning of 2023, more than 70 pieces of legislation targeting diversity programs at colleges and universities have been introduced, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Public schools in Texas, Florida and other Republican-controlled states have been forced to limit student access to certain books by Black authors. Cardona said he sees the rollback of diversity efforts across public education as a “deliberate” attempt to prevent schools from being inclusive places for all students.

“The attack on DEI, to me, is a deliberate attack on efforts to try to make sure schools are inclusive, welcoming places for all students — in particular, students from different backgrounds,” the education secretary said. “No different than what I think happened when the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action.”

Cardona’s belief that the goal is to undermine confidence in public education has been underlined by remarks from conservative activists such as Christopher Rufo, who is behind many of the attacks on DEI. Rufo has been blunt about his desire to create “universal public school distrust” as a way to promote funding for school choice.

In September, the Department of Education released recommendations to help colleges and universities improve diversity on campuses following the high court’s June gutting of affirmative action in admissions. Emboldened by the court’s decision to end most college affirmative action programs, anti-DEI activists are waging legal wars on diversity initiatives at private businesses and foundations as well.

“Every year, there’s something to stoke division in an attempt to disrupt our public schools and decrease the confidence in our public schools.”

– Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

Cardona said he believes these DEI programs are critical to help students of color feel supported by their institutions. “My rationale around these programs is they make students feel seen, welcome and [can] unapologetically be themselves. The dismantling of those programs, in my opinion, reduces schools’ abilities to provide an inclusive environment for students to learn.”

The battle over diversity, equity and inclusion programs is largely fought at the state level, with Republican politicians, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, leading the charge. Cardona acknowledged that states and localities take the lead on how state-funded schools are run.

“I cannot tell schools you have to have a DEI program, but I could, through data, demonstrate if there’s a decrease in students who have access based on race. And I can attribute that to some of the lack of inclusivity or attacks that maybe students feel there,” he said.

The education secretary said that his department and the Department of Justice are actively investigating school districts that are systematically ignoring the civil rights of their students.

“We see deliberate attempts to go after LGBTQ students in our country. We see leaders saying that slavery was a skilled program that people left with skills to do better. We see the majority of banned books having protagonists of color. We see AP Black History under attack,” Cardona said. “It’s very deliberate, very intentional.”

“It’s getting worse because what people used to do in the shade, they’re now doing in the sunlight,” he said.

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