When James Whitfield, the Black principal at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, wrote a letter to the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in the days after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, he received only positive feedback. “Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism,” he wrote.
One year later, he would be out of a job.
In July 2021, Stetson Clark, a candidate running for school board, accused Whitfield of teaching critical race theory using that same letter at a contentious board meeting. Clark said that Whitfield had “divisive ideologies” and was “encouraging the disruption and destruction of our district.”
The now-former principal received a disciplinary letter from the district and was placed on paid administrative leave a few weeks after that. “When asked to provide evidence of CRT being taught, they don’t have a single shred of evidence to support their case,” Whitfield said. In September of last year, he chose to resign and came to an agreement with the school district in which he would be on paid leave until officially resigning next year.
“What happened to me is really about far-right fringe groups popping up all over the country,” Whitfield told HuffPost.
“These groups accusing me of teaching CRT are so absurd,” Whitfield said. “They would take anything we were doing with diversity, equity and inclusion, repackage it and just fearmonger.” But the accusations about CRT, a college-level academic theory, and “indoctrination of students” kept coming.
Whitfield’s ordeal is a part of a worrisome 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, was told her contract wasn’t being renewed after she assigned a worksheet titled “How Racially Privileged Are You?” to her high school students. In Tennessee, Matthew Hawn was let go for teaching his students about white privilege.
“They would take anything we were doing with diversity, equity and inclusion, repackage it and just fearmonger.”
– former Texas principal James Whitfield
But as the 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 have 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 have been decades in the making,” said Karen White, the deputy executive director of the National Education Association. “And they’ve been exacerbated by COVID and right-wing extremists.”
With low pay and a lack of resources for students, teaching has long been an undervalued profession and the shortage of teachers has grown each year. But now, in the wake of intense pressure from conservative parents and politicians, teachers have become caught in the cacophony of the right-wing culture warriors — whether or not they want to be.
In South Dakota, the state still had 300 educator openings just a few weeks before school began. Florida still needed to fill nearly 6,000 spots in June. Just days before most students were set to start school in West Virginia, Debra Sullivan, a state school board member, said: “We need to get bodies in the classroom.”
Virginia, where Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won last year’s election partly by pandering to parents wrongly concerned with CRT and other culture war issues at school, is reporting that there are more than 10,000 open positions in the school system and many of them are teaching jobs.
While potential teachers are being cross-pressured by many factors into doing something else with their lives, many education advocates feel the culture war is helping to drive them away.
“Many teachers feel disrespected in Virginia and are pursuing other careers with far less stress and higher pay,” the Virginia Education Association said. “Elected officials have a platform to change the tone of public dialogue around education and should use it to focus on how to improve student outcomes, not cultural wedge issues that only seek to divide us.”
According to a national survey from the NEA and RAND Corporation, 61% of principals and 37% of teachers said that they had been harassed because of their school’s pandemic policies or for teaching about racism or bias in the first half of the 2021-22 school year. They reported that most of the harassers were relatives of their students.
Of course, it’s not only lessons on racial justice conservatives are targeting. “These people have called teachers groomers, pedophiles, and questioned their professionalism,” Whitfield said.
In Oklahoma, Tyler Wrynn resigned following uproar over a TikTok video he posted supporting LGBTQ students whose parents wouldn’t accept them. A Republican called him a “predator” and some parents said the content was “inappropriate.”
“The pandemic, combined with the political culture wars, made the last two years the toughest in modern times for educators,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in July.
In a July survey of AFT members, overwhelming majorities said that educators becoming targets of political or ideological attacks was a very serious or fairly serious problem at their schools.
“Our students deserve better and our educators deserve better,” White said.
Florida, which passed maybe the most notorious set of laws dictating what educators can say to their students in the last 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 obtain a teaching certificate and a $4,000 bonus. All they need is a bachelor’s degree. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has also said that he wants to expand the program to law enforcement officials.
It’s unclear how serving in the military or police work can translate into classroom instruction. “Evidently, in Florida, if you can breathe, you can teach,” White said.
But still, some districts in Florida have increased their class sizes.
And it’s not just Florida making changes because of the shortage. In Virginia, a beloved elective had to be canceled because the district couldn’t find an instructor, and a quarter of Missouri schools now have four-day weeks.
The noise surrounding the culture wars in the classroom can, sometimes, be easy to ignore. Parents objecting over a biography of Michelle Obama geared toward children or other seemingly ridiculous things aren’t exactly five-alarm fires. “It’s easy to dismiss as nonsense,” Whitfield said. “You just put your head down and say, ’We know that’s crazy.’”
But there is a danger in ignoring even the small stuff. “If you let enough of that crazy get out there without fighting back, you’re going to have a tough time clawing your way back.”
And teachers and other educators truly believe it’s a fight — one that’s been happening for more than a generation.
“This is just the next iteration of it,” Whitfield said. Conservatives have spent decades undermining the public school system from tying it to property taxes and promoting school vouchers under the guise of school “choice,” which would not only hurt public schools but also line their pockets.
“The goal is to slowly destroy public schools,” Whitfield said. “That’s been their goal since schools were integrated.”