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Ohio School Forcefully Rejects Claims That It Teaches Critical Race Theory

The complicated reality behind a story going viral in conservative media.
by Jim Swift
July 8, 2021
Ohio School Forcefully Rejects Claims That It Teaches Critical Race Theory
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

Everybody knows that Democrats tend to be big supporters of public schools, both because of an idealistic belief in public education and because of the powerful political constituency of teachers unions. And everybody knows that Republicans, meanwhile, tend to be much more supportive of school choice, private schools, and homeschooling, for a variety of reasons—including concerns about the quality and the political content of public school education, and the belief that parents should be able to make important decisions about what their kids are taught and are shielded from.

But this tidy dichotomy is being scrambled by concerns about “woke” trends in education—driven in part by the GOP’s and conservative media’s intense focus on critical race theory. Unlike in past curriculum panics, however, the concern this time is not just about public schools. In a widely discussed City Journal article back in March, Bari Weiss described wealthy parents upset about what they were paying elite schools to teach their kids about race and capitalism. The New York Post and Fox News have naturally been eager to cover this sort of thing, reporting on the “underground network of parents” who oppose the “undue focus on race by schools” and publicizing any story they can dig up. But it’s not just conservative outlets covering these stories; the New York Times has also kept an eye on them.

Cue Columbus Academy, a prestigious non-religious private school on a huge campus just outside Columbus, Ohio. Tuition for pre-K ranges between $13,000 and $21,000 a year. For high schoolers, the tuition is over $30,000. At current rates, sending a kid to Columbus Academy would cost, absent discounts, north of $400,000 from daycare through graduation from high school. In other words, the parents who send their kids to this school are Columbus’s elite—and when critical race theory supposedly came around, some of the parents objected and basically decided to try and take over the school.

Here’s the story: Two parents, Andrea Gross (who had two children at Columbus Academy) and Amy Gonzalez (who had one), grew concerned about various goings on at the school, both in and out of the classroom, especially relating to what kids were learning about race. Gross and Gonzalez reportedly spent months launching an organization, dubbed the Pro CA Coalition, to pressure the school into reforming. If you read many of the headlines in conservative media pieces about what happened next, you’ll learn that Columbus Academy “expelled” Gross’s and Gonzalez’s kids.

That’s not how the school sees it, though:

Columbus Academy does not comment on the circumstances of any student or family. However, any parent who waged a public campaign of false and misleading statements and inflammatory attacks harmful to the employees, the reputation, or the financial stability of Columbus Academy would be in clear violation of the Enrollment Agreement and would be denied re-enrollment for the following school year.

You can read Gross and Gonzalez’s complaints about the school here. A disinterested reader would likely find at least some of their concerns genuinely disturbing—but would also note that many of the complaints are secondhand or hearsay. And, again, Columbus Academy says that Gross and Gonzalez have made “false and misleading statements” about the school.

Without knowing the financial situations of Gross’s and Gonzalez’s families, we can at least presume that they are fairly well off—after all, they could afford Columbus Academy—and so they could probably have chosen to send their kids to one of the other private schools in the area, one more in line with their worldview.

Instead, they chose to undertake a public campaign to pressure Columbus Academy. They offer a three-part proposal for the school. First, they call for an “independent evaluation” of the school’s curriculum, which at first glance does not sound unreasonable—although of course the school’s curriculum already has to meet state standards, and such a review would have nothing to say about Gross and Gonzalez’s gripes about what goes on outside the curriculum proper.

In response to Gross and Gonzalez’s assertions, Columbus Academy released a fairly comprehensive, ten-page statement about the school’s curriculum:

No one person or department creates “the curriculum.” For example, the Director of Diversity and Community Life has not made (and does not have the authority to make) unilateral changes to the curriculum. Teachers, division heads, and departmental leaders create and implement the curriculum, with oversight from the leadership team. Given its breadth, depth, and fluidity, “the curriculum” is not easily summarized or reduced to talking points.

The whole thing is worth reading, as a model of how reasonable, sensible, temperate people try to balance competing concerns in providing a strong education—and how best to respond to criticisms that distort or only partially represent the truth.

Second, Gross and Gonzalez’s group calls for an “independent audit of school spending.” This, too, at first seems like a reasonable request. Theoretically, such an audit could provide valuable information to parents trying to decide whether Columbus Academy is using its resources wisely. But how many parents are going to have the savvy to correctly interpret such an audit, without full information about the school-governance decisions behind budgeting tradeoffs?

Which brings us to the third, and most concerning, of Gross and Gonzalez’s recommendations:

Overhaul of the Structure of the Board of Trustees.

Good governance requires independent oversight. Currently, the Board is failing in its duty to oversee the management of Columbus Academy. Parents of students at Columbus Academy have no voice in the selection of Board members and have no independent body with whom they can raise concerns. We are proposing an overhaul to the structure of the Board of Trustees. Specifically, we believe members should be chosen by vote of parents of current students. Moreover, we believe meetings of the Board of Trustees should be public and accessible to members of the Columbus Academy community.

Without inside information about how, and how well, Columbus Academy’s board of trustees functions, it is hard to judge the wisdom of this recommendation. But does it pass the smell test? If the school’s board were truly dysfunctional, wouldn’t the students’ academic performance suffer? If the board were damagingly unresponsive, wouldn’t that fact be reflected in enrollment? If the board were really mismanaging the budget, wouldn’t you expect there to be serious problems of teacher retention? Wouldn’t you expect to hear major complaints about operational problems, and not just about the sort of hot-button political issues that motivated Gross and Gonzalez? Yet by the publicly available data, the school is going strong.

What Gross and Gonzalez are recommending is akin to two tables at a Chili’s dissatisfied with their service and proposing that the entirety of the restaurant’s patrons get to choose the menu, the management, and the sourcing of ingredients. Life doesn’t work that way. We’ve moved on from the false “the customer is always right” belief to the also false “the customer gets to call the shots.”

The conservative media are, naturally, hailing Gross and Gonzalez as victims / heroes, and not entirely baselessly. Again: They appear to have some legitimate complaints about things that have been said or taught at Columbus Academy. And you have to feel sorry for their children, who now will be leaving the school and presumably losing friends.

But you also have to feel sorry for the faculty and administrators of Columbus Academy, based on the allegations in a letter sent jointly by the head of school and president:

Your actions caused pain, and even fear for physical safety, among students, families, faculty, and staff. . . .

You have taken steps to explore how you, and with your encouragement, others, could withhold tuition payments and place them in escrow until your demands are met. You have also discussed pursuing charitable entity status for your organization [Pro CA Coalition], in the stated hope of persuading Columbus Academy donors to re-direct their contributions to your organization where you could use the funds as leverage to pursue your agenda.

Gross and Gonzalez say that their “innocent children [are being] punished for [their] parents asking questions.” I’d posit something different. Innocent children are being punished because of their parents, and that’s fair if their parents were being jerks. A private institution has a right to rescind a contract if the other party is undermining it as an institution, just as bars can remove or ban unruly patrons. Republicans used to believe in that sort of thing, but the ever-growing war on critical race theory is making a lot of people become unhinged.

The Pro CA Coalition group reportedly has 400 members—which, at the prices Columbus Academy charges, amounts to real money: millions of dollars over the course of hundreds of children’s education. Perhaps rather than try to hijack the school, those who agree with Gross and Gonzalez should take their money elsewhere, or even start their own school. Private institutions, be they businesses or schools, don’t take kindly to attempted hostile takeovers, but they do tend to respond when protests hit their pocketbooks.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.