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Tag: Hannah Natanson

Are Public Schools Left-Wing Indoctrination Centers?

critical race theory
Cartoon by Barry Deutsch

By Olivia Riggio, Used with Permission from FAIR — Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting

In the latest multi-thousand word feature depicting America’s “education culture war,” the Washington Post’s “They Quit Liberal Public Schools. Now They Teach Kids to Be Anti-‘Woke’” (4/15/24) fawningly profiled Kali and Joshua Fontanilla, the founders of the Exodus Institute, an online Christian K–12 school that aims to “debunk the ‘woke’ lies taught in most public schools.”

The piece was written by Post reporter Hannah Natanson, who regularly contributes longform features that platform anti-trans and anti–Critical Race Theory views through a palatable “hear me out” frame, while including little in the way of opposing arguments—or fact checks (FAIR.org, 5/11/23, 2/12/22, 8/2/21).

This profile of the Fontanillas—two former California teachers who left their jobs and moved to Florida in 2020, “disillusioned” by school shutdowns and colleagues’ embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement—shows the Post once again depicting efforts to address racial and gender bias as a bigger problem than racial and gender bias themselves.

“The claim that public schools teach left-wing ‘indoctrination, not education’ had become a commonplace on the right, repeated by parents, politicians and pundits,” Natanson wrote:

But not, usually, by teachers. And that’s why the Fontanillas felt compelled to act: They came direct from the classroom. They had seen firsthand what was happening. Now, they wanted to expose the propaganda they felt had infiltrated public schools—and offer families an alternative.

The irony of the Fontanillas founding a far-right Christian school to fight “indoctrination” is lost on Natanson, as she, too, uncritically repeated these claims, as though the couple’s experience as teachers legitimized the far-right ideologies they peddle.

Natanson reported that Kali’s social media presence has attracted people to her school—despite her being “regularly suspended for ‘community violations.’” The article does not specify what those violations are, but on Instagram, Kali herself shared a screenshot of her account being flagged for disinformation, and another video talking about how a post she made about “newcomers” (i.e., migrants) received a “violation,” in calls to get her followers to follow her backup account.

The piece refers to her ideas—including referring to Black History Month as “Black idolatry month” and encouraging her followers to be doomsday preppers—as “out there.”

Kali is half Black and half white, and Joshua is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent—a fact that is mentioned alongside the couple’s gripes with the idea of slavery reparations and the concept that America is systemically racist.

Kali brags that the more right-wing her ideas, the more families she attracts to her school. “But they also spurred thousands of critical messages from online observers who contended she was indoctrinating students into a skewed, conservative worldview,” Natanson wrote.

The “hate” that these videos “inspire,” Natanson wrote, is from commenters who oppose Kali’s messages:

Online commenters regularly sling racial slurs and derogatory names: “slave sellout roach.” “dumb fukn bitch.” “wish dot com Candice Owen.” “Auntie Tomella.

Never mind the hate and conspiracy theories Kali spews in her videos. A recent video on Kali’s Instagram begs followers to follow a backup account, because a video she made about migrants was taken down by Meta as a violation of community standards. She says she believes her account has been “shadowbanned”—or muted by the platform.

Even the posts that remain unflagged by Instagram are full of bigotry and disinformation, including a cartoon of carnival performers being let go from a sideshow because they’re “not freaks anymore,” a compilation video of trans women in women’s restrooms with text that reads “get these creeps out of our bathrooms,” and a photo of a trans flag that demands, “Defund the grooming cult.”

An ad Kali posted for an emergency medical kit claimed that the FDA had “lost its war” on Ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug that the right has latched onto as a panacea for Covid-19. In reality, the lawsuit the FDA settled with the drug company involved an acknowledgement that the drug has long been used to treat humans, not just livestock—but for parasites, not viruses (Newsweek, 3/22/24). The National Institutes of Health (12/20/23) report that double-blind testing reveals ivermectin is ineffective against Covid.

Kali, who regularly mocks trans women and left-wing activists, apparently couldn’t take the heat. The backlash got so bad, Natanson writes, that

coupled with her chihuahua’s death and an injury that prevented her daily workouts, it proved too much for Kali. She went into a depressive spiral and had to take a break from social media. She barely managed to film her lessons.

In the Fontanillas’ lessons, the existence of white Quakers who fought against slavery is proof that racism is not institutionalized in the US. It’s also evidence of an “overemphasis” on reparations, even though, as Natanson mentioned toward the very end of the piece, many Quakers did take part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and later chose to pay reparations.

In addition to Covid shutdowns, other evidence of left-wing “indoctrination” offered by the Fontanillas included a quiz that asked students to recognize their privilege, the use of a Critical Race Theory framework in an ethnic studies class, announcements for gay/straight alliance club meetings (with no announcements made for Joshua’s chess club meetings), and the work of “too many” “left-leaning” authors—like Studs Terkel, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman—in the English curriculum.

Natanson includes a positive testimonial from a mother whose son Kali tutored before her political shift rightward, who remembers how “Kali let him run around the block whenever he got antsy,” and a screenshot of a review from a current student, who says they “love love LOVE” Kali’s teaching, because it exposes “the stupid things on the internet in a logical way.” Natanson also quotes an employee of the company that handles the logistics for Southlands Christian Schools, the entity from which the Fontanillas’ school gets its accreditation, who says, “Josh and Kali are good people, they have a good message, there is definitely a market for what they’re doing.”

The only opposition to the Fontanillas’ arguments in the nearly 3,000-word piece, beyond incoherent social media comments, come in the form of official statements and school board meeting soundbites.

Natanson includes a statement from the school district the Fontanillas formerly worked, saying that the ethnic studies class Kali resigned over was intended to get students to “analyze whether or not race may be viewed as a contributor to one’s experiences.” Another statement from the district denied Joshua’s claims that his school privileged certain clubs over others, and upheld that its English curriculum followed California standards.

The only direct quotes from students opposing the Fontanillas are two short comments from students at a school board meeting who said they enjoyed the ethnic studies class. It does not appear Natanson directly interviewed either student: One statement was taken directly from the school board meeting video, and the other from a local news article. The lack of any original, critical quotes in the piece raises the question: Did Natanson talk to anyone who disagreed with the Fontanillas during her reporting on the article?

The article included a dramatic vignette of the couple bowing their heads after seeing a public art exhibit with pieces depicting a book in chains and a student wearing earrings that read “ASK ME ABOUT MY PRONOUNS”—”just one more reason, Kali told herself, to pray,” Natanson wrote.

While thus passing along uncritically the Fontanillas’ take on what’s wrong with the world today, the article made no mention of more substantial threats bigotry poses to children and society at large.

LGBTQ youth experience bullying at significantly greater rates than their straight and cisgender peers (Reisner et al., 2015; Webb et al., 2021), and bullying is a strong risk factor for youth suicide (Koyanagi, et al., 2019). LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their straight and cisgender peers (Johns et al., 2019; Johns et al., 2020). However, bullying of LGBTQ youth occurs less often at LGBTQ-affirming schools (Trevor Project, 2021).

A recent study found that about 53% of Black students experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression, and 20% said they were exposed to racial trauma often or very often in their lives (Aakoma Project, 2022).

Individuals of Black and Hispanic heritage have a higher risk of Covid infection and hospitalization from than their white counterparts (NIH, 2023). Peterson-KFF’s Health System Tracker (4/24/23) found that during the pandemic, communities of color faced higher premature death rates.

The migrants at the US border that Kali demonizes in her videos are seeking asylum from gang violence, the targeting of women and girls, and oppressive regimes propped up by US policy. Undocumented immigrants are less than half as likely as US citizens to be arrested for violent crimes (PNAS, 12/7/20). They are also being turned away at higher rates under Biden than they were under Trump (FAIR.org, 3/29/24).

The idea that left-wing “propaganda” is “infiltrating” public schools is upside-down. If there’s a particular ideology that is being systematically censored in this country, to the point where it deserves special consideration by the Washington Post, it is not the Fontanillas’.

Since 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to ban Critical Race Theory in schools. Eighteen states have already imposed these bans or restrictions (Education Week, 3/20/24). The right is pushing for voucher schemes that transfer tax revenues from public to private schools, including to politicized projects like Exodus Institute (Progressive, 8/11/21; EPI, 4/20/23).

In the first half of this school year alone, there were more than 4,000 instances of books being banned. According to PEN America (4/16/24), people are using sexual obscenity laws to justify banning books that discuss sexual violence and LGBTQ (particularly trans) identities, disproportionately affecting the work of women and nonbinary writers. Bans are also targeted toward literature that focuses on race and racism, Critical Race Theory and “woke ideology.”

It is dangerous and backwards for the Washington Post to play along with this couples’ delusion that they are free speech martyrs—even as their “anti-woke” agenda is being signed into censorious law across the country.

The piece ended back in the virtual classroom with the Quakers, as Natanson takes on a tone of admiration. Kali poses the question to her students, “What does it mean to live out your values?”

“Kali smiled as she told her students to write down their answers,” Natanson narrated. “She knew her own.”

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Bruce Gerencser