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The Conservative Scholar Who Convinced GOP Lawmakers Civics Conceals CRT

The most influential commentator you鈥檝e never heard of, Stanley Kurtz launched a crusade against 鈥渨oke civics鈥 that鈥檚 shaped GOP bills across the U.S.

When U.S. Senators Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, and 鈥嬧婮ohn Cornyn, a Texas Republican, introduced a bill in June 2022 to expand grants for civics education, most observers saw it as something of an olive branch. Colleagues on both sides of the aisle immediately announced their support for the proposal, a near-miracle in an age of withering bipartisanship.

But despite initial momentum, three now-familiar letters stopped the bill in its tracks: C-R-T.

A mostly unknown conservative scholar writing in the that month claimed the bill would 鈥渁llow the Biden administration to push Critical Race Theory (CRT) on every public school in the country,鈥 calling the Republican co-sponsors 鈥渘aive鈥 victims of a hidden leftist agenda. Critical race theory, which posits that racism permeates American institutions, has become right-wing shorthand for any classroom discussion of race.

Cornyn, who proposed the legislation and is the former GOP majority whip, dismissed the allegations, that 鈥渢he false, hysterical claims are untrue and worthy of a Russian active measures campaign, not a serious discussion of our bill.鈥

But truthful or not, the criticisms spread like wildfire. The National Review op-ed racked up thousands of interactions on social media and, within 24 hours, and , groups that support what鈥檚 known as 鈥,鈥 had published dire reports pulling directly from the article. 

Then, just days later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mimicked the message, stating in a press release the $1 billion federal civics bill would 鈥渁ward grants to indoctrinate students with ideologies like Critical Race Theory.鈥

Soon after, far-right Breitbart News ran an whose headline pulled word-for-word from the National Review editorial and targeted Cornyn as the bill鈥檚 key backer. took to social media urging their followers to call their lawmakers opposing what they described as 鈥溾 sponsored by RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only.

The senators鈥 鈥淐ivics Secures Democracy Act鈥 went no further.

How did this firestorm start and who wrote the op-ed that lit the match?

The story begins years prior and revolves around Stanley Kurtz, a little-noticed power player shaping the right鈥檚 recent offensives in the education culture wars.

The 鈥淐ivics Secures Democracy Act,鈥 co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn, right, stalled after Stanley Kurtz penned an op-ed in the National Review saying the bill would 鈥渁llow the Biden administration to push Critical Race Theory (CRT) on every public school in the country.鈥 (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

An enemy of 鈥榓ction civics鈥

Though his writings are regularly shared by GOP heavy hitters including , groups like and sitting , Kurtz has flown mostly under the radar.

鈥淣obody鈥檚 talking about his role at all,鈥 said Jeremy Young, a senior manager for the free expression advocacy group, PEN America.

Kurtz, a 69-year-old former university instructor and longtime conservative commentator, has spearheaded a quiet but influential campaign to cleanse classrooms of what he calls 鈥.鈥

鈥淗e certainly has a fairly large megaphone among conservatives,鈥 said Neal McCluskey, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Stanley Kurtz (EPPC)

In Young鈥檚 estimation, only two figures have had a wider national influence on anti-CRT legislation than Kurtz: Christopher Rufo, the man who brought the lightning-rod term into the right鈥檚 vernacular, and Russell Vought, president of the Center for Renewing America, who has fought to add teeth to the bills. 

But Kurtz has made his mark in a niche way. 

He 鈥済oes after specific things like civics education that are not as central for some of the other [figures],鈥 Young said.

At least eight bills proposed in five states have pulled from Kurtz鈥檚 2021 鈥溾 model legislation, according to a PEN America , making the scholar one of the key thought leaders driving the recent surge in classroom censorship bills. And his advocacy in Texas led to the 2021 passage of an unprecedented state law banning assignments that involve 鈥渄irect communication鈥 between students and their federal, state or local lawmakers.

At the core of Kurtz鈥檚 activism is a central idea: That hands-on civics lessons, such as students writing to their legislators, will lead to 鈥 and political action in support of progressive policy positions.鈥

The scholar, who draws a roughly $172,000 yearly salary from a think tank and lists an apartment address in Washington D.C.鈥檚 affluent Forest Hills neighborhood in tax records, declined a phone interview, saying he 鈥減refer[s] to comment by email.鈥 In written messages, he explained he believes hands-on civics projects 鈥渢ilt overwhelmingly to the left.鈥

鈥淎ny sort of political protest or lobbying done by students is subject to undue pressure from the biases of teachers, peers and non-profits working with schools. Political protest and lobbying ought to be done by students outside of school hours, independently of any class projects or grades,鈥 he said.

Kurtz鈥檚 arguments amount to a fabricated 鈥渂oogeyman,鈥 said Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor. 

Derek Black

Nonetheless, the idea that 鈥渇rothing-at-the-mouth Democratic teachers [could] create little warrior bands of students to go out and fight their political wars for them鈥 has become a captivating concern for some on the right, Black said, largely thanks to Kurtz.

It鈥檚 a worry that traces back to 2017 when the National Association of Scholars鈥檚 David Randall, who told 成人抖阴 he鈥檚 a 鈥減ersonal friend鈥 of Kurtz鈥檚, published a warning of the proliferation of a 鈥淣ew Civics鈥 that teaches students 鈥渁 good citizen is a radical activist.鈥

At issue for Kurtz was a type of programming known as 鈥渁ction civics鈥 popularized by the nonprofit Generation Citizen. In the approach, celebrated by , students learn to navigate local government by picking an issue they care about, studying it and presenting their findings to officials. 

The central philosophy is that 鈥渟tudents learn civics best by doing civics,鈥 Generation Citizen Policy Director Andrew Wilkes said.

成人抖阴 reviewed over three dozen student projects from Texas and found that the vast majority dealt with apolitical local issues, such as reducing texting while driving in school zones. A handful in Austin and nearby Elgin did lean left, such as on gun control or school admissions prioritizing diversity, topics educators said students selected based on their own interests.

McCluskey, at the Cato Institute, has documented over in public schooling for more than a decade and said he has yet to see 鈥渃ompelling evidence鈥 that liberal bias in civics classes has become a widespread problem. A 74 review of McCluskey鈥檚 tracker revealed that only a handful of incidents concerned civics.

Accurate or not, Kurtz鈥檚 depiction of 鈥渨oke civics鈥 is now being felt in America鈥檚 classrooms. 

A bill with 鈥榳onderful鈥 uptake

When the scholar penned his in 2021, which said students should be banned from receiving class credit for 鈥渓obbying鈥 or 鈥渁dvocacy鈥 at the federal, state or local level, lawmakers and advocates across the country pounced. The response was thanks, in part, to impeccable timing: Kurtz published just a few months before policies to restrict lessons related to race and gender began to crop up in dozens of state legislatures nationwide.

The Manhattan Institute, where Rufo now works, included the bill鈥檚 anti-lobbying provisions in its own that author James Copland said he presented at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, an annual forum to swap right-wing law-making proposals.

And Linda Bennett, a recently retired GOP South Carolina state representative, introduced a by the exact same name as Kurtz鈥檚 鈥淧artisanship Out of Civics Act.鈥

鈥淣o need to reinvent the wheel if somebody鈥檚 got it right,鈥 she told 成人抖阴.

Bennett insisted that her office had become flooded with young students, coerced by their educators, demanding that she 鈥減lease support allowing teachers to teach critical race theory.鈥 But neither she nor Copland could name a specific school or teacher that had distorted their civics lessons in such a way or influenced students to take an activist stance.

In Texas, where a piece of Kurtz鈥檚 model legislation on civics became law, the result was an unprecedented restriction on students鈥 civic engagement. Legislators tucked a clause into the eighth page of their classroom censorship bill outlawing all assignments involving 鈥渄irect communication鈥 between students and their federal, state or local officials.

In the two years since passage, Texas educators say they have been forced to abandon time-honored assignments such as having students attend a school board meeting or advocate for local causes like a stop sign at an intersection near campus.

鈥淭here are all sorts of other civics education that鈥檚 getting rolled up here,鈥 PEN America鈥檚 Young said, adding that it’s a byproduct of what he calls 鈥渟hockingly vague鈥 legislation.

Sarai Paez, a recent high school graduate from a suburb outside Austin, said the new law is 鈥渁 step backwards.鈥 Students in her ninth-grade civics class passed a 2018 city ordinance calling for youth representation in their local government 鈥 advocacy that would now be outlawed. 

鈥淭here’s no need to take away something that has affected 鈥 a group of people in a positive way,鈥 she said.

Sarai Paez and her classmates present to the Bastrop, Texas, city council. Perez stands behind the speaker wearing a gray dress and black tights. (Megan Brandon)

Though Kurtz said by email he has 鈥渁 policy of not commenting on any consultations by office holders or policy experts,鈥 Texas state Rep. Steve Toth, the bill鈥檚 Republican sponsor, acknowledged to that he 鈥渃onferred鈥 with Kurtz in drafting the legislation.

Toth and state Sen. Bryan Hughes, the GOP sponsor in the other chamber, did not respond to requests for comment.

In Ohio and South Dakota, where proposed legislation also pulled from Kurtz鈥檚 bill, on behalf of the policies in 2021 and 2022, respectively, though neither proposal passed.

Randall, research director at the National Association of Scholars, where Kurtz published the model legislation, said he鈥檚 been quite pleased with the bill鈥檚 uptake.

鈥淚f you had asked me when this was published, 鈥榃ould you be happy if, several years from now, it had been turned into law in Texas?鈥 鈥 I would have said that was a wonderful result.鈥

Money trail

Kurtz and the right-wing lawmakers and advocates who have helped translate his policy agenda into practice are linked by more than just shared philosophy. They鈥檙e also connected by money.

His employer, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank 鈥渄edicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy,鈥 has a dozen funders in common with the Manhattan Institute, tax filings reveal, including mega-donors like the Charles Koch Foundation.

Copland, at the Manhattan Institute, said he did not consult with Kurtz while putting together his anti-CRT model legislation, but acknowledged some of his colleagues may have.

Toth, in Texas, also receives campaign funds from the Koch Foundation. And Gov. DeSantis, in Florida, shares at least one donor, Fidelity Investments, in common with Kurtz鈥檚 think tank. 

On more than one occasion, the issues Kurtz speaks out on have soon found their way to DeSantis鈥檚 bully pulpit. The governor recently doubled down on civics education rooted in 鈥溾 and his rejection earlier this year of the College Board鈥檚 AP African American Studies curriculum came just a few months after Kurtz began . Kurtz named two authors specifically in his September article, Robin Kelley and Kimberl茅 Crenshaw, who the Florida Department of Education later objected to.

Education department press secretary Cassie Palelis said Florida鈥檚 concerns with the course were the 鈥渞esult of a thorough review,鈥 and that its correspondence with the College Board had begun in early 2022. When asked whether officials referenced Kurtz鈥檚 work during that process and, if so, what role it played, Palelis did not address the question.

Kurtz鈥檚 work drew one of the Ethics and Public Policy Center鈥檚 more sizable recent donations, according to the most recently available tax records. In 2019, the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation donated $150,000 to support one of his projects. The foundation funds a variety of causes including instilling 鈥 in the next generation of citizens.鈥

The Ethics and Public Policy Center did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the overlapping web of donors, Young, who has tracked the nationwide spread of anti-CRT laws, does not see a coordinated campaign.

鈥淭here are some people who look at this and sort of see a conspiracy,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 just see a bunch of people talking to each other who have aligned interests.鈥

Lawmakers tend to pull from legislation circulating in other states and 鈥渋t just snowballs,鈥 he added. 

As for the Kurtz model legislation, its influence continues to spread. Randall, at the National Association of Scholars, which shares nine funders in common with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the organization鈥檚 work in advancing the bill continues, particularly at the local level.

In January, a district outside of Colorado Springs to adopt a new 鈥淏irthright鈥 social studies curriculum developed by Randall鈥檚 Civics Alliance that bans awarding course credit for service learning or action civics.

鈥淲e are in it for the long haul,鈥 Randall said. 鈥淥ur mission is to inspire as many Americans as possible to join this work.鈥

Disclosure: The Stand Together Trust, which was founded by Charles Koch, provides financial support to 成人抖阴, which also participates in the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship.

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