The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story that platforms the conservative war on education
Instead of unpacking this manufactured attack on public schools, the Times found its villain in teachers and teachers unions
The New York Times Magazine recently dedicated a multipage spread to the conservative war on public education, often legitimizing the political right’s advocacy for school choice vouchers and crusade against obscure concepts like "critical race theory.”
In doing so, the magazine placed a target on the back of public education advocate and teachers union leader Randi Weingarten, gratuitously framing right-wing attacks on education as an organic result of the political climate, rather than as a manufactured onslaught spurred by conservative media.
On April 28, The New York Times Magazine published an article on the continued attacks on the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the largest teachers unions in the country. The article details recent fights surrounding public education such as those over school voucher programs, COVID-19 mask mandates and school shutdowns, and culture war topics. While the cover of the April 30 edition of the magazine displays a fake picket sign reading “STOP RANDI WEINGARTEN!!” and the story appears to be framed as a profile of the AFT leader, it quotes her only sparingly.
In its characterization of the AFT and Weingarten, the magazine amplifies multiple right-wing talking points that attack public education and teachers unions, which ultimately frame Weingarten as the scapegoat for larger social issues well out of her or teachers unions’ purview.
For example, the article’s headline describing Weingarten as “the most dangerous person in the world” was taken from former President Donald Trump cabinet member and staunch election denialist Mike Pompeo. The article goes on to declare that Pompeo “had nevertheless put his finger on something” in targeting Weingarten and concludes, “Maybe Pompeo hadn’t been wrong.”
Pompeo later bragged about his inclusion in the magazine piece, tweeting, “Even the New York Times has to agree with me sometimes.” But as MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan wrote, adopting Pompeo’s “ridiculous and offensive attack” on Weingarten was “shoddy.”
The New York Times has repeatedly mischaracterized extreme attacks on public education and framed discriminatory education policies as a question of electability rather than highlighting the harm caused by this rhetoric and the policies it generates. In recent years, the Times has also whitewashed figures who have been driving forces in the attacks on public education, such as right-wing anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo, giving a national platform to his extreme viewpoints.
In addition to sanitizing the right’s war on education, The New York Times has legitimized other conservative culture wars. Last year, the Times helped fan the flames of rising anti-trans rhetoric by repeatedly suggesting that trans youth are being rushed to transition prematurely, featuring anti-LGBTQ extremists, and fearmongering about increasing rates of trans identification. The Times has also had a history of inadequately covering right-wing extremism and amplifying ahistorical right-wing rhetoric such as “tough-on-crime” policies, which has been used as a racist dog whistle throughout American politics.
Given the publication’s national readership and widespread circulation, the Times bears a great responsibility in giving its audience accurate reporting that reflects reality, not distortions crafted by right-wing media. Here are just some of the ways that the Times magazine elevated bad-faith right-wing messaging about education.
Framing Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin as successful in leveraging attacks on education
It was not Glenn Youngkin’s plan to turn Virginia’s 2021 governor’s race into a referendum on America’s battles over education. Initially, he was just hoping to prevent his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, from owning an issue that historically favored Democrats. “We couldn’t afford to let them take the fight to us,” Jeff Roe, one of Youngkin’s chief strategists, told me. By almost every measure, Youngkin, a former private-equity executive with no political experience, was the underdog.
Throughout his election campaign, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) leveraged right-wing culture wars on education, namely going after the conservative boogeyman “critical race theory” and threatening LGBTQ protections in schools. In its description of his gubernatorial campaign, the magazine paints Youngkin as an education warhawk who successfully used CRT to turn out the vote in addition to invoking other concerns plucked directly from conservative media. In reality, the effect of CRT in his race was likely much more subdued. As Vox wrote, voting patterns across Virginia did not appear to be “consistent with a CRT-focused explanation” but rather indicated the state took a “uniform swing against McAuliffe, not an especially strong backlash in areas where CRT was an especially prominent issue.” The Times further fails to mention that Youngkin has little to no experience with public education as a private school attendee and a parent who sent his own children to private schools.
Giving credence to right-wing advocacy for “school choice”
Did the pandemic and the culture wars reveal the indispensability of these [public] schools to their communities and to the broader fabric of the nation, or did they only underscore their inherent limitations — in effect, making the case for school choice?
The promotion of school choice policies has become a way for right-wing figures to push anti-public education sentiments and promote private and charter schools, and it has enabled de facto primary and secondary school segregation. The Times piece gives credence to the right-wing belief that school choice is a popular education policy by constructing the narrative that there is widespread disappointment in public schools. However, according to one of the Times' own surveys, conducted in 2022, 66% of parents with at least one school-aged child are satisfied with their local public schools, and 77% are satisfied with their own child’s education. While polls show that public support for school vouchers has increased in recent years, FiveThirtyEight notes that several of these surveys are sponsored by school choice advocacy groups that “may be incentivized to word their poll questions in a way that encourages respondents to indicate support for the programs.”
Blaming teachers unions for pandemic public school closures and learning loss
There was already early research showing that students were suffering academically from remote learning. Schools across Europe had begun reopening without any major outbreaks, and many of America’s private and parochial schools were making plans to resume in-person learning at the start of the new school year. A lot of public-school parents wanted their children to be back in the classroom, too. But many teachers seemed resistant to the idea.
Throughout the article, the Times blames teachers and teachers unions for needlessly delaying the return to in-person public schooling. At one point, the magazine cites a study from Brown University suggesting that “Democratic districts, with correspondingly strong teachers unions, returned to in-person learning more slowly and gradually than Republican districts with weaker unions.”
However, data from the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress found that pandemic learning losses were still significant in “areas that returned to the classroom quickly” while “cities — which were more likely to stay remote longer — actually saw milder decreases than suburban districts.”
Referencing groups such as Moms for Liberty without acknowledging their right-wing dark money connections
In Brevard County, Tina Descovich, the incumbent, was in favor of an immediate return to the classroom and opposed mask mandates. She was challenged by a public-school speech-language pathologist, Jennifer Jenkins, who called for a more cautious approach, including a mask mandate for all but the youngest children. Jenkins easily won the late-August election, but Descovich was just getting started. She called Tiffany Justice, a fellow school-board member in nearby Indian River County, to suggest that they create their own parents’ rights group, Moms for Liberty. “We’ve got to do something here,” Justice recalled Descovich’s telling her. “We have to help these parents because they’re trying to step up and speak out, and the schools are just slamming them at every turn.”
Moms for Liberty has gained traction in national discussions on education for portraying itself as a supporter of “parental rights” in public schools – a frame the Times uncritically adopts. In reality, Moms for Liberty is a right-leaning organization that has prominent ties to right-wing and far-right groups that are also seeking to privatize education and attack school boards and administrators. Moms for Liberty has also been found to harass and threaten violence against school administrators and board members for not supporting anti-LGBTQ educational policies. In its neutral framing of Moms for Liberty, the Times is whitewashing anti-public education figures and characterizing them as underdogs against Weingarten and the AFT, despite Moms for Liberty’s close ties to Republican politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Glossing over the origins of the right’s CRT and LGBTQ fearmongering
Christopher Rufo, the right-wing activist who manufactured the obsession with C.R.T. two years earlier, was now on Fox News railing against another crisis — the “academic queer theory” that he charged was being “mainlined” into America’s public schools — while Republican candidates condemned the “grooming” of children to identify as different genders in the nation’s classrooms. Many Republican candidates pledged their allegiance to a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” requiring schools to provide information on reading lists, curriculums and whether a family’s child used another name or pronoun in school.
Though the Times magazine mentions concepts like critical race theory and so-called “academic queer theory” as targets of conservative backlash, the article largely glosses over the way such grievances were engineered by right-wing activists to misleadingly gin up resentment toward public schools. CRT came to conservative prominence in the spring of 2021, with right-wing media and figures trying to erase its roots as an academic concept typically taught at the graduate level to make it a blanket term used to decry lesson plans that embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion. Conservatives have also tried to sound the alarm about alleged “academic queer theory” taught in public schools pushing vaguely defined gender ideology.
While the Times’ on Weingarten initially comes off as a profile on the AFT leader, the lack of voice given to educators on the frontlines of the right’s manufactured war on education is telling. Rather than giving a national platform to the teachers affected by the right’s crusade on the conventional classroom, amid the Times’ amplification of right-wing education policies and demonization of public schools, the magazine somehow found its villain in teachers and teachers unions.