Little Evidence of ‘Woke’ Accreditors in Wisconsin’s School Choice Programs

Published on: Aug 19, 2021

By Miranda Spindt and Will Flanders

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a growing concern for parents in Wisconsin and around the nation. School choice is often offered as the answer by conservatives to families looking for alternatives. However, there is growing concern private education may not always be the solution that it is taken to be. There is another level of power, often overlooked, which influences the kind of curriculum used in our private and charter schools: accreditation organizations.

Schools seek out accreditation to demonstrate that the education they offer meets high standards, attracting ideal students and enhancing student opportunity. However, many accreditation bodies have integrated accreditation requirements that open the door for schools to add CRT to their curriculum.  A recent piece in the Washington Free Beacon highlighted the growing concern of parents that CRT is seeping into private schools as well. This builds on work from the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio that highlights the pervasiveness of the “woke” agenda in some of America’s elite private schools.

For example, The New York State Association of Independent Schools states in their Manual for Evaluation and Accreditation that “The issues of equity, justice, and anti-bias are integrated into the educational program.” Similarly, The Association of Independent Schools in New England state in their handbook, under teaching and curriculum criteria, “The school’s teaching practices, curriculum and broader educational program reflect a commitment to social justice, inclusivity and diversity, as appropriate to its mission.”

As advocates for school choice as an avenue for parents to escape the ideological tilt of traditional public schools, we were curious to see the extent to which these agendas were making their way into Wisconsin’s private schools, particularly those participating in the state’s major school choice programs. Under state law, there are eight accreditors that are allowed to be utilized by private schools participating in Parental Choice. After researching the accreditation criteria and guiding principles of these eight, we found only one that appears to even approach a CRT standard.

The Independent Schools Association of Central States (ISACS), in their diversity statement, says that they will “require and support the work of each ISACS school to provide an equitable, affirming, safe, and just environment”. They add in their standards for membership that schools will provide this environment by “taking into account cultural, learning, and social-emotional needs.”  While words like “equity” have become buzzwords in their CRT movement, we must caution that this is weak evidence of CRT even within ISACS. In Wisconsin, only 12 schools are accredited by ISACS and none of them participate in the state parental choice programs.

Even if we had found accreditors that require a CRT curriculum more directly, it is important to note that they have this right. In the free market of school choice, parents who want such a curriculum can send their kids to those schools, while those that do not have alternatives.  This is a contrast to the traditional public-school environment, where students are stuck in a school according to their ZIP code, with few or no alternatives.

That said, even more diversity of opinion could be offered if we removed existing accrediting requirements for private choice schools that are currently required by state law.  There is evidence nationally that such accreditation requirements do little to improve outcomes for students, but do serve as an impediment for schools when deciding whether or not to participate in a school choice program. While some argue that there is a risk that universities may discount diplomas from non-accredited high schools, the evidence on this question is mixed.  Additionally, as more and more students utilize alternative educational options like home schooling and learning pods, the usefulness of these requirements may continue to weaken.

Wisconsin is in a good place with accreditation for its choice programs. But we should always be evaluating ways to bring even more market forces into play, and further increase educational freedom.

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