Social Emotional Learning: Democrats’ Vehicle for Pushing Race and Gender Politics at Parents’ Expense

by | May 15, 2023 | Fixing Education

The Left wants parents to “trust the experts.” In practice, that means subjecting them to the latest frenzied gender theories designed to promote a political agenda. Will parents comply?

A “Bland” Approach (That’s Anything But)

Liberals operate out of large institutions that generate substantial paperwork, so they’ve become experts at couching radical agendas in the bland language of administrative memos. Social Emotional Learning (SEL), a fast-growing, government-funded project in public schools, is a case-in-point. Who could object to schools promoting SEL’s goals of “self-awareness” and “social awareness,” the rhetorical equivalents of rainbow signs on an elementary school hallway wall? But this language deceives.

SEL has never been a program that helps students develop their personalities. Created by government-funded Ivy League universities to address what 1960s theorists called “troubled urban youth,” it began as a tool for social control, and later for schools to expand their authority at the American family’s expense. Now, the Biden administration is committing unprecedented funding to SEL, using its techniques and self-justifications for a specific political project: to convince K-12 students to define their world by race and gender politics.

Leave it to the “Experts”

From almost the beginning, SEL’s self-justification amounted to a power grab. According to practitioners, SEL instructs children how to “show kindness” or “resolve conflict” through hours of role-playing games and discussions, even though “in a perfect world, parents would teach these skills.” But, practically, parents can’t teach these skills, because teaching them means  “using the tensions and traumas of children’s lives” that teachers and school psychologists have the time and training to access and evaluate. In other words, the theory implies, leave your child’s personality to the institutional “experts.”

Though the American Psychological Association defines trauma as coming from events like wars, SEL’s application of the word to a playground fight isn’t accidental: It justifies “an expanded mandate for schools” to correct “children’s deficiencies.” And it draws support from Democratic-linked theorists, funders, and politicians interested in taking over the socializing roles played by families, neighborhoods, and churches.  

SEL’s arc from universities to Washington tracks these movers. After being founded at Yale, promoted in New Haven public schools, and publicized by university psychologist, registered Democrat, and current Yale president Peter Salovey, SEL moved to the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), based at Yale and then at University of Illinois in Chicago. There it was funded by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, whose projects expand nonprofits, administration, and social media at the expense of local communities and ties.

SEL entered Illinois public schools with the help of prominent education theorists like CASEL board member Linda Darling-Hammond, who headed fellow Chicago academic President Obama’s Education Transition team and was floated as a possible secretary of education. It also became national policy thanks to President Obama, whose administration committed funding to it.

At the end of the 2010s, as Democratic funders and politicians focused on race and gender politics, CASEL moved to keep up. From its Democratic-constructed perch, it became the seemingly harmless vehicle for pushing race and gender politics into classrooms, no matter what parents thought of the issues.

An Unholy Alliance: SEL and Democratic Identity Politics

For the movers behind Democrats’ race and gender ideology, look no further than the political consulting firms that dominate Washington, D.C.

The representative figure here is Stanley Greenberg, Democrats’ earliest and most prominent insider strategist who helms the D.C. consulting powerhouses Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR) and Democracy Corps. In the 1980s and 1990s, Greenberg pioneered focus group polling, instructing Democrats to woo Reagan voters by being “tough” on the same mostly black “urban youth” that SEL was set up to psychologize.

Today, his polling suggests that Democrats should play a different identity game: Attacking Republicans as racist and sexist and emphasizing the harms of racism and misogyny. Greenberg’s most recent book, RIP, GOP, sums up his view that the GOP has “set [itself] up for a shattering defeat” by “a New America increasingly secular, racially diverse” and populated by “millennials, people of color, and single women.”

There’s an obvious flaw to Greenberg’s approach: the people who come out for the focus groups he relies on are self-selected, there to press a political agenda (or maybe just for the cold cuts). Some also make a habit of re-attending, giving pollsters the same limited information that doesn’t reflect what most Americans think or feel. But in a Democratic Party cut off from older on-the-ground institutions, reliant on “expertise,” and influenced by top-down ideologists, magical thinking from certified data analysts who “dream of the end of the GOP” has an alluring appeal.

And what better way to make the dream a reality than using SEL to target future voters in the name of psychology—responding to students’ “mental health needs” and “traumas” the way “experts” are equipped to do? CASEL has been alive to this opportunity since 2019, borrowing from race and gender theorists to expand into “transformational SEL” that creates “political consciousness.” This approach links “self-awareness” to students’ “identity” based on categories of race and gender oppression that have created trauma.  

CASEL’s move paid dividends, literally. According to EducationWeek,   

District spending on SEL programming grew about 45 percent between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, from $530 million to $765 million. That increase coincided with a dramatic shift among teachers’ and school and district administrators’ priorities . . . toward students’ mental health . . . . Survey respondents cited . . . a greater focus on racial injustice as driving the rise in interest in social and emotional learning in their schools…

Meanwhile in 2019, CASEL board member Linda Darling Hammond led the California Board of Education in recommending that teachers talk to kindergarteners about gender identity and that high schoolers be educated in “descriptions of anal sex, bondage and other sexual activity.” (This last recommendation was withdrawn after public outcry.) CASEL also praised California schools for “adopt[ing] holistic policies that support SEL and equity” including “support for transgender/nonbinary students in athletics and in all school spaces”; “support” that sometimes lacked parental notification, spurring nationwide backlash.

Biden and What Comes Next

The pace only accelerated when the Biden administration took power in Washington. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (CT)—the woman responsible for Congressional Democrats’ budget, Stanley Greenberg’s wife, and linked to New Haven, Yale, and Yale President Salovey—hosted Linda Darling-Hammond at a House hearing, which stressed the need for “Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) interventions.”

The Biden administration soon committed $122 billion in 2022 for schools to address social and emotional issues. Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the FBI to investigate parents protesting SEL curriculum, some of which is promoted by a company owned by his son-in-law. And President Biden named a Friday in March America’s first Social Emotional Learning Day “reaffirm[ing] the need to give schools…the resources required to enhance social emotional learning. ”

Where does SEL curriculum go next? The answer isn’t hard to find. In the past six months, the Biden Administration has called climate change a threat on the level of Nazism. Expect to hear SEL experts instruct parents that their child’s mental health is being adversely affected by awareness of climate damage, and to add that the damage and mental harms fall disproportionally on children of marginalized races and genders. The beauty of SEL, like any administrative memo, is that it goes with everything.