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How big tech and big money made our schools go woke

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Few issues have emerged as cultural flashpoints quite like Critical Race Theory. Better-known as CRT, the ideology — which places race and racism at the center of learning —  has become a cornerstone of academic curricula nationwide. Some parents embrace it, others despite it – and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis tried to ban it from Florida public schools entirely. In his new book “School of Woke,” author Kenny Xu explores the intriguing path CRT has navigated to reach this critical juncture and the roles that big tech, big money and political elites have played in the process. 

In the summer of 2018, Merrick Garland, who had just lost his bid to become a Supreme Court Justice, walked his daughter Rebecca Garland down the aisle of the luxurious St. Vrain wedding venue in Longmont, Colo., her arm clutched in his. 

He was leading her to her about-to-be husband, Alexander “Xan” Tanner. 

Xan Tanner, then 27, was the wunderkind cofounder of Panorama Education, a New York Times-profiled full-service “analytical software and services company” based in Boston, Mass. 


Alexander “Xan” Tanner, founder of Panorama Education, which used funding and access from political and big-tech leaders to secure major education consulting gigs that helped secure CRT's place in public education.
Alexander “Xan” Tanner, founder of Panorama Education, which used funding and access from political and big-tech leaders to secure major education consulting gigs that helped secure CRT’s place in public education.
LinkedIn

A millionaire and a Mark Zuckerberg acolyte, Xan Tanner sat at the pinnacle of what was increasingly becoming the height of liberal fashion — Yale grad, big-tech CEO, education activist.

But what was behind his fortune? 

The New York Times may have described Panorama in cagey language in its coverage of the Tanner-Garland wedding, but the reality is that Panorama Education is not a software company at all but rather an educational technology company whose lead business model is data, particularly data about children.

Along with his fellow Yale graduates Aaron Feuer and David Carel, Tanner created a student-surveying platform that focuses on the mysterious concept of “social-emotional learning,” which Panorama defines rather vaguely as “supporting the whole student.”


Attorney General Merrick Garland and his daughter Rebecca, wife of Panorama Education-founder Xan Tanner.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and his daughter Rebecca, wife of Panorama Education-founder Xan Tanner.
Whitehouse.gov

Yet what’s curious is his quick rise to riches.

There’s nothing technologically savvy about Tanner’s product, which could have been created on SurveyMonkey. But strangely, Zuckerberg chose Tanner out of many potential investment opportunities and elected to fund him. Tanner ended up raising more than $16 million personally from the tech billionaire and $76 million from others by using Zuckerberg’s name between the years 2017 and 2021, as Forbes reported.

Zuckerberg had a very intense interest in “fixing” public schools, and his $1 billion Startup: Education fund, which he established in 2012, was actively looking to invest in educational do-gooders like Tanner.  The fund was made to “[improve] education for the nation’s most underserved children.” Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, believed that they could “solve” education in America by leveraging what he knew best — the power of big business.

But the Facebook CEO needed loyal servants for his cause.


The District of Columbia's public school system was one of many progressive districts that opted to adopt the Panorama Education platform.
The District of Columbia’s public school system was one of many progressive districts that opted to adopt the Panorama Education platform.

And Xan Tanner, with his prestigious background and social-justice bona fides, fit the profile. Tanner himself had plenty to gain from a partnership with Zuckerberg — in particular, money, and lots of it. 

His path to riches was to run a child-research firm with Mark Zuckerberg’s money attached to it.  

But as soon as Tanner took the job, Zuckerberg asked him to tackle what had previously been an intractable problem: how to persuade America’s public-school boards to give the fund access to private data about their children. After all, the last time Zuckerberg spent big money on education — in a widely publicized takeover of the Newark, NJ, public schools, in 2012 — he watched his $200 million disappear into a black hole of mismanagement and graft. 

“There was $20 million that went to consultants who received, in general, $1,000 dollars a day for carrying out various management reform efforts,” wrote Dale Russakoff, a journalist who documented Zuckerberg’s attempt at school reform. 


Journalist Dale Russakoff wrote critically about Mark Zuckerberg's costly — and disastrous — foray into educational funding.
Journalist Dale Russakoff wrote critically about Mark Zuckerberg’s costly — and disastrous — foray into educational funding.
Dale Russakoff / Twitter

Another $89 million went into a teachers’ contract, which had little direct effect on learn ing. The New York Times excoriated Zuckerberg’s gift as one that “slowly melt[ed] into an ocean of recrimination.”

The national embarrassment convinced the fledgling philanthropist that he should exert his influence in subtler, more under-the-table ways in the future. And one of those ways was through conduits such as Tanner.

Still, how was the young Yale grad going to get his foot in the door with the notoriously hard-to-crack school boards? After years of keeping his nose to the grindstone, pitching, and trying to persuade the school board to adopt his Zuckerberg‑backed surveying product, Tanner found the answer: go woke.


Protesters demonstrating against CRT and gender ideology programs at Centre County Public Schools in Pennsylvania this past April.
Protesters demonstrating against CRT and gender ideology programs at Centre County Public Schools in Pennsylvania this past April.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Tanner’s pitching strategy was to convince schools that they needed data on “racism” at their institutions to help children with their “social-emotional health.” (The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act mandated that schools find some way to address social and emotional wellness in students.)  The company targeted the most progressive districts in the nation, such as those in El Dorado County, California, the city of Boston, and Washington, DC.

Promising that the districts would gain insights into the state of racism among local fourth graders, Panorama secured the contracts, which ranged in value from the hundreds of thousands to the millions of dollars, by asking questions such as “How clearly do you see your culture and history reflected in your school?” and “How often do you feel that you are treated poorly by other students because of your race, ethnicity, gender, family’s income, religion, disability, or sexual orientation?” 


Anti-CRT parent protests outside the Loudoun County School Board headquarters, in Ashburn, Virginia in June 2021.  Loudoun County was one of many progressive districts that worked with Panorama Education and its race- and identity-focused polling platforms.
Anti-CRT parent protests outside the Loudoun County School Board headquarters, in Ashburn, Virginia in June 2021. Loudoun County was one of many progressive districts that worked with Panorama Education and its race- and identity-focused polling platforms.
REUTERS

These questions, when answered by emotional nine- and 10-year-olds, would usually swing toward the direction of critical race theory — averring that our institutions and our schools retain and abet racism.

As revealed in new documents leaked from Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), in northern Virginia, Panorama had signed a five-year, $2.4 million deal with FCPS to conduct surveys among students about ways in which they were being targeted because of their race and gender. This included transgenderism: Panorama asked questions such as “Some people describe themselves as transgender when their sex at birth does not match the way they think or feel about their gender. Are you transgender?”

The surveys were not optional for students, meaning that students had to sit down for at least an hour, probably more, to take this survey, conducted on behalf of a for-profit business.


Anti-CRT demonstrations by parents also took place in New Mexico.
Anti-CRT demonstrations by parents also took place in New Mexico.
AP

But because Tanner positioned himself as the ur-woke surveyor, progressive school boards let him in. In fact, local governments eventually showered Panorama with more than $27 million in payments between 2017 and 2020. Other organizations quickly noticed Tanner’s business model and followed him.

In Loudoun County, Fairfax County’s immediate neighbor, students were asked to take “social-emotional” surveys conducted by the University of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Education. UVA went even further than Panorama when it came to injecting sensitive political issues directly into the bloodstream of the school day, asking Loudoun County ninth graders: “During the past 12 months, did you ever seriously consider attempting suicide?” and “During the past 12 months, did you ever feel so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities?”


Metahead Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan became interested in supporting major education initiatives and contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the cause.
Meta-head Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan became interested in supporting major education initiatives and contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the cause.
Getty Images

Data-mining children by asking traumatizing questions may appear to be an exercise in futility. But rest assured, the progressive school administrators had a purpose for these surveys. Coincidentally enough, soon after the contracts were signed, school boards, including those in the District of Columbia Public Schools, started reporting things such as “Black and at‑risk students were less satisfied with their schools than their White, Asian, and not at‑risk peers.” Their evidence? Right there in the footnote: Panorama Education.


Zuckerberg with Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, NJ back in 2010 following the Meta-founder's gift of $100 million to the city's school system.
Zuckerberg with Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, NJ back in 2010 following the Meta-founder’s gift of $100 million to the city’s school system.
Gary He for Facebook

Armed with “data” on “racism,” activists and special interests could walk up to the front of the aisle and loudly crow “systemic racism” at the district and demand reparations and policy changes — usually to persuade weak-willed administrators to give them more money and power. 


All the while, the Garland family, woke educational bureaucrats, and billionaire elites cashed in on the grift. Elite progressives got rich and politically influential by going woke.

So Merrick Garland must have been very pleased that his daughter was going to marry Xan Tanner. He fit every quality that Garland must have wanted in a son-in-law: elite, liberal, a natural at playing at the elite liberal game of kowtowing to the forces of social justice and bowing down to the Zuckerbergs of the world. 

Most important, Tanner understood the business purpose of propagating Critical Race Theory: to land the contract.


"School of Woke" author Kenny Xu.
“School of Woke” author Kenny Xu.

[My] book is about the complex interweaving of radical activists, school‑system bureaucrats, and social justice-oriented businesses such as Tanner’s as they form a symbiotic economy propped up by the racism narrative in the United States. The activists get their ideology. The school systems get power over children. The businesses get profit. It’s a neat arrangement for everybody — except the children themselves.

Excerpted from School of Woke by Kenny Xu. (Copyright 2023) Used with permission from Center Street, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. 



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