Spend enough time studying the “racial equity” and “ethnic studies” programs sweeping school districts across the nation and you’ll find that they are following in the footsteps, on a several-year delay, of one of America’s most progressive cities: Seattle.
It’s worth examining, then, how all that worked out in Seattle. Despite decades of the most aggressive equity programs anyone could ask for, Seattle’s racial disparities are among the worst in the nation – and they’re getting worse, not better.
At the forefront of Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) initiatives was Tracy Castro-Gill, until recently its director of ethnic studies, who represented herself as a fierce Chicana who overcame homelessness and was willing to take on racism no matter who she had to battle, turning schools into vehicles for social change.
Castro-Gill, it turned out, was a perennially unhappy toxic liar, one who misrepresented her background to the point that her own father compared her to Rachel Dolezal, and who was ultimately pushed out of her job for repeated misconduct. A focus on racial oppression did not create resiliency, but rather despondency, with Castro-Gill and three other racial justice leaders going on paid leave from SPS for mental health issues in 2019 alone.
As Castro-Gill used children for politics in the workplace, her personal life also raised questions about the costs that can incur. She married a convicted child molester and moved her young daughter in with him. Then, her previous ex-husband told me, she pressured her child, who had serious mental impairments, to become gender-nonbinary.
The academic achievement of Seattle’s youth plummeted as she implemented initiatives like replacing math instruction with courses on “power and oppression.” But in this world, there was no such thing as failing: Those gaps were used to justify still more jobs and efforts like hers. The following — excerpted from Race To The Bottom: Uncovering the Secret Forces Destroying American Education, a new book by Daily Wire reporter Luke Rosiak — is the never-before-told story of America’s first “woke” school system.
In June 1997, a 36-year-old child molester named Brian Gill was released from a Washington state prison after serving time for repeatedly abusing his eight-year-old cousin. Gill spent his days immersed in a computer game called Second Life, where players create idealized images of themselves and interact with others’ false personas. There, he met a woman named Tracy, who was fourteen years his junior. Tracy’s avatar became the “submissive” to Brian’s “dominant” in violence-tinged online sex games.
In real life, Tracy Hammond was a classic California housewife, a stay-at-home mother of three whose husband provided for her. She and her husband Ron, a handyman, had been high school sweethearts. One night at 3 a.m., Ron woke up and found her sitting in front of her computer, entranced by the game. “You’re the only man that ever earned my respect,” he watched her type to Brian. Soon after, Tracy told Ron she was going to Vegas for the weekend with a girlfriend. Then that friend called Ron looking for her. By Monday, Ron filed for divorce.
Tracy wanted to take their four-year-old daughter and move to Seattle to live with Brian. The judge overseeing the custody case barred the girl’s move and ordered that the minor have no contact with the sex offender. Tracy said she was going anyway; she would leave her only daughter behind.
In Seattle in 2013, Tracy received a master’s degree in education and became a substitute teacher. She increasingly inhabited a Second Life-style parallel universe. The Seattle area is one of the most progressive and wealthiest in America, but in Tracy’s version, “white supremacy” was omnipresent. The reason she was “so angry all of the time” was that “our students are dying from violence, because they are dismissed regularly in their classrooms.” She was tired, but “I think I figured out why. I am under attack. All women, but especially womxn of color, are under attack.”
She had a new name, a colorful world of villains, and an explanation for a lifetime of unhappiness. “My name is Tracy Castro-Gill,” she proclaimed. “I am Xicana, chingona, and pissed off.” In this world, she was the hero. Teachers gravitated toward her as she laid out an inspiring story.
“I’m angry, because when I was in high school, I wasn’t encouraged to succeed… it was all Shakespeare and Whiteness,” she said.
Tracy’s closest connection to Spanish-speaking culture may be her similarity to Don Quixote, the fictional warrior who attacked windmills believing he was doing battle with ferocious giants.
In this telling of her life story, Castro-Gill grew up in poverty and was homeless. Her father, she said, was a Hispanic who betrayed his identity by being what she called a “U.S. nationalist,” which made their home “intolerable.” To avoid “assimilation” and show that she was authentically Hispanic, her new history went, Castro-Gill joined a gang and began using drugs.
None of this was real, her father Rick Castro told me. He and his wife, Rita, had provided for Tracy a conventional, stable middle-class upbringing. Rick eventually earned a six-figure income, and Rita was a stay-at-home mom. Her school placed her in honors classes, but she withdrew.
“Everything since [Tracy] moved to Seattle has been one big lie,” Rick said. “It hurts to be the subject of a complete fabrication. . . . She never said a word about any of this racial stuff back then. . . . Her best friend was a bipolar schizophrenic. I don’t know if it rubbed off, or we missed something raising her.”
Rick, who is half Hispanic, said Tracy’s closest connection to Spanish-speaking culture may be her similarity to Don Quixote, the fictional warrior who attacked windmills believing he was doing battle with ferocious giants. “My mom was white . . . my dad was born here in Long Beach,” Rick said. “You’ve seen pictures of her, she’s basically white. How are they racist against you? She can’t speak Spanish. She’s got a last name of Gill. . . . Remember Rachel Dolezal, that lady a few years ago who pretended to be black? That’s exactly what this is,” he said, referring to a white woman who became an NAACP official while identifying as black, also in Washington State.
Like Dolezal, Castro-Gill turned her new persona into a job—and in Castro-Gill’s case, a position of genuine influence. Seattle’s school system named her to a district-wide position called Ethnic Studies Program Manager, paying her $93,000 a year to convey to children the pervasiveness of racism. She described herself as a “radical atheist and consider myself a far-left anarchist.”
Her racialized version of education mirrored her self-proclaimed history of joining a gang and using drugs to avoid “assimilation.” Under her leadership, the Seattle school system — located in an area with two of America’s largest high-tech companies, Amazon and Microsoft — decided to partially replace the math curriculum of every grade with “math ethnic studies.” To pass, students must explain how math is “used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color.” They must “explain how math dictates economic oppression,” and answer “Why/how does [sic] data-driven processes prevent liberation?”
She was contending that using variables in algorithms was not for minorities, while enormous companies just miles away paid legions of computer programmers six-figure salaries to do just that. Then she was cultivating their despair over the racial income gap.
In spring 2018, the math ethnic studies program was piloted in six schools. The school board had approved the pilot program to decrease the achievement gap, writing “1. We affirm our belief that the integration and addition of ethnic studies into the education of Seattle Public Schools’ students can have a positive impact on eliminating opportunity gaps. 2. We direct that the Superintendent incorporate ethnic studies . . . as a high-leverage gap eliminating strategy.”
On the next state math exam, the performance of black students at those schools plummeted. At one pilot school, John Muir Elementary, black achievement had been rising steadily every year, but all those gains and more were wiped out, with the black passing rate dropping from 28% to under 18% the next school year. At another pilot school, 69% white and with only seven black students, the white students’ pass rates also plunged, from 60% to 36%.
Confronted with these results, Castro-Gill replied that she never had any intention of narrowing the achievement gap. Gaps, she believed, are a good thing, because they ensure that we focus on race. “Closing ‘Achievement/Opportunity’ gaps is a Western way of thinking about education,” she said. “We should never ‘close’ that gap because it provides space for reflection and growth.” It also justified jobs like hers.
Despite the failure of the pilot, the district said it would “prioritize ethnic studies . . . [and] help integrate ethnic studies into all curriculum, content areas, and grade levels.” An option to skip a requirement to take Algebra II, a staple for those planning to go to college, and replace it with a course covering “power & oppression,” became enormously popular.
In 2014, when her daughter was nine, Castro-Gill went back to court to seek custody and won. She moved her daughter in with her and Brian, the convicted child molester, at his 750-square-foot house. She enrolled the daughter in the Seattle schools. By seventh grade, she was pushing literature about transgenderism on her daughter, who had been diagnosed to have a “serious emotional disturbance” and “extremely low” social skills. Her daughter decided she was “nonbinary” and, according to Castro-Gill, began dating a transgender person.
Ron, the ex-husband, said Castro-Gill became “obsessed” with their child’s sexuality, seemingly in order to cultivate the currency of victimhood status. “Her daughter is white with blue eyes, so what are you gonna say? ‘She’s not black or Mexican, but she’s gay!’” he said. Ron told his daughter her identity did not come from a category. “I don’t care what you are, I love you with all my heart, as long as you’re happy. I’ve said don’t live your life to please me, or your mother . . . just be you and be happy. There’s nothing wrong with just being you.”
Rick, Castro-Gill’s father, said his sister is gay and he gladly accepts it, but “my granddaughter is not transgender, it’s wishful thinking on the part of Tracy.”
Castro-Gill had alienated much of her family with her determination to find negativity everywhere and her loose connection with the truth. She steamrolled over anyone in her way. When her older son had a child of his own, Castro-Gill interrupted a game of cops-and-robbers to accuse the five-year-old of wanting to kill her because she’s a poor Latina woman, Ron said. Castro-Gill’s son asked her to leave. “Those that are trying to inject poison, your best bet is to distance yourself from them,” Ron said.
But one group of people could neither distance from her nor question her beliefs: The 54,000 children of the Seattle public schools, where Castro-Gill held a high-level central office position. She made no bones about what that meant for those children. She posed for a picture with someone wearing a shirt that said, “Marxist Ringleader,” adding on social media: “Next step is matching ‘INDOCTRINATED’ t-shirts!”
The state named her Regional Teacher of the Year for 2018–19.
The rise of Castro-Gill and of ethnic studies in the Seattle schools is in part because a large part of what students learned in ethnic studies was how to demand more ethnic studies. Castro-Gill’s underage acolytes packed school board meetings and pressed officials to “mandate ethnic studies, Pre-K to 12th, and fully-staff [sic] ethnic studies departments” and “mandate thorough and frequent staff racial equity trainings.”
While she was employed by the school system, Castro-Gill also led an activist group called Washington Ethnic Studies Now, which attempts to change school policies. A handful of Seattle students associated with this organization created the NAACP Youth Coalition, and school board members encouraged them to show up at school board meetings to advocate. Yet the teenagers did not actually seem to believe they faced racism dire enough to take time out of their days to engage in activism, and club membership declined. “If you are facing multiple, interlocking systems of oppression, who has the time or ability to keep showing up to pressure school board directors?” one reasoned.
The group’s fortunes improved after government money was used to pay them to lobby the government. Rita Green, an NAACP official who nominated Castro-Gill as teacher of the year, applied for a “Best Starts for Kids” grant from King County, which was used to “pay the youth for their antiracism efforts. . . . No longer do adult coordinators have to ask students to volunteer their time to make change.” The local NAACP received an $877,000 grant to “improve school culture and climate for all students. In partnership with Seattle Council PTSA, and Seattle Public Schools District.” The tiny group of compensated activists could pack a meeting, allowing board members to say they were just being responsive to popular demand.
Castro-Gill’s tactic of expanding ethnic studies programs in this way was helped by another tactic: Bullying. In her old life, she might have seen this as a personality flaw to overcome, but her new persona was full of righteous indignation that justified any form of aggression or scheming. As a sympathetic journalist described it, “she admits to having little time to dither or speak ‘Seattle polite’ to people who either didn’t understand or recognize the issue: Children of Color had been drowning in educational ‘whiteness’ for centuries and even learning to swim meant assimilating, meant subverting their identities. If you were too daft to understand the curricular overhaul necessary to stem this chronic tide of whiteness, after having a little fun at your expense, Castro-Gill was ready to get back to work.”
The advocates simply built a footing within the bureaucracy, then began treating everyone else — parents, taxpayers, even colleagues — as the enemy. When the media began asking about the curriculum, Castro-Gill’s bosses asked her to give interviews. It was a chance to bring her important message to a mass audience. She resisted, saying that public backlash to the framework amounted to “emotional, racialized trauma.”
“Despite being a staunch liberal, I desperately hope this document does not represent what we are teaching in our schools, in either math class or social studies”
A resident complained to a curriculum manager about the “math ethnic studies” tenets: “Despite being a staunch liberal, I desperately hope this document does not represent what we are teaching in our schools, in either math class or social studies. . . . My hope is that some well-intentioned but naive individual created this document, and the larger group brought common sense to the situation.” The resident pleaded for a reply. The manager simply forwarded it to Castro-Gill with the note, “No worries, Tracy. I didn’t respond.”
Even as her power grew, Castro-Gill routinely accused colleagues and superiors of racism. When she wanted to put materials on the school system’s website in early 2019, IT employees noted that they did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s accommodations for the blind, and Castro-Gill reported the IT guys for racism.
In May 2019, when a female teacher called the police to document that an 11-year-old male student threatened to “f—ing beat your face,” Castro-Gill worked with a member of the school’s Racial Justice Team to “gain social justice” for the student, who was black. Castro-Gill sought out audio of the call and the police report and shared them, leading to an online mob that alleged the teacher “wielded her white fragility and racial bias like a weapon.” The teacher (who noted that she had previously experienced trauma) filed a complaint against Castro-Gill for bullying. Castro-Gill lied to internal investigators that she had not requested the files from the police.
In contrast, her supervisor gave her a glowing performance evaluation in July 2019, calling her “a strong moral compass” who “has had a very successful year.”
As 2019 went on, more colleagues filed complaints against Castro-Gill, but “retracted their complaints for fear of more public shaming and further retaliation,” according to an internal report. The school administration continued to give Castro-Gill’s work a large platform. In October 2019, Lindsey Berger, who played a lead role in the school system’s important Strategic Plan, considered elevating Castro-Gill’s teacher trainings to an even more prominent role. Castro-Gill responded by accusing her of “appropriation.”
While racial activism may have temporarily given Castro-Gill a sense of purpose, it also took its toll on her. “I’m so angry all of the time as a result of working on racial equity in my district,” she said. “Today I cried in my boss’s office. The level of toxic whiteness in that building is unreal. . . . I wish we didn’t have to cry because we are doing the jobs we were hired to do.”
By the end of 2019, Castro-Gill and at least three other of the system’s racial justice professionals went on paid medical leave because of the “stress” of working in what they viewed as a cripplingly racist and oppressive atmosphere: The unionized public school system of a progressive city that paid them to focus on racism. If there were any doubt about whether ethnic studies would help develop students into resilient adults prepared to thrive in their future endeavors, that seemed to provide the answer.
Two months later, Castro-Gill returned just in time to provide advice to a state education official from Massachusetts who hoped to replicate her work there and to bill the school system for four days of travel to a “youth organizing conference.”
On January 24, 2020, a staff member at Olympic View Elementary School sent out a survey about Valentine’s Day. Usana Jordan, a teacher who was part of Castro-Gill’s racial posse, forwarded it to Castro-Gill and other racial equity staff demanding that they “call out the whiteness.” Castro-Gill fired off an email to the principal, claiming his school was “in violation of the Equity Policy #0030” due to “explicit acts of Whiteness,” which “jeopardizes your fulfillment of the Strategic Plan for the school and the district.”
Castro-Gill is “a bully,” Schneider said. “I thought she might hurt me.”
She signed the letter using the names of high-level executives. Those leaders said they had not approved the language. One of them, Dr. Laura Schneider, manager of Professional Development Services, told investigators, “I was not in agreement that the version of the letter as it [was] sent out was complete or reflected my input.” She had tried to collaborate on revisions, she told investigators, but “the response [from Castro-Gill] is, you’re just a white person at the central office, so everything that you say is racist. It’s like there’s nowhere—I don’t know how to work with that.”
Castro-Gill is “a bully,” Schneider said. “I thought she might hurt me.”
As a result of the misrepresentation, Castro-Gill was placed back on paid leave, this time for “alleged misconduct,” on January 31. In May 2020, the superintendent determined that “[y]ou engaged in unprofessional behavior. . . . Being trustworthy, having integrity, collaborating with staff and families, and communicating in ways that allow inclusivity and voices/opinions that are different than your own, are essential and critical job functions for the Manager position. Your inability to exercise these skills on a regular basis impacts our staff, students, and families, plus it stalls the important Ethnic Studies work that must move forward.”
There was only one thing to do: “I conclude that it is in the best interest of the District that you get placed back into . . . a teaching position.”
Of all her outlandish actions, this one crossed the line: She had besmirched the reputations of top education bureaucrats by tying them to an email that caused embarrassment. This is the education industry in a nutshell: Focused above all else on presenting a positive public image for top officials, even if it makes things worse for children.
Equity “initiatives” are little different. They make for pleasant press releases for school board members and superintendents. They temporarily placate a tiny but insatiable band of activists who demand them, but bring neuroticism, anger, ignorance, suspicion, and dysfunction for everyone else. Seattle’s experience proves such equity initiatives do not solve the problems used to justify them. Seattle has embraced every conceivable equity program for decades. As of 2017, it had one of the worst black-white achievement gaps in the nation.
In 1986, a Seattle “task force” recommended a goal “for the elimination of disproportionality in academic achievement and discipline by the end of the 1989–90 school year.” In 2013, the school board aspired to “closing the opportunity gaps” by 2018.
In 1986, a Seattle “task force” recommended a goal “for the elimination of disproportionality in academic achievement and discipline by the end of the 1989–90 school year.” In 2013, the school board aspired to “closing the opportunity gaps” by 2018. But the gap was only getting worse. In 2016, black students were the equivalent of 3.5 grades behind white students, meaning the average black eighth grader might perform as well as the average white fifth grader. By 2017, it had widened to 3.7 grades.
Progressive racial activists might be surprised by the states with the smallest black-white achievement gap when it comes to high school graduation rate, as measured during the 2016–17 school year. Those states are West Virginia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Maine, Wyoming, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia. Chris Stewart, a black, liberal former Minneapolis school board member and CEO of education think tank Brightbeam, crunched the numbers and reluctantly found one solid correlation: The more progressive the city, the worse the “achievement gap.”
“We tried to explain it away” by controlling for population size, percentage of white students, spending, income inequality, and poverty rate, “but we couldn’t,” Brightbeam’s 2020 report The Secret Shame admitted. The average gap between the percentage of blacks and whites proficient in math is 41 in progressive cities and 26 in conservative ones. In San Francisco, 70% of white students are proficient in math compared with 12% of blacks.
“Shouldn’t an incredibly wealthy place like San Francisco be the most likely to have used their considerable resources, political will, and community support for helping black and Latino children succeed in school? Shouldn’t this be where we see the smallest educational disparities between white students and their black and brown peers? It should be, but it’s not,” Stewart wrote.
Castro-Gill’s methods have cowed the educational establishment from wealthy purple hamlets to military towns and the rural Midwest. Almost every large school system — most of them suburban — has created a high-ranking “equity” czar position. Across the country, more and more Tracy Castro-Gills are creating lasting damage in the areas they are being hired to fix.
As for Tracy Castro-Gill herself? After being removed from her job for misconduct, she began offering professional development training, at costs ranging up to $70,000, through her nonprofit. Within a few months, she had contracts with 12 area schools. In March 2021, the Washington State Board of Education voted unanimously to require its own members and staff to take eighteen hours of training from Castro-Gill, with the intent of making ethnic studies a required course statewide.
The preceding is excerpted from a new book on the failures of America’s public schools, Race To The Bottom: Uncovering the Secret Forces Destroying American Education. To read more, buy it here.