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Santa Barbara School Board Protects Lefty Activists’ Grift As Student Scores Keep Sliding

Activists build their careers with school district money while superintendents and school boards get lavish treatment from the organizations they’re funding.


The following includes an edited excerpt from the author’s new book, School of Woke: How Critical Race Theory Infiltrated American Schools and Why We Must Reclaim Them.

It’s almost back to school, and America’s student achievement is lower than ever. After Covid lockdowns erased two decades of small gains in math and reading achievement, the 2022-2023 school year doused what was left of hope for a V-shaped recovery with continued declines. The pandemic hit low-income minority communities worst, leaving school administrators and educators dazed about the severity of America’s broken will to educate students.

The truth is that even before the pandemic, America’s schools were asleep at the wheel. School boards designed to improve student outcomes have become doormats for what I term the “education-industrial complex,” which describes the sea of activist nonprofits, businesses, and bureaucrats who use our massive pile of education funding to serve ideological agendas and their own ends.

One of the darkest examples of such grift I uncovered for my new book, School of Woke, involves a sex-ed teacher in Santa Barbara, California, named Jennifer Freed and a school board that prioritized her private gain over the health and safety of students.

Freed, the founder of a Santa Barbara nonprofit named “AHA!” (Attitudes, Harmony, and Achievement), was an important conduit for the Santa Barbara school board’s mission of injecting critical race theory and queer theory into the veins of public schools. Under the guise of “social-emotional learning,” Freed would recruit teenagers for her workshops, talk about sex openly with children, invite grown men to talk about sex with children, and flaunt her organization’s life-changing effects to her donors.

AHA!’s contracts with the publicly funded Santa Barbara Unified School District are extraordinarily lucrative. Nowhere was that made clearer than in a school board meeting on June 11, 2019 — the purpose of which was supposedly to evaluate the strength and efficacy of AHA!’s measures, particularly its peer-led Peace Builders program.

The evaluator was Assistant Superintendent Frann Wageneck. In her presentation to the board, it was clear from her near-constant pauses, slipups, and general anxiety over the situation that she didn’t feel good about AHA!. She presented decidedly negative results regarding its ability to get teachers to buy into their Restorative Circles and Peace Builders programs, which the board had highly touted.

In fact, the results showed zero teacher buy-in, with no implementation of the circles — the same circles former Santa Barbara student Cage Englander described as “talking about your feelings” with weird, creepy grownups — and no acknowledgment of the student peace builders.

The teachers either did not know these programs existed or did not trust the students and the staff of AHA! to teach conflict resolution in a beneficial way. And why would they? This was an outside nonprofit organization coming into teachers’ own classrooms and asking kids to be “vulnerable” and touch each other. None of the board’s findings — or Wageneck’s recommendation, which was to cut the $30,000 in government funding AHA! received for its Peace Builders program — should have come as a surprise.

Yet Wageneck, tripping over her words, continued to blubber and spurt apologies. “I thoroughly believe that [AHA!] can work,” she said, even as the PowerPoint slide looming above her said the opposite. She even went so far as to blame herself for the failures of AHA!, saying, “I take personal responsibility for this.” Watching Wageneck blame herself for AHA!’s failures was cringeworthy.

Then SBUSD board member Laura Capps stepped in to clean up Wageneck’s mess and embarrassingly obvious blubbering. Capps, a prominent upper-class Santa Barbara fundraiser and school board member whose mother was a congresswoman for the district, knew everybody in the town — at least, everybody who mattered. “AHA! does raise $350,000 for Peace Builders, so I trust that you will pause this in a way that doesn’t thwart any of that private funding that does come our way,” she said coldly.

Unfortunately, Capps’s haughty attitude may have gotten the best of her in this instance because she inadvertently dropped a true bombshell that both signaled her out-of-touch air and reframed the entire conversation about predatory outside nonprofit organizations’ presence in public schools.

Between 2015 and 2019, SBUSD contributed $30,000 per year to AHA!’s Peace Builder program. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but what Laura Capps shockingly admitted in that June 11, 2019, board meeting was that the district’s $30,000-per-year grant leveraged a further $350,000-per-year private donation to AHA! for its services to the school district. “This evaluation is taxpayer money, but be mindful of the fact that it does leverage private donations that AHA! does bring in, and I hopefully don’t want to lose that,” Capps said.

This means that AHA!’s provision of services to SBUSD is the selling point to a particular private donor or series of donors who contributed more than $300,000 to enable the organization to work within the school system. What’s extraordinary is that Capps knew that and used that as a reason to go easy on AHA!, even as the school district was scheduled to pull $30,000 in funding based on a lack of evidence of its efficacy with children.

This meant that she, a school board member, was openly mixing her role as a financial steward of SBUSD with her implied role as booster for AHA! and its founder, Jennifer Freed. Why would she express concern for AHA!’s welfare in a public school board meeting except to hint to her colleagues that AHA! is “one of us”?

What people were witnessing in that room on that day was a rare instance of a school board persuading itself out of the right decision in real time, in public, for all to see. And the results were evidence of that weakness. After a spell of just one year without the AHA! Peace Builders program, SBUSD signed a new deal with AHA! at Santa Barbara High School for the 2019–20 school year at a cost of $9,999 (likely “leveraging” hundreds of thousands of dollars more), then signed another deal in 2021–2022 for $7,500 from La Colina Junior High School and another for $2,600 from Goleta Valley Junior High School.

It was like an estranged boyfriend who just can’t summon the courage to break up with his needy girlfriend. It was like watching a messy, half-thought-out divorce negotiation in which the initiator is having second thoughts.

Follow Santa Barbara’s educational system long enough and you begin to see a district hollowed out by critical race theory and queer theory vultures fighting for the state and federal funds to implement their activist programs. A little nip here: five hours of health class dedicated to AHA!’s queer theory-based “social-emotional learning.” A tug there: $1,500 an hour for R. Tolteka Cuauhtin’s critical race theory professional training.

The activists build their careers with money from the school district. The superintendent and the school board benefit in the lavish treatment they get from the organizations they’re funding. Everyone wins — at least, everyone involved in the transactions wins.

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