A right-leaning national grassroots organization is targeting a Massachusetts-based program designed to advance math education among students of color and low-income students.
Parents Defending Education filed a federal civil rights complaint with U.S. education officials on Tuesday against the Milton Public Schools for its administration of a program called The Calculus Project.
The Virginia-based group contends the program is discriminatory, because it allegedly excludes some students from participation on the basis of race.
Founded in 2009, the Braintree-based Calculus Project seeks to bring together students of color and low-income students during breaks and after school to get extra tutoring in advanced mathematics. The practice is no secret: the Project’s website says “research shows [this approach] creates a more comfortable and productive academic environment for these students.”
The Milton school district has been offering the Calculus Project since the 2014-15 school year. Milton school officials did not immediately respond to request for comment.
In its complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Parents Defending Education contends that Milton schools are offering programming “for students of specific races that are not open to all.”
The complaint includes a thread of emails in which an administrator in the Milton Public Schools writes to an anonymous Milton resident that the Project is open to “African American/Black and LatinX students” and that there are “many supports and programs for all students to achieve at high levels.”
Erika Sanzi, director of outreach of Parents Defending Education, said in a statement that the legal logic behind the complaint is “simple.” “It is against the law to include or exclude students in school programs based on their race,” under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, she said.
In a statement Friday, The Calculus Project’s founder, Adrian Mims, disputed that charge.
Mims, who started the project as an educator and dean at Brookline High School, stressed that — while the program places priority on underserved students — “any student between grades 8 and 12 can apply to participate” in Milton as well as in six other Massachusetts districts the program is offered, including Brookline, Newton and Somerville.
Currently, Mims added, 48% of the Project’s students are Black and 38% are Hispanic. But nearly 20% are white and 15% identify as multiracial.
In a 2017 WBUR profile, Mims argued that his mission is to help students held back from achieving their mathematical potential. Those students tend to be disproportionately Black and Latino, he said.
What is Parents Defending Education?
This is not the first action taken against a Massachusetts school district – or Milton schools, for that matter – by Parents Defending Education. The group, despite its name, runs less on parent support than on large grants, some of which can be traced to large conservative foundations.
On its website, the group tracks “incidents” in schools across the country — including “drag queen story hours” and anti-racism trainings — as well as its own legal actions taken in response.
In its 2021 filing of Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service, Parents Defending Education describes itself as “fighting… for the restoration of a healthy, non-political education for our kids.”
The group does have paying members, but the same filing shows it only got 2.4% of its total revenue from member dues in 2021. The rest came from grants, including from right-leaning groups like the Searle Freedom Trust, which contributed $250,000 in 2021.
Parents Defending Education lists 50 Massachusetts-based incidents on its “IndoctriNation Map,” including restorative justice training and “equity audits.”
In Milton, the group had previously flagged the district’s teaching third graders about gay rights activist Harvey Milk. And the Calculus Project complaint closely resembles another complaint the group brought against the Newton Public Schools last year in response to “Lost and Found,” a theatrical event held as a “reserved safe space… for students of color” at Newton North High School.
In 2021, the group also sued the Wellesley Public Schools over the presence of allegedly exclusive racial affinity groups. They later settled out of court.