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A critical education debate

States push restrictions on race theory lessons in public schools


Volunteers collect signatures in an attempt to recall the Mequon-Thiensville School District board on Aug. 23, 2021, in Mequon, Wis. Critical race theory teachings were among the recall effort’s concerns. Associated Press/Photo by Morry Gash, file

A critical education debate

The Waukesha, Wis., school district’s 10th grade vocabulary list includes terms like “structural racism,” “intersectionality,” and “racial microaggression,” according to a conservative nonprofit in the state. About 40 miles down the road, the Racine Unified School District offered a class called “Introduction to the 1619 Project.” And in the Middleton–Cross Plains Area School District, a parent concerned about her third grade son’s assignment, which required him to fill out an “identity journal” choosing the race he identified with, received a blunt response statement from the superintendent: “We believe the following: Our education system is inherently racist.”

The examples, included in a list released in May 2021 by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, are part of a debate in the state over race education in public schools. That debate ultimately prompted lawmakers in the state Legislature to pass a bill last month forbidding schools from teaching subjects associated with critical race theory (CRT). The bill now heads to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk, though he is expected to veto it.

Wisconsin is not the only state to consider an anti-CRT bill. As parents voice concerns over curriculum content, states are considering legislation to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, as well as legislation requiring schools to allow parents and taxpayers to examine curriculum resources.

According to Education Week, in the last year, 36 states have considered limiting critical race theory teaching or class conversations about racism or sexism. Fourteen of those states now have such restrictions in place. In Virginia, recently sworn-in Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, focused on limiting critical race theory in schools in his first executive order. In North Dakota, legislators banned the divisive theory from classrooms in November. Last month, Indiana legislators paused proposed legislation to fine-tune its wording, while a committee removed proposed requirements for teachers to post their teaching materials online.

In Wisconsin, only one group—Wisconsin Family Action—registered in support of the bill. Eighteen groups registered against it, including the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). On its website, the teachers union claims that Wisconsin’s bill calls for “preventing honesty in teaching,” adding it “would prohibit public schools from teaching students and training employees about concepts such as systemic racism and implicit bias.” WEAC president and junior high social studies teacher Ron Martin wrote in July that “there’s a disturbing push to stop educators from teaching honestly about our society in a historical context, including realization of systemic racial inequality.”

Proponents of the restrictions say they’re about prohibiting divisive teaching and increasing transparency, not chilling teacher speech.

“What we’re talking about here are pedagogical techniques used in schools that include grouping people on the basis of race and ascribing specific fixed ideas about what a person is based on a racial identity,” said James Copland, senior fellow and director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute in New York. “That’s really what most people are objecting to.”

Copland wrote a report that included model legislation addressing critical race theory. His recommendations insist that proposed legislation should not “whitewash” the teaching of history by glossing over racist evils and should guard against over-burdening schools with the risk of potentially expensive lawsuits. But his report also stipulates that state laws should allow parents access to information about school materials and activities, students and staff should be allowed to opt out of any activities centered on CRT, and no one should be required to say he or she agrees with CRT tenets.

“You just can’t compel the student to say, ‘I agree with the anti-racism definition that Ibram X. Kendi promulgates,’” said Copland, referencing a well-known author who promotes CRT. “The school shouldn’t be able to go there.”

According to a survey conducted last fall, 37 percent of teachers say they would be more likely to quit teaching if laws are passed restricting their teaching. Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has co-written policy recommendations for lawmakers and school officials, said these laws can be framed without chilling teacher speech.

“We’re not the side that wants to ban ideas,” he said. “For example, I think fascism and communism should be taught for the same reason that children should be taught how to recognize poison ivy.”

Like Indiana, some states are considering or have already passed transparency laws, bills that could compel schools to post their curricular resources online. Wisconsin legislators were among the first to send a transparency bill to a governor’s desk, but the governor vetoed the measure.

Copland argues that if the law requires parents to send their children to school and taxpayers to pay for public education, the government owes parents and taxpayers access to some school information. “Most teachers in a lot of places are doing this already,” he said. “But if it’s not being done, what we don’t want is school boards to do things in secret and keep things away from their parents.” He added that such bills should be carefully constructed not to overburden teachers

Not all policy experts are enthusiastic about the restrictions, though. Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says that while he understands the concerns behind these legislative efforts, “conservatives need to keep in mind the law of unintended consequences.” He worries some anti-CRT laws could restrict free speech or suppress classroom conversations about important topics.

Petrilli said communities will differ in how they approach controversial issues, so curricular decisions are best handled by local leadership. “We have a system of local control … for better, for worse—again, something conservatives have generally defended,” Petrilli said. “I think especially on these kind of culture war issues, school boards are well-positioned to be the ones to make those decisions.”

But for legislatures determined to pass statewide guidance, he said: “If you absolutely feel like you have to do it, do it carefully.”


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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