The combustible intersection of race, equity and education is fueling late-night school board meetings across the Front Range, where parents, teachers and students sound off about a phrase and concept that’s suddenly everywhere in the U.S.: critical race theory.
The loudest of the discussions is in Douglas County, where a newly adopted “equity policy” has set off a firestorm of accusations that the 67,000-student, mostly white district south of Denver is embracing the controversial theory. A similar debate happened last month at a Cherry Creek School District board meeting.
And in Colorado Springs, leaders of School District 49 recently decided to craft a resolution that’ll be voted on later this summer to ban teaching of the controversial theory — following in the footsteps of statewide bans in Florida, Arkansas and Idaho.
Many parents and critics say the focus on race serves to divide students.
“This is definitely creeping in and pushing out what one would hope our kids are being taught — the ability to read, do math and critically think,” said William Conner, Colorado chapter president of the conservative-leaning No Left Turn in Education.
But several of Colorado’s largest school districts, including Denver Public Schools, Douglas County, Cherry Creek and Jefferson County, say that’s just wrong. They don’t teach the decades-old academic concept of critical race theory, which is found primarily in higher-level courses and suggests racism and other prejudices are social constructs embedded in legal systems and laws.
Matt Flores, chief academic officer at Jefferson County Schools, said the same goes for the 1619 Project, a 2019 New York Times initiative that puts a greater focus on the impact of slavery on American history and highlights the contributions of Black Americans.
Instead, Jefferson County follows the Colorado Academic Standards for social studies, which provide curriculum guidance for the state’s public schools. For example, at the preschool level, schools can provide teaching materials “that support diversity with respect to race, culture, ethnicity, age, ability, and non-stereotyping roles.”
For high schoolers, the standards say students can “examine and evaluate issues of unity and diversity from Reconstruction to present,” like the “systemic impact of racism and nativism, role of patriotism, expansion of rights and the role of religion.”
Colorado Department of Education spokesman Jeremy Meyer said decisions about what specifically is taught are made by individual school boards, “which have the sole authority to select specific curriculum and instruction.”
In Jefferson County, teachers who want to present controversial topics must get permission first, and parents are notified and get the chance to weigh in. In its regulations, the district lists as controversial “materials that are likely to divide the community along racial, ethnic, or religious lines.”
Douglas County takes a similar approach. Board President David Ray said the district’s new equity policy, which was approved in March, also is not an embrace of critical race theory but an effort to “make sure all students have equal access to the same opportunities.”
“We’re not indoctrinating children — that’s not our goal,” he said. “We are ensuring that all children’s needs are met.”
But Emily Kliewer, whose two kids attend school in the Douglas County district, said there’s an unhealthy obsession with race and a preoccupation with personal identity that serve to divide rather than unite.
“We just spent 100 years trying to get people to look at each other as individuals and not as a race and now we’re regressing to teaching children about the color of people’s skin,” the Highlands Ranch resident said. “If you’re always looking through the lens of race to judge history, aren’t you missing so much?”
The politics of critical race theory
Critical race theory has morphed from its roots as a lofty academic notion into a catchphrase for those sensing the long-term power structure being under challenge by traditionally marginalized communities, University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Jennifer Ho said.
She pointed to conservative filmmaker and commentator Christopher Rufo, who was recently profiled in The New Yorker as the architect behind turning critical race theory into a potent political weapon. In lambasting the “elites” for “seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race,” Rufo concluded that appropriating the left’s own terminology could make critical race theory “the perfect villain.”
Animus toward the concept is building. According to Chalkbeat’s state-by-state analysis, 27 states have passed or are looking to pass laws limiting the use of critical race theory at the K-12 level.
Last month, Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who has denounced the concept as “dangerous” and “anti-American,” reintroduced the Saving American History Act that would ban federal funds from being used to teach the 1619 Project, which garners an equally partisan response, in K-12 schools.
Legal challenges are mounting, too, including a recent discrimination lawsuit filed against a suburban Chicago district by one of its teachers, who said “mandated anti-racist training has created a hostile environment for white students and educators,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
But critical race theory is not taught in public schools, Ho said — it’s a concept that largely resides in college or graduate level courses.
“Saying you want to ban teaching critical race theory in K-12 is saying you want to ban electrical engineering in K-12,” she said. “… Yes, students may be learning about electricity, but that’s very different from saying that your seventh-grade science teacher is teaching electrical engineering.”
The ugly side of American history — the myriad cruel and sometimes lethal policies and practices targeting Chinese, Japanese, American Indian, Latino and Black Americans over centuries — needs to be addressed in greater detail, Ho said.
“If you are white and you are hearing about this for the first time, you are triggered,” she said. “You are feeling anger, fear and shame, and that’s OK. It’s OK to feel resistant. And one response is to deflect and say ‘we don’t want to talk about these things.’”
Julie Bateman, whose son attends kindergarten in the Douglas County School District, has gone to several school board meetings in recent weeks and applauds the district for passing an equity policy. It’s important, she said, to do a better job of telling the stories of Americans who haven’t held traditional positions of power.
“When I think of my history, it was the story of white man after white man after white man who’s in charge,” Bateman said. “Why did I learn about this and not that? Who gets to decide what’s in my history book? Whose voice am I hearing and whose voice am I not hearing?”
She’s also a fifth grade teacher in another metro-area district, and explored with her students the 1921 massacre of a Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., by a white mob in a way that was “appropriate for that age group.”
“Part of being a teacher and part of being a professional is understanding kids and knowing what they may or may not be ready for,” she said. “A lot of parents think they know what should be taught, and how it should be taught, yet they’ve never been in a classroom.”
Critics contend that if schools aren’t formally embracing critical race theory, elements of the concept are quietly being incorporated into lesson plans. No Left Turn keeps a list of complaints from Colorado parents who claim teachers have focused on topics like white privilege and embraced the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement in their classrooms.
Conner doesn’t want to sugarcoat what is an often-troubled past in this country, but he’s worried whether lessons are increasingly being framed in a way meant to sow division and resentment.
“This push to see everything through a racial lens,” he said. “Because you are a person of color, you are an oppressed person — end of story. And if you’re white, you’re an oppressor, whether you know it or not.”
And critical race theory isn’t just a political weapon of the right, Conner said, pointing to the Zinn Education Project webpage, named after socialist historian Howard Zinn, where more than 5,000 U.S. teachers have signed a pledge to defy state laws “that would require teachers to lie to students about the role of racism, sexism, heterosexism and oppression throughout U.S history.”
At the top of the page is a button to make a financial contribution.
“You know how political it has gotten — with the us versus them — a lot of folks are tired,” Conner said.
“Can’t feel guilty”
Barbara Paden’s daughter turned in an assignment at a Jefferson County school about women’s suffrage. She focused on an 18th-century women’s rights advocate in France who was beheaded. Paden said the teacher gave her a zero and suggested she instead “focus on the suppression of Black women’s vote in the 20th century.”
The Jefferson County School District was unaware of the incident and was unable to immediately check with staff about it because of summer break, a spokeswoman said.
Paden’s two kids were adopted from Russia, and both are white. Her son has told her that “everything is a racial conflict story” when it comes to his classes, which she says discounts his personal story of hardship in a Russian orphanage. He weighed 12 pounds as a seven-month-old.
“The school is going to tell him he’s an oppressor because he’s a Caucasian male? We’re not going to play that game,” she said.
Schools should use primary sources to paint the most accurate picture of American history, warts and all, but need to keep the moralizing out of it, Paden said.
“I can’t feel guilty for what my ancestors did. I have no power to renegotiate the past,” Paden said. “Do we obsess over what we can’t control in the past or do we move forward and not try to repeat it again?”
Kliewer, the Highlands Ranch mother, argued that the sharp focus on ongoing systemic and oppressive racism in the country’s economic, education and political systems is defeatist and damaging, especially to people of color.
“That’s a really demoralizing message,” she said. “And it’s not true.”
She said her daughter’s class had a discussion last year centering on how all police officers are racist. Her daughter’s father is a cop.
“She was embarrassed and felt alienated,” Kliewer said. “It definitely was not an environment where they were discussing opposing viewpoints.”
Douglas County School District spokesman Nate Jones said the district “has not been made aware of this alleged incident.”
“We encourage all parents and community members to address any concerns they may have with teachers and administrators at the school level,” he said in a statement.
Trying to fit in
Part of the problem, Douglas County school board president Ray said, stems from what people understand certain words to mean, and the misunderstandings that can follow. Equity is probably atop that list.
“I think people are saying that equity means all kids must have equal outcomes,” Ray said. “But equity means having access to equal opportunities.”
The district did itself no favors when in a first draft of the equity policy, it made a disparaging reference to the “myth of meritocracy” — a phrase it later struck from the document.
“We don’t want people to be consumed by trigger words,” Ray said.
But the revised policy doesn’t go far enough for Jeeva Senthilnathan, who was in the Douglas County School District from kindergarten through 10th grade. The Indian-American woman who is entering her sophomore year at the Colorado School of Mines said she experienced extreme discrimination from students — and mostly indifference from teachers.
She was bullied on Snapchat and Instagram, with kids mockingly posting pictures of her eating Indian food, she said.
“For five years, I ate my lunch in the school bathroom because of how uninviting it was for kids of color,” Senthilnathan said. “I remember being the only brown kid there trying to fit in.”
She said as uncomfortable as it may be for the majority white district to delve into difficult topics like racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, it’s important to do it.
“We have to talk about race because there’s so much systemic injustice going on in the world,” she said. “Children need to learn about America’s racist past so we can do better.”
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