Both the left and the right are complaining about what should or should not be taught in schools. On the one hand, conservative-minded parents believe that teaching critical race theory (CRT) or similar systemic racism/white privilege theories in schools is harmful to developing young minds both in black and white children.
The exposure of CRT to the public occurred in the summer of 2020 by Christopher Rufo whose reporting showed that it is being taught in schools, businesses and other organizations across America. Shortly thereafter President Trump issued an executive order that “it shall be the policy of the United States not to promote race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating” in the federal, uniformed, grant funded or federal contractor workforces.
The left was at first apparently caught off guard by the publicization of CRT but after a short period of strategizing now either 1) denies that CRT is being taught in public schools (although acknowledging that it is taught in isolated graduate school courses) or 2) characterizes it as acceptable and the necessary teaching of a balanced and more complete version of largely false white-constructed history. In addition, they assert that CRT/systemic racism/white privilege type methods are necessary learning tools for students to compete in a modern global economy. They consider those that oppose CRT as stubborn, backward or driven by racism.
In Connecticut, this view has largely won the day as evidenced by the debate in Guilford over CRT in 2021. The opposition there to CRT was characterized as being led by a small but vocal minority of residents. And later in the year after months of controversy, Democrats won the school board by a 2 to 1 margin, cementing public approval.
Although CRT is often portrayed as an extreme theory that is separate from the more socially accepted systemic racism/ white privilege concepts, it is in essence the tactical, implemented, pedological form of systemic racism/ white privilege. Merely talking about beliefs can seem benign or harmless, seeing them implemented in action is quite another. So the Democratic school board in Guilford was careful to commit to not teaching CRT but to “continue to teach diversity and equity,” a much more accepted belief. As one parent noted: “I want my child to learn the truth, even if it is not pleasant for him.”
Meanwhile, in red states, the right has been, or hope to expand on, passing laws banning the teaching of CRT and similar racial identity-oriented teaching. They are assisted by an increasing number of charismatic conservative Blacks such as Amala Ekpunobi who see CRT as creating in Black children/youth a sense of permanent victimhood with the attendant inability to succeed; as well as it being inherently racist. The left has opposed these “banning” laws as censorship of true history and characterize them as anti-free speech and harmful to students since they will not be exposed to the real history of this country.
There is a simple solution to this divide: take politics out of public school. Just like the separation of church and state contained in the Constitution’s First Amendment, subjects concerning politics or political views should be kept out of public schools entirely, regardless of their popularity, lack thereof, or location on the political spectrum.
This should not be very hard to do in the early grades (K-6) where reading, writing, and math are the focus and history is not even taught as a subject. But as the curriculum progresses and becomes more complex in the later grades (7-12), it could become more difficult, but not any more so than the current debates about freedom of speech and religion. Many areas of the curriculum such as science and math should be straightforward to exclude the political viewpoints of teachers or others into the curriculum. The main area of difficulty would appear to be history-related and to a lesser extent in English and the language arts.
But even in history courses in high school, the presentation of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act, etc. can and should continue since they are indisputable factual parts of history. Even CRT can be presented in an advanced history, civics or similar class as one theory among others. The main focus is that a viewpoint or theory should not be presented as fact. There should be no prompting by teachers using mandated scripts (“I wonder why many white people didn’t want Black people to have an education?”) of political views similar to what prompted Jennifer Tafuto, a Manchester teacher to resign in 2021, because she “felt like more of an activist than a teacher in [her] own classroom.”
The Manchester Public Schools spokesman response was to deny any validity to Tafuto’s claim while responding with a statement of righteous-sounding gobbledy-gook: MPS “recognizes its responsibility to address in grade- and age-appropriate ways issues that include racism, inequities, discrimination and systemic bias. We proudly do so while also practicing culturally responsive and relevant teaching, affirming students’ ethnic and racial backgrounds and including appropriately varied cultural references in all aspects of learning.”
Besides the two obvious questions that result from this: 1) why does/should a school system need/fund a spokesperson? and 2) what exactly does that statement mean? These types of assertions that are devoid of the nuts and bolts but sound good, while often very effective in politics, have no place in a school system and only serve to engenders a lack of trust by many parents toward school boards.
It is vitally important to remember that while debate around CRT occurs, Connecticut students on average are only about 44%-56% proficient (not advanced) in the language arts and math depending on the year and subject. This shows that far more effort needs to be placed in the teaching of the core requirements of universal functional learning and skills rather than specific high-level theories.
Nothing here eliminates anyone outside school hours from learning about CRT or systemic racism or white privilege. The internet, multitudinous media, school clubs, extra-curricular activities, parents, relatives and friends are all ways that students can learn about CRT or anything else.
While some school boards have gotten in trouble for treating parents like ignored and ignorant onlookers compared to the sophistication of educational professionals, both sides should have input into a curriculum, with the parents/customer/public having the ultimate say. Keeping politics of any kind, from any side, out of the public classroom would restore trust between the two.
Unfortunately, where you stand depends on where you sit and in a blue state like Connecticut where this teaching has become the norm, this solution will seem like a setback. But if the teaching of Christianity were being taught in Connecticut schools, there would be call for elimination of it just as there is for placement of creches on public property.
It is human nature to want to have your cake and eat it too. But that doesn’t make it right. The law should serve everyone equally despite the changing of circumstances and philosophical/political fortunes.
Alan Calandro of Burlington is a former director of the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.