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As school mask debate fades, some parents turn ire to ‘critical race theory’

Long-standing programs aimed at racial equity are caught in the crossfire, facing fresh scrutiny.
Residents ask the Pinellas County School Board on Sept. 28 to delay approval of purchases they said might contain elements of "critical race theory." The board approved the items without comment.
Residents ask the Pinellas County School Board on Sept. 28 to delay approval of purchases they said might contain elements of "critical race theory." The board approved the items without comment. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Oct. 11, 2021|Updated Oct. 11, 2021

With the debate over school masks waning in much of Florida, conservative activists have again turned their attention to rooting out “critical race theory” in classrooms.

Many have changed their approach from earlier this year as they show up at meetings to confront school boards.

Rather than offer general criticisms like how schools are “teaching victimhood,” speakers have begun focusing on specific programs that they suggest violate the state’s rule banning certain lessons. The strategy has placed a new focus on educational practices that have been around for years, largely unchallenged by the public.

Picking up on comments by Gov. Ron DeSantis, many activists are using the term “critical race theory” as a catchall to describe a broad set of practices aimed at focusing public schools on the needs of a diverse student body. Among their targets are programs that encourage equity and anti-racism, and work to reduce unconscious bias in the classroom.

Related: Florida education board votes to keep critical race theory out of schools

Those initiatives are not the same as the formal teaching of critical race theory found at some universities, which school district officials have taken pains to explain is not part of their curriculum.

But while they may be unfamiliar with the details, the people showing up to speak say they’re simply looking for answers — and school board members who will listen to their concerns.

DeSantis recently stressed the importance of this subject ahead of the 2022 elections, which include his gubernatorial reelection bid.

“We’ve got school board races,” he told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Sept. 29 when asked about his plans for running. “I want to make sure people are not supporting critical race theory, making sure that parents have the ability to send their kids to school they way they want to.”

His backers are carrying the message forward.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, mentioned critical race theory as he discussed his reelection plans during a Sept. 29 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, mentioned critical race theory as he discussed his reelection plans during a Sept. 29 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. [ Twitter ]

At an Oct. 5 Pasco County School Board meeting, for instance, a handful of residents took issue with the district’s revised five-year Success Plan. They homed in on a bullet point calling for the district to “promote consistent, equitable, fair and respectful practices; engage in improvement methods for equity; and provide equity-focused professional learning to all stakeholders.”

“I’m just a little disturbed,” parent Sherra Stevanus said, referring to the document’s call for more minority teachers. “This sounds very racist and discriminating.”

Board members defended the need, citing data, and approved the updates.

About a dozen people tried in late September to convince the Pinellas County School Board to postpone more than $1 million in purchases relating to teacher evaluations and training. They suggested the items might advance principles that state officials have declared off limits.

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These included materials from the Leader In Me program by Franklin Covey, perhaps best known for its Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and iObservation software from Learning Sciences International. Speakers said they had not seen the actual materials, but when they researched the companies, they found information that sparked concerns.

For instance, the Covey website included a section focused on “Racism, Diversity and Equity.” In it, president Sean Covey wrote about his group’s commitment to inclusion and equity, and its creation of training on unconscious bias.

“Every human being has immeasurable worth and potential, and it is our privilege and responsibility as educators to communicate that — especially to the children we work with who are so vulnerable and impressionable,” he wrote.

Angela Dubach, leader of Moms for Liberty-Pinellas, provided information on the materials for community members. She said in an interview that the repeated use of “equity” instead of “equality,” which many preferred, raised red flags.

To her, the use of that term — plus others such as “social-emotional learning” and “culturally relevant teaching” — sounds “warm and fuzzy, but they all mean the same thing. ... They do word gymnastics so it sounds good.” But she said she worried that information supplied by the board didn’t provide enough details to clarify whether parents who want schools to teach academics without character lessons should have concerns.

“The bottom line is, we really don’t know,” Dubach said. “That is why we really want them to talk with us, so we all understand what it is.”

In public comments, superintendent Mike Grego said the materials in question were not related to student curriculum and had “nothing to do with any CRT,” the initials commonly used to refer to critical race theory.

The board voted 6-1, without comment, to approve the items as part of its “consent agenda.” Board member Bill Dudley cast the lone opposing vote.

Nicole Carr [Times (2018)]
Nicole Carr [Times (2018)]

Board member Nicole Carr said she researched the materials before the meeting and determined they met the district’s purchasing process requirements. She also found they did not include objectionable principles.

“If I did have a concern, I would have pulled an individual item,” said Carr, a former district teacher and administrator.

She did not begrudge anyone for raising questions. Although board members might not agree with every member of the public, she said, they can gain insight into community views by listening.

“I try to understand their perspective so we can find out what the real concerns are, and if there can be a solution to address the concerns in a way that still aligns with the vision of the district,” she said.

Finding common ground on heated political issues like this one, where people use the same words but mean different things, might not come easily, though.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education, has investigated the application of critical race theory to education, and researched educational practices successful with Black children.

Gloria Ladson-Billings
Gloria Ladson-Billings [ Courtesy of the National Academy of Education ]

She said it’s important to recognize that the people complaining to school boards about what they’re calling “CRT” are not talking about the field of study that district leaders refer to. They’re following a national political playbook that can “conflate everything that everyone is afraid of,” Ladson-Billings said, creating a type of hysteria the nation saw during 1950s McCarthyism.

Critical race theory, now banned as a topic in Florida public schools, counters the notion that anti-discrimination laws have solved America’s race problems. It is a broad and still-evolving area of university-level study that examines systemic racism through the years and its continuing impact on people of color.

That’s related to, but different from, efforts to create more equity in K-12 public schools. School districts try to do that by recognizing that kids in some demographic groups need different resources than others in order to thrive. Critics of that view say it’s better to ensure equality by giving every student the same resources and leaving them to make what they will of the opportunity.

The equity vs. equality debate has less to do with what happens in the classroom than it does with election cycle politics, Ladson-Billings suggested. And in today’s polarized environment, she added, “I don’t know if you’re going to convince anyone.”

She noted her group recently released a report on teaching civic discourse, with a goal of helping people think about why they hold their positions and how to discuss them civilly.

“The question is, how do you have a conversation,” she said. “We have to get to a place where people can at least have a civil debate ... that follows some kind of logic.”

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