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Critical Race Theory: War of Words, and Curriculums Suburban School Districts Grapple With Race in Education

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11 minute read

The four students were responsible for an outrageous stunt, one that stood out even among a spate of well-publicized recent incidents involving race at area high schools.

The petition to revive slavery was their doing.

A Black Brazilian teenager was expelled. The others – two white youth and one of white and Asian backgrounds – received lengthy suspensions. The consequences were devastating for teenagers who were just beginning their high school years, said Nicole D. Price, who counseled the students after the incident. 

Price, a diversity consultant, said she was scheduled to appear before the Park Hill school board when it recently considered the students’ appeal of the disciplinary decisions. Board members deliberated 10 hours, from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. But the discipline meted out by the district was upheld.

Now, it’s being challenged in a federal lawsuit.

“These are smart kids,” Price emphasized. “But they are completely ignorant about race and racism in this country.”

If the diverse cultural and racial backgrounds of the teenagers comes as a surprise, perhaps you were influenced by the easy assumptions and shorthand outrage that often transpires when race is the topic and schools the arena. Charged emotions enveloped this incident too, as those without knowledge of the details, including many in local media, assumed white students had designed and posted the petition for slavery on social media.

D. Rashaan Gilmore, host of the Flatland television show on Kansas City PBS.

Tonight on Kansas City PBS

Flatland” host D. Rashaan Gilmore explores how education around the topic of race is affecting school districts around the metro. Watch the show tonight at 7 p.m. on Kansas City PBS.

The lawsuit challenging the student’s discipline paints a complicated culture at the school. In unsparing terms, Park Hill is illustrated as a historically white district that resisted integration for decades, and now is struggling to adjust to an increasingly diverse student population.

Hip-hop music laced with racially explicit slurs played in locker rooms. Banter about race, raised in non-hostile ways, was common. Teachers and coaches allowed it, with only occasional guidance for students to watch their language. The result, the suit alleges, was a school culture that “prized multi-racial social acceptance,” often by joking about race and using slurs.

The slavery petition put Park Hill in an unsparing national limelight and the public backlash was scathing. But the district’s overarching struggles aren’t unique. They’re entwined with a national emphasis for educators to competently educate diverse student populations, encompassing how youth differ by social, economic, racial and cultural backgrounds. 

Price, and many others, said examples abound of districts struggling under such expectations, both here and nationwide. 

Price is a trainer of cultural competency who has worked with area K-12 school districts, companies and nonprofits. She’s also the mother of a Park Hill graduate, her son. 

She met with the four Park Hill students in her home, confirming a charge from the lawsuit, saying “they had a culture of using the n-word and all kinds of racial pejoratives.”

Hence, joking about something as heinous as slavery, muddled with some of their own frustrations with being students of color in a predominantly white suburban school district. It all played out in a shocking exhibit of poor judgement, followed by deep regret later.

Price said she pointed out some facts about slavery to the students, like how it normalized the rape of Black enslaved women. The teenagers immediately understood the deep offense of their actions, she said.

It’s some of the same lessons that she offers adults as a trainer, aspects of history and understandings that Price thinks people should learn before they join the increasingly diverse workplaces of America. Most educators agree. 

But speaking in those terms – how “history and “race” are taught – can incite politized accusations about indoctrinating children to hate America. Teaching youth about the horrors of slavery, broken treaties with Native American nations and other infamous acts of discrimination are commonly cited by critics as examples of teachers race-shaming white students.

School boards discussing efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) increasingly risk being hounded by parents and others who say such topics have no business in K-12 public education and come at the expense of teaching basics.

To Price and many other educators and experts in the field, students are at risk of losing out amidst the fury. The slavery petition, the Park Hill district’s reaction and the extreme punishments are merely one example.

“These are kids who were excelling academically and now everyone has turned their backs on them like they are the problem,” she said.

Contesting Critical Race Theory

The prediction for the 2022 Kansas legislative session flashed in the second PowerPoint slide of the presentation: “Likely to be extremely challenging.” 

School board members from across the state packed a room at the Overland Park Convention Center on a crisp autumn afternoon. It was a Saturday in early November and they were attending the annual Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) convention.

Many had won their school board races just a few days prior, their newbie status noted by a pink ribbon on their convention badges. Some wore face masks as they sat shoulder-to-shoulder. Others did not. But every seat was quickly taken for this breakout session. Late comers lined up in the doorway, craning to listen.

The topic was “Upcoming Issues for 2022,” presented by the KASB staff. 

It can be rough being a school board member these days. Among all the other things that a school board does – crafting and implementing strategic plans, setting budgets, guiding curriculum and policy changes – many are navigating disgruntled parents and national campaigns targeting how districts address diversity.

A few slides in the presentation summarized what’s ahead for 2022:

•       Teaching about race: Proposals have also been made to restrict teaching of what some call “critical race theory” in public schools. In other states this has meant bills to prohibit concepts of “group” superiority, blame or victimhood. Concerns include that such proposals intrude on the traditional ability of school boards to set local curriculum and may have a “chilling” effect on the teaching of history, current events and addressing inequities.

•       Books and materials: Legislators have expressed concerns about sexuality-themed books or other materials that have been criticized by some parents. This could result in legislation regarding parental challenges, reviews or “opt-outs.

Stack of books
The role of race in education became a lightning rod issue in school board races here and across the country this year. (Cody Boston | Flatland)

Critical race theory, or CRT, defines what virtually all school districts K-12, insist they do not teach.

A recent survey conducted by the Association of American Educators found that 96% of respondents said they are not teaching CRT in K-12 classrooms.

But critics claim such blanket denials are part of the increasingly politicized problem.

Democrats are tone deaf in their replies to parents concerned about critical race theory, said Ryan Girdusky, the founder of the 1776 Project PAC, which recently backed slates of conservative candidates in school board races in seven states, including Kansas.

Simply insisting that CRT isn’t being taught doesn’t open a dialogue and disrespectfully implies that those adults are ignorant, he said. Rather, he said, the theory is a bit like the famous Supreme Court justice statement on pornography, “you know it when you see it.”

“And DEI is basically critical race theory in practice,” Girdusky said.

Girdusky said parents became alarmed by what they saw being taught by schools under COVID protocols that had children learning remotely from home.

Girdusky, a New York-based journalist and former worker for Kris Kobach’s failed U.S. Senate campaign, said his goals are often misconstrued as a desire to limit what is taught in schools, especially history. He insists the opposite is true.

For a young person to gain a full understanding of history, Girdusky said that he’d prefer to see four years of high school coursework in global history, along with four years of American history. Then, a young person would be able to see an issue like slavery for its global implications, how it was instituted throughout history by many nations and as an imperfection of humanity.

“I don’t want to water down the horrors of slavery,” he said. “It was a terrible thing.”

He thinks it is problematic for high schoolers to only learn history from a Western context, which can then lead to mistakenly viewing something like slavery as instituted solely by Europeans.

In the recent school board elections, the 1776 Project PAC worked on behalf of 50 candidates nationwide, with 42 winning seats.

The PAC doesn’t take credit for a candidate’s success at the polls, Girdusky said. If a candidate ran a shoddy campaign, he said, a 1776 Project PAC endorsement alone wouldn’t bring a win.

But in several of the close races in Johnson County, he noted, the extra push of the PAC’s support for a slate might have edged a few people over the line.

Girdusky said he is currently fundraising with a $3 million goal, to broaden his work on behalf of school board candidates in the future, expanding from seven states in the recent elections to at least a dozen states in future elections.

War of Words, and Acronyms

The CRT acronym has roiled red-hot conversations about the state of education in America. CRT is a graduate college-level, narrow frame of academic study to assess historically entrenched issues of inequality, such as in the field of law.

It is not the same as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), which conveys efforts to better understand people of different cultural backgrounds and seeks to ensure all students have what they need academically for the best chance at success. Equity is increasingly seen as a goal more than equality, which many deem to be unrealistic.

Yet CRT is often conflated with each of the terms. Also, lesser-known educational acronyms like SEL, or social and emotional learning, are beginning to be scrutinized.

For educators, SEL is a crucial part of a child’s development, involving the ability to feel empathy, to manage emotions and relationships. It’s considered foundational for career success and can also be related to civic involvement. 

But no amount of insistence by educators about the differences between terms seems to untangle objectors’ concerns. One reason may be that discussions about “systemic racism,” “white privilege” and other broader looks at the long-term impact of race and class on America are increasingly mainstream, especially with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The nationwide pushback shaped recent local school board races, when the 1776 Project PAC backed a roster of candidates, including some that were successful in turning out incumbents. 

The organization backed 10 recent Kansas school board candidates in Blue Valley (3), Lansing (3), Shawnee Mission (1) and Olathe (3).

Brian Connell, a newly elected member of the Olathe school board, at the recent Kansas Association of School Boards convention in Overland Park.
Brian Connell, a newly elected member of the Olathe school board, at the recent Kansas Association of School Boards convention in Overland Park. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

“Our job is to educate, not to indoctrinate,” said Brian Connell, a new board member in Olathe backed in an online listing by the 1776 Project PAC. “Until the state will publish a definition of critical race theory, nobody can really say if it is or not being taught.”

The 1776 Project PAC website defines proponents of CRT like this:

“They believe we need to undo the cornerstones of American society including classical liberalism, legal reasoning, and capitalism in order to promote their version of cultural Marxism based on race rather than class. They believe that every fabric of American society is based on race. They believe every factor of inequality is socially constructed exclusively based on the topic of race. So all differences between the races were created with the sole purpose of disadvantaging non-white people.”

Scholars of CRT point out that this is a gross distortion of the academic theory, using code words common to stir misinformation such as Marxism, liberalism and capitalism.

A pop-up section on the 1776 site also encourages followers to to “report a school promoting critical race theory.” 

Other national groups, like Parents Defending Education, also employ crowdsourcing to call out schools viewed as taking diversity too far. This group maintains a “consultant report card” highlighting more than $19 million in school district contracts.

The goal is “shining a powerful spotlight on the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultants bringing their toxic and destructive agendas into the nation’s schools,” according to the site.

Contracts involving several local school districts, including North Kansas City Schools and Lee’s Summit School District, are detailed.

Another section noted Olathe schools and the recent controversy about the library book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which was criticized by several school board candidates for its explicit language about sex acts. It’s a book geared to LGBTQ youth and is noted on the Parents Defending Education website under a section illustrated by a U.S. map called the “IndoctriNation Map.”

Olathe school board candidate Jennifer Gilmore, who lost her race by 65 votes, was among those who challenged the district for allowing the book onto library shelves.

The controversy surrounding CRT mixed with other parental concerns about the health of their children due to COVID-19, with many questioning districts’ decisions to keep students at home with online learning, or to institute mandatory mask-wearing.

The result is a level of acrimony in school board politics not seen in recent decades.

“This is different,” said Keith Reynolds, director of equity and diversity training for the Wichita Public Schools. “This is strategic.”

Reynolds presented a well-attended session at the Kansas Association of School Boards convention titled “Types and Importance of DEI Training.”

Wichita is the state’s largest school district, followed by Olathe, then Shawnee Mission.

“Anything that deals with diversity, equity or inclusion is under attack,” Reynolds said in an interview after the breakout session. 

Reynolds suspects that if national efforts like the 1776 Project PAC continue to influence school board election outcomes, the education work of DEI departments like his could change.

“At a minimum, eventually a vote will be taken to water down what we do,” he said.

Reynolds noted that fears are generally driven by adults, outside agitators and national organizations.

Among students, he said, diversity and attention to more truthful history lessons are generally welcomed. And the purpose is understood.

“But sometimes, it’s the parents that refuse to listen to their kids,” he said.

New Challenges for Suburban Districts

Local students have testified to that perspective, protesting a range of concerns in recent years by walking out of class.

A group of African American students at Raytown South recently began a Black Student Union, pressing administrators to address their concerns. Students representing wide ranges of diversity showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. High schoolers in several districts, joined by parents, have organized in solidarity with their LGBTQ peers. 

That sort of ground-up, student and community-led support may be establishing community norms that might provide a buffer from outside agitators.

Heather Ousley, a recently re-elected Shawnee Mission board member, suspects that is the case in her district. For years, alumni and parents worked on issues like changing the school’s use of Indigenous Peoples mascots and establishing policies to address the needs of LGBTQ students.

“If students don’t feel welcome or included, they are less likely to perform well,” she said.

Ousley said that DEI initiatives were woven into the entire strategic plan, which was crafted through district-wide input from parents and other stakeholders. A train-the-trainer model also was implemented to work with all staff members.

“We are definitely a district that is changing in demographics,” she said. “What we wanted was for Shawnee Mission to be open and welcoming and to be reflective of the student body while doing everything to navigate that change.”

Addressing academic gaps between students, partially related to race and socioeconomics is an overarching goal of the work, she said.

Several experts noted that in urban districts, the curriculum that’s taught is deemed best to address students and families, with little to no pushback. But in the increasingly diverse suburbs, one complaint from a powerful person, or a charged incident like the slavery petition, can rock efforts focusing on equity.

Raymond C. Hart is executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which works with 75 of the nation’s largest urban districts, including Kansas City.

Hart takes a pragmatic, suffer-no-fools approach. Beyond telling people that districts don’t teach critical race theory, there’s not much you can do to fight those who insist otherwise, he said.

The student base of the districts served by the Council of the Great City School is 44% Latino and 26% African American, numbers that reflect how the U.S. population is shifting.

Decades ago, it was the urban districts that faced changing demographics, with related volatility, Hart said. 

Now, that’s in their rearview mirror. Urban districts are now more focused on immediate needs, ensuring the schools offer those students what they need to thrive academically and exit school prepared for careers, so that the future is positive for each child.

“It’s about the work ahead,” he said. 

Maxine Drew, a member of the Kansas City, Kansas, school board, at the recent Kansas Association of School Boards convention in Overland Park.
Maxine Drew, a member of the Kansas City, Kansas, school board, at the recent Kansas Association of School Boards convention in Overland Park. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Maxine Drew, a former teacher in the Kansas City, Kansas, School District and now a board member, shares a similar perspective. KCK students are primarily Latino, African American and Asian.

She taught social studies for 35 years, watching as the district diversified with more Latino and other immigrant groups, some resettling as refugees.

“Our parents sometimes struggle,” Drew said, to raise their children under a range of financial and other challenges. The district reacts, such as investing in programs to help parents have access to computers.

 “Stay positive, move forward and people will come on board,” she said.

Teaching the history of various ethnic and racial groups was always what she practiced, and the district supported her.

Drew also is highly aware of the transient nature of student populations, seeing how many African American families are moving to suburban school districts.

“Those districts are going to have to decide that they can’t hold on to some of their traditional ways,” she said. “You just have to decide to educate everyone.”

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.

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