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Critical race theory debate grows

Its presence in JC Schools being argued in public comments, private emails by Layne Stracener | July 11, 2021 at 4:45 a.m. | Updated July 11, 2021 at 2:51 p.m.
Larry Linthacum, Jefferson City Public Schools superintendent

Within the past year, critical race theory has been a topic of debate and consternation privately and publicly within schools and communities including the Capital City.

Much of the consternation stems from if the controversial theory can be taught without necessarily advocating for or against its premises.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that examines the way race and racism influence politics, culture and the law. It is centered on the idea racism is systemic and not merely the product of individual biases or prejudice, but also something "woven into legal systems and negatively affects people of color in their schools, doctors' offices, the criminal justice system and countless other parts of life," according to the Washington Post.

Scholars developed the theory during the 1970s and '80s in response to what they viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Critics of the theory often believe it is a divisive framework, while supporters believe it is a way of understanding how American racism has shaped public policy.

Critical race theory has become a catch-all term among legislators and conservative activists attempting to ban a wide array of teaching practices involving race.

Several states have passed legislation prohibiting critical race theory in their school districts, and many others have pending legislation on the topic.

In the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 952, sponsored by Rep. Brian Seitz, R-Branson, aimed to prohibit critical race theory in all curriculum.

This would include curriculum "that identifies people or groups of people, entities or institutions in the United States as inherently, immutably or systemically racist, anti-LGBT, bigoted, biased, privileged, or oppressed" and blames societal problems on categories of living people based on a characteristic, according to the bill, which was discussed in committee, but never made it to the House floor.

State Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, recently sent a letter to Gov. Mike Parson urging him to issue an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory before students return to school in August. Sixty-seven members of the Missouri General Assembly signed the letter in support of the request, according to a news release from Moon's office.

Critical race theory debate in JC Schools

The teaching of critical race theory has been a heated topic of discussion publicly in the form of residents speaking at board meetings to email exchanges between the public and JC Schools staff.

Through a Sunshine Law request, the News Tribune paid $157.35 in fees to obtain all emails from May 1-11 between JC Schools staff, administrators and board members that contained the words "critical race theory."

The News Tribune obtained 267 pages of emails, about 57 of which were emails from community members, staff or board members and not newsletters from organizations.

In that timeframe, about seven community members emailed the Board of Education or Board of Education President Ken Enloe expressing concern or opposition to critical race theory being taught in the district or imploring the board to oppose it.

In Enloe's response to these community members, he said, "Critical race theory is not, nor has it ever been, part of any Jefferson City School District curriculum."

Prior to the information request, district administrators had the same response when asked about it.

However, while the official curriculum does not include critical race theory, teachers can still discuss it in class.

Superintendent Larry Linthacum said controversial topics do come up in class even though they are not part of the formal curriculum, and administrators aren't aware of every topic that is discussed.

"We don't send out guidelines of current events you can talk about," he said.

The JC Schools curriculum is based on the Missouri Learning Standards, established by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Linthacum said teachers should use these learning standards as a guide for facilitating conversations about controversial topics. It's important for students to learn about many different perspectives without the teacher telling students what they should believe, he said.

"We're going to continue to focus on student success and facilitate conversations without advocating or endorsing things," he said. "I think that's an important part of educating our kids."

If a teacher is telling students what to believe, Linthacum said, administration would address that.

The learning standards for high school American Government emphasize "in order to investigate and draw conclusions about the past, students need to think critically about information as well as evaluate multiple sources of evidence" by asking questions, researching, and developing and testing claims and counter-claims.

High school American history standards state students should know how to "analyze laws, policies and processes to determine how governmental systems affect individuals and groups in society in United States history" and "predict the consequences which can occur when institutions fail to meet the needs of individuals and groups."

The learning standards indicate teachers are to help students investigate and draw their own conclusions without teaching through the lens of their own views, Linthacum said.

"The focus is to be on our students and the Missouri Learning Standards - and when current events come up, teachers can help students investigate and draw conclusions about that to help them think critically about the information and evaluate by looking at multiple sources of evidence," he said.

In a statement, JC School Communications Director Ryan Burns said students are encouraged to think critically and learn about all sides of an issue.

"The Jefferson City School District strives to create a healthy learning environment for all students, and to ensure every child graduates college, career, and life ready," the statement says. "One way we do that is by providing students with opportunities to look at both sides of issues and encouraging them to research, think critically, and appreciate opposing viewpoints."

"If there is discussion of current events or critical race theory in a classroom, it is from the approach to provide exposure and encourage dialogue so that our students leave us with the ability to look at all sides of a complicated topic," the statement continues. "We trust, support, and have confidence in our teachers to lead appropriate discussions and to create a learning environment in which students feel free to express their voices."

Enloe said the board trusts teachers to "use sound judgement to conduct conversations about controversial topics in a way that is appropriate to the subject matter they teach."

"As I have shared with patrons who have reached out about the topic of critical race theory, the board takes seriously the importance of teaching the curriculum standards established by DESE with an exclusive priority on academics, not activism in any form," he said.

He said he understands there are concerns from community members about how and whether critical race theory is taught in classrooms.

"We do not expect teachers to shy away from current events or controversial topics because we know it ultimately benefits our students to learn to see issues from all sides," he said. "Having discussions about controversial topics does not mean teachers are endorsing or encouraging political viewpoints. It simply means they are helping students develop skills to think critically."

A teacher's perspective

Jefferson City High School English teacher Abigail Nahlik, speaking as a parent and teacher and not a representative of the district, said her AP Literature class discusses critical race theory as a literary theory.

She teaches about it alongside feminist, Marxist, post-colonial, reader response, psychoanalytical and deconstructionist theory - all theories they need to know for the AP test and for college, she said.

The class applies these theories when evaluating literature.

"We have charts where we look at all the different types of literary theories, and we say, 'How would this text be different if we viewed it from a feminist lens, or a Marxist lens or a deconstructionist lens?' Critical race theory is just one of those," she said.

The AP test includes essay questions about the students' interpretations of a text, so it's important for students to know a variety of theories to analyze it, Nahlik said. They use the theories they learn to pick up on subtle themes and how they contribute to the overall meaning, which is a part of the Missouri Learning Standards.

One example of a book the class reads that lends itself to a critical race theory analysis is "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, which examines the destructive legacy of slavery as it tells the story of a runaway slave and her daughter who are haunted by memories of their past trauma, Nahlik said.

Another example is a poem students read last year about George Floyd that led to discussions about race. Nahlik said it's important for students to learn how to talk about race in an understanding and non-inflammatory way, even if they disagree.

"We still have to have civil conversations," she said. "Teachers know their classes. They know what they can handle discussing, and when you're just going about how you want to teach your standards, I think that's where the freedom needs to lie."

Nahlik said she doesn't share her personal opinions or tell students how they should think, but it's important to teach students different perspectives so they can think critically.

"That's important to becoming a well-rounded human," she said.

Teachers often discuss perspectives that exist, and that doesn't mean they are saying one perspective is the right perspective, Nahlik said. For example, English classes often read "Animal Farm" to learn about communism, but they don't learn about it in a way that promotes it.

"You're not saying, 'This is right or wrong; you're just saying, 'This is a thing that people think,'" Nahlik said. "If they're a good teacher, that is how they should be teaching. They should never say, 'This is what you have to believe.'"

Nahlik emailed the Board of Education asking them to let teachers use their professional discretion on the material they use in class. That email was one of the emails produced in the News Tribune's information request.

She said limiting what they can teach will lead to students being ill-prepared for life after high school, and not allowing teachers to talk about oppression and privilege would be harmful.

"There are undeniable facts about the country that happened and that are part of history," she said. "It just doesn't allow us to talk about actual things that happened. It's not saying white people are terrible. It's saying in this time period, this group was oppressed, and it was intentional."

For example, history classes often examine the role slavery had in shaping our nation. They might talk about how the civil rights movement started because of oppression, how the repercussions of slavery didn't end with the civil rights movement, and how certain laws existed because of oppression and racism - all concepts linked to critical race theory that have been taught for decades.

"All the time, concepts like that are being talked about," Nahlik said. "All of a sudden, now people are really interested in calling it critical race theory."

Calls to ban CRT in JC Schools

Among those publicly discussing critical race theory in schools has been Curtis Thompson, a Jefferson City resident and attorney.

Through emails, public comments and letters to the editor, Thompson has asked the school board to consider adopting a resolution banning critical race theory in the district, contending critical race theory is being taught in the district's curriculum.

In March, Thompson requested the district remove a supplemental social justice website from its seventh-grade social studies curriculum because he said it promoted critical race theory. The district deemed the website appropriate and kept it.

However, the district recently updated its social studies curriculum and removed the website, which included articles about critical race theory.

Thompson's contention is the district's curriculum is increasingly being influenced by critical race theory through some of its textbook publishers.

The district is now piloting resources from publishers Savvas Learning Company, Teach TCI, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill.

Thompson said he believes the district should immediately abandon Teach TCI, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill because their websites "appear to support the same philosophies of critical race theory" and the assertion that this country is systemically racist.

For example, McGraw-Hill and TCI promote "educational equity." Thompson said he believes the district should strive for equality instead of equity - equality meaning everybody is given the same resources and opportunities, and equity recognizing each person has different circumstances and allocating the resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

TCI's website also includes an article about intersectionality in women's history, stating "women's experiences can vary greatly based on several different factors, including race and ethnicity, national origin, ability, religion, sexuality, and more."

Thompson claims "intersectionality" is a "buzzword for Marxist agendas."

Intersectionality is "the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website includes articles about racial justice and equity written by Tyrone Howard, a UCLA education professor, who Thompson alleges promotes critical race theory.

The website states the views expressed in these articles "are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH."

Thompson has expressed his opinions multiple times through emails and statements at board meetings as to why he opposes critical race theory and these curriculum resources.

Because the school board has a policy that only allows the public to speak on agenda items at its open forum portion of board meetings, much of the conversations between him and JC Schools staff and board members have been through emails.

At the June board meeting, the agenda included a report on the new social studies curriculum. So, Thompson publicly asked the board to get rid of the works of publishers promoting critical race theory and adopt a resolution banning the theory in the district. About 50 people stood up when Thompson asked who in the crowd agrees.

At the meeting, about five other people appeared before the board, voicing their opposition to critical race theory; one person defended the teaching of the theory.

Thompson said he is hopeful the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education or the Missouri General Assembly will take up the topic and prohibit it in Missouri's schools in the future.

Print Headline: Critical race theory debate grows


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