State superintendent’s email documents political right’s concerted effort to influence K-12 curricula

By: - July 29, 2021 12:07 pm
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If culturally responsive teaching is allowed in North Carolina’s public schools, students will learn that math is racist. 

Students who are Black, LGBTQ or of minority ethnic backgrounds will be taught that teachers are bigots. 

And educators will be allowed to engage in “age-inappropriate promotion” of homosexuality. 

That’s what some alarmists wrote in email messages to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt earlier this year as part of a concerted effort by conservatives to influence public school curricula and combat “Critical Race Theory.”

Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped American law and public policy. It is also the Republican Party’s wedge issue du jour.

House Bill 324, for example, is a bill supported by Truitt and inspired by the anti-CRT movement that seeks to limit what can be taught in North Carolina’s public schools about America’s racial past. 

The measure has been approved by the House and has the support of Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County. Berger has vowed to keep Critical Race Theory out of schools, though most educators say it is not a part of K-12 curricula in North Carolina. 

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Turning up the pressure

Policy Watch obtained Truitt’s messages as part of a public records request which sought the emails the superintendent received containing the phrase “critical race theory” between January 1 and June 1. The Department of Public Instruction turned over 157 messages in which writers mentioned the subject. 

Truitt’s emails show just how effective state Republicans and other actors such as Education First Alliance, a conservative nonprofit that crusades against Critical Race Theory, have been at whipping the party’s base into a frenzy over a once-obscure academic subject.  

“Curriculum based on critical race theory is inherently racist and discriminatory with its focus on race alone as the only way to categorize and analyze people and their behavior,” one message said. 

The emails also show the enormous pressure Truitt faced before canceling a contract with ISKME (the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education). The Department of Public Instruction had hired the independent education nonprofit to train educators in culturally responsive teaching. The teaching practice recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all forms of learning. 

Sloan Rachmuth, executive director of Education First Alliance, has chided Truitt about supporting the group’s training, contending that it contradicts the GOP’s policy position against Critical Race Theory. Rachmuth and other critics contend culturally responsive teaching is rooted in Critical Race Theory. 

Messages between Rachmuth and Truitt on a Sunday afternoon in late March show that even after the superintendent shared that DPI had dropped the program, Rachmuth demanded that Truitt make the news public. 

Sloan Rachmuth

“I am not sure that you grasp the interest that the NC public has in stopping the spread of CRT [critical race theory] in schools,” Rachmuth wrote. “Besides election integrity, it’s the #1 issue GOP voters care about and it is an issue that unites the right and left. If you do actually “hate critical race theory,” then why are you hiding the fact that you’ve canceled this common core-style critical race theory training? You are raising more questions than you are answering.”  

Rachmuth’s message was sent after Truitt explained how the cancellation came about. 

“This was an internal decision. We do not make announcements for something as basic as removing an inappropriate training,” Truitt said. “I know many of your followers know it was removed because I got email to this effect.” 

The messages warning Truitt about the dangers of culturally responsive teaching mention North Carolina educator Christina Spears and education consultant Jemelleh Coes. The two co-led online training in the discipline as part of the contract between DPI and ISKME. 

Spears, a special assistant in the Wake County Public School System’s Office of Equity Affairs, said DPI dropped the contract soon after the Truitt administration took office. 

Spears agreed to discuss the contract in her role as a consultant with ISKME. 

“In January, we got some pushback about culturally relevant teaching, and folks from DPI wanted to be in on the webinars and to see everything beforehand,” Spears said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to finish that contract.”  

Rachmuth urged the superintendent to ensure that Spears was fired. 

“I meant what I said – we are not dropping this issue with NCDPI. We want transparency and we want those complicit in spreading CRT in schools fired, and that includes Pam Bachelor [a digital learning systems consultant with DPI], Christina Spears, and others,” Rachmuth wrote. 

In a March 21 message, Rachmuth urged Truitt to “come clean about this teacher training” and to “confirm that this dangerous program has been stopped.”  

“Parents are not going away and we want answers!” Rachmuth warned. 

The message got Truitt’s attention. The superintendent moved quickly to arrange an “in-person” meeting with Rachmuth. 

Two days later, Marj Santoro, the superintendent’s executive assistant, contacted Rachmuth to schedule a meeting. Santoro offered three possible meeting dates in late March.

Subsequent messages show that a scheduled meeting was canceled. Truitt and Rachmuth attempted to reschedule it, but it is unclear whether the two ultimately met.

A concerted effort to target Critical Race Theory

The messages about the unfounded fear of culturally responsive teaching appear to be a form letter signed and emailed to Truitt on March 20 by dozens of people who also shared concerns about Critical Race Theory.     

Other messages in early February, just ahead of the State Board of Education’s vote on new social studies standards, urged Truitt to vote against the standards, which writers argued are based on Critical Race Theory.

The emails Truitt received might explain why the superintendent fought vigorously to have the phrases “systemic racism,” “systemic discrimination” and “gender identity” removed from the standards. The phrases were replaced with “racism,” “discrimination” and “identity” to make them more inclusive, Truitt said.  

Although Critical Race Theory was not widely discussed – at least publicly – by state education leaders in February, messages sent to Truitt and the state board show that the topic weighed heavily on the minds of those opposed to the new state social studies standards.  

Before the State Board of Education met in February to vote on the social studies standards, a critic of Critical Race Theory named Kyle Wyckoff sent a typical comment:

I am a concerned citizen who is very disturbed about the thought that you are considering passing education legislation promoting critical race theory in our North Carolina public schools. Critical race theory divides students and makes them victims. We need leaders who will stand up against these theories that have long-lasting repercussions in the years to come that, if promoted and passed, will further divide our country instead of bringing unity based on shared values.” 

Another writer claimed to stand with Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in opposition to the new standards. Robinson, a Republican from Greensboro and the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, voted against the new standards after declaring that there is no systemic racism in America. 

The writer said any curriculum based on Critical Race Theory is inherently racist and discriminatory. 

“Curriculum must strive to truthfully explain our history, reflecting the unparalleled success of the US when compared to any other country in the world, now or in the past,” the writer said. 

The board approved the standards in a contentious vote, in which conservatives opposed the standards and progressives supported them.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and Senate President Phil Berger (Photo: Screen capture from NCGA Committee hearing)

Lt. Governor joins the fray

After the new social studies standards were adopted, Robinson created a task force that he dubbed “Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students” (F.A.C.T.S.). Its purpose, he said, is to give students, teachers and parents a “voice to speak out about cases of bias, inappropriate material, or indoctrination they see or experience in public schools.” 

Robinson has received more than 500 messages as part of the effort – many from people attempting to provide examples of teachers indoctrinating students with cultural and political biases. 

The lieutenant governor is expected to soon share his findings from the initiative, but news organizations and private citizens have already obtained and examined them after filing public records requests.  

One unidentified writer complained about a teacher in Orange County who wore a Black Lives Matter shirt on her bitmoji while providing remote learning. The writer also complained that the female teacher often talked about her “wife at home.” 

“I pulled my children to homeschool this year after getting nowhere with the principal and then hearing through the grapevine he talked with district and they hired a lawyer and then immediately approved that BLM [Black Lives Matter] could be worn by teachers,” the writer said. 

Several other commenters, however, took Robinson to task for launching an initiative that they derided as partisan. One wrote: “You represent ALL of North Carolina…not just the red voters.” 

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.