Republicans renew effort to limit what can be taught in public school classrooms

By: - August 25, 2021 5:30 am

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson

Lt. Gov. Robinson reports on complaints to oversight task force, while Senate committee approves controversial legislation

White shaming, “sexualization” of children and Critical Race Theory: These are among the overarching themes that Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson says emerged during his recent examination of North Carolina schools.

Robinson, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, shared the findings of his “Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students” (F.A.C.T.S.) task force during a press conference held Tuesday in advance of a Senate Education/Higher Committee meeting, where the controversial House Bill 324 received a favorable voice vote.

HB 324 arose as part of a national effort by the political right that plucked Critical Race Theory from relative academic obscurity and made it a frequent topic on conservative TV, radio and social media. Critics say the bill would prevent educators from teaching hard truths about America’s racial past.

Most educators say that CRT itself isn’t taught in K-12 public schools. Nevertheless, conservative supporters of the bill contend that CRT is at the root of efforts by some teachers to indoctrinate students with what they contend is a liberal political ideology. Robinson himself has claimed that systemic racism doesn’t exist in America.

The measure has a tough path to becoming law. Thus far, no Democratic lawmaker in the House or Senate has expressed support for the measure. If the bill does pass both chambers, Gov. Roy Cooper would likely issue a veto that would be difficult to override.

As presently drafted, HB 324 would ban the following concepts from being discussed in public school classrooms:

  • One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.
  • An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.
  • An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.
  • An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex.
  • An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
  • Any individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.
  • A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.
  • The United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.
  • The United States government should be violently overthrown.
  • Particular character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs should be ascribed to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex.
  • The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.
  • All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.

Task force draws support and criticism

The lieutenant governor said he created the F.A.C.T.S. task force to give students, teachers and parents a tool to report perceived cases of bias or indoctrination in public schools. It was formed after the State Board of Education adopted new social studies standards that Robinson opposed, and that he believed were laced with concepts linked to CRT.

“What this is, is an attempt to stop the abuse of the teaching profession by a few for using that profession to put undue pressure on young minds to accept their way of thinking,” Robinson said.

Other major themes emerged from submissions to the F.A.C.T.S. website, according to Robinson: biased news media and/or lesson plans and shaming of certain political beliefs. Robinson also said some educators fear retaliation if their views are different from those of their colleagues who are engaging in “wokenism.”

“Months ago, when we started this task force, folks called us crazy; said this [indoctrination] was not happening in our schools and that we had no evidence,” Robinson said later, during the Senate committee hearing. “I now, after completing this task force, is not only sure that it’s happening but I’m 100% sure that it’s happening.”

Critics of the task force, like veteran Mecklenburg County schoolteacher Justin Parmenter, have reported previously that many of the submissions to the F.A.C.T.S. website were highly critical of its purpose. Supporters of the effort revealed troubling sentiments about race, civic life and religion, Parmenter reported. These include allegations that three years’ of public education turned one parents’ daughter into a “full-blown socialist.” Another wrote: “Their are to many ethnic groups in this country and to few months in a year to designate a month to only one group of people. By removing Black History Month from the curriculum and replace and allowing children to focus on their own ethnic background should solve this particular problem.”

Senate Leader Phil Berger

As Policy Watch reported last month, Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline from the world of higher education that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. CRT emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.

Fears about CRT have spread nationwide in recent months. Many political observers believe the issue could even tip the 2022 midterm elections in favor of Republicans, many of whom are still mourning the loss of the White House.

Many conservatives say they fear CRT will be used to teach young, impressionable students that America and white people are inherently and irredeemably racist. They often share stories about young white children who, after learning hard truths about American racism, return from school stung by the revelation that the nation has been imperfect in its treatment of Blacks and other people of color.

Meanwhile, those opposed to HB 324 say it’s important that children learn the whole truth about the nation’s racial past.

On Tuesday, Robinson and Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, shared stories of alleged student “indoctrination” reported to F.A.C.T.S. by parents and others.

One such example involved the Governor’s School, a five-week summer residential program for gifted and talented high school students, where a “flying gender unicorn” graphic was reportedly used to question students about their sexual identity.

“I think what the bill does is shine a light and gives tools to parents, citizens, school board members and others to dig into what’s happening in the classroom,” Berger said. “I think at a minimum when you go through the report, there are some troubling things that are occurring in our classrooms.”

Sen. Jay Chadhuri

Democrats were unconvinced that North Carolina’s educators are using their positions to indoctrinate students with liberal political ideology.

They challenged Robinson and Berger to produce hard evidence that teachers are indoctrinating students.

“This week marks the first week of our kids going back to school and I feel that we should be spending time this week honoring our children,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Wake County. “Instead, we’re spending time debating a Fox News-driven issue that’s more about fear-mongering that’s turned into a fishing expedition of our public school teachers.”

Chaudhuri also complained that Robinson’s task force performed its work behind closed doors.

The charge drew an angry response from Robinson.

“We didn’t hide in the dark and do this task force thing, and we didn’t ask to do it,” Robinson said. “The parents, teachers, and students of North Carolina demanded it, and to sit here and call it a Fox News-driven issue when I have stood with teachers who have cried because they feel like their jobs and livelihoods and profession have been threatened; for you to call it that is an insult.”

Education leaders differ

Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Earlier, at Robinson’s press conference, Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Robinson and Berger to express disappointment at the examples of “indoctrination” the task force received.

“I’m also sympathetic to the parents and students who have experienced what can only be described as a pressure to conform to ideas that are not their own,” Truitt said. “No student should ever feel marginalized. No student should ever feel anxious about his or her place in school.”

In a Tuesday radio interview with Policy Watch, Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said the General Assembly’s focus on CRT was designed to help galvanize conservatives and allow politicians to score points by demonizing educators.

NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly

Walker Kelly said such discussions are a distraction from real issues such as the full funding of schools, something required by the state Supreme Court’s landmark Leandro ruling, under which all of the state’s schoolchildren enjoy a constitutional right to “a sound basic education.”

“It is critically important now that every elected official should be talking about passing a state budget that fully funds public education and supports students who are currently back in the classroom right now,” Walker Kelly said.

This summer, State Superior Court Judge David Lee, the judge overseeing the case, warned lawmakers that he would take action if they did not begin to fund a remedial plan that calls for $5.6 billion in new education spending by 2028.

Walker Kelly said educators are already feeling the blowback from Robinson’s task force. “I’ve seen it [retaliation against teachers] happening at local school board meetings already,” she said.

Meanwhile, Robinson said he is not sure what comes next for F.A.C.T.S. “This report is the beginning at taking a serious look at what’s going on inside our public schools,” Robinson said.

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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.