This year’s tumultous debates over whether American racism exists, who perpetuates it, and how it should be taught in K-12 classroom settings has saturated the nation’s thousands of school districts.
About 26 states now have taken steps to curb various aspects of how teachers discuss with students America’s racist past and how districts fight systemic racism. Many take effect this fall, and some of them contain penalties for teachers and administrators, including the loss of their license or fines.
But as some of the fiercest critics of race-related teaching acknowledge, the most important level of governance over what is taught, which materials are selected, and what training is provided is at the school district level.
Now, several school boards have also picked up resolutions or statements banning certain ways of talking about race in the classroom. While not all of these have passed, the districts’ experiences yield new insights about the contours of the disagreements—and some of the effects they are likely to have on teaching and learning. Among them:
- Communities are defining “critical race theory” in different ways, drawing on everything from scholarly sources, to popular bestsellers on race, to talking points from conservative pundits and critics.
- The debates have divided communities and have left Black individuals, in particular, feeling distrustful of school board governance.
- The resolutions are being sparked not only by the national discourse but by unexpected sources, such as confusion over state educator training requirements.
- The board resolutions typically don’t spell out penalties for educators who purportedly teach critical race theory—but they could lead to increased scrutiny of classroom teaching.
- Most importantly, the debates are beginning to have an impact. In at least two cases, they’re directly tied to shifts in more general diversity programming.
For this story, Education Week watched school board meetings, reviewed documents, and reached out to administrators, school board members, and community members to get their reaction to the new policies. In some communities, the resolutions have been accompanied by loud, drawn out, and vitriolic testimony; in others, they’ve been pro forma. Some have been passed by school boards that are theoretically nonpartisan, others by board members elected in partisan contests.
Below are vignettes detailing some school boards’ resolutions and the context around them.
Peninsula, Wash: When clarification leads to confusion
This generally liberal, nearly all-white community near Seattle approved a resolution on critical race theory in part due to concerns over a state law passed last year following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, SB 5044, that requires teachers, classified employees, and school board members to receive training in cultural competency, diversity, equity, and inclusion—part of an overall plan for “dismantling institutional racism.”
Peninsula’s resolution, passed July 22, states that “there will be no additional or modified student curriculum, including critical race theory, or instruction in response to Senate bill 5044, as it does not mention or require additional instruction for students. The district will continue to teach a complete and accurate history that is inclusive and without bias,” it concludes.
Superintendent Krestin Bahr said there’d been a public misperception that students would fall under the training required in the bill. The resolution was intended to clarify that CRT was not being implemented as a curriculum for students.
“Whether that was intentional misinformation, I can’t speak to that. But there was an understanding that that’s what this Senate bill was. And that’s not what the Senate bill was, and not what the standards identify,” she said.
It is not clear which board member primarily drafted the resolution, which was a collective effort, according to Bahr. (The school board chairman, David Olson, referred a reporter to the superintendent for comment.)
The case of Peninsula shows, however, resolutions of this nature can send other implicit messages regardless of their original intent.
Joy Stanford, the parent of a recent graduate and a longtime substitute teacher in the district, widely known as “Ms. Joy” by students, sat on a district diversity council despite some qualms about the slow pace of its work. She spoke up during the board meeting at which the resolution was passed.
“As the mom of a student of color who attended our schools, ... the resolution is saying to me that maybe our kids of color don’t matter,” she said. “There’s not a lot of us, and we’re not going anywhere, so I need to know we matter.”
In an interview with Education Week, she said she still hasn’t gotten a sufficient answer about why the resolution was necessary.
“As a community, I believe we are all asking, why now? Why this, why now?” she said. “And as a school board I think it’s important for them to answer to the community, especially parents, why did you feel like you needed this? And I don’t think we’re ever going to get an answer to that question.”
South Kitsap, Wash: The difficulty of definitions
When confusion about Washington’s training bill hit the South Kitsap district, school board member John Berg set out to try to research it and to determine which aspects the board might need to take a position on. As he’s learned, though, even the very act of trying to define critical race theory to the approval of all can be a perilous undertaking.
At least one resident had objected in the local paper to aspects of the district’s training, which allegedly referenced concepts like white supremacy and white fragility, and spoke positively about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We were getting inquiries about it, and the superintendent says, ‘We’re not teaching CRT in the schools.’ And I said, ‘Well, then, we need to say so,’” Berg said.
Berg does believe that hard history should be taught and believes in equality of opportunity, but is uncomfortable with the idea of equity, which he defined as trying to force the same set of outcomes for students.
There's not a lot of us, and we're not going anywhere, so I need to know we matter."
“I see no problem with equity of opportunity; some come with advantages and less advantages and the school needs to compensate. If a student is homeless, they don’t have a place to study at night, or if the language at school is not the primary language in the home, the students are going to need a little bit of extra attention,” he said. “I have no problem with that, and I’ve got no problem with teaching the history of the United States with all its blemishes. Teach about the Trail of Tears, the Ku Klux Klan, the race riots.”
But, he added, “we have made tremendous progress in race relations,” and the thrust of the conversation about race seems to ignore that, he said.
He hoped his draft resolution walked that fine line: While it opposed teaching that “America is an inherently racist country with white supremacists maintaining power through law, culture, and institutional practices,” it acknowledged that “injustices committed upon members of various groups, based upon race, sex, gender, religion, etc., are a part of United States history, and that history needs to be taught accurately in order to avoid repeating those injustices.”
Instead, he said, it ended up polarizing the community. The board meeting had to be moved to the high school gym to accommodate speakers; conservatives lined up to support the resolution, while many teachers condemned the resolution as an attempt to control their teaching. The resolution failed by a 3-2 vote.
Berg says he’ll attempt to amend similar language into the board’s governance policies, which are currently being rewritten.
“I will try to introduce some dos and don’ts of who we want to teach the students, and what we want them to experience and to achieve. We don’t want them to feel like they’re oppressors or to feel guilty because of the class they belong to,” he said. “And I think that’s reasonable. Some of the folks say that’s not enough, that we need some teeth to go after the teachers who teach CRT.”
Paso Robles, Calif: A community changing course?
Like many districts, this small California city had begun, in August 2020 in response to Floyd’s killing, a diversity initiative initially housed in the school district, which was quickly transferred over to the mayor’s office. In March 2021, its school board passed a resolution condemning racism in schools.
Yet just five months later, the diversity panel appears to be dormant, and the district had approved Aug. 10 a second resolution asserting that critical race theory is “based on false assumptions about the United States of America and its population” and that the “definitional foundation of critical race theory involving an artificial distortion of the traditional definition of ‘racism’ is fatally flawed.”
What happened between then and now? Paso Robles’ experience is a good illustration of a subtle but critical distinction in ideas of racism. The board’s initial racism resolution focused on racism as the product of individual prejudice. Critical race theory, on the other hand, isn’t so interested in that aspect of racism. It focuses on how public policies and systems, even those that appear to be race blind, can replicate inequality.
Board President Chris Arend said he’d grown worried about critical race theory based on some of the examples he’d seen on Fox News and in other national publications, as well as the Montana Attorney General’s opinion that activities like “privilege walks” ran afoul of equal-protection laws.
There had been other tensions in this community, where a significant portion of students are learning English. Board members in the spring had spent substantial time modifying California’s new ethnic studies model curriculum; the approved class will explore historical waves of immigration and different cultures’ integration into America, but will not engage in sociopolitical critique or what Arend called “hindsight bias.”
The earlier anti-racism resolution initially made reference to stolen Indigenous land, something Arend stripped out before it was put on the board agenda. And earlier this year, the district had sent guidance about the limitations of teachers’ free-speech rights after two teachers had had a Black Lives Matter poster in their video backgrounds, prompting parent complaints.
As for the CRT resolution, “I wanted to put the teachers on notice that these are the teachings we don’t want to see in our classrooms,” Arend said in an interview. “One suggestion was to adopt a resolution that simply says we reject CRT, and the board rejected that out of hand saying it doesn’t give the teachers any guidance.”
Indeed, the Paso Robles’ resolution is notable in part because of its length. Five tenets teachers will be banned from discussing come directly out of a well-known primer on critical race theory written by some of the original legal scholars.
But the second part of resolution hews closer to the state legislation and to former President Trump’s executive order on government training; it says, saying among other things, that no one should be made to feel guilt about their race. (Scholars who developed CRT say that is not part of the theory.)
EdWeek asked Arend about this distinction.
“I can imagine some proponents of critical race theory at the university level might be embarrassed that some of this stuff has gone a bit too far,” he said. “But the language at the back part of the resolution was taken out of the [state] statutes that have been adopted or proposed.”
“I don’t want to get into a big debate about what is or is not CRT. You can go down a real deep rabbit hole on this, but the main lines that are appearing in the public expression of CRT are addressed in this resolution we adopted,” Arend said.
The town’s diversity committee appears to have gone quiet since hosting a Juneteenth celebration earlier this summer. Neither Paso Robles’ mayor nor a member of the committee returned messages seeking comment.
Gallatin County, Ky.: A pro-forma ban on critical race theory
In this small, conservative district where about 95 percent of children attending its schools are white, board members spent more time debating its custodial services contract than on its critical race theory resolution, which passed unanimously June 15.
Gallatin’s resolution is short: It bans critical race theory flat out. School board members did not discuss any kind of guidance for educators on what that means in practice. In fact, the only pushback came from the school board’s attorney, Jake Thompson, who sought clarification on what, specifically, would be outlawed by the resolution.
“Is there a specific curriculum being taught here, or something?” he asked Hargis Davis, the board member who proposed the resolution.
“I’m just saying, it’s one of the dumbest things that I’ve ever heard, the teachings and things of it. Every child should be equal in all children’s eyes,” Davis replied. “I’m just not going to get into it tonight.”
And with that, the board voted unanimously, and moved on to the next order of business.
Davis did not return a request for comment.
Cherokee, Cobb, and Forsyth counties, Ga.: The effects begin to trickle down
The Cherokee County and Cobb County, Ga., school districts, both neighboring Atlanta, were among the first two districts in the country to pass their own anti-CRT resolutions, while nearby Forsyth County has been under intense pressure to address the issue from critics.
(All three are among the small number of school boards nationally that hold partisan rather than nonpartisan elections.)
The Cherokee County resolution, passed May 20, states that the board will not implement critical race theory “under that name nor by any other name,” and will not use the New York Times’ 1619 Project.
Following a raucous board meeting at which speakers threatened board members and conflated social-emotional learning with CRT (they are different), Superintendent Brian V. Hightower said in a statement that he would no longer pursue a separate diversity, equity, and inclusion action plan in the district. (The precise details of this plan weren’t clear, although increasing the number of teachers and staff participating in culture and inclusivity training is one of the district’s objectives in its five-year strategic blueprint.)
The decision also prompted a newly hired diversity consultant, who was to lead diversity initiatives in the district, to vacate the position before even starting in the role. In a letter, she wrote that her work was made untenable by the district’s public dithering.
“This was the perfect opportunity to take a stand and reiterate what DEI and SEL is and why CCSD believes in it,” she wrote. “Instead of standing, I witnessed a tremendous fall into doubt and concession with a resolution on something that was never a part of the truth anyway.”
She could not be reached for comment. A Cherokee district spokeswoman also declined several requests for comment on the developments.
I wanted to put the teachers on notice that these are the teachings we don’t want to see in our classrooms.
Cobb County’s resolution, which is worded similarly to Cherokee County’s, passed June 10. And in a stark, painful reminder of the political and racial subtexts of the debate, the three Democratic board members, all Black, abstained from voting. At least one of them, Jaha Howard, told the local CBS news channel that the proponents of the resolution had been unable to define what critical race theory comprised. “It’s embarrassing to vote on something with no definitions,” she said.
Queried about how the resolution has affected the district, one board member did not respond while another, Leroy Tre’ Hutchins, noted that a middle school counselor had left her job as a result, protesting the new resolution. The counselor could not be reached for comment.
The three Democrats have also been targeted by a recall effort for asking a district accreditor for more scrutiny of the district’s board dynamics.
There are some early signs, too, that merely the specter of political drama has prompted some districts to change course. While Forsyth County has not formally passed a CRT resolution, pushback on the Forsyth County district’s now nearly four-year-old diversity plan prompted the board to release a statement that it “does not and will not teach critical race theory.”
The statement seemingly downplays the DEI effort, emphasizing that the plan was developed in response to its accreditor’s recommendation to improve families’ and students’ sense of belonging at school.
“This is all we are trying to accomplish at [Forsyth County Schools] with the DEI Plan and our mentoring program. There is no indoctrination. There is no political agenda. We simply want all our children and families to be valued. That’s it,” the statement reads.
And while its superintendent and school board have publicly stood by the plan, the district has paused diversity training for staff, which will be “evaluated and revised.” It also will revisit it as it crafts a new strategic plan for 2022 and beyond. The district declined to comment.
Joseph Cousins is the president of Cherokee County’s NAACP chapter. He attributes that district’s resolution to several factors.
It’s a conservative county that was often in the spotlight during the 2020 presidential election. Like other suburban bedroom communities, its demographics are changing, growing more diverse as Atlanta creeps northward. (The county is about 87 percent white, but its nonwhite population has been growing.) Most of all, he attributes it to fear.
“Do you know what the trigger word down here is? Equity. When they heard the word equity [the opponents] went off,” he said. “Equity means fairness—compassion—goodness—honesty—decency. But I think they have taken it to mean someone’s going to take something away.”
Cousins is also the the pastor of the Allen Temple Woodstock, an African Methodist Episcopal church and one of the few predominately Black churches in the county. In the past three months, the church has begun introducing five-minute segments taught by educators on African-American history in the middle of Sunday service, twice a month. He’d like to eventually expand the effort into more regular classes.
“Because of all this stuff, it’s become imperative, because the schools are not going to teach it. It has to be taught at home, and in our churches, and in our other institutions that can teach people,” Rev. Cousins said.
“Being African-American in this country, we don’t really know a lot about the true heritage of where we came from and how to trace our roots back. So it’s imperative we teach as much as we can. … I had been dragging my feet on it, and [the resolution] definitely was the impetus to do it.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as Local School Boards Are Banning Critical Race Theory. Here’s How That Looks in 7 Districts