An elementary teacher instructs a deaf student in a one-on-one setting, Stock photo | Photo courtesy of Ronald Felton/Unsplash, St. George News
ST. GEORGE — Over the past two months, parents and other Washington County residents have expressed concerns about race-related education and history instruction at public meetings, in emails to school district administrators and in communication with teachers.
Critical race theory has been a lightning rod in these discussions, with many expressing concerns that teaching it would impose negative and divisive perceptions about race relations and racial identity.
Supporters of critical race theory maintain that the movement is focused solely on addressing racism and combating systemic inequity, especially where the two intersect with the law and government institutions. They contend that the theory does not promote or denigrate any racial group, but instead seeks to reframe how we talk about and tackle racism.
The theory’s opponents (including some local residents) have brought up the theory in connection with lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation or criticized the Utah State Board of Education for notifying its members of voluntary meetings where the theory is explained.
Whenever the issue has been raised in meetings for the Washington County Board of Education, board members have stressed that the theory is not being considered for use in the curriculum in Washington County Schools.
After last Monday’s meeting, the board released a statement that included the following:
Washington County School District is committed to providing educational equality and access to learning for every student. We oppose the academic ideas considered to be critical race theory and we support the Utah State Board of Education’s resolution denouncing racism and embracing equity.
The resolution cited by the local school board was approved by the state board in January of this year. Since then, public fervor surrounding the theory has grown considerably both in Utah and across the United States.
So how does critical race theory and educational equity differ, and what does this mean for teachers?
Critical race theory and educational equity, explained
Critical race theory traces its origins to civil-rights lawyers and activists of the 1970s. At its core, the theory is defined by an acknowledgment of the historical and contemporary effects of racism and a commitment to openly address institutional racism by political and legal means.
In an article for the American Bar Association magazine, legal scholar Janel George wrote, “CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”
While the movement has influenced legislation and sparked outcry at every education level, the theory has largely remained a framework for thought and application at the university or professional level, with little to no influence on elementary, middle or high school curriculum, George said.
Critical race theory has experienced a meteoric rise in name recognition, but educational equity has been slowly gaining notoriety over the past decade or so. Kristan Norton, a fifth-grade teacher at Little Valley Elementary, made educational equity a key part of her platform when she ran for office and wone the seat as the local representative in the state board.
In Norton’s first meeting with the state board in January 2021, the board unanimously approved a resolution denouncing racism and embracing equity, in which the board defined educational equity and acknowledged existing disparities in resources and outcomes for students of color.
“The definition put forth by the Utah State Board of Education is that we are acknowledging that all students are capable of learning, and we’re distributing resources to provide equal opportunities based upon the needs of each individual student,” Norton said.
In May, the state board released a statement thanking the state Legislature for adopting the educational equity in schools rule and reminded the public that no member of the board had proposed including the theory in state education standards. The board’s focus remained on an equitable distribution of resources and encouraging a “healthy dialogue regarding each student and educator’s lived experience.”
Washington County Teachers Association President Amy Barton said the district’s students come from a wide range of cultural, linguistic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. She said the focus on critical race theory was overly politicized and that it distracts from more pressing inequities.
“We are here to support our students to learn and succeed without barriers and without distractions like these political controversies,” Barton said. “The divisiveness we’re facing is creating a distraction from what our actual challenges are: large class sizes, lack of resources in the classroom and the inability of the district to hire enough bus drivers and education aides.”
Teachers, classrooms and curriculum
According to the Washington County School Board, local K-12 schools won’t be teaching critical race theory anytime soon. Educational equity, on the other hand, has been a focus for the district and will remain so moving forward.
At Monday’s meeting, Board Member David Stirland said, “It’s frustrating to me that we’re being forced to look at things in a way that I think we’re already doing. We have to entertain new legislation, thought and policy when it’s what we already do.”
Stirland said he felt comforted by Norton’s assurances that the local education agency would retain control over the curriculum. Norton reiterated that the social studies standards have not changed, and that the state standards should be consistent for the next few years.
“I really want the teachers to know that they’re still teaching about slavery, and don’t be afraid of that,” Norton said. “You need to teach about all parts of our history and about the Constitution and what happened to change this history.”
Barton echoed Norton’s counsel to regional educators, adding that teachers should remain impartial and well-informed.
“As teachers, we have an obligation to teach accurate history and to reflect the many and varied views that serve as the foundation of our democratic society,” Barton said. “We’re here to prepare our kids for what’s to come in their lives, learning from the successes and mistakes of our past so that they can create a better future.”
While critical race theory has been rejected by state and local education officials, its proponents can hold out hope that the much wider umbrella of educational equity would meet the needs of students of color suffering from prejudice, lack of opportunities and inequitable resources.
As far as successes for educational equity in addressing the needs of students of color, Norton pointed to the initiative for expanding internet access in the San Juan County School District. Education funds were used to get connectivity to Native Americans living on reservation land or in other remote areas.
Norton said that educational equity can address more than issues of race, including the disparity between rural and urban school districts. In addition, equity can help address disparities in individual classrooms.
“I have a student in class who is a great math student, but they take a little more time to take a test,” Norton said. “I have another student who struggles with math, because those foundational skills are giving them trouble. Each of these students has different needs and, to me, equity in the classroom means I need to find a way to teach so that each of those different struggles are met.”
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