Critical race theory debate lingers

  • Audience members listen to critiques of Critical Race Theory during a gathering held by Vermonters for Vermont in Rutland, Vt., on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) vtdigger — GLENN RUSSELL

  • SAU 70 Superintendent Jay Badams in Orford, N.H.,, on Jan. 25, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 11/29/2021 9:34:50 PM
Modified: 11/29/2021 9:34:43 PM

America’s school boards have once again become battlegrounds as a network of national groups stoke fears about “critical race theory,” a once-obscure academic theory turned by conservatives into a catch-all bogeyman signifying progressive school initiatives.

In Vermont, it sometimes feels as if the moment has passed. Events held by right-wing activists and politicians in late summer and early fall have slipped out of the headlines.

But some educators say the debate has left a lingering chilling effect in certain classrooms. In one district, the school board fell just one vote shy of attempting to ban so-called critical race theory outright. Administrators elsewhere report receiving expansive public records requests demanding all materials related to “equity” and even “social-emotional learning.” And many are wearily waiting to see who runs in school board elections when March rolls around.

“The culture wars are alive and well,” said Jay Badams, the superintendent in School Administrative Unit 70, which includes Norwich and Hanover schools. “They’re just at a low simmer compared to other places.”

Gov. Phil Scott, a socially liberal Republican who appointed the state’s first-ever director of racial equity, is not one for culture wars.

“Gov. Scott believes we should absolutely pursue efforts in schools to promote justice and equity,” Jason Maulucci, his press secretary, wrote in an email.

But the Vermont Republican Party, which has leaned into the polarized mood of the national GOP, appears to believe it has hit upon a galvanizing strategy. Paul Dame, its newly elected chair, said he’s met parents who were politically checked out until the critical race theory debate came to town.

“One of the things I heard from them was, ‘I just assumed that everything in school today was the same way it was when I was in school,’” he said.

Dame said he isn’t necessarily interested in measures to ban critical race theory or related topics. But he does think energy in that space could be channeled into expanding access to school vouchers.

“I think that the path forward in Vermont is not to ban content, not to mandate content, but to give parents a choice of what content they feel is appropriate for their kids,” he said.

A taxpayer-funded migration to schools with more right-wing leanings is now easier than ever in Vermont. Following a series of legal challenges by well-funded national conservative law firms, school districts that offer vouchers are now including religious schools in their list of eligible schools.

‘Not a K-12 thing’

Accused of indoctrinating children with some sinister ideology, many officials have reflexively denied the presence of critical race theory in the state’s classrooms.

“CRT is not a K-12 thing. It just isn’t,” said Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the Vermont-NEA, the state teachers union.

“Critical race theory is not taught in K-12 schools,” echoed Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary.

And indeed, critical race theory is an academic and legal framework dating back to the 1970s, whose debates have mostly played out in college seminars and academic journals. By and large, Vermont’s K-12 schools are not engaging with advanced graduate-level coursework.

But the basic tenet of critical race theory is that racism is embedded in society and institutions — not an individual character flaw. And Vermont schools have been trying, especially in recent years, to more honestly confront the past and present realities of racism, including the systems that perpetuate it.

School districts have hired administrators or hired consultants charged with improving equity and inclusion. High schools have raised the Black Lives Matter flag. Students are joining affinity and social justice groups and hosting student-led anti-racist conferences.

“To me it’s sort of like: So what if we are teaching critical race theory?” said John Castle, the North Country Supervisory Union superintendent. “It’s true that we’ve had systemic racism in our country.”

But like many of his peers, Castle also said “critical race theory” has been miscast by those who seek to combat it. The point, he said, is absolutely not to make white children feel guilt or shame.

“We’re not teaching kids to feel less about themselves. We’re hopefully teaching kids to be empathetic, and to be critical thinkers,” he said.

A slippery definition

For Badams, the SAU 70 superintendent, the slippery way in which critical race theory has been defined by its opponents leaves schools with the impossible task of “disproving a negative.”

As an interstate district, SAU 70 is also subject to New Hampshire laws, and the Granite State recently passed a law banning “divisive concepts” from the classroom. It’s one of six states to have passed such anti-CRT legislation, and it restricts the way schools can teach about race and gender.

Members of the public who believe teachers are violating the law can submit complaints through a public portal, and educators can be disciplined by the New Hampshire State Board of Education and even lose their license. One conservative group, Moms for Liberty NH, is egging on complaints with a $500 “bounty” to the first resident who “successfully catches a public school teacher breaking this law.”

The law has been criticized for being intentionally vague. Without clear guardrails about what they can and cannot teach, many educators say, they’ll have to steer clear of difficult topics altogether. One teacher, speaking to ABC News, called it “psychological warfare.”

The law in New Hampshire is “really frightening,” Badams said, and will undoubtedly chill discussion in class.

“If I’m teaching about Thomas Jefferson, how far can I go down the road of: Look at the real irony in the writing of our founding documents, and the deliberation by people who owned slaves, waxing eloquently about liberty?” he asked.

At least one national conservative group, Parents Defending Education, is also encouraging parents to use public records requests as a “weapon in their arsenal” against critical race theory and other equity initiatives.

In SAU 70, Badams has received a right-to-know request for “any and all documents” held by the district relating to “the topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, racism, discrimination and similar topics.” His IT department estimates there are potentially 350,000 emails alone to sift through. He now spends several hours a week doing so.

Other school districts in Vermont are receiving similarly broad requests, according to the Vermont School Boards Association. In the Essex-Westford School District, one local couple recently requested “copies of all materials” pertaining to “social-emotional learning,” according to records provided by Superintendent Beth Cobb.

Social-emotional learning refers to a longstanding teaching philosophy aimed at helping students learn interpersonal skills and how to cope with their feelings. It’s been roped into the critical theory wars by right-wing activists, who accuse schools of using it as a Trojan horse for progressive ideas about race and gender.

‘Am I safe?’

A divisive concepts bill stands zero chance of becoming law on this side of the Connecticut River anytime soon. (The chairs of the Vermont House and Senate education committees said such proposals would not even make it out of committee.) But local boards in Vermont have been asked to consider CRT bans. In Springfield, Vt., the school board in September turned down such a request by a narrow vote of 3-2.

Despite the ban’s defeat, Springfield Superintendent Zach McLaughlin said the debate has already had a chilling effect. Already, one principal has reported to him that teachers have asked if they will get in trouble for using a book that depicts two mothers.

“It’s translating into ‘Am I safe to be able to use materials with kids that present anything other than the majority viewpoint?’” he said.

And like several of his peers across the state, McLaughlin said he’s waiting to see how school board races shake out come Town Meeting Day. That, he said, will be the real litmus test for how people feel about the issue and whether it has staying power.

McLaughlin also thinks it could go either way. Anti-CRT activists could certainly seize a majority on the board. But a fledgling progressive group, Springfield Community for Change, has also begun organizing in town. On Facebook at least, it has more than twice the following of a local anti-CRT group.

“I’ve been in Springfield for a decade. And there’s never been that. There’s never been an organized progressive voice in Springfield,” McLaughlin said.

Mary Krueger, a local mother and member of Springfield Community for Change, agrees that upcoming school board elections will be telling. And either way, she thinks the board’s vote on the anti-CRT resolution isn’t the end of it.

“I think it’s more of the beginning of a reckoning that we have to come to in our community,” she said.

National influences

The anti-critical race theory panic has been described by many education officials and critics on the left as an astroturfed movement, imported from well-funded right-wing organizations from outside.

And the influence of national groups is self-evident. Local papers across Vermont, for example, have published commentaries from parents that copy, word-for-word, a form letter distributed by the innocuously named Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. The group bills itself as a “nonpartisan” organization dedicated to “promoting a common culture based on fairness, understanding and humanity,” but its backers are all conservative commentators and intellectuals, and much of its content is dedicated to fighting critical race theory.

“It’s been a rough couple years for us all in society,” begin three separate but identical letters to the editor printed by the Rutland Herald, Valley News and Vermont Daily Chronicle about FAIR. “We’re more divided than ever.”

Xusana Davis, Vermont’s director of racial equity, calls FAIR’s use of rhetoric around positivity and inclusion a clever “minimization tactic.”

“They insist on being positive and moving forward as a way to ignore or avoid the acknowledgment of harm and the consequential repair of harm,” she said.

A spokesperson for FAIR said they would forward an interview request to local chapter leaders in Vermont, but then did not answer a follow-up email. Ben Morley and Katie Parent, the chapter leaders of FAIR groups in Orleans County and Springfield, respectively, did not respond to messages sent over Facebook.

But some local education officials argue it would be a mistake to simply dismiss the backlash as an artificial tempest in a teapot. A national playbook may be at work, they say, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t resonating locally on some level. And COVID-19 has only made things worse.

“I think a huge number of people are just stressed because of the pandemic. And when people are stressed, they don’t always react as well as they could or should,” said Adrienne Raymond, a longtime board member and the chair of the Mill River Unified Union School District.

‘I don’t know about that data’

In 2020, Art Peterson, a Clarendon Republican, ousted eight-term incumbent and conservative Democrat Dave Potter for a Vermont House seat after months of agitating against Mill River’s efforts to raise the Black Lives Matter flag. Peterson’s narrow win even helped kill a Democratic and Progressive supermajority in the Vermont House.

Peterson frequently makes appearances at Mill River school board meetings, and has asked — without much success — to get the board to agree to a CRT ban. Echoing many of FAIR’s talking points, Peterson argues that it is the current approach in schools to teaching about equity that creates division. Racism, he suggested in an interview, is an individual problem, and not one with widespread ramifications.

“I refute that harm is being done right now. I think we’ve got laws in place that prevent discrimination,” he said.

Asked what he made of persistent and well-documented disparities by race nationwide and in Vermont — including, for example, in traffic stops and drug charges — Peterson at first grew agitated and accused a reporter of “saying the cops are racist.” Pressed about how he interpreted such figures, he ultimately responded that he simply kept them out of mind.

“I don’t know about that data. I have no opinion on it whatsoever,” he said. Peterson said that he didn’t think the data was fake but that he would “have to learn a lot more.” He added that this was not the first time he had been confronted with data suggesting a systemic problem.

“I’ve heard this stuff for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know what to think, quite frankly.”

He then abruptly ended an interview with a reporter, saying he didn’t want to get bogged down by a philosophical discussion. “You know how I feel,” he said.





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