By Alan Singer
The war on local school boards, education, and history escalates as conservative activists and Republican politicians prepare for the 2022 congressional midterm elections.
This year, 66 anti-dissemination bills for education about race and racism were introduced in 26 states, and at least 12 have become laws. Among the measures is Assembly Bill 8253, introduced in New York by Republican Assemblyman Colin Schmidt of northern New Windsor, which, if passed, would prevent students and teachers in K-12 schools from identifying with The New York Times’ 1619 draft. , which examined the beginnings of the nation from the perspective of slavery.
According to a report by the nonprofit PEN America, several of the bills mirror legislation introduced by Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, in the US Senate, and former President Donald Trump’s 2020 executive order to “combat racial and gender stereotypes.” Most include a provision banning “divisive notions”.
One frightening development is a shift in strategy by groups like the Proud Boys, whose members participated in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The Proud Boys are now organizing school board meetings in protest of the mask and vaccine mandates, And school curriculum and reading assignments they don’t like. This fall there were Proud Boy rallies on Long Island at Rockville Center, Bay Shore, and Patchogue.
In New York, school board elections are scheduled for May 17, six months before congressional elections in November. Petitions are due in most school districts on April 18. The New York State School Board Association provides a brochure for people who are considering becoming a school board candidate.
On Long Island, rebel candidates who challenged mandates for a coronavirus mask and a fictional version of critical race theory won three seats on the Smithtown Board of Education last May. Now a republican consulting firm is organizing classrooms to further polarize and politicize school board races. Among those presenting the chapters are a former Trump activist, a former contractor with the Nassau County government when it was under Republican control, and a Suffolk County Republican lawmaker.
The latest Long Island school district to erupt into a critical race theory controversy is the Great Neck. Some residents accuse the 11th grade English teacher at Great Neck North High School of presenting in class that whites are racist and that students need to understand white fragility and a rejection of privilege. It appears that local parents are working with a national organization, Parents Stand Up for Education, which claims to want to ensure that US schools do not promote “malicious agendas”. The group’s website contains slides supposedly shown in an English class.
What is lacking in their attack on the teachings is any attempt to find out what really happened in class. The students read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nhisi Coates, which won the National Book Award. The slides were part of a lesson to introduce students to the issues raised in the book, and by other authors questioning or challenging what they viewed as racism and white supremacy in the United States, students were asked to pledge to reflect on the issues raised in a book, not agreeing with a particular author.
According to the State Board of Governors, Counsellor Lester Young, “The New York State Board of Governors policy on diversity, equality, and inclusion is not an attempt, in fact, to teach critical race theory. Critical race theory is not our theory in action. Our theory in action is the cultural response.” The official position of the SEM, and the reality of what is being taught in classrooms, has not stopped conservative Republicans from mobilizing white families to stop CRT.
Jay Wrona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, called the political attack on school boards a “false narrative.” Worona responded to the assault, “There are many people who claim that the curriculum is designed to teach students to think a certain way, as opposed to what we have done for ages, which is teaching critical thinking skills.”
Dr. Alan Singer is Professor of Teaching, Learning and Technology and Director of Social Studies Education Programs at Hofstra University. He is a former teacher of social studies at a New York City high school and editor of the Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Board of Social Studies. To follow him on Twitter: @AlanJSinger1.