Late on Wednesday night, the Ohio State Board of Education repealed Resolution 20, an important declaration passed in the summer of 2020 directing the Ohio Department of Education to establish staff diversity training and launch a curriculum review intended to reduce racism and bias in the state’s public schools.
The Columbus Dispatch’s Anna Staver reports: “Ohio’s State Board of Education repealed an anti-racism resolution Wednesday night and replaced it with one condemning any teachings that ‘seek to divide.'” Staver explains that the 2020 anti-racism resolution: “condemned hate crimes and white supremacy movements ‘in the strongest possible terms,’ but it also directed the Ohio Department of Education to teach its employees about implicit bias. Local school boards were asked to review their graduation rates, discipline records and classroom resources… Opponents… argued that (the resolution) opened the door for districts to teach ‘disturbing’ and ‘divisive’ material about racism and identity.”
State Board member Brandon Shea drafted Resolution 13, a counter statement which eventually passed but without some of Shea’s proposed language. Shea’s proposal, according to Staver’s report, “observed not only a growing national divide but a troubling focus on the color of one’s skin rather than on the content of one’s character.'” Shea’s proposal also condemned “critical race theory.”
While Staver reports that Resolution 13, as passed, removes the incendiary language about critical race theory, the replacement resolution condemns “any language that seeks to divide” and “any standards, curriculum, or training programs for students, teachers, or staff that seek to ascribe circumstances or qualities, such as collective guilt, moral deficiency, or racial bias, to a whole race or group of people.” This is, of course, language that conforms to the prescriptions of far right ideologues who want to protect the white majority from looking honestly at white privilege and examining the history of slavery and racism in the United States.
For The Intercept, Akela Lacy summarized the original July 2020 resolution which was rescinded on Wednesday night: “The resolution, introduced by board President Laura Kohler, acknowledges that ‘Ohio’s education system has not been immune’ to racism and inequality, and that ‘while we earnestly strive to correct them, we have a great deal of work left to do.’ It calls for the state education board to offer board members implicit bias training, programs designed to help people understand their own unconscious biases and the ways stereotypes can distort their beliefs; for all state Department of Education employees and contractors to take the training; for the department to reexamine curricula for racial bias; and for school districts to examine curricula and practices for hiring, staff development, and student discipline.”
As Lacy explains, ever since the original resolution passed, there has been an outcry from members of the public and a loud minority within the State Board itself complaining that the resolution constitutes “critical race theory.” Under pressure, the State Board finally asked Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to determine whether the resolution is constitutional. He let the resolution stand, saying such a determination is outside his authority, except, he said, the State Board cannot impose these mandates on private contractors. For months, the resolution has been the subject of hearings in the Ohio House of Representatives’ State and Local Government Committee, where hundreds of educators and members of the public have offered testimony in favor of last year’s resolution. However, at one hearing, Lacy reports that one member of the State Board of Education, Diana Fessler, openly defended white supremacy.
It would be one thing if this sort of battle were happening only in Ohio’s state board of education, but instead the same kind of confrontations are being reported in local school boards all across the country. And the arguments and downright fights are highly politicized. In the Washington Post, Adam Laats reported: “Conflicts (have) roiled school board meetings across the country, over a range of hot-button issues: masks, vaccines, policies for trans athletes, Critical Race Theory. The conflicts moved past yelling, to lawsuits and demands for recalls—and not just of individual members but entire boards. Over and over again, local school board meetings have turned from staid discussions of budgets and staffing to heated ideological forums, hosting a go-nowhere series of fights that have little to do with the actual needs of the local schools. Conservative pundits have talked up these confrontations as part of a larger political strategy… Why have school boards become ground zero for these aggressive ideological skirmishes? Quite simply: They are accessible. Most meetings are open to the public, in local town halls or school district offices; their members are local volunteers, who usually have no campaign war chests or partisan election support… And if school board meetings are disrupted, members recalled, teachers threatened, students intimidated, it is that much harder for schools to function and children to learn.”
For the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot points out that people are using language and threats most often reserved for anonymous raging online: “There might be legitimate, even passionate, debate to be had about the wearing of masks… But, in so many cases, legitimate debate is not what’s on offer. Online, the thinking usually goes, people sometimes say the kinds of venomous things they wouldn’t in person; but in these public forums, they seem all too ready to. They boo and jeer at people who express an opinion different than theirs.”
Talbot names some of the organizations and individuals who are responsible for riling people up and organizing the protests: “(P)arental ire over masks and anti-racism education, stoked by national figures such as Tucker Carlson, on Fox, and Charlie Kirk, of Turning Point USA, has helped galvanize school-board recall efforts, promote new candidates for the boards… and push legislative bills. (Twenty-eight states have restricted the teaching of critical race theory.)…. The rage has also spurred the growth of new organizations, with names like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education.”
Profiling some of the rancorous school board battles in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, the Associated Press‘s Julie Carr Smyth and Patty Nieberg describe efforts whose goal is to prevent teaching about the history of slavery and racism and also to fight against requirements for students to wear masks. One group is training candidates running for local school boards: “FreedomWorks, a conservative group that supported the rise of former President Donald Trump, launched a candidate academy in March that already has trained about 300 people nationwide, with the largest number from Ohio… About 1,000 people have signed up.” Another of the “active groups in Ohio is Ohio Value Voters, which created its own spinoff—Protect Ohio Children Coalition—in April, state business records show. The group’s leaders did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comments, but its website coaches parents to show up in groups of 30 and employ a ‘tsunami strategy’ to raise hot-button social issues and disrupt board meetings. The group… keeps an interactive ‘indoctrination map’ that takes aim at districts offering what it describes as critical race theory, comprehensive sexuality education, and social-emotional learning. It also directs parents to the FreedomWorks training academy, stating as one of its goals ‘replacing radical school board officials through the election process.”
The National School Boards Association felt compelled to take the unusual step of asking President Biden for federal assistance. For the Washington Post, Timothy Bella reported: “The NSBA noted more than 20 instances of intimidation, threats, harassment, and disruption in states such as California, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Georgia.”
Bella adds that, in response to NSBA’s request, on Monday, October 4th, Attorney General Merrick Garland… ordered the FBI to work with local leaders nationwide to help address what he called a ‘disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence’ against educators and school board members over highly politicized issues such as mask mandates and interpretations of critical race theory. In a memorandum to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and federal prosecutors, Garland wrote that the Justice Department will hold strategy sessions with law enforcement in the next 30 days and is expected to announce a series of measures in response to ‘the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel'”
In his memorandum to Christopher Wray, Garland continued: “Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values. Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”
It is worth reminding ourselves of the excellent brief published by the National Education Policy Center at the end of September to explain the controversy about so-called “critical race theory” and the political objectives of those who are attacking local school board members, state school board members, and teachers: “We see two overall political objectives of the anti-Critical Race Theory attacks: (1) Mobilizing a partisan base for upcoming elections; and (2) Thwarting efforts to promote racial justice by deflecting debate away from systemic racism.” As a political mobilization tool: “Far Right lawmakers and advocates saw early on the political potential of attacks on discussion of racial and gender justice in schools: They could serve as hot-button ‘culture war’ issues to rally both conservatives and moderates.” As a tool for blocking efforts to promote racial justice: “The anti-Critical Race Theory narrative is… used to accomplish three goals: to thwart efforts to provide an accurate and complete picture of American history; to prevent analysis and discussion of the role that race and racism have played in our history; and to blunt the momentum of efforts to increase democratic participation by members of marginalized groups.”