Parents in one state may get even more power to fight schools over CRT

New Hampshire teachers and parents sue over their state's restrictions on teaching about discrimination and social justice.
By: | December 16, 2021
(AdobeStock)(AdobeStock)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has co-opted the term “woke” for legislation he says would be the nation’s stiffest prohibition against teaching critical race theory in K-12 and college.

DeSantis on Wednesday unveiled the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act,” also known as the Stop W.O.K.E Act, which he says “will give businesses, employees, children and families tools to fight back against woke indoctrination.”

“We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” DeSantis said in a statement. “We also have a responsibility to ensure that parents have the means to vindicate their rights when it comes to enforcing state standards.”

The bill prohibits school districts, colleges and universities from hiring what DeSantis called “woke CRT consultants.” It also provides parents and students a “private right of action” to contest CRT and strengthens the Florida Department of Education’s enforcement authority.

“Our classrooms, students and even teachers are under constant threat by critical race theory advocates who are attempting to manipulate classroom content into a means to impose one’s values on students when instead schools should be empowering students with great, historically accurate knowledge and giving those students and their families the freedom to draw their own conclusions,” Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran added.

But few educators and higher ed experts believe critical race theory is even taught in K-12 schools. Many see the controversy as a way for some to attack and discredit diversity, equity and inclusion programs in school.

Critical race theory, in fact, is a form of critical analysis taught largely in law schools and graduate schools of education and sociology as a way to understand racial justice, Georgetown law professor Gary Peller told District Administration in July when the controversies over CRT in K-12 first arose. It emerged to expose deeply hidden forms of systemic racism after more formalized methods of segregation ended during the Civil Rights movement. But it does not teach that all white people are oppressors, Peller said.

“It’s being used as a broad term for anything to do with teaching about the racial dimensions of American history and with diversity, equity and inclusion training,” Peller says, a co-editor of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. “If it were being taught in K-12 schools, it would be cause for wild celebration.”

Earlier this week, members of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers teamed up with parents to file a federal lawsuit against the state’s “Divisive Concepts” law that restricts how concepts such as discrimination, diversity, bias and social, justice and are taught.

New Hampshire’s uniform educational standards require public schools to teach about “intolerance, antisemitism and national, ethnic, racial or religious hatred and discrimination that have evolved in the past.” Students must also learn about controversial events from multiple perspectives.

But the new law, enacted as part of a budget bill this summer, is “so hopelessly vague and broad” that teachers are now forced to legally interpret these seemingly contradictory directives, AFT-New Hampshjiore says. “This law has created fear among teachers who are not actually violating any New Hampshire law but fear they could be targeted without evidence by people with a political agenda,” AFT-New Hampshire President Deb Howes said. “Educators are terrified of losing their teaching license over simply trying to teach. This is something I never thought would happen in America,” Howes said.

Ryan Richman, a plaintiff in the suit and a high school teacher in Plaistow, New Hampshire, questions how, under the Divisive Concepts law’s prohibitions, he and his students can examine the Nazi philosophy of Aryan racial superiority, the history of slavery in the U.S. or the treatment of North American indigenous peoples by the Conquistadores. “I ask students to discuss events in the news and their connections with the past,” Richman said. “Nine times out of 10, they want to discuss stories about oppression and how they’ve observed or experienced it.”

Teachers in New Hampshire may be right to feel threatened. In November, a group called Moms for Liberty offered a $500 bounty to anyone who reported a teacher promoting CRT. On its Twitter feed, the organization has promoted firearms training in school and also criticized restorative justice and a high school poster that said ‘5 races. 112 gender identities. 4,200 religions. One heart.’