Let's Talk About CRT

School boards, not state legislatures, are the right venue for opponents to push back against critical race theory.

Pro- and anti-CRT protestors speak during a rally at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12, 2021. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds via Getty Images)

By Bonnie Snyder

In a stunning burst of legislative activity, more than half of the 50 states recently moved to ban or regulate the teaching of concepts that fall under the loose heading of “critical race theory.”

Some of these laws are better written and more defensible than others. North Carolina’s HB 324, for example, seeks to ban educators from “promoting” certain concepts rather than prevent any coverage of them at all. The most problematic will proscribe very reasonable classroom discussions under the premise that they may cause a student to experience “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” This could eliminate nearly anything.

There are other problems with these laws: the unhelpful precedent of removing classroom decisions from practicing educators and giving relatively distant bureaucrats increased control over local operations; the general threat to liberal education created by limiting discussion of disfavored ideas; and the replacement of conversational compromise with a unilateral directive. 

Deep and meaningful exploration of complex ideas is unlikely to occur in an atmosphere where participants are cautiously looking over their shoulders out of fear of accidentally saying the “wrong” thing. Already, thousands of educators have signed a petition vowing to defy these bans. What are school districts willing to do to those who will not conform? What will school curricula look like when these bans are enforced? And have any legislators considered that banning ideas often increases interest in them? 

In short, these bills have the potential to chill educator speech and cast a pall of fear over the classroom.

Rather than banning disfavored ideas like CRT through coercive legislation, we should leave it to local school boards, with the input of concerned parents and citizens, to shape their curricula. After all, our public schools are governed democratically, by a mixture of state, school board, and individual school policy. Community will is conveyed through elections and open meetings at which citizens are invited to submit input.

It has been an unexpected positive consequence of the CRT uproar that standing-room-only crowds of energized parents spent the spring descending upon local school board meetings and seeking speaking slots as though they were the hottest tickets in town. Attendance numbers are so unprecedented that they attracted the notice of major news media—and even law enforcement. Probably nowhere has the outcry been louder than in Loudoun County, Virginia, where at a recent school board meeting over 250 people signed up to speak, although meetings have been heating up on a variety of charged issues from Boston to San Francisco and in between.

For decades, to little avail, education observers have lamented the decline of effective civics instruction in K-12 classrooms and pointed to the dismal state of civics knowledge among students. Suddenly and ironically—due to the hyperfocus on the lightning rod of CRT instruction—a sizable swath of the citizenry is figuring out how their local government actually operates. They are demanding transparency and responsiveness, seeking official documents to better inform themselves, reading the minutes, learning which levers they can push, and making time and the effort to attend public meetings. Better still, many of them are running for election to their local school board. Civics has gone from being a neglected academic abstraction to a real-life object lesson, and the schools themselves are the central focus.

Whatever your view on the various teaching theories under debate, increased open communication between schools and parents is an improvement over benign citizen noninvolvement and complacent neglect.

The umbrella of worrisome teaching practices is surely wider than what academic circles consider to be pure “critical race theory”—a means of analyzing entrenched inequities in our legal and other societal systems. However, the most pressing problem is that many elements of CRT are now being interpreted and applied by practicing educators in settings with younger audiences for whom they may not be appropriate. What is being taught is alarming to students’ families, and might not even be recognizable to CRT originalists.

We’ve seen classroom activities that involve shaming or labeling children based on their skin color, and classroom exercises where students are required to sort themselves into categories of oppressors or oppressed. Some of this veers close to what could be considered “unlicensed therapy,” and real harm has been caused by such practices, as in the Boston public school system where the use of unregulated outside consultants led to allegations of emotional abuse. Many families don’t want their children to be trained to mentally approach everything and everyone by looking first at the skin colors involved. They don’t consider this healthy or desirable; it violates their worldview and personal ethics. They think it is disruptive to classroom and societal harmony and proper friendship formation across racial lines.

There is also the problem of age and pedagogical inappropriateness. CRT and similar theories are rather esoteric and have drifted downward from graduate and professional schools, where they were formulated by people already well-versed in the literature of their respective disciplines. While they may form interesting critiques of this background knowledge, it’s an entirely different matter to be using this particular advanced approach (or teaching informed by it) with children who are approaching new content for the very first time. 

For its part, the National Education Association has pledged to oppose anti-CRT rhetoric and to support “accurate and honest” accountings of unpleasant aspects of American history. Reasonable people can disagree over how such essential topics are best explained to students, which is why the NEA’s own Code of Ethics for Educators recognizes the primacy of the pursuit of truth and affirms that teachers “[s]hall not unreasonably deny the student's access to varying points of view.”

Of course, parents who support critical race theory in schools have as much right to show up at board meetings and air their views as those who oppose it. Anyone concerned that these laws might limit coverage of essential topics such as slavery or Jim Crow laws should insist upon full curricular transparency from their district.

In short, the solution to the current curricula wars is more speech, not the enforced silence of legislative fiat.

Participatory democracy is what the founders envisioned. The pendulum that had swung for such a long time towards passive, implicit trust in bureaucratic officialdom is now swinging back to an active citizenry demanding clear accountability from their public servants and local officials. 

One outspoken, self-described “citizen activist” in Pennsylvania reminded his censorious school board, quoting from a Supreme Court decision, that Americans share a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” Our current frenzy over K-12 curricula is an important reminder of why we must remain closely involved with what’s going on in our local community and its institutions. And it’s also the best lesson in applied civics that we can provide our children.

Bonnie Snyder is director of high school outreach at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the author of Undoctrinate: How Politicized Classrooms Harm Kids and Ruin Our Schools—And What We Can Do About It.