The critical race theory battle is coming to your school district, Robert Gehrke writes

Utah parents can’t afford to sleep on how their kids are taught about race and equity

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It’s a manufactured crisis, creating intense emotions and heated debate entirely out of thin air. But the furor and fear of teaching critical race theory to Utah school kids doesn’t show any signs of dissipating. In fact, it’s likely headed to your local school district.

On Thursday, the Utah School Board met yet again to debate the latest rendition of its rule governing how schools teach issues of race, equity and diversity, making various tweaks along the way.

The proposed rule — already in its fifth version — doesn’t explicitly address critical race theory. It doesn’t even mention it, and that’s wise, because for all the fist-shaking and teeth-gnashing from conservatives over it, nobody seems to be able to agree on what it is.

In academia, where critical race theory has existed for decades, it is well understood as a way to recognize racism in our nation’s past and examine how it influences and exists in our institutions today. It’s not taught in any Utah schools.

It has taken on a life of its own among the Fox News crowd, who see a Marxist plot to decimate families and destroy America anywhere schools teach about equity, tolerance, diversity and racial sensitivity.

Rather than diving into that tar pit, the school board side-stepped the issue, instead focusing on broad concepts of what schools generally should and should not teach, including incorporating language from resolutions passed by the Legislature last month — prohibiting teaching racial superiority or inferiority; that race, gender or sexual orientation dictates a student’s character; or that students should be discriminated against based on their race, gender or sexual orientation.

There are some, like Irene Yoon, a professor of educational leadership policy at the University of Utah contend the rule could have a chilling effect in schools and prevent students from learning about our complicated racial history.

And that may well be.

It is also true that, whenever this rule is done, it will not be the end of the debate.

Far from it, in fact, because the state school board has really only created broad guardrails and then assigns local school boards and charter schools to build their own curriculum and teacher training materials within those parameters.

Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Boards Association and the Utah School Superintendents Association, said the state’s rule will re-frame some of the discussions that have been taking place among local school boards.

“I think this will be a restart or a fresh start with the new definitions” set by the state board, Cunningham said. How the districts respond will naturally vary.

“It’s really about what is going on in the communities and what are board members and superintendents going to be comfortable bringing to their communities,” she said.

That means the critical race theory battleground will be shifting from the state level to your local school district, if it hasn’t already.

And, I predict, it will be brutal.

We saw how effectively these anti-CRT warriors are able to organize and rally members when they bludgeoned the Legislature into passing their resolutions condemning the concept that the Senate sponsor of the resolution admitted he couldn’t define and couldn’t say existed in schools.

It was a campaign of brute force that now is going to be aimed at local school boards, including yours.

What’s at stake isn’t whether or not critical race theory is taught in your schools. It’s not taught now and even the forces aligning against it don’t know what it is. The risk is the collateral damage from this witch hunt — the chilling effect of muzzling teachers and the disservice done to students if we deprive them of a comprehensive, clear-eyed, factual education about this nation’s complex and often problematic history with race.

Last week we marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riots, a dark episode in our nation that was largely glossed over when I, and others I’ve talked to, were in school. Incidents like those echo today. How can we appreciate the power of the vote today if we don’t understand the men and women who bled and died to get the ballot?

We can’t whitewash our history with race — or gender, sexual orientation, workers rights or anything else, for that matter.

So what do you do, if you’re a parent who cares about what you child is taught about race, diversity and equality in the classroom?

Don’t wait. Even if you’ve never paid attention to your school board before, now is the time to get engaged. Find out who your local board member is and make an introduction. Let them know you are a constituent and he or she will be hearing from you again.

Sign up for notifications of your local board meetings, track the agenda, attend a meeting and be prepared for when the debate comes. And when it comes, be courteous, be clear, but be firm and unwavering in advocating for a sensible curriculum, grade-appropriate curriculum that captures the complexity of issues surrounding equality and diversity.

This matters. And John Arthur, a teacher at Meadowlark Elementary in Salt Lake City who was recently named the Utah’s Teacher of The Year, explained why it matters better than I could.

“Somehow, people found a way to spoil these beautiful words like ‘equity,’ and ‘inclusion,’ and ‘diversity,’” he told the school board Thursday. “It’s up to us as reasonable people to recognize that cannot stand. These ideas need to be upheld. Otherwise, learning in our schools will suffer.”