When Barb Mozdzen opened last month’s school board meeting in Chandler, Arizona, for public comment, she had a caveat.
While many attendees indicated they were at the meeting to discuss “critical race theory,” the topic was not actually on the agenda that day.
In fact, critical race theory wasn’t being taught in Chandler’s schools, and neither the board nor administration had discussed the possibility of implementing it into the curriculum, said Mozden, the board president.
In the following hour, an attendee said he saw no distinction between critical race theory and equity trainings. Conservative activist Charlie Kirk said the board was “stomping on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” And, outside, the chair of the right-wing Patriot Party of Arizona, Steve Daniels, was arrested.
In recent weeks, protests, arrests and appearances by national activists have become the norm at school board meetings across the country. Anger is boiling over after a year and a half of virtual learning and strict COVID-19 rules in schools. Fears about critical race theory, stoked in national media and fanned by conservative think tanks and activists, have heightened tensions with schools even more.
The pitched battles, over issues ranging from racism to masks to the rights of transgender students, have often caught district leaders flatfooted. Board members, used to sleepy and ill-attended public meetings, are reeling.
A meeting room was cleared in Michigan. Shouting matches broke out in Kentucky. In Virginia, sheriff’s deputies arrested and cited someone after a school board voted to end its unruly meeting. School board members in New Hampshire were compared to Nazis. A father in New York rushed to the stage to confront a board member.
This has been building up over this past year and a half. And I think we’ve reached a crescendo because I think people are just tired,” said Anna Maria Chávez, executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association.
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‘Perfect storm of timing and misinformation’
Critical race theory is not being taught in most schools across America. It’s a decades-old legal framework for examining laws that reproduce inequalities in society.
Common misinformation about the theory ties it to Marxism, and some opponents claim it teaches white children to hate themselves.
“What critical race theory teaches, even though it’s not being taught in primary schools, isn’t that radical,” said Eric Ward, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is mainly arguing that racism and an ideology called ‘white supremacy’ and a historical period called ‘chattel slavery’ have had a significant impact on the law, meaning on the way that we function within a society.”
What is critical race theory? And why do Republicans oppose teaching it in schools?
The term began circulating more widely among conservatives in September 2020, when former President Donald Trump heard about it in a Fox News segment and issued a memo ordering the government to stop funding training for contractors on critical race theory, which he called propaganda.
In recent years, schools have also worked to teach more history from the perspective of oppressed people and sought to introduce equity initiatives that target achievement gaps among students driven by socioeconomic backgrounds. Those efforts have only increased since the racial reckoning in the U.S. that arose from the murder of George Floyd.
Additionally, about a year before the Black Lives Matter movement galvanized countless people to protest around the country, The New York Times published a series of essays called the “1619 Project,” which aimed to “reframe the country’s history” in the context of slavery as well as contributions from Black Americans. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, won a Pulitzer Prize for her essay, but the project was also a frequent target of Trump.
School board conversations around race are also coming after an unprecedented year for those organizations, Chávez said. During the pandemic, boards engaged parents in new ways, hosting virtual forums and posting regularly on social media. And parents were more involved as decisions were made around COVID-19 precautions and school reopening, she said.
Now, parents feel empowered – and they’re fed up.
At a school board meeting in Penfield, New York, parent Rich Tyson yelled from the audience when he noticed a school board member mocking a public commenter. The board member cursed and gestured for Tyson to come to the stage, setting off chaos that cleared the room until the meeting resumed in a virtual-only forum.
The pandemic has made many parents more aware of how school districts operate — and they don’t like what they see, Tyson told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, part of the USA TODAY Network.
“It just woke us up to how decisions are made at a local level, and how many are not made at a local level,” Tyson said.