The Critical Divide: Is Critical Race Theory Even Taught in Public Schools?
Lately, it seems the phrase Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) has been stirring the pot among people on both sides of the political aisle. Both liberal and conservative media outlets are debating whether this topic should be taught in grades K-12. School board, parents, educators have expressed mixed concerns as to why CRT must be banned from (or remain in) their curriculum. In fact, the heated discussion led the Texas Legislature to draft House Bill 3979 addressing CRT and prescribing limitations on its presence in Texas classrooms. Texas is now one of three states with a law limiting the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public school classrooms. Before diving into the crux of the issues and concerns being raised by both advocates and opponents of HB 3979, we must first address what Critical Race Theory is.
There is no denying Critical Race Theory is a popular and polarizing subject. The hot-button issue has appeared in U.S. news outlets and newspapers over 5,000 times in the last six months.1 However, as frequently as this topic has been mentioned in the news, CRT has also proven to be a confusing subject to comprehend. Especially, considering the contradicting definitions and interpretations people have assigned to CRT.
What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?
Originating in the 1970’s, CRT is an intellectual framework or practice for legal analysis designed as an analytical tool to help law students think critically about how racism has shaped our public and legal system throughout history.2 (Early adopters of Critical Race Theory encouraged law students, and later college students in some universities, to objectively analyze the role of race and racism in our society throughout history and why racist events often tend to repeat themselves. In other words, a premise of Critical Race Theory is the acknowledgment that racism is not an ancient dark period of our culture learned about in history books, but rather is socially constructed. Proponents of Critical Race Theory argue that the social construct rooted in our legal and social systems is destined to impose certain racial inequities, such as institutionalized racism and white privilege. For example, take housing segregation where laws and public policy have created barriers or obstacles prohibiting people of color to succeed in their communities because the opportunities are simply not there. Not too long ago, banking institutions would draw boundaries around, directing their employees not to loan money to people in geographical areas that were predominantly black. Accordingly, CRT studies how racial inequality is embedded in the framework of our society, and occurrences of racism are not isolated instances executed by people at random.
If CRT is a concept established in the seventies, why has it become so politicized over the last year? Apparently, former President Donald Trump ignited the conversation during a speech where he alluded that education taking a “critical lens” approach to teaching American racism, and white privilege was “radical” and unpatriotic. Trump doubled down on this stance by subsequently issuing an executive order forbidding a government contractor from conducting diversity training in the workplace.3 Cue parents and school boards voicing their concerns regarding what, in fact, is being taught in history classes at K-12 schools.
Is CRT taught in Texas’ schools?
In Texas, the state’s social studies curriculum adheres to educational equity, a K-12 term which means the course is in line with federal and state policies and requirements.4 Naturally, history lessons are bound to mention historic examples of racism, such as slavery or civil rights and Chicano movements. Additionally, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become increasingly important as districts work to meet their achievement gaps which were introduced in the “No Child Left Behind” legislation establishing federal student achievement requirements. Ironically, it appears common curricula highlighting historic racist events and the push for districts to ensure all students included and poised to succeed are being incorrectly tied to Critical Race Theory, which is primarily used in university-level coursework. Notwithstanding key differences between CRT and K-12 educational equity, the Texas Legislature opted to pass House Bill 3979 to ensure educators steer clear of any CRT-related issues.
House Bill 3979’s statement of intent states, “[The bill] seeks to address concerns relating to social studies curriculum in Texas public schools by building one that fosters a student’s understanding of the fundamental moral, political, and intellectual foundations of the American experiment in self-government.” On paper, the bill’s text seems to include a detailed curriculum of required essential knowledge and skills. Educators must include topics varying from the Declaration of Independence, the Indian Removal Act, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement. Teachers are prohibited, however, from being compelled to discuss current events or controversial issues of public policy. In other words, H.B. 3979 does not allow teachers to encourage debate over historical (or present) topics of race. Opponents of the Bill argue that this unfounded attempt to keep CRT out of classrooms—which they assert was not being taught to begin with—suppresses a student’s ability to discuss and analyze information and make informed judgments.5 Accordingly, dozens of businesses and civic groups took to the Capitol to voice their opposition to HB 3979. Although concerns mounted across Texas, Governor Abbott was particularly pleased with the bill’s passing, stating, “House Bill 3979 is a strong move to abolish Critical Race Theory in Texas.” Supporters of H.B. 3979 believe that CRT is a distorted ideology that lends itself to “wound collecting” where people intentionally look for racial and social oppressive events, rather than celebrate the many accomplishments oppressed people of color have achieved in recent history. Irrespective of whether you believe Critical Race Theory is a legitimate analytical tool, or whether it has polluted its way into classrooms, the question remains as to how the teaching constraints prescribed by House Bill 3979 will impact students.