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NC Officials Split Over How To Teach Students About Racism, Gender And History's Dark Side


North Carolina education officials met this week to put finishing touches on a new social studies and history curriculum for public schools. Instead they clashed over deep divides on race, gender identity and politics.

State education officials have been working on the new standards for almost two years. They’ve enlisted dozens of educators and fielded comments from thousands of people.

The new curriculum strives to include voices that have traditionally been left out and to help students explore struggles against oppression and injustice.

Catherine Truitt, Republican candidate for North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction
Catherine Truitt, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction

This week’s special meeting of the state Board of Education was called to review the fifth draft of the standards, in hopes that it can be approved next week. Earlier this month, newly elected state Superintendent Catherine Truitt asked that references to systemic racism, gender identity and systemic discrimination be revised.

Truitt, a Republican, restated her concern this week: "The extent to which discrimination in our country remains institutionalized or can be characterized as systemic is a subjective answer, one that historians are not in agreement about."

Truitt says teachers need flexibility to describe racism and discrimination as more limited and personalized.

"We do, on paper, have a legal system that generally protects the rights and liberties of the vast majority of people in our country," she said.

The latest draft simply uses the terms "racism," "identity" and "discrimination," with a glossary that defines multiple ways to use those words.

Split Goes Beyond Those Phrases

But it immediately became clear the board was split by more than those three words. Mark Robinson, a Republican who was elected as the state's first Black lieutenant governor in November, called the standards unacceptable and harmful to students.

North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson
North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson

"I think they are politically charged. I think they are divisive. And I think that they quite frankly smack of a lot of leftist dogma," Robinson said.

Robinson said his own election is evidence that America and North Carolina are no longer racist. He questioned whether the lessons are age-appropriate.

"If we’re trying to teach second-graders, many of whom cannot read on a first-grade level, complex issues about race and gender identity and all these things that we’re talking about in history — how are they going to learn that if they can’t read properly?" he asked.

Enough Emphasis On Positive?

Board member Olivia Oxendine

Board member Olivia Oxendine was one of several members who questioned the tone and balance of the material.

"I take away the feeling of 'America, the oppressor,'" she said, "not 'America, the land of opportunity.'"

Board member Amy White said the framework should be that "the United States of America and North Carolina is a great nation and a great state," and that teachers "should be promoting America as the greatest nation on this earth." She said the proposed standards reflect "an agenda that is anti-American, anti-capitalism, anti-democracy."

Deputy Superintendent David Stegall reminded the board that the standards were written by 70 teachers who worked with the Department of Public Instruction. And he noted they’ve gotten high approval ratings in recent public feedback sessions.

"Standards aren’t set up to create a tone," he said. "They’re set up to have dialogue for students."

Systemic Racism Isn't An Opinion

Board member James Ford, a former high school history teacher from Charlotte, put it more strongly.

James E. Ford, a former North Carolina teacher of the year, is working with Sedgefield Middle School's administration to make the school more racially balanced.
North Carolina Board of Education member James Ford.

"Our job here is not to rescue America from constructive critique or to project optimism," he said. "What we need is not the power of positive thinking. That’s not going to change anything for us."

Ford said the existence of systemic racism isn’t an opinion or interpretation, but historic fact that begins with the Constitution allowing slavery.

"And that legacy continues on through post-Reconstruction, a hundred years of segregation or 'whites only' society, three decades of discrimination in redlining and GI bills, another two decades of urban renewal," he continued.

Mariah Morris, the state’s 2019 teacher of the year, acts as an adviser to the board. She said it’s essential to recognize diverse stories and perspectives that students can relate to.

"It is one of the most patriotic things we can do to recognize our complex histories," she said. "It is not overly negative. It is not a detriment to our students. I would actually argue it’s the exact opposite."

The board hopes to approve the standards next week so the Department of Public Instruction can have the courses ready for August, as mandated by the General Assembly. Jill Camnitz, the board member overseeing the discussion, said if there aren’t enough votes to pass the latest draft, she’ll look for a motion on what comes next.

Meanwhile, Camnitz said the debate among board members is the kind of discussion she hopes to see in classrooms soon.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.