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Controversial NC Social Studies Guidelines Strike A Nerve With Public And Officials

A proposed new North Carolina social studies curriculum strives to include voices that have traditionally been left out and to help students explore struggles against oppression and injustice.

North Carolina’s education leaders are still trying to strike a balance on how to address racism and other tough topics in social studies classes. They spent 90 minutes today Wednesday discussing new standards, with a vote coming Thursday.

Members of the state Board of Education say they’ve gotten thousands of emails about proposed new social studies standards just since last week’s special meeting. The debate over how to address racism, oppression and gender identity is clearly striking a nerve.

The new standards — two years and five drafts in the making — call for incorporating more diverse voices and highlighting the struggles of oppressed groups. Some say that brings long overdue balance, while others say it shortchanges American pride.

Board Chair Eric Davis of Charlotte read a letter from an Asheville school media specialist who supports the new standards.

"Our American society, while offering the promise of freedom and justice for all, has also been built upon systemic inequality, from slavery to Jim Crow to school segregation to unequal access to education, housing and generational wealth. We educators see it clearly in our school populations," that person wrote.

Superintendent Catherine Truitt read a letter from a Union County parent who is an East Indian immigrant. The writer described experiencing “hellacious discrimination” but still taking pride in American freedom and capitalism. That writer said the new standards reflect a false emphasis on slavery as the dominant narrative of American history.

"We don’t whitewash history," the Union County writer said, "but we don’t rewrite it, either."

New Preamble Introduced

Truitt, a Republican elected in November, read a new preamble to the standards that she said would help educators strike the right balance. It quotes the Greek philosopher Plutarch, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

"Let us study the past such that all students can celebrate our achievements towards a more perfect union, while acknowledging that the sins of the past still linger in the everyday lives of many," the preamble says. "Let us study the past so we can understand where it might lead us today."

Davis voiced his support for Truitt’s preamble and the latest draft of the standards. But it’s not clear whether a majority of the board agrees.

Matthew Bristow-Smith, a principal who serves as an adviser to the board, said he found the preamble inspiring. And he noted that all five of the board’s educator-advisers — two principals, two teachers and one superintendent — support the new standards.

But they’re not voting members.

Donna Tipton-Rogers, who is a voting member, said history needs to include great deeds, teach moral lessons and increase patriotism but also acknowledge racism and discrimination.

"By adopting these new social studies standards, we are embracing the essence of what makes the study of history useful," she said.

But board member Todd Chasteen says he won’t support the standards because they overemphasize some narratives.

"Discrimination and oppression must be covered and it will be," he said. "Yet the last thing I want to do is mislead students to think the U.S. is hopelessly bigoted, irredeemable and much worse than most nations."

Cartoon Generates Outrage

Members noted that while their own discussion has been civil, the debate is sparking some extreme reactions from others. Several members — including Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who is Black, and Olivia Oxendine, who is Lumbee — voiced outrage at a WRAL editorial cartoon about the standards that depicted Republican state board members as an elephant in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.

Oxendine, who’s a professor at UNC Pembroke, says she hates to think of her students seeing her depicted in such an offensive way.

"What does that say about having a chance to voice one’s concerns?" she asked. "It says, 'Shut up.' It says, 'Be quiet.' It says if not, you may find yourself in a political cartoon that is disseminated and shared across the state. I’m going to have to explain that to my grandchildren."

Capitol Broadcasting Opinions posted a response Wednesday saying cartoons use hyperbole and satire, and "no one believes Republicans on the State Board of Education are members of the Ku Klux Klan."

Time Matters

The board is under time pressure. The General Assembly has required that new standards and classes be ready for classes that start in August. Vice Chair Alan Duncan said he’s still not sure how the vote will turn out, but he hopes the focus will shift quickly to supporting the educators who will actually teach these topics.

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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.