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Critical race theory ban proposal pits Michigan lawmakers against educators

U.S. history teacher Matt Enochs and his eighth-grade class from Southfield Public Schools watched online together as the mob broke into the nation's Capitol building on Jan. 6.

"I had students ask questions about the powers of government that I hadn’t heard before because they were watching it unfold ..." Enochs said. "One question from students: Who is going to stop this? It was a very simple question and very complex answer."

That inspired Enochs to go back and review history books and textbooks during the times the government faced tumultuous times in the past. He told his students what Congress could do and what the U.S. military could do.

"I thought I was an important moment," Enochs recalled.

But could such teacher-student conversations be restricted under proposed legislation that would ban any K-12 curriculum that includes coverage of critical race theory or "anti-American and racist theories"? And that has instructors such as Enochs asking how teachers would navigate discussions on national history if it becomes law.

"This bill upsets me because it tries to ban perspective or ways at looking at history," Enochs says. "That is not fair to teachers, but it's especially not fair to students. If a student asked me a question, am I not allowed to talk about it because it's considered coverage?"

Critical Race Theory, an academic framework found in legal studies and academia that examines history through the lens of racism, has become embroiled in controversy and confusion in Michigan and around the country. White parents have argued it teaches their children to be ashamed, while school districts have defended equity and inclusion programs that seek to foster greater fairness in schools.

There is no evidence teachers in Michigan's K-12 school are specifically teaching critical race theory, known as CRT, yet it has divided communities and shut down school board meetings.

The anti-CRT bill in the Michigan Senate, which remains in committee, goes beyond banning the theory in K-12 classrooms says, state Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, a co-sponsor of the anti-CRT bill.

It prohibits teaching that any race is inherently superior or inferior to any other race, that the United States is a fundamentally racist country and that a person is inherently racist or oppressive based on race. 

"I think all of us would agree certainly that racism and its associated effects of segregation and slavery are abhorrent, but it doesn’t mean a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-grader is fundamentally racist based on race," Barrett said.

Barrett said the bill isn't trying to manage classrooms and what is taught, and if CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools, then the Senate should have no problem passing the bill.

"There are certain elements of revisionist history that are not accurate," he said. "There are racial struggles America has had. Our history doesn’t mean this idea that America is fundamentally racist or an individual is racist based on their makeup. That degrades pride in America and degrades our freedoms and liberties."

Expert: Theory not meant for schools

CRT is a framework in legal studies that has promoted people to think about the existence of racism and the role of racism at the systemic level, said Camille M. Wilson, a professor of education at the University of Michigan and CRT expert. It is not a framework meant for K-12 schools or curriculum, Wilson said.

The debate about the theory in K-12 schools is being used as a fear tactic, she said.

"CRT is being conflated with discussions on race and equity, which is discussed in school and should be done," Wilson said. "It's not about individual blame, it's about learning the truth in this country and lingering inequalities. It's about making good choices to disrupt inequality."

Nicole Matthews-Creech, board president of the Livingston Diversity Council, a nonprofit dedicated to equality, said there is a lot of misinformation about CRT.

"The fear that has been instilled about CRT is what it will do to our kids — pit them against each other and pit them against their country," Matthews-Creech said. "CRT seeks to make sense between race and social inequity. Most Americans would acknowledge there is inequity."

Officials at Michigan's largest teacher's union organization said they are "aware of no Michigan K-12 school district that is or has proposed teaching (CRT) content to students."

"It appears that an issue has been created where one does not exist," said Doug Pratt, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association.

Teachers and other school employees should be respected and trusted to teach in the best way to develop students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills, he said.

"No matter our color, background or ZIP code, we want Michigan students to receive an education that imparts honesty about who we are, integrity in how we treat others and courage to do what’s right to build a better nation," Pratt said. "The MEA always has and will continue to oppose efforts to censor what and how educators teach so that students get a well-rounded education that is critical to our democracy."

Parent: Theory 'disguised' in policies

Sheri Recknagel is a parent in Rochester Community Schools who believes CRT is being taught in public schools in Michigan. Recknagel says CRT is "disguised" in school policies on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Recknagel, who is White, said this past spring she joined the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Parent Network, an independent, parent-run and facilitated organization, where she attended several Zoom meetings. Recknagel said out of 23 attendees, she was the only person with a differing opinion.

"There was nothing diverse about that group. Having a different opinion or asking questions on equity and such, I was asked to leave the group." Recknagel said. "I was told I was racist. It's pitting people against one another via race. It used to be class against class. Now, it's race against race."

UM's Wilson said some people are confusing CRT with the increase in hiring for diversity, equity and inclusion directors at K-12 districts. Rané Garcia, the first director of diversity, equity and inclusion in the Michigan Department of Education, starts next month.

Wilson said those hires are long overdue and are about fairness, not critical race theory.

"They are about promoting diversity and fairness and identifying systemic bias within systems and preventing it," Wilson said. "That is progress. They are attuned to race and they think about other factors such as gender, class, religion, sexual orientation. Their charge is to make sure district policies are as fair as possible."

Social study standards

As the debate over CRT simmers, a recent panel review of Michigan's social studies standards — the framework by which history and civics teachers develop lessons —  highlighted what students are supposed to be learning about race and racism in their nation's history.

The 377-page national review, done by a bipartisan team of five experts in civics and U.S. history at the Fordham Institute, found that fewer than half of states rate good or better on civics and history curriculum standards.

Michigan earned a B for its social studies standards. Comments on Michigan included the state's U.S. history content coverage is "generally solid and sometimes excellent" as well as its the U.S. history sequence is "flawed, relegating the foundational colonial period to grade 5."

The review says "overall, Michigan’s framework for high school civics is solid. Its primary flaw is that some standards are followed by clarifying examples and some are not, although the quality of the examples that are provided is also uneven."

The reviewers criticized the state standards for splitting up early U.S. history between fifth and eighth grades, saying three years is too big of a gap for students to build a solid understanding of that critical period.

David Griffith, senior researcher and policy associate at Fordham, said reviewers rated the U.S. history and civics standards for all 50 states and Washington, D.C., giving them letter grades, A through F, for depth and clarity.

Griffith says Michigan did reasonably well, ranking 13th among states. Its standards referenced slavery 17 times, segregation five times and race three times.

"We gave it Bs in both subjects, and that is actually pretty good. Our reviewers were tough," Griffith said. "Michigan has a solid foundation. It needs to build on what it has. It falls just short."

One fifth-grade standard asks Michigan students studying the Civil War to compare the differences in the lives of free Black people, including those who escaped from slavery, with the lives of free White people and enslaved people.

As far as the CRT debate, Griffith says knowledge must be put at the center.

"No one can be against critical thinking. You can't think critically about politics or public policy unless you have a basic command of the facts. And there are quite a few facts. Kids need to know how government works, the basics of U.S. history," Griffith said.

"We are having a debate of how to handle race, which is beside the point if kids have never heard of Dred Scott or equal protection laws," Griffith said of the 1857 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that said African Americans were not and could never be citizens of the United States.

Strong state standards can help teachers navigate anti-CRT laws, Griffith says.

"The current debate is largely a sideshow. If you read Michigan's standards, there is no CRT in them as far we can tell. Teachers who stick to that are on firm ground," he said.

Michigan updated its social studies standards in 2019 attracting national attention after proposed but ultimately failed revisions offered by then-Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck included removing references to climate change, gays and lesbians, and the phrase "core democratic values."

The 146-page revised standards include more examples and references to the roles women, minority organizations, Muslims and African Americans played in history.

State Superintendent Michael Rice says Michigan's standards were rated in the top third in the nation, and that is good news. Rice does not support the anti-CRT bill.

"Michigan’s social studies standards are what the State Board of Education believe should be taught and learned by educators and students in Michigan. Local school districts determine their own curricula and resources and how the state standards are to be taught in their classrooms," Rice said.