Glenn Youngkin's promised 'critical race theory' ban has Virginia teachers worried

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The Republican governor-elect has been quiet on his campaign promise to ban 'CRT' in the state's schools, since winning in November. But teachers are still on high alert.

One of Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin's signature campaign promises — proposed and promoted in the final weeks of his close, contentious race against Terry McAullife — was to ban the teaching of critical race theory in Virginia schools.

Critical race theory is not taught in K-12 schools. It is an academic framework used by legal scholars to analyze racism in America and is taught mainly in graduate-level coursework. Right-wing activists and media have deliberately transformed the phrase into a catchall term, which they use to attack a wide variety of educational practices, from anti-racist and culturally-responsive education to social-emotional learning.

But Republicans have seized on attacking critical race theory as a winning electoral strategy, especially in the wake of Youngkin's victory, which many conservatives attribute to his politicization of education and race. Across the nation, state legislatures are moving to ban critical race theory and associated terms, ideas, and lesson plans, including the New York Times' 1619 Project, which teaches the history of racism in the United States.

According to the Brookings Institution, 10 states have already passed laws banning "critical race theory." They include Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, and North Dakota. Twenty more states have either introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation.

Youngkin and his team have not indicated what kind of formal ban he will seek to impose once he officially takes office on Jan. 15, 2022. But some teachers and experts are worried about the impact such a policy might have on the state's K-12 education system.

Jessica Berg, a teacher at Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County, said that some of her colleagues have been changing what they teach.

"There have been readings that we've taught in previous years that I know coworkers have decided to not use because they know someone — some parent — is going to comment," she told the American Independent Foundation.

Berg created, wrote, and piloted a Women and Gender Studies elective course at her school. She has purposefully left her readings unchanged. But even so, she says, "Now there's this little second-guessing voice in the back of my head."

"I know in my building and throughout the county, I assume throughout the state, there are teachers who have that voice in their head and go with a different piece."

A student in one of Berg's classes, for example, had taken a screenshot of an article about police brutality Berg had put on a list of reading options — a list from which students were free to choose — and showed it to their parents, who complained to the school soon afterward.

So she's sympathetic to those teachers who ask, in her words, "Is this is worth the headache of having to justify your profession rather than just picking a different reading?"

Youngkin's proposed ban has added an even bigger burden.

"We feel like we're living in limbo," she said. "What does banning CRT look like when that doesn't really exist at the high school level?"

Berg is worried that if Virginia passes a ban, she won't be allowed to teach her elective course on feminism.

"I don't want to come at this from a place of fear," Berg said. "But I do have two kids, a mortgage, and I don't want to lose my job. It's an extremely unsettling time."

Taisha Steele, director of human and civil rights at the Virginia Education Association, said the proposed ban could also make it harder for students of color to find representation in the classroom.

"Our students want to feel seen and heard. They want to feel valued. They want to see themselves in their curriculum," Steele told the American Independent Foundation.

Steele, who worked as a school counselor for 20 years, fears that a ban could cause educators of color to leave their current jobs — or quit teaching altogether. Nationally, educators of color tend to stop teaching or switch jobs at a higher rate than their white colleagues, due to a number of factors, including, according to the Learning Policy Institute, "concerns about compensation tied to student performance, lack of administrative support, lack of classroom autonomy and school influence, poor teaching conditions, and the desire to pursue another career or improve their opportunities in education."

Teachers of color also experience discrimination and racist stereotyping, a lack of consideration for their expertise from colleagues, and increased stress due to feeling responsible for improving overall school conditions for all students of color, the institute wrote in 2018.

Steele said her primary focus for the moment is on Virginia students.

"I'm concerned it will lead to our children not receiving an education which teaches them the real history of America," she said. "When our educators fear when they're teaching, they're not able to educate our students."

Paul Koch, who has taught at Rock Ridge since the school was first opened in 2014, is less concerned about Youngkin's proposed ban.

"My gut is telling me that it'll be really surprising if it impacts the day-to-day in this school building," Koch, an English teacher, told the American Independent Foundation.

The furor over critical race theory hasn’t found its way into his classes, he said. "I just haven't seen it materialize in my classroom," he said. "I haven't altered the curriculum because of the phrase 'CRT'."

But Koch has a line. "Books are what concern me. If they start to say 'oh you can't have this book in the classroom' that would be a real concern," he said. "I don't really see how I can do my job if certain books are banned."

"I'm not sure I can even picture myself going there, actually taking books off my shelf because somebody doesn't like them," Koch continued. "...I can't do my job and censor the books that are available to my students."

He added, "If they make it like it is in Texas [where the state is banning books that address racism and sexuality], I don't know if this is my job anymore. I would go do something else."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.