Winter 2021

Conflating ‘CRT’ and Equity: School Board Members’ Perspectives from the Front Line

Three school board members share their struggle to provide students with the best possible education amid anti-"CRT" scaremongering.

by Amy Kennedy, Guadalupe Kasper, and an Anonymous Board Member

Over the past almost two years of living through a pandemic and its consequential revelation of deep-seated social inequities, three female school board members were compelled to tell our version of this story as we captured our quest to pass an equity policy. We wondered how our desire for equity got misconstrued and our board meetings became a battleground for asserting rights to individual freedoms and vilifying Critical Race Theory or “CRT.”[1]

Two of us teach at the university level, and although we are familiar with this theory, neither of us considers ourselves experts on the topic. In fact, among the three of us, we’ve tried to learn more about this theory and had conversations about how it challenges dominant white perspectives that live so prominently in our educational system. We also see Critical Race Theory as opening other perspectives such as ethnicity and gender. We feel that it’s our responsibility to ensure these perspectives don’t get silenced in education. Finally, although we understand that developmentally, this legal theory may not be appropriate for most k-12 curriculum, we do in fact feel it’s important to promote anti-racism and the teaching of actual US history from various perspectives, specifically noting its troubled story with race.

So-called anti-“CRT” protestors showed up at school board meetings across the country beginning in the summer of 2021. Among their demands are a whitewashed teaching of American History and a ban on discussion of racism. Republicans have introduced legislation based on their demands in 29 states and signed these into law in 8 (and counting). Photo by Jarrod Valliere via The San Diego Union-Tribune.

We know that not everyone has to agree on a theory, but we felt that this process, however contentious, brought us closer together and made social justice and equity even more worthwhile. We are each passionate in our own right to serve and fulfill our duties as school board members. Here, we recount how, for some community members, equity became “CRT” and “CRT” became the enemy during these past few months of set-backs, criticism, humiliation, and, best of all, human perseverance. 

The Community We Serve

We serve the “Grand Manor” (a pseudonym) School District, which is situated outside Philadelphia. We are the only three women on a board of mostly white men. Although our district demographic is largely white, it’s currently experiencing rapid growth of non-white families as well as a growing wealth gap. Two of us were appointed to serve on the Equity Task Force as co-chairs in June of 2020. As an ad-hoc body, the task force was temporarily charged with examining the extent of inequities throughout the district as well as suggesting a plan for minimizing them. We worked alongside the district administration. We talked about the social and emotional wellbeing of our students, school culture, and the rising local economic disparities. 

During the summer of 2020, we saw the country dealing with its own racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd. Nationally, we were navigating isolation and clear inequitable loss at under a deadly virus that was killing Black and Brown folks at a more accelerated rate than whites. In addition, a national bill was introduced called the “Saving American History Act” which sought to strip funding to schools that were teaching The 1619 Project, a project dedicated to centering Black Americans’ experiences in history and adopted as curriculum by many K-12 districts around the country. This national effort to suppress the telling of American history from Black and Brown perspectives spread in both overt and subtle ways at local levels and our district was not exempt. Many Americans were also beginning to understand that these inequities were not about individuals or groups making a few bad choices, but that they existed long before the pandemic and were indeed structural and required structural solutions.

During the next several months, as the 20-21 school year was underway, our focus was on student and staff health and safety. We were one of few districts that could offer in-person learning. Despite this, the year continued filled with issues around masking and remote or virtual learning. With COVID cases on the rise, anger and resentment began festering among parents about having to mask students and periodically pivot to online learning. Parents claimed that school board members were violating their individual freedoms to decide how to keep their children safe in school, “It isn’t the government’s right to take away our individual freedoms or our privacy regarding our health…,” said one parent about masking.

In addition to their anti-“CRT” agitation, white conservatives swarmed schools across the country to demand that students be allowed to attend classes mask-less as COVID initially disproportionately ravaged Black and Brown communities. Photo of protestors outside Hempfield High School in rural PA via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This was tough on all of us, especially the three of us who are also mothers of children in the district and often carried the burden to comfort them through these anxious times. Our teachers and administrators were also feeling the burden as we were experiencing larger-than-usual resignations and turnover in every area of education. Local and national inequities were increasingly apparent, so the task force became a popular meeting place for teachers, administrators, and students, to understand inequities and come up with solutions. As a group, we decided to survey our most important stakeholders, teachers, and students. We learned that our students and staff were thirsty for more discussions about race and teachers desired more support for teaching difficult.

One student shared that “I learn more from TikTok about race than the ‘Grand Manor.’” Teachers worry about the chilling effect of the “anti-CRT” protests and losing the trust of students who might feel the need to supplement their classroom instruction with outside resources. “[We need] to create an environment,” one teacher explained, “that if and when [students] experience things (even on social media) that they can talk to people and bring it up.” Another teacher hoped for additional subject-area training: “Give us opportunities to hear from those who are good with talking about [race]—Possible opportunities to watch examples of teachers discussing these topics.”

As we analyzed the survey data, we realized that equity applied to every area in the district. So, we decided to separate it into sub-committees, one of them being Policy. Policy became a tangible deliverable that, once passed, would inform the other areas, so we began the work to write the policy during the remainder of the school year.

All Hell Breaks Loose: The “Wait” Period

As the school year ends, we introduce Equity Policy 718 publicly for its first reading in May of 2021.[2] The national disinformation campaign against “CRT” was unleashed on our efforts. Uncertainty around equity was coming from all areas, including our board. Some even claimed that equity was “code” for “CRT” and “CRT” was “code” for “black communism.” Things really got heated when a local state representative posted an email falsely accusing our board of “…adopting an equity policy based on ‘CRT’ that threatens to undermine the quality of the education provided to students.” In an effort to reduce the public’s agitation, the district decided to pull the policy from the agenda.

This period (June 2021 to November 2021) felt reminiscent of the civil rights era when Blacks were told they had to “wait” for those with the power to feel comfortable to provide necessary solutions – and so the long wait began. It’s ironic how many of the all-white residents who came to speak in opposition to equity referenced this same era with a level of entitlement to speak for people of color, saying things like, “…we should aim to live out what Dr. King said ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ True words of wisdom indeed. Yet, we have a proposal before us in ‘CRT’ that would only define our children by their skin color. That’s probably the most racist ideology I’ve ever heard of…” School board members’ email inboxes were loaded with emails demanding “VOTE NO to Equity Policy 718!” We were waiting for folks to feel comfortable with terms like inclusion, intersectionality, anti-racism, and social emotional learning.

White conservatives have long used schools as a vehicle for maintaining racial inequality to the greatest extent possible. Today’s anti-“CRT” protestors are no exception and their work is eerily reminiscent of the segregationist and anti-bussing protests of the mid-20th century. As a result of their efforts, American schools remain deeply segregated by race. Image via Wikimedia.

The three of us experienced the worst, with comments like, “…if it wasn’t for the three woke broads on the board, [we wouldn’t be having this debate].” A school board watch group was formed on social media which claimed to keep board members accountable to parents, but acted more as a platform for parents to spew hatred and contempt for individual board members, especially the three of us with comments like, “That woman is insane, and EXACTLY the reason I’m enrolling my girls in private school. My kids do not see race or color…. Education is structured to teach, not indoctrinate.” The district also implemented new policies around public participation at board meetings and included extra protection for board members, including police escorts to the parking lot after meetings.

Equity on the Horizon

As the 21-22 year began, the country was again facing a rise in COVID cases and our public was getting extremely unsettled over masks and equity/“CRT.” We headed into the year with a little more experience, but our patience was beginning to wane. We wanted to get back to the work we were elected to do! At the beginning of the school year, the administration held activities to include the community in equity discussions so the policy could be refined. This included a community workshop and online thought exchange. We learned that the voices in support of equity actually represented the majority of the district. Although these supporters were reluctant to speak out at first, they began to rally in support of the equity policy including the creation of a social media group.

We began to get hopeful as we became more invested in the work of educational equity. However, we were met with road blocks at every corner:

Road Block One: “The anti-CRT Resolution”

Some in the community were demanding that the district pass an official statement that claimed to ban “CRT.” The problem was that the public had no idea what “CRT” was and were claiming that anything related to equity, gender, and LGBTQ+ were all “CRT.” Two of our fellow board members have been publicly opposed to an equity policy over the past year and that reached culmination when one of them proposed a template of an “anti-CRT” resolution with language like, “Critical Race Theory assigns generational and racial guilt for conduct and policies that are long in the past.” Although we did not consider ourselves “CRT” scholars, we could clearly see that this was NOT Critical Race Theory. Yikes! The board member threatened to present this on the board agenda for a vote at an upcoming meeting. Luckily our board leadership found a recent stipulation that required new agenda items to be approved by board leadership before becoming eligible for public vote. And so, the resolution never made it to the public agenda. Phew!

Road Block Two: “Teachers’ ‘CRT’ Lessons Blasted All Over Social Media”

Early in the school year some of our high school teachers’ lessons were posted all over social media.[3] Accusations that district was lying to the public about not teaching “CRT” were clogging up our email inboxes and posted on social media as parents viewed the lessons online. Even board members were requesting our administration to have teachers’ syllabi posted publicly so that parents could determine their appropriateness. Teachers felt mortified about having their material scrutinized to this extent. In spite of all the criticism, not one parent reached out to any of the teachers to discuss their lessons. This also frustrated administrators and they felt a need to advocate for the teachers and put a stop to the battle routinely witnessed at every board meeting. The superintendent publicly denounced the overt teaching of “CRT” in our classrooms, and stood up against the tyranny over teachers’ lessons, “…we WILL pass an equity policy [in this district]!” he claimed.

Road Block Three: “The Book Banning List”

During the district’s attempts to include the public in the revision of policy 718, parents went as far as creating a book-banning list including the banning of books such as, And Tango Makes Three by Richardson and Parnell “…[because] it contains homosexuality and same sex marriage” and Ghost Boys by J. Rhodes “…[because] it teaches CRT.” 

Cover for And Tango Makes Three, one of the books that anti-“CRT” organizers hoped to ban.

Final Road Block: “The Write-in Campaign”

There was so much passion in the community around this policy that it culminated in action. As the November election approached, four board members, two of them female, were now up for re-election and had already won in the primary. This meant they should be unopposed in the general election. Not this time! There were four additional write-in candidates running on a campaign of misinformation about “CRT” and claims to provide more parent choice in school curriculum once elected. As the final tally was calculated, this district had never before seen these many votes for write-in candidates. However, the incumbents were elected by an overwhelming majority. 

Equity Policy Passes

The state of the equity policy was still in question, but, after the revisions, policy 718 was back on the agenda, right before the election. During the public meeting, two board members expressed their opposition to the policy and requested a re-write. At first, the administration acquiesced by pulling the policy, claiming that the board needed to re-address its language and further delaying its passing. One of us became furious about this added delay and immediately called the superintendent and demanded that it be placed back on the agenda for final vote. As the energy from the elections simmered, the administration decided to put the policy back on the agenda for its final public reading and vote.[4] Policy 718 finally passed with a 7-2 vote at our last November meeting! One of us remembers getting in her car that night and crying with joy!

False information about Critical Race Theory has been conflated with equity. “CRT” has been vilified and seen as drawing division. However, we feel this theory helped expand society’s understanding of the role of race in social institutions. Critical Race Theory has allowed society to develop more equitable measures for providing pathways toward the most valuable resources in our society, such as education and health. It has also allowed us the opportunity to expand on anti-discrimination polices and laws that enforce them. But what happened in our district this past year and a half was not this. “CRT” was used as a tool by whites to mark differences in order to imagine their superiority. Board members and administrators danced around issues of race and avoided equity for fear of it being intertwined with “CRT.” We wondered—how did we end up fearing our own public that we had been called on to serve? These tactics seemed counterproductive to us.

We believe that we need to continue to draw more attention to race and equity and get people past the discomfort in order to move forward toward dissolving our divisions and bringing forth a more united stance against social and educational inequities. Each of us leaned on each other throughout this process, and although at times our spirits were punctured with disappointments and the hatred of agitators, we persevered and gained one small victory in a series of many more to come! We could not have endured this without each other and for that we are grateful!

Amy Kennedy is an assistant professor in the College of Education at a PA State University. Prior to that she was an elementary educator in the “Grand Manor” School District for 13 years. She is a mom of four children currently attending the district and has been a school board member since December 2017. While her research interests are usually literacy based, she has been an outspoken advocate for young students since her teaching days, advocating for equitable schools, developmentally appropriate instruction, and less focus on standardized testing.

Guadalupe Kasper is Latina educator trained in Anthropology and teaching in higher education for 22 years. For the past 16 years, I also coordinated a partnership initiative with a local K-12 urban school district dedicated to providing pathways to higher education. I’m an activist passionate about issues related to language justice, racial and ethnic disparities, immigration, and inequality in education. I’m a mother of two K-12 school-age girls and one of few women of color in local leadership. I ran for school board in 2018-2019 and was sworn-in in 2019. I find this work rewarding and necessary.

****Editor’s Note: We wish to clarify the terms used throughout our “Teaching ‘CRT’ in an Age of White Backlash.” Some of our essays engage actual Critical Race Theory, the legal term used by thinkers & jurists like Kimberlé W. Crenshaw and Derrick Bell to explain the racist ways that American laws are enforced and litigated. Our submissions also criticize white conservative attacks on “CRT”—the umbrella term they apply to any teaching critical of white supremacy. The distinction between these terms is important for two reasons. 1) As many have already noted, no one teaches Critical Race Theory in primary or secondary schools (although it would be fine if they did) because it is a legal theory. 2) It is important to explain clearly what white supremacists mean when they use the term “CRT” because it is important that Americans of all ages understand the ways that our racist history and culture contributed to the country we inherit. Thus, although we encourage contributors to use both terms as it relates to their work, we want to be clear that conservatives lie about what Critical Race Theory is both to prevent teaching about our country’s racist past/present and to undermine necessary critiques of our white supremacist legal system.****

Further Reading

[1] We wanted to be clear to distinguish between the scholarly theory, Critical Race Theory, and the colloquial acronym conoted in quotes, “CRT,” recognized by right-wing extremists in their efforts to silence the promotion and teaching of US racism and antiracist curriculum.

[2] School board 101: generally, board policies require public draft readings so the public and the board have an opportunity to scrutinize it before it becomes adopted as official district policy.

[3] These were eleventh grade English lessons per state standards and were specifically providing students opportunities to view the ideology of the “American Dream” from various perspectives to discern for themselves how they view its purpose in the United States. The lessons were in support of seminal whole-class novels such as the Great Gatsby.

[4] School Board 101: before board policies become officially adopted by the district, they must go through at least two public readings and a final vote by the board. If, during this process, the policy undergoes any major revision to its language, it must restart the process. Equity policy 718, in this case, had to re-start the approval process due to the many changes it underwent. 

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