Carolyn Thompson and Heather Hollingsworth, Associated Press, February 20, 2022
Conservative takeovers of local school boards have already altered lessons on race and social injustice in many classrooms. Now some districts are finding their broader efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion are also being challenged.
As her Colorado school district’s equity director, Alexis Knox-Miller thought the work she and a volunteer team were doing was on solid ground, especially with an audit in hand that detailed where the district was falling short in making sure all students had the same opportunities.
But in December, Knox-Miller reluctantly disbanded the equity leadership team after more than a year of meetings. New conservative members had won a majority on the school board after voicing doubts about the work, and she worried the efforts might not lead anywhere.
The new board says it will take up the issue in the spring.
“Around the time that the equity audit was being released, I realized that the tide had changed around diversity, equity and inclusion efforts,” Knox-Miller said. “People were conflating the definition of equity with critical race theory, and the absurd accusations that we were teaching critical race theory in classrooms to kindergartners began.”
Since issues of diversity, equity and inclusion can thread their way through every part of a school system — including recruitment, services and equipment — the debate carries implications for hiring and spending.
In some districts, proposals aimed at making schools more welcoming places for students from diverse backgrounds have been reversed as a result of turnover on school boards, while work elsewhere faces a chill from acrimonious debate around topics that have been mislabeled as critical race theory.
In a fraught political climate that already had escalated fights about pandemic mask and vaccine requirements, divisions are taking a toll, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association.
“Even in districts that aren’t threatened as much, they’re thinking twice about what they say and what they do and how they go about doing it because it is having a chilling effect on the whole equity, diversity and inclusion movement,” Domenech said.
In Pennridge, Pennsylvania, the school district’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative was put on hold last year after it became a flashpoint in debates that touched also on COVID-19 safety protocols, including mask mandates.
Democrat Adrienne King, who helped design the plan, ran for a seat on the school board and lost in November. Five Republicans won after running against the initiative, which they had called divisive. The program’s future remains unclear while a new committee considers it.
The Arlington, Virginia-based group Parents Defending Education is critical of diversity, equity and inclusion programming, citing on its website a goal of “fighting indoctrination in the classroom.” It tracks examples of what it views as inappropriate activities, such as an educator training session in Missouri that included discussion of microagressions and implicit bias.
“What they have become are Trojan horses for all of these divisive programs that push really illiberal ideas like segregated groups based on race, privilege walks, privilege bingo,” said Asra Nomani, the organization’s vice president for strategy and investigations.
In Southlake, Texas, the newly elected conservative majority on the Carroll Independent School District’s board killed a proposed cultural competency action plan in December and disbanded the suburban Dallas district’s diversity council as part of a legal settlement.
An equity program that schools in Clayton County, Georgia, undertook more than a year ago was designed to keep politics and emotions out of it, Superintendent Morcease Beasley said. A task force has undertaken a “deep dive” into the district’s programming that will use data to drive policy changes.