Few local schools are hearing concerns about critical race theory, but subtle echoes of the national debate can be heard in Yakima County.
Community members in West Valley and Selah have inquired during school board meetings about whether the theory is being taught in local K-12 schools. East Valley’s superintendent has received calls from community members in recent months about critical race theory. A candidate for Yakima’s school board wrote in her platform statement that “critical theory curriculums must be banned.” U.S. Congressman Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside recently signed onto a bill that would ban critical race theory from being taught in K-12 schools.
But what is critical race theory? And is it being taught in K-12 schools?
The short answer: “No,” said Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, an agency that supports schools in the region. “There’s no critical race theory curriculum. There’s no requirement. It’s not a standard.”
Critical race theory isn’t being taught in any Yakima County schools, and opponents of the study are conflating it with diversity, equity and inclusion training for adults in education, he said. They’re also misrepresenting that any curriculum related to either critical race theory or diversity, equity and inclusion is being taught to students.
Here’s what you need to know to understand the conversation:
What is critical race theory?
Critical race theory was developed in the 1980s as a lens through which legal scholars ask questions, and “is a way of looking at law’s role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the pioneers of the academic discipline, recently told Columbia News.
It’s taught in some universities — primarily law schools like Columbia Law School — as a way of explaining how systems might contribute to disparities among different racial groups.
As the decades-old academic practice has recently struck a chord in mainstream news, those concerned with it — including national lawmakers — have described critical race theory as a way to assign blame to white people or make white students feel bad.
Newhouse recently described it as a way of “teaching students to be ashamed of our country and to judge each other based on the color of their skin” in a news release announcing his co-signing of two bills combating what he described as the use of critical race theory in public employment and schools.
But Crenshaw said the practice is about critiquing systems, not individuals.
Is critical race theory being taught in Yakima County schools?
No. Chase and multiple local school administrators said the academic practice isn’t being implemented here.
“We have a lot of things to teach, and that’s not one of them,” Chase said. “We actually have Washington state standards that every kid is required to know and be able to demonstrate, and that’s what we focus on.”
Selah Superintendent Shane Backlund recently spoke on the issue at a school board meeting to quell concerns as he began to hear more interest on the topic in the community.
“I’ve heard that there’s a belief that CRT, in and of itself, is a form of racism,” he said last week. “I can say with confidence that we would not teach or promote anything that perpetuated racism. We are trying to create a place where all students and staff feel like they belong. That’s the core of our work.”
What is the new diversity, equity and inclusion training?
Washington’s Legislature recently passed a new law requiring school staff and board members to undergo cultural competency, diversity, equity and inclusion training.
The law highlights racial disparities in educational outcomes as a reason for creating the requirement. It also lists ethnicity, disability status, religion, primary language and sexual orientation as examples of the “diversity” it aims to address in ensuring “the full access to engagement and participation in available activities and opportunities.”
The training is for adults. There is no component for curriculum geared toward students, said Brittany Kaple, marketing coordinator for ESD 105. The training for adults in the district ranging from paraprofessionals to administrators and school board members is a way of helping educators reach all kids’ needs and learning styles by learning about potential barriers to help them overcome.
She said parents can always vet curriculum of any kind by asking their school or district for the materials in advance.
Kirsten Fitterer, communications director for Yakima School District, echoed those comments.
“I hope (parents) can trust us enough to know they can ask us anything about what’s being taught to their kids,” she said, adding that the diversity, equity and inclusion training does not include curriculum for students. “We want parents of each district to feel they can trust their school, their principal.”
Is diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training new?
Kaple said diversity and equity have long been a part of education in the Yakima Valley.
“The idea of that is nothing new, and certainly not in the Valley,” Kaple said. “We’re finding ways to support those groups to help eliminate those gaps and help them get up to the same level.”
She said free preschool programs in the Yakima Valley funded by the state and federal government to support students from low socio-economic backgrounds are an example of this long-running practice.
Chase said another example of this is helping students whose first language is not English become proficient in the language so they can access educational materials and be successful in school.
In the Yakima School District, a 300-person strategic planning committee made up of students, parents, community members and business leaders helped put together a six-year roadmap for the district. Released in early 2020, one component is equity work.
“That was long before any law was put in place,” Fitterer said.
The change created by the new law, said Chase, is that training in these areas is now an expectation for all school districts to implement statewide, and that school board members are now expected to participate. For many schools, this won’t create any change, he said.