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Fight over critical race theory hits the statehouse
John Micek

Everyone’s complaining about Congress, but if you want to track the real, festering growth of Trumpism and its corrosive effect on our politics, you’re better served keeping your eye on state capitols throughout the land.

Take my home state of Pennsylvania, where the Republican-controlled state House kept itself busy last week by advancing bills that expand gun rights and restrict the rights of people who can get pregnant. Those solutions in search of a problem come even as some lawmakers seek to ban transgender scholastic athletes from competing in sports that correspond to their gender.

And as if that were not enough, two GOP House lawmakers threw another log on the culture war fire last week, as they began seeking co-sponsors for legislation that would ban the state’s 500 school districts from teaching what’s broadly referred to as “critical race theory,” and withhold taxpayer funds from districts that run afoul of this ill-conceived proposal should it ever find its way into law.

The fight over critical race theory, which scholars view as an overdue attempt to educate public school students on how racial disparities are embedded in U.S history and society, has become the latest bete noire of the right, with conservatives arguing that teachers are trying to inject race into what they think is a colorblind system.

The Pennsylvania proposal echoes that contention, arguing that “our schools should be teaching that every individual is equal under the law and that no individual should ever be labeled superior or inferior simply due to their race or genetic makeup, nor be held responsible for actions taken by others with similar traits.”

Such teachings, the lawmakers further argued, “interfere with our constitutional duty to support and maintain a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

Which, of course, is nonsense.

But that hasn’t kept such efforts from proliferating nationwide, as GOP lawmakers have succeeded in pushing it to the top of state legislative agendas, NC Policy Watch reported last week.

Governors in Idaho and Oklahoma already have signed measures to forbid the teaching of critical race theory in schools this year. Arkansas’ Republican governor let a similar measure become law without his signature, while proposals in Iowa and Tennessee are waiting for their governors’ approval.

Lawmakers in North Carolina, Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and other states have waded into the debate, as well, although some of those efforts have failed.

A group of Republican attorneys general from 20 states this week sent the Biden administration a 10-page letter chastising federal officials for using two grant programs as “a thinly veiled attempt at bringing into our states’ classrooms the deeply flawed and controversial teachings of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project.”

Meanwhile, conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which provides right-wing lawmakers with what’s known as ‘model legislation’ that they can use in their own states, also have stepped up pressure on conservative state lawmakers to rein in the teaching of critical race theory.

Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, a group that represents social studies teachers, told Policy Watch that he worries about the amount of control lawmakers are trying to exert over teachers’ classrooms.

“We’re concerned with this notion of ... limiting discussion about things like racism, sexism and discrimination, that we can’t talk about those things. That’s both against what we do in social education but more importantly, it’s against the very definition of First Amendment freedoms and academic freedom for both teachers and students,” Paska told Policy Watch.

Paska said the goal of teaching the faults of the country is to help make students better citizens, not to shame them.

That the bills are coming at a time of heightened awareness of racial and class disparities laid bare by the pandemic is hardly coincidental.

And one Black lawmaker from Pennsylvania says he believes it’s a “dereliction of duty” for the Pennsylvania Legislature to waste time — and the taxpayers’ money — on distractions at a time when so many are in need.

“Critical Race Theory is not taught in K-12 schools. It’s an analytical approach to understanding inequality and how the law might address persistent inequalities,” Rep. Chris Rabb, a Philadelphia Democrat, told me.

“It is taught in some law schools and graduate schools of education. All across the country peddlers of racial division are spreading misinformation to justify creating a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist,” Rabb continued. “What does exist is structural inequality and deep racial disparities. Analyzing their root causes is not controversial. Continuing to deny racial justice, however, is nothing less than cowardly and reckless.”

In other words, it’s another day at the office for the modern GOP.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek