FRANKLIN, Tenn., Sept 21 (Reuters) - Robin Steenman, an Air Force veteran and white mother of three, is fed up with the way public schools in her community of Franklin, Tennessee are teaching kids about race.
She believes that the reading materials and teachers' manuals are biased, specifically the lessons taught to second graders about civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Kids leave class believing that white people are oppressors and minorities are victims, Steenman claims.
While her only school-age child attends private school, Steenman nevertheless wants the public system, Williamson County Schools, to change its approach. She and a group of local women calling themselves “Moms for Liberty” recently asked the Tennessee Department of Education in a complaint letter to force the district to scrap that material and overhaul its curriculum.
Their protests have made Williamson County the first test of a new Tennessee law that bans the teaching of ideas linked to “critical race theory,” an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped American society.
The clash in Franklin, a Nashville suburb of 83,000 people, is part of a larger culture war over race and education that’s roiling other U.S. communities, and which has gained traction as a political force nationwide.
It has split parents and spooked some educators. Tennessee is pursuing plans to strip teaching licenses from instructors and cut state funding to schools that persistently teach taboo material.
A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, the agency responsible for overseeing districts’ compliance with the law, would not comment on the status of Steenman’s complaint letter.
Williamson County Schools has denied that the civil rights material violates state law. The district's superintendent Jason Golden and 11 of the 12 district board members declined to be interviewed by Reuters.
School board member Eliot Mitchell told Reuters that Moms for Liberty's complaint was "misguided," and that teaching about racism in America's past does not equate to teaching "that one particular race is intrinsically racist."
Still, the district said it is reviewing the curriculum at the request of a community member whose identity it did not disclose. That review is scheduled to be completed by November.
Another local group of parents believes some of their neighbors want schools to avoid hard truths about the history of American race relations, including in Williamson County. The area is home to former slave plantations now open to tourists. Franklin’s public square, where a Confederate monument stands, was the site of an antebellum slave market and the 1888 lynching of a Black man by the Ku Klux Klan.
Some have pushed the district to address what they say is a long-standing pattern of racial insensitivity toward minority students in this 82% white county, including field trips to historical sites they claim have glorified the Confederacy and soft-peddled the evils of human bondage.
“Overall, it’s a beautiful community,” said Tizgel High, a Black mother of three. “But these battles, they get tiresome. You’re sort of constantly fighting for your humanity.”
Schools spokesperson Carol Birdsong said the district “continues to work to create a safe, welcoming environment for all students.”
In the past year, at least eight Republican-controlled states, including Tennessee, have passed laws restricting how the concept of race can be taught. The issue has become prominent in some off-year elections, including this year’s Virginia governor’s race, and it’s poised to be a major theme in the 2022 U.S. midterm contests.
Critical race theory is an advanced concept rarely encountered outside law schools. It holds that racial bias is ingrained in U.S. laws and institutions, negatively impacting people of color. Educators say the lessons about race in most U.S. primary and secondary schools involve basic American history about slavery, post-slavery segregation and the long struggle for racial equality.
Critics of the new teaching laws say Republicans are exaggerating the prevalence of critical race theory to use it as a wedge issue to court suburban women, in particular - a group that cares deeply about education and which has shifted Democratic.
Republican Governor Bill Lee, who signed the measure into law in late May, told reporters recently that critical race theory is "un-American."
The law prohibits public schools from teaching that anyone is “privileged” due to their race - a reference to “white privilege,” a term derided in conservative circles. Lessons also cannot make students feel “discomfort, guilt [or] anguish” because of their race or sex.
At the center of the controversy in Franklin is a reading curriculum that introduces second graders to the U.S. civil rights movement. Steenman says the material is too focused on the country’s segregationist past, making kids feel uncomfortable about race.
In April, she launched a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a national organization whose website says it advocates for “parental rights” in education.
Members of Steenman's group pored over the second-grade books, marking up those they found objectionable with highlighters and sticky notes. On June 30, soon after the new law was signed, Steenman sent an 11-page letter outlining potential violations to the Tennessee Department of Education.
Among the books Moms for Liberty deemed inappropriate are “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington” and “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” about the Black 6-year-old who integrated a Louisiana public school in 1960.
Written in simple language and framed largely as stories of perseverance, the books show some of the bigotry experienced by their Black protagonists. Images include a period photo in the King book of firemen blasting Black civil rights protesters with the spray of a fire hose, and an illustration in the Bridges story of the child being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals through a crowd of jeering white people. The teachers’ manuals includes discussion questions, such as asking students how young Bridges might have felt about her experience.
The books are part of an English curriculum adopted in Williamson County in 2020 and approved for use in more than 30 districts across Tennessee.
In Steenman’s letter, viewed by Reuters, she said the books and pedagogy are divisive, giving children the impression that all white people are “bad” and that people of color are mistreated by whites.
Speaking to Reuters at her home last month, Steenman said she believes this history is not age-appropriate for second graders, and that it doesn’t do enough to explain the country’s progress.
“There’s so much positive that has happened in the 60 years since, but it’s all as if it never happened,” she said.
The Tennessee Department of Education has proposed that only students enrolled in the state’s public schools, their parents and school staff be allowed to file complaints under the new law. That would disqualify Steenman, who said her child attends private school in part to avoid stricter COVID-19 mask requirements at public schools, another issue that has divided Williamson County.
The state education department is still finalizing its rules. Steenman said she’ll wait to see how the agency proceeds, and for the outcome of the local school district’s curriculum review, before deciding her next move.
Some teachers, meanwhile, are anxious. Of particular concern is the law's clause stating that lessons cannot make students feel bad about their race.
"The bottom line is, we're teaching facts, and how anyone internalizes those facts...we don't have any control of that,” said Angela Mosley, a reading and math specialist at a Williamson County elementary school.
Beth Brown, president of the state teachers’ union, has invited Tennessee teachers to submit lesson plans to her, which she is sending without their names attached to the state education department to get pre-approval for anything potentially contentious. Brown's spokesperson told Reuters she has received about 20 submissions so far, including questions on how to handle the teaching of European colonization.
Some Williamson County parents are furious that the curriculum backlash seems intended to protect the feelings of white children in a district that has repeatedly shown insensitivity towards students of color, who account for about 20% of enrollment.
In 2019, two local 8th-grade teachers assigned a project requiring students to imagine they were slave owners and to write down expectations for their human property. The district’s then-superintendent publicly apologized, and the teachers resigned.
That same year, a statewide analysis of school disciplinary actions against students with disabilities found that the district was disproportionately punishing students of color compared to white students.
Brian Blackley, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the district was required to allocate about $1 million in federal funding to remedy the issue. Williamson County Schools said in a statement that it spent the money on “early interventions” to reduce the need for punishment; it did not elaborate on what those measures were.
Last year, Revida Rahman and Jennifer Cortez, both public school mothers in Williamson County, formed the nonprofit organization "One WillCo" with a few dozen parents to make a collective push for changes that some had sought for years. They've urged the district to recruit more staffers of color, to train teachers to be more culturally and racially sensitive, and to put field trips to Confederate monuments and former slave plantations in proper context by explaining their links to white supremacy.
Williamson County Schools spokesperson Cory Mason said the district reevaluated its field trips a few years ago and stopped visiting some sites, but did not specify which ones.
This year, the district hired a consultant to review its efforts on diversity and inclusion, another priority of the One WillCo group. Superintendent Golden defended that decision in a public address in May, saying the schools’ struggles were “deep enough and common enough” to warrant it.
In a report released last month, and viewed by Reuters, the consultant deemed Williamson to be “a county divided," and said its schools could use a “culture reset,” with new policies like annual diversity education for teachers.
Moms for Liberty members saw the document as the latest liberal push to divide the community by race. At the group’s August chapter meeting in a Franklin church, attended by Reuters, Steenman spoke to a few dozen women, one of whom sipped from an insulated tumbler labeled “leftist tears.”
“They recommend a ‘culture reset.’ Does that sound scary?” Steenman said of the report, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “It smacks of, like, cultural revolution.”
The group is now reading the middle and high school curricula for material they deem inappropriate and in need of district review. Members also are forming a political action committee, “Williamson Families,” to back conservative candidates for local school board elections in 2022, when half the district’s 12 seats will be up for grabs.
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