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After banning ‘critical race theory,’ Oklahoma lawmakers seek further school curriculum restrictions

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Brianna Bailey / The Frontier
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Claire Grace.

Claire Grace grew up seeing her sister, who was born with a rare chromosomal disorder, bullied and excluded.

So as a teenager, she founded “Show Compassion Foundation,” a nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping school bullying. Grace, a University of Oklahoma student and former Miss Oklahoma Outstanding Teen, gave talks at schools about inclusivity and showing compassion.

She believes a concept called social-emotional learning can help students learn to show empathy for others.

In 2021, Grace interned for state Rep. John Talley, R-Stillwater, where she helped him write a bill at the Oklahoma Legislature encouraging schools to adopt social-emotional curriculum.

“When it comes to social-emotional learning, you’re essentially teaching students how to have emotional management, how to treat others, how to respect others and themselves,” Grace said. “And in the compassion crisis that we see in our nation right now where everyone’s so divided, trying to have a middle ground.”

The bill easily passed off the Republican-controlled House floor by a vote of 70-22 before things “went south,” Talley said.

Last April, Talley began hearing other lawmakers link social-emotional learning to the concept of critical race theory. The bill stalled in the Senate Education Committee and will likely die there this session, he said.

“(Critical race theory) doesn’t have anything to do with this. But some people live their lives on the internet, and they don’t get good advice or information,” Talley said. “It’s sad that it doesn’t matter what the truth is. It matters more what you think than what the truth is.”

Social-emotional learning is one of several classroom curricula under attack by political activists who believe schools are indoctrinating youth into leftist ideals.

Last year, Oklahoma lawmakers enacted House Bill 1775, outlawing the teaching of some concepts about race in public schools. Many said the law was a ban on critical race theory.

This election year, Republican lawmakers have tied critical race theory to other types of curriculum, seeking further restrictions on what students learn about race in the classroom.

Tapping into parents’ genuine concern about indoctrination, the issue is political gold for Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections. A study released earlier this year by The Manhattan Institute found that the issue of critical race theory divides Democrats and unifies Republicans. The study found many Republicans ranked cancel culture and political correctness as some of the most pressing issues facing the country, ahead of moral values and religion.

A 2021 poll found that of the 82 percent of Oklahoma voters who had some awareness of critical race theory, 58 percent were opposed to teaching the concepts in public schools.

Dozens of new bills at the Oklahoma Legislature aim to place more restrictions on school curriculum and library standards in the state. Some of the bills contain language lifted from model legislation crafted by national conservative and libertarian think-tanks.

This session, Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, has introduced Senate Bill 1442, which would outlaw social-emotional learning in public schools.

Jett did not respond to numerous interview requests by The Frontier, but spoke on the issue at an Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee meeting in February.

“We’re fighting to rescue our children from the Marxist ideology being crammed down their throats in public schools at the taxpayer’s expense,” he said.

Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, has authored a bill to ban teaching from the New York Times 1619 Project, which centers on understanding American history through the consequences of slavery. Olsen said he believes the 1619 Project teaches anti-American ideals linked to critical race theory.

“It is true that America had slavery, it is true that it was brutal, at times, at least,” Olsen said. “If you knew nothing else, and you read the 1619 project, at least first 100, 150 pages, you would almost think that slavery never existed in the world, until a few lousy Englishmen came over in 1619. And as we know, slavery is a tragedy of mankind, every race, every color, every continent, every country.”

Olsen, who is up for re-election this year, said he knew of no cases of the 1619 Project being taught in Oklahoma classrooms, but the legislation was “preemptive” in nature to combat a large-scale “leftist-Marxist” indoctrination effort by educators, and denied that his bill was an effort to politically capitalize on the issue.

“There are historians, and especially members of sociology departments at different universities around the nation that really hate America, and they want our young people to hate America too,” Olsen said.

Another bill would require schools to post teacher trainings online so parents can get a better idea about what their kids are learning in the classroom. The bill’s author Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, who cosponsored last year’s ban on critical race theory, said he is concerned “diversity, equity and inclusion” training for teachers is a vehicle for leftist ideas.

“It’s not core curriculum,” Bullard said. “DEI is diversity, equity, inclusion. Those are all buzzwords for the different leftist agendas that are out there. If your community is fine with that, that’s their choice but they need to know how much you’re spending on it and what they’re teaching.”

Conservative voters and candidates gathered in a church sanctuary for a recent Republican Women’s Club South Tulsa United event on critical race theory watched a video produced by The Heritage Foundation that showed footage of social justice protests and looting alongside images of white students kissing a Black man’s boots.

“Like a cult, the critical race theory revolution enslaves the mind of the people who adopt it,” the video’s narrator warned, as the video showed marching Black protesters interspersed with grainy video of Nazi Brownshirts marching down a street. “And the concept is blatantly and unapologetically racist.”

National conservative think tanks, including The Manhattan Institute, The Goldwater Institute, The Center for Renewing America and the American Legislative Exchange Council have generated a flood of model legislation, strategy guides, talking points and toolkits on critical race theory over the past year. Many of the groups are also involved in the school choice movement.

Before September 2020, few people outside of academia had even heard the term “Critical Race Theory.” So what changed?

“There’s critical race theory, a corpus of scholarship, and then there’s critical race theory the buzzword that people on the right have used and have redefined to mean anti-white, anti-white culture, anti-American history,” said Karlos K. Hill, chair of the African American studies department at the University of Oklahoma. “That representation of what critical race theory is, is not real. It was manufactured. And I think it was manufactured to create a political wedge, to create confusion and dissension to perhaps be a gambit in this cultural war that has been brewing for many years.”

During the summer of 2020, at the height of protests for racial justice and the police-killing of George Floyd, Seattle-based journalist-turned activist Christopher R. Rufo, published a story about Seattle city employees undergoing a diversity training program called “Interrupting Internalized Racial Superiority and Whiteness” on a conservative news site. Rufo appeared on FOX News in September 2020, which reportedly led then-President Donald Trump to publicly denounce critical race theory and issue an executive order banning federal employee diversity training on “divisive” concepts.

In March 2021, Rufo laid out the messaging strategy behind repeated use of the term critical race theory on Twitter.

“We have successfully frozen their brand — ’critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” Rufo wrote. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

The effort was blisteringly effective. As the issue gained steam over the past year, alongside outrage about school mask mandates, parents concerned about critical race theory flooded meetings of local school boards, town halls and legislative debates.

During a Jan. 26 meeting of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, Bullard said last year’s legislation to ban critical race theory teachings that he authored didn’t go far enough.

“It was not the red pill,” Bullard said. “That was just to call them out. And boy, did it ever.”

Bullard claimed he was contacted by teachers and others around the state who said that Critical Race Theory was not taught in K-12 schools in Oklahoma, but that he had documents that showed critical race theory concepts were being taught in schools. Later, when asked what schools were teaching those concepts, Bullard declined to name them.

“What we did was we established an understanding that schools are out to indoctrinate your kids,” Bullard said.

At the heart of the tenacity behind critical race theory is a fear that children are being indoctrinated into a left-wing ideology about race. And those concerns are being echoed in stump speeches and rallies.

“Quite simply, we are losing our children,” said Tim Harris, former Tulsa County District Attorney and candidate for Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education. “They are being indoctrinated by un-American values and beliefs and the more that I dig into this the more I’m convinced I have to have a voice on the board.”

Jenni White, education director for the activist group Reclaiming Oklahoma Parent Empowerment, said both sides of the culture war would like to indoctrinate students, but it is mostly liberals who have been successful.

“Conservatives have been chased out of indoctrination, because we’re not allowed to use any kind of Christian principles,” White said. “They complain if a kid even brings a Bible to school. I mean, we’ve been actually run out of the business of indoctrination. And what’s taken over has been the leftist perspective of indoctrination: Global warming is a fact, America is bad, white people are privileged.”

Critical race theory posits that race is a social construct and that racism has been embedded in the laws and institutions and the United States and other countries, rather than being solely the product of individual prejudices. While there are some core areas of agreement, critical race theory is more of a collection of works by legal scholars and academics than a single argument, said Scott Robinson, chair of the University of Oklahoma’s political science department and the Henry Bellmon Chair of Public Service.

While elements of critical race theory can be found in some diversity and anti-racism training programs for educators and in other workplaces, the concept is not typically taught in Oklahoma public schools before college, Hill and Robinson said.

“There are very few if any teachers in this state, K-12 teachers, that are actively teaching critical race theory, or are teaching this history in ways that are designed to make white students particularly — not everybody else, just white students — feel bad about themselves, feel bad about their history,” Hill said. “That’s not a thing. And the ways in which this has been codified and more and the ways in which there’s a discourse around white children being harmed, it’s so disingenuous.”

Robinson said the worry is reminiscent of moral panics in the past, such as the Second Red Scare of the 1950s or the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s.

“It became this sort of boogeyman and a very convenient boogeyman for fundraising, for mobilization, things like that,” Robinson said. “It just, it seems to be what it is. And it’s been remarkably successful.”

Critical race theory has become a campaign issue for politicians as it has become a concern for voters, said veteran Oklahoma Republican political consultant Chad Alexander, who hosts an Oklahoma City talk radio show.

“I think it has to be addressed because it is a thing,” Alexander said. “We are living in the social media age where, even if it didn’t happen in Oklahoma … you’re going to get asked about as a candidate. You have to be prepared to address it.”

The issue took off when parents stayed home with their kids and helped them with school lessons during the coronavirus pandemic, Alexander said. Parents saw what their students were learning and demanded answers.

Bullard said he started discussing critical race theory and introducing legislation after hearing from concerned constituents.

“I’m not the one drumming it up,” Bullard said. “Every meeting I go to, that’s what everybody wants to know. Your general public in Oklahoma are overwhelmingly against indoctrination. So we as legislators kind of respond to what our constituents are concerned about. They’re concerned about indoctrination.”

Hill fears the ultimate goal is to whitewash history.

“All that does is do detriment to the next generation, because we are sending them out into the world unprepared to understand the complex histories that is America and the ways in which those histories show up in our society and our politics today,” Hill said. “We are virtually saying to those students, we don’t care if you understand, we don’t care if you’re prepared to have those conversations, which they inevitably will. What they’re doing is making their children more ignorant and more hateful and resentful of these histories when they do encounter them.”

Grace said she is disappointed that the bill she helped author on social-emotional learning will probably fail this session but hopes to see it revived in the future.

“I feel like if people truly understood what it was, if they got a glimpse at all these different lesson plans that are part of social-emotional learning, they would realize that we’re not trying to instill any set of beliefs in children, we’re just trying to teach them how to manage their emotions and how to treat other people,” Grace said. “It is not something that should be divisive.”

But more hardline-conservative groups see social-emotional learning, or SEL, as something more sinister.

“SEL is the pipeline to be able to say however you feel, it justifies whatever it is out there no matter whether it’s true or not,” Bullard said during a Jan. 26 meeting of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee. “Now try teaching math that way. And that’s exactly what they’re attempting to do,” he said. “It will destroy your school systems.”

During a conservative group meeting in January, former Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi told a group that she once supported social-emotional learning efforts, but now believes it is a form of left-wing indoctrination.

“That’s not what this is about. It is so sad. They have taken this and twisted this. A child, according to them, is experiencing trauma if they have to live in a white-dominated society,” Barresi said, to audible groans from the audience. “Every child then is in trauma and has to be re-programmed.”

The group Reclaiming Oklahoma Parent Empowerment helped author Jett’s bill to outlaw social emotional-learning in classrooms.

Jenni White, education director for the group, believes schools are adopting social-emotional learning in order to tap into federal dollars and enrich curriculum publishers like the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

“I think it’s really all pushed by the federal government. I do believe that there are just nefarious people out there,” White said. “The easiest way to get CRT back into the schools was to pump it in under social-emotional learning.”

Grace said she said believes introducing more social-emotional learning in Oklahoma schools would address issues like bullying and teen suicide. Oklahoma has among the highest teen suicide rates in the nation, and state data shows the number of youth suicides in the state doubled between 2007 and 2017.

“I don’t see any social emotional curriculum that is enforcing any kind of beliefs. But I think they see something like that and say we want our students to only be taught math and English and these things, and just to have the social skills stay out of it,” Grace said. “But clearly, that’s not working because we do see things like bullying and teens suicide and depression and anxiety. And it’s got to come to a point where we decide to put our students over fear.”

The Frontier is a nonprofit newsroom that produces fearless journalism with impact in Oklahoma. Read more at www.readfrontier.org.

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