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'Critical Race Theory' Bills In Ohio House Spark Resistance Among Columbus Educators

Columbus School Board President Jennifer Adair standing outside the district offices.
Nick Evans
Columbus School Board President Jennifer Adair standing outside the district offices.

In state legislatures around the country, Republican lawmakers are advancing measures that would potentially bar K-12 teachers from tackling thorny topics like systemic racism through a lens often referred to as critical race theory. Lawmakers have filed two such bills in the Ohio House, and the move has made some strange bedfellows. Early last week, Columbus City Schools leadership and the district’s unions issued a joint statement in opposition.

In a press release, Rep. Diane Grendell (R-Chesterland) said the bill she's co-sponsoring with Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur (R-Ashtabula) aims “to provide equal and non-discriminatory education opportunities to students, while preventing further division among Americans.” Of his bill, Rep. Don Jones (R-Freeport) says, “we must protect the integrity of our education system in order to ensure that Ohio’s youth is receiving a top-tier education.” None of the lawmakers responded to interview requests.

All three contend their proposals fight racism by taking up a cause animating conservatives around the country: denouncing critical race theory. That vitriol was on display during a House Freedom Caucus press conference last month.

“Critical race theory is a divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche,” Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC) argued before applauding state lawmakers filing legislation restricting its use in schools.

So far, state lawmakers in more than 20 states have proposed measures that would keep teachers from discussing topics like structural racism and implicit bias.

The academic discipline sprung up in fields like legal studies a few decades ago, and takes a broader view of race and racism. Scholars argue racism in the U.S. is a structural phenomenon, embedded in systems we interact with every day, rather than simply interpersonal discrimination. Conservative politicians dispute this contention that racism is a pervasive element of American life, and that it is somehow un-American to suggest it is.

But in Ohio, the emphasis on critical race theory is a bit of a red herring. Jones argues, “this anti-American doctrine has no place in Ohio’s schools.” But critical race theory isn’t part of K-12 curriculum in Ohio. Its domain is university classrooms.

Ohio State history professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries argues that’s kind of the point. He says the movement against critical race theory is more about politics than education. Raising the specter of critical race theory will mobilize supporters whether it’s being taught in classes or not.

“Those who are on the political right see it as the 2021 version of the culture wars and something to rally those who had rallied around Donald Trump,” Jeffries said. “What’s so unfortunate is that our children are now getting caught up in that in the schools.”

And he’s got a point about the political aspect of the project. Both of Ohio’s measures find their roots, and much of their language, in a now-rescinded Trump administration executive order that barred federal agencies and contractors from engaging in programs like racial sensitivity training.

“I think it’s designed to create fear. That’s exactly what it’s designed to do,” Columbus City Schoolboard President Jennifer Adair said.

In a joint statement last week, district leaders, the schoolboard and employee unions argued regardless of how lawmakers describe their intent, the effect of their proposals will be harmful.

“They aim to suppress dialogue and perpetuate an inaccurate understanding of our history. In doing so, they threaten to exacerbate the current national divide,” the statement reads.

Fowler Arthur insists her proposal doesn’t prohibit taking on difficult subjects like racism, slavery and segregation.

“HB 327 encourages the objective instruction about and discussion of divisive concepts, rather than allowing taxpayer dollars to be spent on concepts that divide, rather than unite, students,” Fowler Arthur said.

Adair said much of the legislative language is too subjective, creating a potential minefield for teachers.

“We don’t believe anything that any teacher is doing could be considered divisive,” Adair said. “However, because it’s a subjective standard anyone could allege that. So we will stand and we will fight and we will ensure that our students receive the education that we believe that they deserve.”

Both measures have been referred to the House State and Local Government Committee. There’s no companion bill in the Senate, but each proposal has dozens of co-sponsors in the House.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.