Heated debates on how history should be taught and fear of critical race theory being embedded in curriculum have engulfed local school board meetings this year.
The intense debates caused recall efforts against school board trustees, one district to shift to an online meeting for safety concerns and another district to consider banning the theory amid a national reckoning on how history should be taught.
School boards this year have seen waves of students, parents and teachers rallying for local school districts to put a greater emphasis on teaching the historical plight of people of color and expand the scope of U.S. history through a course called ethnic studies.
Their hope is that a better understanding of such history could help quell racism and hate.
At the same time, other students, parents and teachers are pushing back, worried that these classes are just a guise for what they call critical race theory which they say is political indoctrination, that teaches anti-American, racist and marxist ideals.
Concerns that the theory is seeping into schools started to pop up in school district board meetings across OC early this year as districts debated implementing ethnic studies courses, creating social justice standards and renewing contracts for anti-bullying training.
What is Critical Race Theory?
The California School Boards Association have put out a FAQ sheet to clarify what the theory is about.
“(Critical race theory) emphasizes race as a social construct with social significance, not a biological reality. It acknowledges that racism is embedded within systems and institutions that replicate racial inequality — codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy,” according to the California School Boards Association.
Saul Sarabia, the first administrative director for UCLA School of law’s critical race studies and a community organizer focused on racial justice, defined the theory as a theoretical framework for addressing racial injustice that is taught in graduate-level college classes, primarily in law schools, not in K-12 schools.
Sarabia called it a movement by law students who wanted to better understand racism and felt their universities were doing an inadequate job of teaching what race and racism is.
“It was essentially born out of that struggle to try to address the fact that existing paradigms, existing academic frameworks, existing scholarship, failed to fully account for why racism persists and how it is that our laws failed to move the needle as much as we would want it to over time on some of these issues,” he said in a phone interview.
But opponents of the theory say it teaches kids that all white people are racist, while victimizing people of color.
School district officials have denied that the theory is being taught in K-12 schools and academics familiar with the theory contend the ferocious debate has been driven by misinformation and confusion about what the theory actually is.
The debate has become highly politicized at local school board meetings.
Sarabia said the concerns of critical race theory have been manufactured by people on the right side of the political spectrum, a tactic that has been used in the past and garnered similar reactions like debates on California Sanctuary State Law a few years ago.
Nonetheless, local school board meetings have become the battleground for these debates as some school boards moved forward with approving elective ethnic studies courses.
And soon enough, local districts who have avoided bringing up discussions on incorporating ethnic studies classes in their curriculum will soon have to because of a new state law.
This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation mandating at least one semester-long ethnic studies course starting in the 2025-26 school year.
The law also requires the course become a requirement starting with the graduating class of 2029-30.
Ethnic Studies Debates
Other districts like Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified have approved development of elective ethnic studies courses this year.
The Tustin Unified School District recently started to offer an elective ethnic studies course this year, while Los Alamitos trustees also approved an elective ethnic studies course earlier this year.
But with concerns of critical race theory being taught at schools, trustees are facing recall efforts in districts where ethnic studies is moving forward, like Tustin Unified and Los Alamitos Unified.
The Orange County Board of Education has also held forums on ethnic studies and critical race theory – where a group of panelists shared concerns about the theory and the state’s ethnic studies curriculum.
Some parents criticized the forum as one-sided and filled with misinformation and even one of the invited panelists dropped out for similar concerns.
The County’s Department of Education also ended up hosting their own forum on the matter.
The intense debates are not just happening in Orange County.
Nationwide, debates on polarizing issues like mask mandates and ethnic studies courses became so heated that the Federal government vowed to address concerns of threats and acts of intimidation towards school board members, students and teachers.
It is also leading the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified school district to move forward with a ban on critical race theory, despite some parents and students questioning if their trustees know what the theory is.
The theory has been banned in eight states, according to EdWeek.
Sarabia said these types of bans are dangerous because the educational system in the U.S. has done a poor job of teaching kids about race and racism in a country that “suffers from an impoverished discourse” on both topics.
“It’s a really poor way to equip people to deal with an issue that continues to be a very complicated and in some cases, life and death problem in the United States,” he said.
Banning Critical Race Theory
Earlier this month, Placentia-Yorba Linda district trustees continued discussions on a resolution banning critical race theory as they debated on a definition for what exactly they’re trying to bar.
Even as the ban moved forward, it seemed that all trustees were in agreement that all sides of history should be taught.
Trustee Shawn Youngblood said at the meeting on Dec. 14 if people want to take critical race theory classes in college, they are free to do so but in K-12 schools it is a divisive tool.
“We really should be focusing more on how to read and how to do mathematics correctly,” he said.
“That is wrong. Let’s get that stuff, that whole garbage out of here and get back into academics like we should be.”
Trustee Karin Freeman said the district isn’t teaching critical race theory.
“I really continue to have a real problem with the title and the insertion of critical race theory as if this is something that we are doing and that we are striving to do,” she said.
Parents and students came out to the district’s December meeting to speak out against a ban on the theory.
“Your resolution opposing the teaching of critical theory is contradictory to the First Amendment, and is an act of censorship,” said parent Priya Shah at the meeting. “This resolution is motivated by the desire to conform to a particular political viewpoint. Please stop this resolution.”
Others came out in favor of banning the theory.
“Critical race theory promotes bigotry, antagonism and hate and undermines and exploits America’s unique and successful fusion of diversity,” said Gina Kolb, a Placentia resident. “I beseech all of you to ban critical race theory.”
The resolution on banning Critical Race Theory is expected to come back before the board again in January.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.