Critical Race Theory debate dominates Springfield school board meeting
Nearly 40 people stood before the Springfield school board Tuesday to either praise the district for offering diversity training or to accuse district officials of using critical race theory — as part of the training — to divide the community.
Critics argued the theory, which has become a political lightning rod in recent years, is an attack on mainstream institutions — from public schools to courtrooms — and has roots in Marxism and Communism.
They alleged the theory perpetuates stereotypes, undermines academic freedom and fuels racism.
"Your school district embraces critical race theory, you are teaching it to our children," said Derral "D.L." Reynolds, who describes himself as a pastor on Facebook. "You are replacing real history with false history. You are pushing racism on our children. You are endorsing racism in our schools."
Reynolds said anyone who disagrees with the theory is viewed as having "racist or white supremist reasons" for doing so and alleged the concepts taught are "fundamental to totalitarianism, the beginning steps of communism."
"Research Stalin, Hitler, Marx and Mao — real history," he said.
A line of parents, educators, taxpayers, college scholars, faith leaders and mental health professionals lined up to weigh in.
Many described conflicting views of critical race theory and its origins, based on their personal views or research.
Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State, said CRT is often described by opponents as anti-American and an attempt to perpetuate "rigid racial categories."
"The whole goal of critical race theory is not to perpetuate racism — it is to eradicate racism," he said. "We can only eradicate racism if we can identify what those racist structures and systems look like. Critical race theory is a tool that allows us to do that."
Sherman-Wilkins said schools ought to be teaching "reading, writing and arithmetic," as other speakers suggested. But he argued they cannot stop there.
"We are a globalized society. There are people of different races and ethnicities in this room, people from different perspectives," said Sherman-Wilkins. "We also have to teach our children to be able to interact with those people as competent human beings, respecting differences. And part of that respect is seeing people for who they are and understanding their lived experiences."
Springfield Public Schools implemented beefed-up diversity training a year ago as part of a set of goals related to improving diversity, equity and inclusion — such as closing the achievement gaps that exist for different groups of students.
"The district's efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion ought to be saluted and to be praised," said Wes Pratt, chief diversity officer at Missouri State University. "They are simply efforts to promote the value of the inclusion of diversity."
Pratt said racism has not been eradicated and encouraged school board to continue its efforts to educate and expand the experiences of students and staff.
"I am dismayed as a product of this public school system that our students are subject to the vitriolic and the painful expressions of racism that persist in this community," he said. "And you have got to have the courage to step up, to stand up, to stay up, to speak up."
District officials have said repeatedly the training was developed by Springfield educators and was not based on the critical race theory, an academic and legal framework for understanding and combating structural and systemic racism.
However, opponents argue the themes of the controversial theory are embedded in the lessons, even if they are not labeled CRT.
A major concern raised about the theory, and the district's diversity training, is that all participants are asked to locate their place on a matrix of oppression and privilege. The placement is based on gender, class, race and other factors.
"We should not be putting programs in place like CRT that force kids either to be bad, because of their white skin or to be victims because they are Black because those are the only two options with this program," said Dianne Ely, part of a Back On Track America group that opposes CRT in schools.
"And it definitely does divide us. Most of us want unity. I beg you to turn this around and put a good program in place."
Ely said the "definition of equity is the same for everyone."
"No kids in this system will have anything of which to be proud or of which to strive. They will all be the same. We cannot have any disparity — that is differences in outcome," Ely said. "It's a very bleak picture. If some kids can't rise to the same heights in certain areas then by hook or by crook, no one will."
Mary Byrne, a former university faculty member and political candidate, is an outspoken opponent of critical race theory.
"If anything is anti-education, it's the board's persistence to spend taxpayer dollars on equity and diversity training despite substantial evidence that it is the most expensive and least effective training around," she said.
Byrne said the theory pushes the "unsubstantiated accusation that white people are guilty of racism because of an inherent trait." She added: "This fallacy is the essential criticism used by Marxists to incite a cultural revolution."
Phil Snider, pastor at Brentwood Christian Church, has children in the district and spoke in support of the training and efforts to create an "environment of inclusion for students." He said: "Really, it's just about being better human beings, it's about being decent to one another."
Snider said progressives like himself are often accused of hating America but he said they want this country to be "the best of itself with justice and liberty for all."
Snider said examining the past, and learning from it, is part of growth.
"If you're a football coach, you have your team watch (game) film, you try to learn from your shortcomings," he said.
Several opponents of critical race theory made the point that they were against racism and embraced efforts to learn about other cultures.
Michelle Gavel, a Springfield parent who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2016 and has since volunteered in different ways, said the diversity training is one way to attract a more diverse workforce, which city leaders have made a priority.
"If you want to attract young, diverse professionals with families like mine to this area and keep them here, it is essentially that you make sure their children are treated well, see themselves in the curriculum, and are respected," she said.
"Too often, I have seen a revolving door of young families — especially the young Black professionals with families — who do not want to send or keep their children here because of similar negative experiences in the district."
Mary Griffith, who raised questions about the theory in prior meetings, said she asked the board to produce evidence showing the diversity training is having an impact. She said the board has not responded.
"Yes, racism exists, I am not denying that, but if everything is racist, then nothing is. It becomes meaningless," she said.
Griffith said many individuals opposed to the theory also embrace learning about other cultures and teaching a full, contextual account of American history.
"The problem with critical race theory ... is it is hopeless. There is no relief to students who are told they are victims and there is no redemption to the students who are told they are oppressors," she said. "There is no escaping your category assigned to you simply because of the way you look."
Swayne Loftis, who attempted to run for the school board in 2014, described America or democracy as a beautiful house with roaches and noted "neighbors who are jealous" will try to convince the homeowners to blow it up to deal with the problem.
"Finally, they blow it up. Guess what still lives in the rubble? Roaches." he said. "These people were tricked into destroying an incredibly beautiful house that served them very well by overreacting."
Loftis, who has a son teaching in a different state, said forcing "light-skinned teachers" to listen to people of color talk about "how unfair life has been to them" as part of diversity training is also racism.
"Critical race theory is dividing people and creating just these feelings that somebody is always out to get me and destroying this beautiful thing we have in America, of the unity and opportunity," Loftis said.
"Doggonit, I remember President Obama being elected twice. For America, we're not perfect, but I think we're overplaying this discrimination against people of color."
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com.