;
OPINION

Critical Race Theory in Rhode Island.

How parents and teachers can turn back the clock.

One day in 1967, the year I was to start kindergarten, I waited in the kitchen while my mother called the Rhode Island Board of Education with a serious question: could her daughter wear pants to school?

It never occurred to me that one day I’d be writing about my hometown’s school district.

I wanted the answer to be “no,” because, by the age of four, I was already a firm believer in dressing up. But, sadly, the standards had changed since my mother went to school during the Great Depression, and girls could wear pants. I was disappointed. Something this important, I thought, called for a dress.

That is because, in my family, education was prized—and teachers were respected. My father was the son of dirt-poor Russian immigrants to Argentina. There they sacrificed everything to send him to medical school, where he rose to the top of his class and went on to have a successful career as a heart surgeon in the United States, eventually settling in southern Rhode Island. He was forever grateful.

Just as his family had done, my father saw to it that I, too, had a first-rate education. That education began in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.

It never occurred to me that one day I’d be writing about my hometown’s school district. But there it was recently in the national news, the focus of a controversy over the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the state’s public schools. The Rhode Island story is just beginning to unfold, but it has already provided a window into how, unbeknownst to their parents, children are being indoctrinated by the state—and what parents and teachers can do to stop it.

K-12 classroom.

K-12 classroom.

PARENTS CAN HOLD SCHOOL OFFICIALS ACCOUNTABLE

Leading the battle to uncover CRT in Rhode Island is one brave mother, Nicole Solas. She is a stay-at-home mom in the South Kingstown School District whose daughter was enrolled in kindergarten for the coming school year. Her story is covered in depth at Cornell Law Professor William Jacobson’s Legal Insurrection website.

[S]he was told that teachers don’t use the terms ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ to refer to students.

Solas wanted to know what her daughter was going to be taught in school, so she started asking questions. What she learned when she called the principal was deeply disturbing: she was told that teachers don’t use the terms “boys” and “girls” to refer to students. She became concerned.

She became even more concerned when she discovered that the children don’t learn about the holiday of Thanksgiving the same way children did when I went to elementary school in Rhode Island. Then, we were taught the basics, about how the Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in Europe, risking their lives to come to a new land where they could worship God the way they thought was right. The story that I was taught involved a feast that was shared with Native Americans, who encountered the starving Plymouth residents and shared food with them and taught them to grow corn. On the first Thanksgiving, they thanked God for sustaining them and bringing them to that day. We commemorate it by doing the same each year on Thanksgiving.

But, today, for all the teacher-talk about sensitivity to feelings, shared feelings of national pride don’t count in the classroom. Solas was told that a kindergarten teacher asks five-year-olds in her school district, “What could have been done differently on the first Thanksgiving?” That question is utterly inappropriate in a preschool context for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is subversive. In an interview with Tucker Carlson in June, Solas said this struck her “as a way to shame children for their American heritage.”

And it was a second red flag.

Solas now strongly suspected that the schools were teaching CRT and gender theory, to children as young as five, and began probing further, asking school officials to see the elementary school curriculum. She got the run-around. Finally, the principal and school committee told her to file an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request on the school district website to obtain the curriculum. She did obtain the curriculum, she told Fox News, but there was no mention of gender theory or anti-racism anywhere in it. Solas wasn’t buying it. Undeterred, she submitted close to 200 public records requests to gain more specific information on CRT and gender studies in the school curriculum.

The response? The school committee scheduled a public meeting at which they would threaten to sue her over the public records requests they told her to submit.

In the meantime, there were encouraging signs: parents and teachers were coming together. Solas developed “a growing network of like-minded teachers, parents, and community members who gave [her] information about CRT and gender theory infiltrating Rhode Island school districts.” In the interview with Tucker Carlson, she described an outpouring of support from beyond her own community.

On learning that the school committee was threatening litigation, people were rallying to her side: “I had people coming from other towns; I had people coming from other states. I had people from other states finding me on Facebook and messaging me and telling me that they were going to watch the school committee meeting.”

Solas encouraged other parents to join the fight:

Parents across the country have to start holding their school officials accountable. They are our civil servants; they work for us. They’re not supposed to be these tyrants in the classroom. We need to stop being afraid of retaliation … The risk of retaliation is there … but our children are worth the risk … because we’re the only ones that are going to be asking these questions.

There is, after all, safety in numbers. The schools will have a harder time retaliating against a group than a lone individual, Solas predicts.

K-12 classroom.

K-12 classroom.

HOW TEACHERS CAN HELP PARENTS FROM WITHIN

Nicole Solas may find important allies as well in the likes of Ramona Bessinger, who is in many ways her counterpart from within the school system. Bessinger is a courageous veteran middle school teacher in Providence, Rhode Island, who recently sounded the alarm on CRT in her own school’s curriculum. Like Solas, she went public on the Legal Insurrection website this summer to tell her story. And though she teaches in a different school district, she offers an important guide to parents beyond her region.

In short time, the CRT curriculum had turned her into ‘the enemy,’ both to her students and her colleagues.

For starters, Bessinger can explain why Solas couldn’t find CRT anywhere in the curriculum she obtained from the school district: “You won’t see the words ‘critical race theory’ on the materials,” Bessinger says, “but those are the concepts taught.” In Bessinger’s school, they refer to CRT curricula as “‘culturally responsive’” learning and teaching, which includes a focus on ‘identities.’”

“Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education Teach Framework (CR-T)” materials from Providence School District. Source: Legal Insurrection.

Put this way, CRT almost sounds like a good thing. It’s not.

And it was even worse for Bessinger, who is a white teacher in a predominantly non-white classroom. As she explains, “the new, racialized curriculum and materials focuses almost exclusively on an oppressor-oppressed narrative, and have created racial tensions among students and staff where none existed before.” Students stopped standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, she said; they “were beginning to hate America.” And they were “turning against [her] because of [her] skin color.” So were her co-workers, who accused her of “white privilege.” In short time, the CRT curriculum had turned her into “the enemy,” both to her students and her colleagues.

That new curriculum took Bessinger by surprise this past school year, which she describes as a “turning point.” She says that up until the 2020/2021 school year, the syllabus had achieved a balance, combining classic works of history and literature with more recent texts from racially diverse authors. It had something for everyone, and it was working well for both her and her students.

That was until last fall, when Bessinger discovered those teaching materials had been tossed aside. In their place was “one of the most racially divisive, hateful, and in large part, historically inaccurate curriculums [she had] ever seen in [her] teaching career,” she recounts.

It was an abrupt turnover:

Missing from our curriculum during the 2020/21 school year was the diversity, perspective, truth, and rigor that previously were taught. Previously vetted books were removed from our classroom and sent to recycling. Gone was the diverse collection of American and World Literature: House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, James Baldwin Go Tell It On The Mountain, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, essays by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., poetry by Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Anne Frank, Night, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, Macbeth, Walt Whitman, The Salem Witch Trials, The Crucible, Holocaust studies, world genocide, world art, universal themes, universal characters and any book or short story from the literary canon.

In short, “it seemed that much of American history and literature was getting wiped out.”

What followed next reads like a surreal scene out of a third-world dictatorship:

[S]ometime around January 2021, hundreds of new leaflet style booklets arrived, all poorly written, historically biased, inaccurate, and pushing a racial narrative. I noticed the book covers right away. They were odd. In some cases the book covers browned out the faces of historical characters like Lincoln to look black or brown, none of the books were recognizable, and all the booklets seemed to revolve around slavery or oppression.

Perplexed, I thought there was a mistake. I asked a teacher leader what was going on, and he looked jokingly at me saying. ‘Comrade, we were told to remove all classroom sets of reading material in order to make room for the incoming sets of books.’ I laughed, assuming this was a joke. But it was not a joke, this was real and happening in my school, in my classroom.

With Ramona Bessinger’s revelations about what’s really in the CRT materials, parents like Solas will have a better idea of what to look for when up against stonewalling school officials.

While Solas is not alone in her fight, she is now in the cross-hairs of the teachers’ unions. After the school committee backed down on its threat to sue her, two Rhode Island branches of the National Education Association (NEA) filed a lawsuit against her earlier this month, asking the court to prevent disclosure of the information she sought. The lawsuit “makes little sense,” according to Professor Jacobson, because the unions are unlikely to have standing to sue in the first place. He suspects there is more to it than meets the eye: although the unions claim to be concerned about revealing private documents, he writes, “More likely, they are afraid their role in pushing CRT in South Kingstown, and targeting of Solas and other dissident parents, will be revealed.”

Nicole Solas.

Nicole Solas.

WEAPONIZING OUR CHILDREN

Nichole Solas’s reasonable questions about her daughter’s school curriculum should have been answered as readily as my mother’s question to the Board of Education in 1967. But here we are. My hometown school district is a CRT hotbed. The Rhode Island story set me thinking: Could I have seen this coming?

Yes, actually.

I was reminded of a class assignment from fifth grade—a letter to the editor of the local newspaper my teacher asked me to write. I always had mixed feelings about it, and now I understand why.

Today we would call my fifth-grade Audubon program a primitive form of ‘astroturfing.’

The Audubon Lady was a puzzle to me from the start. One day, my teacher announced a new program. A woman from the Audubon Society would be coming to our class to present a series of lessons on the organization’s mission, birds.

This was not the usual break from our studies, like gym or art. I didn’t understand why the topic of birds needed this much special attention. It seemed like the kind of thing you could learn on your own time. Why were we doing this in school, I wondered? But my teacher was enthusiastic about it, so I went along.

After a short time, the Audubon Lady revealed an agenda. She explained that the local utility company was removing osprey nests from telephone poles in Matunuck, Rhode Island, threatening their well-being. Would someone please write a letter to the newspaper, voicing our concern? I jumped at the offer.

And yet, at the same time, something didn’t seem right about this assignment. I just couldn’t say what it was. After all, what could be wrong with protecting the birds? Isn’t that the humane thing to do?

I put my reservations aside and got right to the point:

Too late for what? Couldn’t they find another safe spot for their nests? It really didn’t matter. What mattered is that I was only ten years old and I got published in the newspaper. My teacher was proud of me, and so were my parents. But, in retrospect, this pedagogical exercise wasn’t what it seemed.

Today we would call my fifth-grade Audubon program a primitive form of “astroturfing.” Astroturfing is the practice of creating the false impression that a political message or movement arose naturally and spontaneously—from the “grassroots”—when in reality, its origins lie elsewhere. To this day, I believe my teacher had the best of intentions, and probably viewed the letter to the editor as an innovative writing assignment. But the fact was that my spontaneous expression of concern for nature was anything but spontaneous. The truth was that I had never even heard of ospreys until the Audubon Lady came. And I wasn’t losing any sleep over where they were going to make their nests. Neither were my classmates, I suspect. Simply put, the letter was a lie.

And because, like my parents, I trusted my teachers implicitly, that lie was lost on me, until now.

It takes very little effort—and a bit of adult approval—to turn a fifth-grader into an impassioned defender of ospreys.

Pushing a little politics in the classroom, however, is a slippery slope.

Just ask Ramona Bessinger how it’s going. As she told Sky News Australia last month, “if you tell a child something in the classroom, they will believe it; it’s why we don’t teach our political preferences to students.” And the harm she sees is real:

[C]hildren are being weaponized and weaponized against and in a divisive way … And so my fear is that children are becoming sort of political weapons, political pawns left to this sort of narrative being told to them, taught to them year after year after year. Well, it’s going to feed the sort of anger and the racial division that is already coming to a boiling point and it’s going to make us all quite frankly, very unsafe.

But will their parents notice before it’s “too late”?

Nicole Solas didn’t wait until it was too late. Her battle should be every parent’s battle to win back the moral authority parents have ceded to public school teachers for generations. That moral authority, once relinquished, is seldom recovered. And whether it is something as seemingly benign as wildlife conservation or as dangerous as CRT, a teacher’s (or teacher’s union’s) politics have no place in the classroom.

With teachers like Ramona Bessinger, parents like Nicole Solas can turn back the clock on CRT before it’s really too late.

Written By:

Jane Coleman is a legal writer living in New Jersey. A graduate of Stanford Law School, her treatise Secondary Trademark Infringement was published by Bloomberg BNA in 2013. You can follow Jane on LinkedIn.