Republican appointees to the State Board of Education (SBE) fired a volley of criticism at the state’s new social studies standards Wednesday, charging that the language in the revision is “divisive” and “politically charged.”
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson led the attack, doubling down on complaints he made earlier this month about the new standards, which the state board could approve next week.
“I do not like the tone of these standards, what’s written in them,” Robinson said during a special board meeting Wednesday. “I think they’re politically charged. I think they’re divisive, and I think that they, quite frankly, smack of a lot of leftist dogma.”
Robinson objected to teaching strategies that include the viewpoints of “marginalized groups” at the board’s regular meeting this month. Such groups were always a part of history lessons when he attended public schools, he said.
A Guilford County Republican who was elected the state’s first Black lieutenant governor in November, Robinson demanded that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) rewrite the standards or continue to use the current ones.
Racism is a thing of the past, he argued, citing the election of Barack Obama to president in 2008, then again in 2012, and his own election in November.
“The system of government that we have in this nation is not systemically racist,” Robinson said. “In fact, it is not racist at all.”
SBE member Olivia Oxendine, who was appointed to the state board by former Republican governor Pat McCrory, said the new standards left her with the “feeling of America the oppressor; not America the land of opportunity.”
“It is a tone that I’m receiving when I look at the standards in their entirety, especially, more specifically in the upper grades,” said Oxendine, a Republican.
Oxendine is an associate professor in the School of Education at UNC Pembroke and a member of the Lumbee tribe. She said she couldn’t have imagined an American Indian sitting on the state board when she began her teaching career.
“So, for me not to admit that we have traveled a long road on this journey toward racial equality, for me not to say that publicly, would be disingenuous,” Oxendine said.
Democrats on the board pushed back.
SBE member James Ford said the state board’s job isn’t to “rescue America from constructive critique, or to project optimism.”
“Our job, as some of my preacher friends like to say, is to tell folks what God loves, and that’s the truth,” Ford said. “And how ever that leaves folks feeling, is up to them.”
Maureen Stover, the N.C. Teacher of the Year from Cumberland County, said that she wasn’t as fortunate as Robinson to receive a social studies education that included “multiple viewpoints and multiple histories.”
“By having these standards, that means that every one of our kids in every one of our classrooms in North Carolina is going to get the same standardized social studies education where those multiple viewpoints and those multiple perspectives are included,” said Stover, who was named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year on Wednesday.
Adoption of the new standards was delayed in July after several revisions. The most recent changes were supported by 85% of the 1,572 people who responded to a NCDPI survey.
The state reviews and revises standards in different courses every few years. Two U.S. History courses in high school will become one to accommodate a personal finance course required by state lawmakers. The changes would take effect during the 2021-22 school year.
The state board discussions about the revision first came amid the racial upheaval that spread across North Carolina and the rest of the nation this summer after George Floyd died at the hand of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
There was a push among educators and some state board members to include language and strategies that promote the inclusion of diverse voices to ensure students receive multiple viewpoints about the nation’s checkered history in their social studies and history classes.
“I’ve been told that the revision of social studies standards is rarely an easy task,” said SBE member Jill Camnitz. “I guess the nature of the material pretty much assures that, but where we find ourselves at today, the events of the past year has accentuated the importance of getting this right.”
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt asked the board as it regular meeting to delay adoption of the new rules to give her a chance to meet with NCDPI staff to review the standards.
Truitt had objected to “explicit language” requested by the state board members to promote the inclusion of diverse voices.
Changes proposed by Truitt include replacing the terms “systemic racism,” “systemic discrimination” and “gender identity” with racism, discrimination and identity to expand the definitions to make them more inclusive.
“If the standard specifies gender identity, that doesn’t allow for other kinds of identities such as economic, regional, those types of identities to be included in the conversation and the same is true for various types of discrimination and various types of racism,” Truitt said.