Documents to support state social studies standards expose stubborn divide on State Board of Education

Olivia Oxendine

An earlier version of this story stated that State Treasurer Dale Folwell did not attend the June 16 State Board of Education meeting. Folwell did attend the meeting. 

On Thursday, the State Board of Education approved supporting documents for K-12 social studies standards and K-5 unpacking documents on a 7-3 vote along party lines.

Republicans board members Todd Chasteen, Olivia Oxendine and Amy White voted against approval of the documents designed to guide educators teaching the new standards.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson did not attend Thursday’s meeting. The Republican voted against the new standards in February.

The board will consider 6-12 unpacking documents next month.

Oxendine complained that the documents aren’t expansive enough.

She cited the omission of the nation’s first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, from fifth grade unpacking documents that ask students to explain how the “experiences and achievements of women, minorities, indigenous groups, and marginalized teachers to people have contributed to change and innovation in the United States.”

The names of Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Ruth Gader Ginsburg and Abigail Adams are among those given for example topics.

The NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) must establish criteria for selecting significant historical figures to use as prompts for example topics, Oxendine said.

“I know we cannot think of every person in history, every event in history, every major theme in history but I cannot for the life of me understand how in this particular standard within the unpacking documents, how we missed Sandra Day O’Connor,” Oxendine said.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said the documents give districts and teachers flexibility to choose example topics.

“That’s why there’s a disclaimer on the document that says this is not meant to be a check list of people to cover,” Truitt said.

The state board has an opportunity to send districts a message, Oxendine countered.

“I understand the role of locals, I understand flexibility, choice, giving the districts full latitude to further develop, but I will double down on my point that some places names events, personalities in history warrant, especially of the magnitude of Sandra Day O’Connor, that is significant, and it is so significant that it rises to the level of appearing in these documents the state board is about to adopt,” Oxendine said.

She also complained that the documents miss the opportunity to engage students in discussions about the rights of veterans and disabled citizens as part of a standard to help students understand the “ways in which the federal government has protected individual rights of citizens.”

“I could teach forever this particular standard around the rights of individuals with disabilities, also the rights of our veterans that could be built into this part of the unpacking documents,” Oxendine said.

SBE member J. Wendell Hall asked if the standards would prohibit teachers from engaging students in discussions about “discrimination, gender, racism.”

“I want them (teachers) to feel free, not to be enclosed or fearful of touching on some these issues,” Hall said, noting that citizens have asked him that question and that he’s been unable to answer.

Truitt responded that there’s nothing in the documents approved Thursday to prevent a teacher from “delving into any topic that he or she felt necessary for a closer look.”

“Teachers are not bound to use these topics at all,” Truitt reminded the board.

Last week, Republican lawmakers rewrote a COVID-19 relief bill that added a one-year delay in implementing the new standards that was approved by the state House on a 74-34 vote. Republicans said the state board of Education and NCDPI need more time to work on the document.

Democrats said a delay would throw the school year into chaos, forcing districts and teachers to reschedule courses and rewrite lesson plans. The state Senate rejected Senate Bill 654 on Monday. It will now go to committee where lawmakers will hash out the differences between the House and Senate versions.

On Thursday, SBE Chairman said the board isn’t seeking a delay.

“We remain committed to complying with state law as it stands today,” Davis said. “It requires that we implement these standards and association course changes in August 2021.” 

The new social studies standards have been a source of controversy for months because critics believe they incorporate elements of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which examines social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racism.

Critics say CRT is divisive and paints whites as “irredeemable” racists.

Meanwhile, those who support CRT say it’s important that children learn “hard, uncomfortable truths” about America’s racial history, which includes slavery, Jim Crow Law and the brutal lynching of Blacks at the hands of white mobs.

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