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Unions Promise to Defend Teachers in Critical Theory Fight

As states pass laws whitewashing history, teachers are promising to fight back

Brian Young's picture
Jul 08, 2021

As states moves towards banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools the leaders of the two largest teachers unions in the country are vowing to protect their members who teach the honest truth in their classrooms.

"Mark my words: Our union will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) told members Tuesday in a virtual address at the union's TEACH conference. "Teaching the truth is not radical or wrong.”

The AFT says that they have set up a legal defense fund to protect teachers when disciplinary action is taken and to preserve a curriculum that does not whitewash or sanitize the often-complicated history of the United States.

While state legislatures weigh in on bans to critical race theory, which they say is an area of study that is based on Marxism and is a threat to the American way of life, the simple truth is that public schools in the United States are not teaching the subject. Instead, it is a law school-level class that has been around for about 40 years. However, states are using this idea of critical race theory, and the fervor that conservative media outlets like Fox News have created, to put in curriculum guidelines that allow the state and districts to take action against teachers who don’t teach their approved Republican version of history. Some examples include in Oklahoma where teachers were banned in May from teaching that "an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive." Meanwhile in Texas, a law going into effect on September 1 is set to ban educators from teaching that "slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States."

"Culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism, or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history," Weingarten said. "This harms students. These culture warriors want to deprive students of a robust understanding of our common history. This will put students at a disadvantage in life by knocking a big hole in their understanding of our country and the world.”

The nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA) is also taking steps to protect its members from these laws. At their Representative Assembly at the beginning of July, the union voted to support and lead campaigns that “result in increasing the implementation of culturally responsive education, critical race theory, and ethnic … studies curriculum in pre-K-12 and higher education.” The measure is part of a larger $675,000 effort to “eradicate institutional racism” in public schools. NEA delegates also adopted a $56,500 measure to “research the organizations attacking educators doing anti-racist work” so that members are prepared to respond.

As states pass these laws limiting what teachers can teach, there are also real-world consequences for the teachers. For example, a new law in New Hampshire says that anybody, including the attorney general, can sue a school or district for violating new guidelines on how teachers can discuss race, gender, and other identifying characteristics in the classroom. Also, a teacher who is found to have violated the law could receive a disciplinary sanction by the state board of education. In Arizona, a bill would have allowed the state to fine teachers up to $5,000 for teaching the honest history of our nation. That bill thankfully failed in the State Senate.

“I think it’s irresponsible for me, as a teacher, to comply with that law,” said Daniel Santos, the executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who teaches Texas and U.S. history at Yolanda Black Navarro Middle School in Houston. “I do suspect that we may have to use that fund because teachers have already made that commitment.”

The delegates at the NEA meeting also supported a campaign by the union to inform parents about what critical race theory is and what it is not. Thanks to conservative media, critical race theory has become a catch-all for anything having to do with race, however, the theory is actually a very specific field of study that critically examines U.S. law as it intersects with issues of race in the U.S.

“We’ve been fighting that for certainly as long as I have been a leader within NEA,” said NEA President Becky Pringle in an interview. “And every time they attempt to bring up some other way to divide us, and to stoke fear and to take [away] that light shining on them and what their failures have been, we will be there to call it out, to speak up, and to fight back.”

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