A new diversity and equity policy in the Saratoga Springs City School District is either a long-needed balm to heal educational disparities in the district or a rogue attempt to indoctrinate students with radical race theories.
The community’s bitter debate in recent weeks over the policy, which the school board adopted Tuesday night after hearing scores of public comments, reflects an emerging front in the nation’s polarized culture war as educators increasingly acknowledge disparate student outcomes – which in countless instances fall along racial lines – and work to remedy them, sometimes referring to the work as “antiracism.”
Shorthanding those efforts as “critical race theory,” Republican lawmakers, conservative activists and parents across the country, though, have seized on the new policies to argue liberals and racial justice activists are seeking to impose their will on America’s students.
In Saratoga, dozens of district residents submitted public comments ahead of Tuesday’s board meeting. Those comments – a split both for and against the policy – were read aloud by a board member over the course of an hour at the virtual meeting, half at the beginning of the meeting and the other half at the end.
The policy, which the board also discussed at an April meeting, outlines the district’s commitment to “creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive learning environment where every student, especially those currently and historically marginalized, feels safe, included, welcomed, and accepted” and shares in the district’s success.” It also highlights a litany of potential lines of inequity: “race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, all types of disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity…”
The policy establishes a districtwide equity and inclusion committee as well as school-level equity teams and commits district officials to collect, monitor and regularly report out data on academic outcomes, discipline, attendance and other areas where gaps between student groups may persist.
“We are committed to addressing these inequities and to helping each and every student equitably access learning opportunities in school to enable them to thrive and to build a better society,” according to the policy.
An accompanying administrative regulation outlines in more detail how the district will carry out the policy and refers explicitly to “antiracist language and action,” which has caused the greatest angst among board members. The school board on Tuesday night ultimately adopted the board policy but tabled the administrative regulation for further discussion by the board’s policy committee, after some board members asked for more discussion in light of continued confusion and opposition in the community.
As the board neared a final policy in recent weeks, the Moving Saratoga Forward Facebook group rallied growing opposition, highlighting examples of anti-racist lessons across the country and widely distributing a misleading survey that suggested “examples of ‘anti-racist’ school policy include teaching white elementary school children that they are inherently racist… (and) teaching children that discrimination is acceptable so long as it leads to more ‘equity.’”
The information shared through the page prompted the district earlier this month to issue an “accurate update on our recent work,” outlining the monthslong development of the policy proposal.
The Facebook page attacked the district even more vociferously after a high school English teacher invited Lexis Figuereo and Chandler Hickenbottom, former Saratoga students who have been active in racial justice protests across the Capital Region over the past year, to join a class virtually to discuss civil disobedience.
Figuereo this week said he thought the presentation went well and appreciated student questions and didn’t hear any complaints from students, parents, teachers or administrators in the days following the presentation.
“(The teacher) asked us to do a class on civil disobedience, not on politics, not on critical race theory,” Figuereo said Tuesday.
But after the Moving Saratoga Forward page posted about the activists presenting to a class and attacked the school for inviting supporters of defunding the police, complaints mounted against the district.
Figuereo said he and Hickenbottom, his sister, wanted to offer the students the perspective of activists engaged in direct civil disobedience.
“It’s very nice when students get to learn from people who are actually activists, boots on the ground,” he said. “At the end of the day, all of this stuff we are trying to do is to make things equal and better for everyone.”
Figuero said he thought the person behind the Facebook group was playing on racial tropes to mischaracterize his activism in an effort to stir fear and controversy surrounding the new school district policy.
“They way he is telling it to the whole of Saratoga Springs is some monster came into the school and he’s unsafe for kids,” Figuereo said. “It’s all fear mongering.”
(Even though Figuereo did not visit the school in person, one commenter at Tuesday’s meeting demanded to know why he was allowed past school security.)
Some board members and community members at Tuesday’s meeting accused the page of spreading misinformation in an effort to sow confusion and fear over the policy.
“I think purposeful disinformation is really not our purview, it’s not something that we need to correct,” board member John Brueggemann said Tuesday night. “We all want to be responsive to the community, and none of us want to be manipulated by a misinformation campaign. Both of those things are true.”
(The page’s account did not respond to a message asking who was running it and how they responded to board members accusing it of spreading misinformation.)
Supporters of the policy championed the importance of the district taking a stand for equity and dismissed critics as misinformed or in denial of real problems. Some of the commenters suggested the views expressed against the policy were evidence for the need of the policy.
“It’s truly regrettable that the language of this policy, which is in no way objectionable, is being deliberately misconstrued to stoke outrage by elements of our community,” Andrew Beatty said in comments submitted to the board. “When I see members of the community working to mobilize their neighbors against language guaranteeing equity for students who have historically been treated unequally in our district, I am even more convinced than ever for the need of exactly that language.”
But the policy’s detractors have painted it as a dangerous effort that could lead to students being harmed by inappropriate lessons, arguing against “critical race theory” even though the term does not appear anywhere in the policy or regulation and calling for “safeguards” to ensure lessons are appropriate.
“Teaching based on unproven theories must be stopped, any teaching that is based on telling kids white people are inherently racist at birth must be stopped,” William Longobardi said in comments to the board.
Rachael Bode, a parent in the district, in a phone interview this week said she was concerned a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion would detract from a focus on core academics. She said she wanted to hear what teachers thought of the policy and questioned what had prompted the district to develop the policy in the first place.
“It feels like there is this hidden agenda… I feel like this is all coming up out of the middle of nowhere,” Bode said. “I really feel like getting back to the basics should be the priority.”
The still-remaining debate over the policy – for the school board, at least – effectively boils down to one phrase: “model antiracist language and action.” The phrase does not appear in the board policy but is included in an accompanying administrative regulation that outlines more specifically how the district will carry out the policy, which the board kicked back to committee for more consideration.
“I do know there is confusion,” board member JoAnne Kiernan said at the meeting. “I don’t want us to completely put off a group of people like we are ignoring what they are saying to us as well.”
“I don’t want to make it any more controversial,” board member Ericka Borman said, calling for more discussion. “I want to see if there is a way we can all agree that will make people more comfortable.”
Board member Patti Morrison said despite the calls for more discussion no one on the board had yet explained why using “antiracist” in the regulation posed a problem.
“The problem with the word has still not been articulated at the table,” board member Patti Morrison said. “At no time during the last discussion or this discussion, has it been expressed what the problem with the word is.”
A new proxy
Alex Pieterse, an academic psychologist and the director of equity and inclusion at the UAlbany School of Education, in a Wednesday interview said he thinks contentious fights over the equity work many schools have been doing for years have heated up in recent months.
He said “there is a broad understanding there is inequity in education” and that the main purpose of equity policies is to empower school districts to acknowledge and work to address that understanding of persistent inequities for students. (Inequities in graduation rates, use of disciplinary measures, test performance, attendance and many other categories.)
“The larger focus is how can we do a better job of addressing these inequities, because ultimately the goal is to give everyone a chance according to their ability,” Pieterse said.
Noting a recent uptick in the prevalence of discussion on critical race theory in the media, Pieterse said critical race theory – which emerged in the legal academy to explain systemic racism – has been mischaracterized and turned into a buzzword signaling something bad.
“I think it’s really not about the theory, it’s like the criticism has become a proxy for the larger culture war, and I think that’s a shame,” Pieterse said. “You slap a label on something, and all of the sudden people assume they know exactly what that position is… For people who are unfamiliar it serves the purpose of gumming up fear.”
Pieterse conducts training in districts and said while critical race theory properly understood informs equity work, they are not the same. He said making real the promises of equity policies is long and difficult work that often faces pushback or resistance and noted that moments of racial progress are nearly always accompanied by backlash.
He said the fears manifested in resistance to equity initiatives are often rooted in something different and that it’s important to uncover those underlying concerns.
“If someone says to me racism doesn’t exist, clearly my response that racism does exist is going to be a futile response, because there is a level of denial you really can’t address straight on,” Pieterse said. “I’m thinking there is something else going on there. What does that denial represent?”
Similar flare ups to what unfolded in Saratoga in recent days and weeks have also hit school districts on Long Island and across the state. And after the Board of Regents on Monday adopted its own statewide policy statement urging districts across the state to adopt their own diversity and equity policies – and acknowledge the role of racism in society – the bitter debates promise to continue in more and more districts.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, Saratoga district officials offered a presentation that underscored the kind of inequities the new policy will aim to ameliorate.
A presentation outlining student data on assessments, graduation rates and other categories showed Black students lagging their classmates in numerous categories. The presentation also highlighted stark disparities in outcomes for students who are economically disadvantaged, who had a graduation rate of 76.6 percent compared to the overall average of over 92 percent. Economically disadvantaged students also accounted for the majority of out-of-school suspensions despite representing about 20 percent of the student population.
Saratoga Superintendent Michael Patton said the presentation was core to the work in the district and represented an attempt to better understand the needs of students.
“This is the conversation at the heart of the work we do as a school district, becoming culturally competent means understanding the needs of our students, understanding the needs of our families,” Patton said.
He also addressed the overarching criticism against the district’s new policy.
“The criticisms we have been receiving publicly is that all of our core beliefs are founded on something that has never been part of our school district,” he said. “Critical race theory has never been part of these conversations.”