Education leaders across the Capital Region and state are continuing to push back against parent concerns over school-based diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives – concerns that partly flow out of a growing national effort to limit how race is discussed in public schools.
Niskayuna school leaders on Tuesday night defended the district’s recently-presented “strategic plan for equity” against a handful of parent comments suggesting the plan would be harmful to students and was based on radical ideas. One pair of parents suggested the district aimed to indoctrinate children into a “Marxist society where division of persons and groups is emphasized.”
A small number of parents at the district’s Tuesday board meeting sought to tie the district’s equity plan – which in part outlined racial disparities in student outcomes in the district – to critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that in recent months has emerged as a major boogeyman among conservatives and some parents.
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a euphemism for Critical Race Theory, and we demand the Niskayuna School District stop pushing this hateful ideology,” Niskayuna parents Jill and Donald Canestrari wrote in public comments read aloud at the Tuesday meeting.
The parents, which said they have raised their children with Christian values, argued the district’s equity plan “directly contradicts our values” because it demands “society be viewed through a lens of color, not character,” invoking a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote.
The parents said they were especially concerned by the district’s stated goal of developing students to act as “advocates for equity and justice,” arguing that mission went beyond the role of public schools.
“Training my children to be an advocate is definitely not a reason we chose to send our children to the Niskayuna School District, particularly advocates for values counter to our beliefs,” the Canestraris wrote in their comments. “Our school district should focus on teaching, math, English, science and history, and not through a colored lens … You are not tasked with indoctrinating students to be advocates.”
Susan Walker, who identified herself as a “concerned parent and taxpayer” in the district, also submitted public comments accusing the board of pushing critical race theory onto students. Walker argued the words used in the district equity plan were synonymous with critical race theory.
“At a closer look, they really are euphemisms for Critical Race Theory (CRT), a Marxist-based toxic narrative that believes racism is woven into the very fabric of American society. Instead of ‘build this better together,’ it’s more like tearing our children, young people and community down, and creating more division based on skin color.”
Many educators have pointed out that critical race theory is primarily taught as a framework for analyzing systemic racism in society in graduate programs and law schools – not primary and secondary schools.
But K-12 schools have also sought to focus on combatting racial disparities in educational outcomes by diversifying staff hiring, expanding curriculum to better engage students and shifting policies and practices to minimize systemic biases.
Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. at Tuesday’s meeting pressed back against the criticism, arguing that the district is working to improve educational outcomes for all students and that the equity plan seeks to eliminate the predictability of student outcomes based on race. District officials last month presented data that showed the district’s Black students were overrepresented in negative outcomes like suspension and attendance and underrepresented in positive outcomes like advanced coursework.
“It’s about trying to make who is successful less predictable, it’s about not putting up obstacles but removing them,” Tangorra said. “America certainly is the land of possibility and land of the free, but we can’t ignore the fact that there was a genocide of Native Americans and people were enslaved.”
Tangorra said barriers have long existed for students of color within public school systems and that it was crucial educators started to address those barriers head on.
“It’s certainly not about creating obstacles, it’s about recognizing the obstacles that historically have existed,” he said. “We don’t see the diversity, equity and inclusion [initiatives] as political, we don’t see it as a liberal movement or a conservative movement, we see it as a human movement.”
Niskayuna board member Brian Backus returned to the topic in comments at the end of the meeting, saying that he saw the equity focus as forcing him to think through whether decisions he made on the board would have a marginalizing impact on students.
“We are moving in that direction because we want to make sure we are providing everyone equal access and the best opportunity to succeed,” he said. “For me this is about making sure that every decision I make I’m trying to ensure I’m not marginalizing or minimizing anyone when I make that decision.”
Educators for years have discussed “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives, but the topic has grown in cultural salience since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis over a year ago sparked a national reckoning on race and the ways racism pervades society and institutions, including public school systems.
The state Board of Regents in May adopted a statewide policy statement urging districts to adopt their own diversity and equity policies and suggested school districts acknowledge the legacy of racism in the country in doing so.
“We don’t back off of the fact that racism exists,” state Education Chancellor Lester Young said in a recent interview with Spectrum News. “That is a fact.”
Young denied that students are taught critical race theory in K-12 school and said state officials were asking school districts to find ways to ensure all of their students benefited from how the schools are run.
“We are not indoctrinating students,” Young said. “However, we are encouraging districts and schools to design strategies that will allow young people to be able to look at the world the way it is and think through how it might be better.”
During a Friday panel discussion on race and education, part of a virtual Juneteenth conference hosted by the University at Albany, education leaders grappled with how best to improve the educational experience of Black and brown students. Pointing to a history of enslavement, discriminatory Jim Crow laws and legalized school segregation, the educators said racism has long been embedded in American school systems. School curricula, staffing, and the assumptions and expectations put on students have flowed directly from a white dominant culture, they said.
“No longer can we allow the race of a person to demarcate one’s life chances,” Shenendehowa Central School District Superintendent Oliver Robinson, the most prominent Black educator in the Capital Region, said during the forum. “We have to recognize that at the end of the day the investments in education or the lack of investments in education … is perpetuating what has been the privileged life chances for many. It’s critical to acknowledge that in order to counter that racism that we see in institutions such as schools.”
Patrick Jean-Pierre, Schenectady’s district director of diversity, equity and inclusion, during the forum said educators need to shift from a “deficit mentality” to seeing the strengths of Black students and help those students see that the school system is designed to support them.
“We need to begin to facilitate the genius that’s already inherent in Black and brown kids; Black and brown kids have produced a whole lot of things that are amazing,” Jean-Pierre said. “There is genius in Black and brown kids, and I think education has to leverage that and we have to show them that education is also for Black and brown kids and not just white and Asian kids.”