Critical race theory curriculum debate recalls Ebonics, LGBTQ, Spanish language controversies

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"Critical race theory" has become the demonized catchall phrase in the spirited national discourse about education and systemic racism. Supreme Court justices, politicians, parents and teachers have clashed over how much of America's history with racism and slavery should be taught in schools.

The political furor over critical race theory is reminiscent of other curriculum controversies that have surfaced in decades past. Emotions have run high in recent years over the misunderstood idea of Black students being taught "slang"; the challenges of Spanish-speaking students receiving adequate English-learning instruction; and what students should or should not be taught about same-sex relationships.

Ebonics and Black slang

African American Vernacular English (or Black English), notoriously politicized as Ebonics, took center stage in 1996 when the Oakland, California, school board voted to recognize it as a distinct second language that many Black people speak.

The board's resolution mandated that district officials create a program to teach Black students in "their primary language" to help them master standard English. Some university scholars in California and across the country considered Ebonics a dialect rooted in slavery and perpetuated in racially isolated urban areas. The Oakland school board stated that educators had to recognize "the existence and the cultural and historic bases of West and Niger-Congo African language systems" that enslaved people would have retained and passed down to their descendants.

But this decision sparked a national debate about whether educators would teach street slang in the classroom instead of standard English to cater to the district's underperforming students. The idea of students learning Black "slang" created a media frenzy, dominating the news for weeks and forcing the board to abandon the plan.

"It was all anyone could talk about," said John Rickford, a professor emeritus in linguistics at Stanford University.

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Richard Riley, the secretary of education at the time, released a statement denouncing Ebonics as a "nonstandard" form of English. "Elevating Black English to the status of a language is not the way to raise standards of achievement in our schools and for our students."

Even prominent Black thought leaders like writer Maya Angelou denounced the Oakland plan.

"I am incensed," Angelou said in 1996. "The very idea that African American language is a language separate and apart can be very threatening because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English."

U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley speaks to the Emerging Issues Forum Tuesday, April 16, 1996, on the state of education in the United States.
U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley speaks to the Emerging Issues Forum Tuesday, April 16, 1996, on the state of education in the United States.

The plan even provoked a hearing before a U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee in January 1997. Several school officials gave testimony but no congressional resolution on Ebonics ever came of it.

But teaching Black English or slang to students was never the school board's goal, according to Rickford, whom the Oakland school board consulted for help fighting backlash to the resolution.

In 1996, Oakland's 28,000 Blacks students had a grade point average of 1.8 on a 4 point scale, while white and Asian students' averaged over a 3.0. In addition, Oakland's African American students tested well below the national average on their verbal and math SATs.

After consulting linguists and scholars, Oakland's school board believed that recognizing the speech patterns of students speaking Black English would help teachers better instruct them in standard English.

"Never, at any point, were they going to sit kids down and try to teach them Ebonics," Rickford said.

"But because the line between Ebonics and standard English is often unclear, they were going to highlight points of contrast between the two and emphasize how and why they are different."

Carolyn Getridge, superintendent, Oakland Unified School District, center, testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday Jan. 23, 1997 before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Ebonics. Jean Quan, board president, Oakland Unified School District, left, and Toni Cook of the Oakland Board of Education, right, wait to testify.
Carolyn Getridge, superintendent, Oakland Unified School District, center, testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday Jan. 23, 1997 before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Ebonics. Jean Quan, board president, Oakland Unified School District, left, and Toni Cook of the Oakland Board of Education, right, wait to testify.

The Oakland Ebonics case was not the first time a school district sought to acknowledge Black English and use it to teach students standard English. In 1979, a group of Black parents sued the Ann Arbor, Michigan, school district after their students were placed in special education classes. The parents argued in federal court that the teachers failed to recognize the dialect. The judge ruled in favor of the parents, ordering the district to train teachers about Black English.

"The instruction in standard English of children who use 'black English' at home by insensitive teachers who treat the children's language system as inferior can cause a barrier to learning to read and use standard English," Judge C.W. Joiner said in his 1979 ruling.

Teaching English in an Arizona border town

In a small town at the Arizona and Mexico border, a 1992 education case challenged the state's commitment to helping Spanish-speaking students who were learning English overcome language obstacles.

Parents in Nogales, Arizona, believed the school district was underfinancing English-learning instruction, violating the students' civil right to an equal education. Such instruction offers bilingual education as opposed to English-immersion learning, where students learning the language study all subjects in English.

The 1992 lawsuit, Horne v. Flores, argued that Arizona violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which requires states "to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs."

Miriam Flores opted to join the litigation because her daughter's grades suffered in the third grade when her classes switched from being taught partially in Spanish to being taught exclusively in English. It took 17 years for the case to reach the Supreme Court.

In 2000, a federal district judge ruled that Arizona violated the law by allocating insufficient funding on instruction for English-language learners and placed the state's progress under government supervision.

But in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court sided 5-4 with Arizona officials in Horne v. Flores, saying the lower courts should not be monitoring how much the state spends on teaching non-English-speaking students. Instead, the high court urged the lower courts to reconsider how the state had improved its English-language instruction and increased its financing since the 2000 decision.

Former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who, along with Republican lawmakers, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the case, considered the court's ruling a win for the state.

"This is a major step to stop federal trial judges from micromanaging state education systems," Horne told the Arizona Republic in 2009. "This affirms that important value that we the people control our government and our elected representatives and are not ruled over by an aristocracy of lifetime federal judges."

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer disagreed with the majority ruling, siding with the lower court's decision to focus on Arizona's inadequate financing of English-learning instruction.

"It risks denying schoolchildren the English-learning instruction necessary to overcome language barriers that impede their equal participation," Breyer wrote of the decision in his dissent.

How anti-gay harassment created an LGBTQ curriculum

After an openly gay high school student in Vallejo, California, accused her school district of discrimination in 2008, district officials agreed as part of a 2009 settlement to expand its curriculum to include same-sex education.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the district on behalf of Rochelle Hamilton, a student at Jesse Bethel High School, and won a legal settlement after teachers and school staff allegedly harassed her.

In one incident in 2007, a teacher approached Hamilton as she hugged her girlfriend and said, "This is ungodly, and you're going to hell." Another teacher asked, "What's wrong with you? What are you, a man or a woman?" Hamilton said. And a school counselor required Hamilton to participate in a school-sponsored counseling group to discourage students from being gay, bisexual or transgender, she said.

As part of a settlement with the ACLU, the Vallejo school district agreed to develop specific procedures for handling discrimination complaints, train teachers and staff on how to identify anti-gay harassment and provide mandatory anti-harassment training to students.

The district also agreed to adopt a "Respect for All" curriculum that would show all students, including those in elementary school, films that depicted same-sex relationships.

But upset parents in the district voiced their displeasure at a school board meeting in 2010. They wanted the right to opt their students out of select lesson plans.

Despite the parents' opposition to the films, Floyd Gonella, Vallejo's superintendent, didn't waver on the district's responsibility and legal obligation to show the videos.

"I believe we have to teach tolerance," Gonella told the parents, according to the school board meeting's minutes. "The issue of tolerance is very important, and I will continue to recommend that we provide a safe and tolerant community in our schools regardless of their age."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Critical race theory in schools recalls Ebonics, LGBTQ controversies

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