Education Week | By Andrew Ujifusa | December 14, 2021
It’s easy to call the politics surrounding critical race theory intense, or divisive, or even cynical. But if you want to discuss the issue in a way that works with voters, your life can get very complicated very fast.
As recently as a year ago, critical race theory was not on the radar as a big political issue for schools. But as states have restricted how educators talk to students about race and other “divisive topics”—and as raucous school board meetings have drawn concern from the Department of Justice—the topic has come to symbolize fundamental disagreements about American history, ideals, and what schools should teach students about where the nation stands today.
It’s also potentially turned K-12 education into a prominent 2022 campaign issue at the local school board level and beyond.
So what’s that been like for people who ran for office this year and had to engage with critical race theory as a political and public issue? What worked for them? What would they do differently? And what do they think the future holds for the issue?
We put those and other questions to two candidates for local school board races in November.
One, Kristin Allan, won her nonpartisan race to be on the board for the Cherry Creek school district in Colorado. The other, Chris McCune, is a Republican who lost his re-election bid after serving on the West Chester area district board in Pennsylvania for eight years. (He remains board president until the new slate of officers takes over in January.)
Both talked about how national politics influenced, and even warped, the environment in which they ran their races, as well as the role of social media, the challenges of engaging with voters in such a climate, and other issues.
General strategies for discussing critical race theory
An attorney, Allan said she was familiar with critical race theory—a legal theory often taught in law schools for analyzing the enduring legacy of racism in American society—before entering local school board politics. She said she knew that it wasn’t being taught in Cherry Creek schools. She also said she didn’t want teachers to use it in classrooms.
But perhaps more importantly, Allan the school board candidate didn’t just talk about what wasn’t happening in schools, but what was happening.
For one thing, she linked the substance of Cherry Creek history lessons—which include significant material on indigenous people and other populations—to statewide curriculum standards. In 1998, Colorado enacted a requirement for schools to include American Indians in curriculum, and that law has expanded to cover other groups, including in 2019.
She wanted to characterize what had become a political issue as an academic concern for students; in the same vein, she linked the ability of different students to see their experiences and identities reflected in reading materials to becoming better readers.
These tactics were part of a broader strategy of discussing how the district need to improve academically. Allan said she talked frequently with constituents about how it’s the school district’s responsibility to “make sure we’re meeting and exceeding the standards for what our legislators have decided is important.”
“It was really just the beginning of how we provide a great education to all of our kids, and not just some of them who fit into this cookie-cutter box,” Allan said.
As a candidate and as a serving board member, McCune took a different tack. When confronted with accusations that West Chester Area schools were using critical race theory, he told people: Prove it.
He said he kept telling people that their ostensible “proof” related to individual lessons, then curriculum, then the district’s strategy, was false. (Some took prominent exception to his responses.)
“Lots of organizations do equity training,” said McCune, who stressed that before this year, no parent had ever come to him with concerns about teachers employing critical race theory. “It’s a long, long way from indoctrinating students.”
The two candidates could speak with a certain level of authority. McCune was the board’s president and had served on it for many years. Allan, meanwhile, said that in recent years she had stepped up her efforts to volunteer for “accountability committees” at her child’s school and then at the district level in ways that did not attract cameras or other attention. This gave her a nuanced understanding of what schools were doing that she could share with voters. (A regional newspaper endorsed Allan in part due to her long-term involvement in schools.)
“It’s really important to address the fears that people have, but then get into what is being taught and why,” Allan said. “We learn history so we don’t repeat it.”
Social media, confrontations, and calm discussions
McCune’s decision during a board meeting to physically take the microphone away from someone who earlier this year demanded to know whether West Chester schools taught critical race theory—and to have police officers escort the speaker out—drew scrutiny and criticism from a variety of sources, including high-profile conservative media. Local Republican leaders denounced him; some called for his resignation.
That uproar over process, in addition to debates about curriculum and district strategy, drove much of the hostility to McCune.
McCune said trouble over the issue was brewing in the district well before that incident. But he said his actions and how he talked about it afterwards, ended up being useful to his opponents.
“In retrospect, I wish I had moved past the incident, instead of saying how disappointed I was, and stronger words than that,” said McCune.
Missteps aside, Allan and McCune became disillusioned about the role Facebook, Twitter, and similar platforms played in their campaigns.
McCune said email and public platforms took things he’d written out of context and used them to create anger about his positions. (A YouTube video of the incident involving McCune at the board meeting, which includes captions criticizing him, was viewed more than 111,000 times between late July and early December.) His offers to talk with people over the phone about the issue were largely ignored, he said.
In her campaign, Allan grew wary of comments from people she knew who sent her campaign-related messages beginning with: “Hey, did you see this on Facebook?” She said a man sent her messages almost daily decrying critical race theory. While she posted campaign messages on platforms like Facebook, she steered clear of tit-for-tat arguments.
“I realized that no matter what I said on social media, it would be misconstrued,” Allen said. “So I just stayed out of it.”
She preferred lunches and other in-person events that helped her discuss positive things she was passionate about, like improving reading instruction, while reducing fear and paranoia about schools. “I tried to share a hopeful message,” she said
The Jan. 6 riot and how national politics played a role
The influence of divisive political events and opinions outside of his community made McCune especially frustrated.
He said he saw local Republicans succumb to a worldview founded upon false claims such as that the Jan. 6, 2021 riot on Capitol Hill was “just a bunch of tourists” and that COVID-19 was somehow a hoax. McCune called these “crazy Republican tactics meant to inflame their base.”
In addition, it seemed to him that, in the midst of national controversy, people who felt they were experts on issues like masking somehow felt they were also experts on critical race theory and how it had infiltrated West Chester schools.
McCune tried to talk about the bread-and-butter issues that appealed to a general as well as a Republican voting population, from the district’s accountability ratings to what he called the relatively low tax rates in his districts. In essence, he tried to tell people that schools were part of a great community, one he wanted to continue serving.
“It’s not a healthy environment,” McCune said of the political climate. “What I tried to emphasize was: How you feel locally can be totally different from how you feel nationally.”
Despite her November win at the polls, Allan also grew frustrated with how her focus on academic improvement was overshadowed by what she felt were sensationalized education topics that tapped into national angst. She pointed out that groups promoting false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and other matters got involved in Colorado school board races this year, including in Cherry Creek.
“It would always turn back to: ‘What’s your position on masks [as a COVID mitigation strategy], and what is your position on critical race theory?’” Allan recalled.
‘Be prepared, follow the national trends’
What are a few basic lessons Allan and McCune learned that might prove useful for others who run for local school boards in the near future and step into the same political vortex?
One tactic Allan highlighted is that simply dismissing critical race theory as something that isn’t taught in schools, and stopping there, isn’t enough. “Don’t speak in soundbites,” she said.
In fact, the reverse was helpful: She also said that the detailed information she obtained by talking to educators in Cherry Creek meant that she could speak confidently and convincingly to voters about a range of issues.
“I would not have understood [the facts] without talking to administrators and figuring out what schools are actually doing,” Allan said. “I’m not an educator. I am a concerned parent and community member. The more people you talk to once you have that base of knowledge, the better.”
McCune said the last 18 months, which roughly covers the pandemic, have been “draining.” He doesn’t have immediate plans to try to regain his old seat. But he dismisses the idea that a right-wing wave simply washed over his district amid outrage over critical race theory and other issues. While he lost to a candidate backed by a political action committee who claimed local schools used critical race theory, Democrats gained ground overall on the West Chester school board in the November elections.
Nevertheless, McCune said, “I would tell any board to be prepared, follow the national trends. It’s happening in one district, then it’ll pop up in a next. Do your homework on what these tactics are, and deal with them in an appropriate way that doesn’t escalate them, that deescalates them, but also counters them.”
“They say, ‘That won’t happen locally,’” McCune added, referring to school board members like him. “But it does.”