No, CRT is not just having a conversation about racism
Equity and diversity are good; CRT is not

Kentucky’s SBDM Councils and critical race theory

The national controversy over critical race theory (CRT) and how it is presented in K-12 schools has come to Kentucky. (See my discussion of Bill Request 60, which would prohibit key components of CRT, and why this whole issue is a source of legitimate concern for everyone). 

The Gallatin County Board of Education recently became the first district in Kentucky to try to ban the teaching of CRT in its schools. I haven’t been able to obtain the precise wording of the board’s resolution or action, but Superintendent Larry Hammond issued a statement explaining the board’s decision:

Gallatin County Board of Education feels strongly that individual student needs remain a priority in all aspects of planning and service delivery.  The Board further expects and promotes student needs being met equitably.  Such examples would include contracts to provide increased services to meet mental and behavioral health issues of students without respect of sex, race or socio-economic status.  The Board also believes no individual is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive” due to their race or sex, “whether consciously or unconsciously”.   Agenda item VI.I. from the June 15 BOE meeting “Discussion/Action to Ban Critical Race Theory in Gallatin County School District” was a statement to affirm the belief and commitment to ensure every child’s needs will be met.  Furthermore, the effort was to not create greater divisions among students and staff through the promotion of CRT.

It is not clear to me, however, that a local board of education can legally stop a local school from adopting a curriculum or instructional materials that include CRT’s controversial claims. 

This is because Kentucky’s law establishing School Based Decision Making (SBDM) Councils gives SBDM’s near total authority over such decisions. 

SBDM Councils are composed of 3 teachers elected by teachers in the school and 2 parents elected by parents of children in the school. If a school has minority students constituting more than 8% of its enrollment and the largest minority group isn’t already represented among the elected SBDM teachers and parents, additional teacher and parent members may be added, but the proportions of teachers to parents must be maintained. The school principal serves as chair of the council, which seeks consensus decisions but may operate by majority vote if consensus cannot be achieved. 

You can read the full statute on the SBDM Council’s composition and duties here

Among the Council’s responsibilities, outlined in section 2(g), is the following:

The school council shall determine which textbooks, instructional materials, and student support services shall be provided in the school. Subject to available resources, the local board shall allocate an appropriation to each school that is adequate to meet the school's needs related to instructional materials and school-based student support services, as determined by the school council. The school council shall consult with the school media librarian on the maintenance of the school library media center, including the purchase of instructional materials, information technology, and equipment;

The Office of Educational Accountability, charged with enforcement of SBDM law and regulation, has interpreted this to mean that school and district administrators may not usurp the Council’s authority when it comes to choosing curriculum and instructional materials. 

In one relevant instance, former Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe and two middle school principals were censured and forced to participate in additional SBDM governance training when several schools in the district adopted the Summit Learning curriculum without the express approval and involvement of the SBDM Council. 

While I am not aware of specific instances where local leaders tried to prohibit a school from adopting a curriculum or instructional materials (I’d welcome information on this from readers who might know for sure), the logic would seem to extend in that direction also: a local board of education cannot tell an SBDM Council what curriculum it may or may not have. 

[Update, 6/21: I'm not an attorney, but a Kentucky Supreme Court case from 1995, Board of Education of Boone County v. Bushee, seems to make it clear that when there is a conflict between the autonomy of an SBDM and the authority of the local school board, unless the board’s greater authority is explicitly allowed for in state law, the SBDM prevails:

The above examination of these statutes clearly convinces this court that each participating group in the common school system has been delegated its own independent sphere of responsibility. State government is held accountable for providing adequate funding and for the overall success of the common school system. The local boards are responsible for the administrative functions of allocating funding, managing school property, appointing the superintendent, and fixing the compensation of employees. The councils are responsible for the site based issues, including but not limited to, determining curriculum, planning instructional practices, selecting and implementing discipline techniques, determining the composition of the staff at the school, and choosing textbooks and instructional materials.

Emphasis added in the above.]

Under Kentucky law, if parents or citizens want to help shape what gets taught in an individual school, they have to appeal to the SBDM Council. 

Most Kentuckians are probably unaware of the work of SBDM Councils and their important responsibilities, which also include hiring school principals (with the superintendent serving as a Council member just for this purpose) and assigning personnel based on the staffing allocation received from the local board of education.

By and large SBDM Council members do their work with no fanfare and little appreciation. In my personal experience the teachers and parents who serve on councils work hard and sincerely want the best for students. In some schools parents have to be actively recruited (begged?) to run for Council.

But in most cases SBDM Councils tend to reinforce the status quo and operate according to the principal’s and teachers’ agendas. Parents, by statute outnumbered on councils, often lack the technical and cultural knowledge about how schools work and defer to teachers on key decisions.

Of greatest concern, non-parents have no representation on councils at all, despite their sizable responsibilities related to the deployment of public resources. They are largely unaccountable to the general public. If an SBDM Council wanted to adopt a controversial curriculum over widespread public opposition, there would be literally nothing the public - or the locally-elected board of education - could do about it.

Authors I greatly admire (see here and here) have argued that, despite the serious flaws in CRT assumptions, state-level bans on teaching critical race theory in schools is a form of big government overreach and sets a dangerous precedent.

I’m sympathetic to those arguments and believe that generally these issues are best handled at a local level. Parents and citizens must be far more aware and involved in SBDM Councils and insist on transparency for what is being taught in local schools.

But the flaws in Kentucky’s unique governance structure raise serious questions about how accountable SBDM Councils really are and what can be done if they override the will of the public. And that’s not to say that a strongly worded resolution from a local board of education wouldn’t carry a lot of weight. But for all these reasons Bill Request 60 and similar measures have started a valuable conversation about this topic.

Of course this also occurs at a time when some Kentucky school districts are suing taxpayers to stop the implementation of the state’s new school choice law. The education establishment can’t have it both ways. You can’t defend a system that isn’t really accountable to the public when it comes to curriculum and instruction and then insist that many families can have no other options.

Personally I’m happy for any school to openly teach anything it wants - as long as every family has the right to choose another school for their children. 

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Lawrence Phillips

While I may disagree with your overall assessment of critical race theory, I am glad to see your analysis is directing the conversation at the right level of governance. The issues of the curriculum rests at the SBDM in KY.

The representativeness of these council is an interesting policy question. Your argument seems to advocate for increased parent representation. However, I hope you would consider the role of students in these council. While student representation may be difficult at the lower educational levels, student representation at the secondary level would provide a valued perspective as they live the outcomes of these decisions.

Nevertheless, on a sincere level, do you know how many SBDMs have adopt curriculums which assume a critical race theory framework in KY? Do you have any insights on how critical race theory differs in practice from cultural response teaching pedagogies?

Gary Houchens

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

I believe that if the SBDM statute was amended to include equal parent-teacher representation AND a non-parent community representative, then this entire discussion could stay at the local level.

I also like the idea of student representation. When I served on the Kentucky Board of Education we approved several SBDM waivers from high schools that wanted to include non-voting student members in their council.

To my knowledge no school has officially "adopted" CRT materials. But there's no doubt that teachers are using CRT-inspired materials and there are few ways to know how that is being done or make it more transparent. I wrote more about this here:

Finally, I think depending on the author there are some linkages between CRT and culturally responsive teaching practices but here too I think everything comes down to HOW a strategy is being used and with what age level of students. I use Zaretta Hammond's book in one of my classes and find its perspectives very useful, especially for teachers who may not have worked with many diverse learners. But I think it's also possible to use culturally responsive instructional materials that do not rely on - and in fact reject - some of CRT's assumptions. The 1776 Unites materials are a good example:

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