The decision means some students in Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools will continue using textbooks that are more than a decade old.
WILLIAMSBURG— The Critical Race Theory (CRT) debate has reentered classrooms not just in Virginia, but across the country. This time it’s going far beyond history textbooks.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education rejected more than 50 mathematics textbooks for kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms, about 40% of the state’s submitted math curriculum, citing Critical Race Theory, Common Core, and learning standards as issues in other publications.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin came under fire last week after news broke that Accelerate Learning, which global investor The Carlyle Group acquired in 2018 when the now-governor was the firm’s co-CEO, was the only company permitted to supply the math textbooks in Florida.
Youngkin worked for the firm for 25 years prior to his governorship. While he is no longer employed by The Carlyle Group, Youngkin still owns 6.7 million stock shares in the firm, meaning he stands to profit from the Sunshine State’s decision.
Meanwhile in Virginia, the alleged presence of CRT teachings caused quite the stir at the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools school board meeting held on April 19. The division has not updated some textbooks for at least 12 years, but had over $130,000 in the budget this year to do so upon approval of a textbook.
“Is This An Unbiased, Factual Textbook?”
At the school board meeting, a civilian brought attention to a textbook in question for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools classrooms. The woman did not state her name for the record when she addressed the board as the public comment guidelines called for, but it appeared that Dr. James Beers, board vice chair, identified her as “Emory Smith.” For the purposes and clarity of this article, we’ll refer to the individual as “Smith.”
Smith took the podium to talk about the Advanced Placement (AP) US Government and Politics textbook Government in America: People, Politics, and Policy. The textbook in question was published by Pearson, with authors from Texas A&M University, University of California – Irvine, and University of Chicago. Pearson K12 Learning changed its name to Savvas Learning Company in 2020 as part of a rebranding initiative.
“I’d ask, is this an unbiased, factual textbook, or a manual on how to train students to become social justice warriors for leftist ideals?” Smith asked.
Prior to the company’s name change, Pearson published a myth vs. fact sheet online, with one of the myths claiming that content in Pearson textbooks and school curriculum was influenced by special interest groups. The company responded with this fact: “Pearson texts are written by expert author teams that [are] well regarded in their fields of study and are reviewed by independent, academic reviewers. We are committed to presenting balanced, unbiased, and accurate coverage of all subjects — without influence from outside sources.”
Smith highlighted concerns about a video review of the textbook by Savvas Learning Company, which she claimed expressed wishes to “empower students to inspire social and political change.” Dogwood also watched the video review, and found the context of the quoted excerpt important and noteworthy. In the video review, the presenter speaks about a video series available to teachers online, which aims to illustrate a variety of social issues and current events, creating opportunities for students to further develop their understanding of complex concepts.
The presenter in the video review says: “Pearson Originals for Political Science are compelling stories about contemporary issues. These short-form documentaries contextualize the complex social and political issues impacting the world today. In addition to helping students better understand core concepts, Pearson Originals inspire students to think critically as empowered citizens who can inspire social and political change. Explaining complex political issues in a simplified and entertaining way, Pearson Originals for Political Science help students become informed members of society. Videos include marijuana, federalism and who’s in charge, and what is the Emoluments Clause and why should I care about it?”
Smith also brought attention to Savvas’s 2020 Culturally Responsive Learning Advisory Board, comprised of prominent education scholars, researchers, former teachers, and advocates. While none of the five board members were named as authors of the textbook, Smith took issue with one member, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Savvas’s website states that Ladson-Billings is the original author on culturally responsive education and writes about culturally relevant pedagogy and CRT.
Next, Smith took issue with the front cover of the textbook, which displayed a protest. However, she was unable to finish her remarks within the one and a half minute timeframe allotted for public comment. Smith told the board she would “be back to review more.”
Judging A Book
The next individual to speak about the textbook during the public comment section was Phyllis Eastman. She picked up where Smith left off, expressing concerns over the image on the front cover, which showed a protest near the US Capitol with participants holding signs reading “Silence is violence,” “No justice, no peace,” and “Stop killing Black people.”
“Who was on the panel that approved this text?” Eastman asked. “It is disqualified by the cover. Continually carried to class, it is a form of advertisement or indoctrination. It is divisive.”
Eastman covered a brief history of the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement, regurgitating the right-wing backlash stemming from a 2015 interview that two of the three cofounders were “trained Marxists.” In 2020, Politifact verified that the cofounders expressed the connection five years prior, but noted that the movement had since expanded and “broadened dramatically” with many Americans, “few of whom would identify as Marxists.”
She requested that the textbook be decertified due to the cover.
Eastman also spoke about recently licensed teachers, and made allegations about their college experience.
“Secondly, we are told there is no CRT in the curriculum, yet our younger teachers have spent five years being indoctrinated by leftist professors — 90% who give money to political organizations give it to the Democratic Party,” Eastman said. “So therefore, we need an inservice so that they get the other part, so that they have two views rather than just the view they were given in college, so that they don’t move that mindset into their teaching.”
While Eastman did not provide a source for the data she presented, an Inside Higher Ed analysis of federal elections data found that fewer than two months prior to the 2020 election, employees at colleges and universities had donated five times as much to then-former US Vice President Joe Biden than to then-sitting President Donald Trump.
Eastman encouraged the school board to read the text to see if they could find material related to CRT within the pages.
“If it’s in there, then that book should be disqualified,” Eastman said.
By Its Cover And Contents
Community member John Slokovitz started his remarks with an uncharacteristic statement: “I mean, I honestly don’t know why I’m here.”
However, he quickly used the opportunity to segway into his distaste for the cover of the textbook, holding it up in view for the board members.
“Look at this book,” Slokovitz said. “I mean, how can you send this to children?”
He opened the text, reading aloud a segment about President Joe Biden’s election policy goals, including healthcare, environmental protection, immigration, and international relations with US allies. Slokovitz also opened to a page which showed police officers “holding up Black people,” he said.
“I mean, this is out of control,” Slokovitz said. “Why am I here? I’m advocating to educated people. Stop doing this. Enough is enough.”
As Slokovitz exited the podium, he audibly dropped the textbook on the stand.
Ultimately, the school board chose to not purchase a new round of Social Studies-based textbooks. That means some students will continue using texts from the previous decade.
Board members Sarah Ortego and Sandra Young both expressed concerns over the textbook review process, noting that the timeframe wasn’t long enough.
“I think that when we adopt something for five years, that’s a long time,” Young said. “And I do understand that this is only one resource which is available to teachers. However, because it is there within the classroom and students have access to it, I’d like the process delayed until the process can be reexamined and revised so that it does include all of the stakeholders. And I do think there needed to be more time allotted so that that could occur.”
Conversely, Superintendent Dr. Olwen Herron noted that the process has been consistent over the years and that more time was allotted for the current review process than in years past.
Board member Kyra Cook supported the purchase of the textbook, noting that the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) first had to approve classroom textbooks before school divisions got to review the materials. She said that divisions aren’t in a position to select titles outside of the provided list from the VDOE.
Board member Kimberley Hundley noted that a team of people looked at the content within the book.
“I understand we’re judging a book by the cover, but not the content, everything that’s in the book … but the content within the book was relevant to what’s going on historically right now,” Hundley said.
Over the extended Easter weekend, Chairman Greg Dowell, Jr. perused the content in three out of four history offers presented to the district. He shared that he didn’t find issue with the material shared in public comment as being “overtly or glaringly offensive or divisive,” although he could “see how it might be construed as such.” He ultimately voted no to purchasing the textbook, and the no vote won 4-3.
In addition, three other proposed textbooks — Our Virginia: Past and Present, By the People: A History of the United States, and Principles of Economics — were not adopted.
The board did, however, approve the purchase of four new science curriculum textbooks.
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