I would like to further Kendall Svengalis’ discussion about divisiveness over public education in Guilford (Connecticut Mirror, Viewpoints, June 17, 2022). I believe the discussion has implications beyond Guilford for political discourse in Connecticut.
Despite his attack on the board of education and Paul Freeman, superintendent of schools, Svengalis and I share some common ground. I appreciate his discussion of “Group Think.” We should emerge from our echo-chambers to understand opposing views. I agree we should be guided by “State laws mandating that (schools) ‘provide access to all points of view without deliberate distortion of subject matter.’ “We share the desire to have the best for our children and fear any harm that might come to them.
From this common ground, I would like to examine his arguments. To avoid division, it is important to shun inflammatory language, and clearly define terms. Regrettably, the group “No Left Turn” (NLT), who share Svengalis’ views, often use inflammatory language, and misuse various terms. Let me define a few terms to get us on the same page.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a theory researched in law schools. It asks whether 400 years of discrimination have led to unintended biases in our laws (systemic racism). Over the last 20 years, legal scholars have uncovered and remedied many biases. To the extent schools might teach the outcomes of that research, schools help students understand our laws and areas of controversy.
Marxism is a political and economic theory that proposes the propertied classes would accumulate wealth at the expense of laborers, and there would be tension between these classes. Evaluation of this theory requires advanced training in economics and political science.
Socialism, as practiced in the United States, promotes the opportunity and stability of our society. A partial list of socialist programs include: public schools, Social Security, social services, town parks and recreation departments, and affordable healthcare and prescription drugs.
The misused terms “Marxism” and “Socialism” in NLT literature conflates “equity” with “equality.” Instead of making students equal, equity programs address individual needs, thereby enabling each student to achieve a higher academic standing though their own efforts. They do not pull our top students down.
Nationally, the far right distorts and weaponsizes these terms to obscure the actual practices in our schools. They distract us from debates we should have about public education.
The first concern raised by Svengalis is “Group Think.” His analysis can readily be applied to his own group. National anti-CRT rhetoric distorts CRT to fit the Right’s own purposes and provides the “group think” that informs NLT. Rather than “well-informed,” as he described the group, their misuse of the terms above suggest otherwise. They should realize that much of the curriculum they object to has been in place for more than 15 years. The current reforms build on that state- and nationally-recognized excellence.
The second concern regards the “so-called (Independent Party)”. Some background: Republicans and Democrats on the board of education unanimously supported the Superintendent’s initiatives. New leadership of the Republican Town Committee (RTC) chose to not endorse the three Republican board of education members who were up for re-election. The RTC-endorsed NLT candidates won their primary. In the general election, the RTC fielded five NLT candidates to fill their three seats and hopefully unseat the two Democrats up for re-election. Republicans would then hold the majority and could remove the superintendent. Displeasure with this slate inspired the Independent party to field three candidates.
The Independent party is conservative. In recent times, about 70% of its endorsed candidates were Republicans and 30% were Democrats, true to its independent nature. Because they agreed with the board of education and Freeman, they endorsed the two Democrats in the election and the Democrats endorsed the three Independents. Thus, the board would have minority representation, and we might expect robust debate about other issues before the board.
The election presented voters with two clear choices about the direction Guilford schools. In a high turnout election, the Republicans lost by a nearly three to one margin. Obviously, the vast majority of voters was not buying what the Republicans were selling. Rather than try to understand why so many disagree with them and rework their platform, NLT advocates are writing threatening letters to individual teachers and the board of education. The public outcry against NLT’s efforts has been robust. Rather than indoctrination, students praised the opportunity to explore a large diversity of viewpoints.
The third concern was that minority rights have been frustrated by “rigid ideologues who feel justified in forcing a racist and highly divisive ideology upon innocent schoolchildren.” Actually, Svengalis’ group adheres to rigid ideologies that blind them to what actually occurs in the schools.
They are incensed that Freeman assigned the book “How to be an Antiracist” to the faculty. A close examination demonstrates that the superintendent’s goal was not to persuade, but to have the faculty think outside their echo chamber and debate the issues raised in the book. To promote fair and balanced discussions in class, the BOE hired coaches for faculty development to better facilitate classroom discussions that respect and encourage all points of view.
In this way, students develop skills for critical thinking and civil discourse. Where else would students practice these skills? Afterall, today it is the loving, supportive public school – tomorrow it is the rough and tumble public square. No-Left-Turn’s desire to teach a narrower, restricted curriculum might be characterized as “indoctrination.”
Svengalis is correct in that we should cut the vitriol and try to understand why different groups feel as they do. Understanding the root of NLT’s dissatisfaction might lead to community healing. We should examine our deepest fears and the roots of our own beliefs.
Despite accusations to the contrary, Freeman has fostered public discussion and continues to do so through postings on the board of education website and public meetings. We should also accept the outcomes of elections, especially ones that are so determining as this last one.
Lawrence Rizzolo lives in Guilford.