Opinion: Critical race theory at issue in Cherokee school board races

Rick Cox, who has a son in the Cherokee County school system, holds signs outside of the school board chambers before a meeting Thursday night, May 20, 2021. The building reached capacity and the people in line behind Cox were not allowed in for the start of the meeting. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Rick Cox, who has a son in the Cherokee County school system, holds signs outside of the school board chambers before a meeting Thursday night, May 20, 2021. The building reached capacity and the people in line behind Cox were not allowed in for the start of the meeting. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

The key considerations for choosing Board of Education members are a historic and positive involvement with the schools; an understanding their role is oversight, not daily management; and a commitment to improving outcomes for all kids, not just their own or a select few.

The May 24 school board elections call for additional criteria: Beware of candidates alleging critical race theory (CRT) is rampant in schools, and social and emotional learning is psychological manipulation.

A manufactured hysteria around these issues has spread nationwide, stoked by politicians seeking to rouse voters. Normally, school board elections generate little heat or light. Now, they are practically radioactive, as seen in Cherokee County. A quartet of candidates — under the banner of “4CanDoMore” — is running there to “stop critical race theory.” They’re endorsed by the 1776 Project PAC, a national political action committee focused on school board races.

It doesn’t seem to matter that no evidence exists that CRT, a sophisticated academic framework, is taught in this conservative bastion where Donald Trump won 69% of the 2020 votes. The “4CanDoMore” candidates allege CRT may not be overt, but it creeps into classrooms under the guise of diversity, equity and inclusion, and social and emotional learning.

Among their proof: A recent Woodstock High School diversity week flyer about wearing T-shirts in assorted colors to raise awareness about disabilities, gender, racial and LGBTQ rights.

The rhetoric alarms Cherokee dad Mark Kunzman. “I have to admit I was never concerned with who was on our school board,” he said. “I was looking more at the rankings and ratings. It was only recently when I heard about who was running and what their belief systems were that I threw myself into this as a concerned parent and citizen.”

The four candidates vow to rid Cherokee schools of social and emotional learning, which Richard Woods, Georgia’s GOP state school superintendent, calls “absolutely essential as we work to ensure safe, healthy, and positive learning environments for Georgia’s students.”

But the “4CanDoMore” platform compares such learning to indoctrination programs in China and Russia, where children are “the property of the country.” Their campaign sites dispute the research that it enhances student well-being.

Tiffany Bird is a Cherokee parent of four who received a school volunteer of the year award in 2020. When social and emotional learning began, she sought out the student services director with questions. She is now a supporter. “Social and emotional learning helps our kids feel prepared for life and the future,” Bird said. “It teaches them the life skills that are necessary to function, even to be a learner in the school. It has helped my daughter — who is a high-achieving kid and felt a lot of pressure — not to be so hard on herself.”

The campaign around CRT echoes the anti-Communist crusades of the 1940s and 1950s where zealots attempted to cleanse schools of “dangerous advocates from the political left.” While these purges led to the firings of hundreds of teachers, the effort intimidated thousands more. Writing in 1954 about what he saw as an effort to rid classrooms of liberal thought, Robert Hutchins, dean of Yale Law School and later president of the University of Chicago, said, “You don’t have to fire many teachers to intimidate them all.”

Parent Holly Jones moved to Cherokee County in 1995 and has a child still in the system. She taught in the district from 1992 to 2001 and worries now about possible teacher intimidation.

“Teachers will be fearful of disciplinary actions or lawsuits because somebody takes offense at an assignment or topic. This will especially hit history and English/language arts teachers, as these classes are where the books and topics are primarily discussed,” she said. “I believe it will make it harder for the Cherokee County School District to attract and keep qualified teachers, which is going to have lasting effects on our children’s education.”

Jones witnessed the bizarre chapter in Cherokee history when school board member Kelly Marlow alleged in 2013 that then-Superintendent Frank Petruzielo tried to run her down with his car after a heated school board meeting. Marlow resigned a year later, following a felony conviction of making false statements to police that included 60 days in jail.

Jones doesn’t want to relive rogue board members threatening the stability and reputation of her school system. “It has taken us decades to become a district that can compete with other metro counties,” Jones said. “People move here specifically for the schools. If this group, even one of them, were to get on the board, they would undo all of that work.”