Colorado school transparency bill linked to national groups battling ‘critical race theory’

East High School
Posted at 1:19 PM, Feb 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-12 14:19:45-05

The words “critical race theory” don’t appear anywhere in the six pages of House Bill 22-1066, legislation introduced in the Colorado General Assembly last month by Republican state Rep. Tim Geitner of El Paso County. But a network of local and national groups backing the bill say that’s precisely what it’s about.

Lawmakers in at least a dozen states, including Utah, Arizona and Kansas, have introduced so-called curriculum transparency bills in recent months, proposing to require schools to publish comprehensive lists of any and all educational materials used by teachers in the classroom.

Opponents say such measures are a solution in search of a problem. But the transparency movement is backed by right-wing groups that have crusaded against a broad spectrum of policies ranging from diversity trainings and anti-bullying programs to teachings about the centrality of slavery in U.S. history — often lumped together by opponents under the umbrella of “critical race theory,” a previously obscure graduate-level academic term with little connection to K-12 curricula.

Like its counterparts in other states, the bill introduced Jan. 14 by Geitner, the assistant minority leader for the House GOP, resembles model legislation published in December by the conservative Manhattan Institute and co-written by Christopher Rufo, a leading architect of the backlash against critical race theory.

If passed, HB-1066 would require all public school districts and charter schools in Colorado to publish “easily accessible” lists of educational materials — “including but not limited to textbooks, supplemental worksheets or texts, assigned or recommended reading materials, electronic or digital materials or other resources, and course syllabuses” — on their websites. Detailed information, including “a summary of the content of the material,” would need to be provided for each item, and districts would be required to provide a copy of any material to a parent at their request.

Such requirements are nearly identical to those outlined in the model bill co-authored by Rufo, who has publicly described how “moving to curriculum transparency” represents the next frontier of conservative opposition to anti-racism initiatives in public education. Some transparency advocates, like the Republican sponsors of bills in Iowa and Florida, have gone so far as to propose requirements that live-stream cameras be installed in nearly all public school classrooms.

“The strategy here is to use a non-threatening, liberal value — ‘transparency’ — to force ideological actors to undergo public scrutiny,” Rufo wrote on Twitter last month. “It’s a rhetorically advantageous position.”

Geitner, who has represented District 19 in the state House since first being elected to his seat in 2018, did not respond to requests for comment. But on Tuesday morning Rufo expressed his support for HB-1066 on Twitter.

“Colorado lawmakers have introduced curriculum transparency legislation that would require public schools to post all teaching materials online,” he wrote. “The momentum is building for this movement — and won’t stop until curriculum transparency becomes law.”

A ‘massive distraction’

Geitner’s bill faces long odds in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, and it has drawn opposition from groups including the Colorado affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, according to lobbying records from the secretary of state’s office.

Critics say HB-1066 would add unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on school districts while doing little to increase the availability of curriculum information to parents. Public school instruction in Colorado follows standards maintained by the state department of education, which are already available online, and many school districts currently publish detailed curriculum information and syllabi on their websites.

This is a massive distraction for our educators from doing what they need to be doing right now, which is focusing on meeting the needs of our students. – Amie Baca-Oehlert, of the Colorado Education Association

“There’s simply not a problem to be solved here,” Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said in an interview.

“This is a massive distraction for our educators from doing what they need to be doing right now, which is focusing on meeting the needs of our students,” she said. “That’s what our teachers need to be focused on right now, not jumping through bureaucratic hoops to meet a need that simply doesn’t exist.”

Conversely, Geitner’s bill — which is scheduled to be taken up by the House Education Committee in a hearing on Feb. 24 — has attracted the support of right-wing organizations like the Independence Institute and Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, as well as the Charter Advocacy Coalition, according to records.

Such groups have formed the backbone of the nationwide conservative backlash against the alleged influence of critical race theory in schools. The Denver-based Independence Institute has helped lead an effort to oppose revised academic standards for social studies subjects currently being considered by the Colorado Board of Education.

In a Jan. 5 letter opposing the draft changes, Pamela Benigno, director of the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center, objected to classroom discussion questions suggested by the standards — including “Who did the Declaration of Independence apply to?” and “What role did women, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Indigenous Peoples play in the Civil War?” — which she said were “transparent in promoting critical race theory.”

Led by Rufo, these activists have also sought to put a national spotlight on events at specific Colorado schools, which educators and parents report has led to harassment and abuse. Last month, administrators at Centennial Elementary, a west Denver school that had been repeatedly targeted for hosting diversity-related events, reported that a man had trespassed on school property and became “verbally abusive towards parents and staff” over what he described as critical race theory.

In conservative attempts to increase “transparency” in school curricula, opponents see another avenue through which teachers and administrators would be opened up to such harassment. The backlash over a broad range of diversity, equity and inclusion policies and related teachings has already taken a toll on teachers across the county, unions say.

“It makes it difficult to focus on what you’re there to do, which is to provide students an accurate and honest education — and that includes an accurate and honest teaching of our history,” Baca-Oehlert said.

“It’s one of the reasons that our members cite as to why they’re considering leaving the profession — being kind of in the swirl of this political vitriol,” she added. “It’s concerning, because there’s a high probability that we can see high-quality educators leave the profession because they simply are overwhelmed and at the end of their rope.”

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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