The Anchorage School Board has approved anti-racism and equity policies for the city’s public schools following hours of public testimony from students, teachers and community members.
The board on Tuesday voted in favor of these policies, the same day a Minneapolis jury delivered a guilty verdict to former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. The board committed to developing the policies in June after Floyd’s death.
Many of the people who spoke in favor of the policies said they were long overdue and are needed to provide safety and equity to all students. Others said they were worried the policies could provide a path to teaching “critical race theory” in schools.
School board member Dave Donley brought up critical race theory repeatedly when he spoke about his concerns about the policies.
Critical race theory looks at how race and racism affect society in various ways. According to a recent article on the American Bar Association’s website, critical race theory “recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past” and “acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”
Critical race theory has drawn criticism from some conservatives, including former President Donald Trump. It has become a lightning rod for some, who have advocated to keep it from being incorporated into school curriculums across the country.
During the school board meeting, Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said critical race theory is not part of the student curriculum, and other school board members pushed back at the idea that the policies are connected to critical race theory.
”It is about what our staff will come to understand about our students, about our community and the people around us. ... A lot of people’s objections, I think, focused on something that this policy won’t cause to happen,” said board member Andy Holleman.
Donley ultimately voted in favor of the anti-racism policy Tuesday, which passed 6-0, but against the instructional equity policy, which passed 5-1.
So, what do the policies actually do?
The anti-racism policy says the school board “rejects all forms of racism” and “acknowledges that racism has historically existed in our educational systems and is often compounded by other forms of discrimination.”
The policy continues, saying the board will work with the superintendent to “identify and redesign any racially inequitable policies and procedures that limit academic opportunities,” although there are no specific details in the policy itself that outlines how the board will do so.
The instructional equity policy requires the superintendent to submit an annual equity report to the board, which would measure allocation of resources within the district and equity among students.
It defines equity as “the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups.”
Both policies are less than a page long. Neither policy includes the phrase “critical race theory.”
School board member Margo Bellamy said Black and brown students in the district are given “different consequences for similar behaviors” compared to their white peers. She said these policies would address those disparities.
Bellamy said the school district must “identify where the barriers are within the system” so all students can benefit.
For this school year, the percentage of Black students in ASD who have received a failing grade is double the percentage of white students who have received a failing grade. For Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students and for Alaska Native students, it’s more than double.
The equity report required by the new equity policy is being compiled by the Bond Educational Group, a nonprofit that the school district paid $31,740 for their services, from February of this year through July 2021.
School district spokesman Alan Brown said that the district is looking to release the report in July.
The report will include “in-depth interviews” with ASD students and staff, a “detailed climate survey” and community stakeholder listening sessions, he said. The audit will also have a review of ASD’s internal policies and procedures “that relate to equity,” Brown said in an email.
“Now that Board has approved the policies, it will be up to the administration to determine how best to implement them,” Brown said. “Determining the next steps will take deliberate thought and planning. And while that planning will begin immediately, there’s no timeline yet and it’s hard to say when any new steps or procedures will be implemented.”
Brown said he has no details at this point on what would be laid out in the report and was unsure if grades would be included.
At the school board meeting on Tuesday, some public testimony from parents echoed Donley’s sentiments about critical race theory, including testimony from school board candidate Judy Eledge and a letter from and Republican state Rep. Sara Rasmussen, who said she has two children about to enter the district.
“We, as a society, have kept religion and politics out of educational curriculum. As we move forward, we need to ensure that certain ideologies regarding Critical Race Theory, if presented in schools, are presented in a balanced and age-appropriate way,” Rasmussen wrote.
Before the school board passed the policies on Tuesday, board member Donley offered several amendments to both, none of which passed. His fourth amendment to the anti-racism policy — which got a second vote but failed with the majority — would have explicitly stated that the use of critical race theory is not approved.
“If none of this has to do with critical race theory, here’s an opportunity to make it clear. Why not just say that?” Donley asked during the meeting.
Bellamy said she voted against the amendment on race theory because she said it is not about any “one board member getting their way.”
“It is about the collective responsibility of the board to do the right thing,” Bellamy said. “And for me, member Donley’s position on race theory — which was absolutely outside of these policies — I just don’t think that as a board member, we should be out for anything that causes fear, dissension or divisiveness.”
Bellamy said her biggest regret in the process was how critical race theory was “meshed into” the conversation.
“Both of these policies are really about access, it’s about opportunities,” Bellamy said. “It’s about making sure that we literally leave no kids behind and that we are governing in a way that holds us accountable and holds the superintendent accountable.”