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‘Critical race theory’ roils a Tennessee school district By Reuters


© Reuters. Robin Steenman, chair of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, holds her 10-month-old daughter Judith, alongside fellow concerned parent Brett Craig, in front of a power point presentation highlighting the types of books Moms for Liberty think contain ag


By Gabriella Borter

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (Reuters) – Robin Steenman, an Air Force veteran and white mother of three, is fed up with the way public schools in her community of Franklin, Tennessee are teaching kids about race.

Steenman believes the teachers’ and reading material are biased. She is particularly concerned about the lesson she teaches second-graders on civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Steenman asserts that children leave school believing white oppressors are the victims and minorities are the oppressors. 

Steenman wants Williamson County Schools to adopt a different approach, even though her one child is in school. She and a group of local women calling themselves “Moms for Liberty” recently asked the Tennessee Department of Education in a complaint letter to force the district to scrap that material and overhaul its curriculum. 

Their protests have made Williamson County the first test of a new Tennessee law that bans the teaching of ideas linked to “critical race theory,” an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped American society.

The clash in Franklin, a Nashville suburb of 83,000 people, is part of a larger culture war over race and education that’s roiling other U.S. communities, and which has gained traction as a political force nationwide.

The conflict has polarized parents and upset some educators. Tennessee plans to remove teaching licenses and reduce state funding for schools that teach taboo content.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, the agency responsible for overseeing districts’ compliance with the law, would not comment on the status of Steenman’s complaint letter.

Williamson County Schools denies that the civil rights materials violate state law. Reuters declined interviews with Jason Golden, the district superintendent, and eleven of the twelve district board members.

Eliot Mitchell from the school board told Reuters that Moms for Liberty was misguided and that teaching history about racism does not mean that one race is inherently racist.

The school district denied that they were reviewing the curriculum, but it said so at the request to a community member. This review will be complete by November.

Local parents believe that some people want to keep the truth out of schools about American race relations. This includes Williamson County. This area has former slave plantations that are now available for tourists. Franklin’s public square, where a Confederate monument stands, was the site of an antebellum slave market and the 1888 lynching of a Black man by the Ku Klux Klan.

Some are pushing the district to correct a long-standing pattern in racial insensitivity towards minority students. This 82%-white county has field trips to historic sites and glorified Confederacy, they argue.

“Overall, it’s a beautiful community,” said Tizgel High, a Black mother of three. “But these battles, they get tiresome. You’re sort of constantly fighting for your humanity.”

Schools spokesperson Carol Birdsong said the district “continues to work to create a safe, welcoming environment for all students.”

In the past year, at least eight Republican-controlled states, including Tennessee, have passed laws restricting how the concept of race can be taught. The issue has become prominent in some off-year elections, including this year’s Virginia governor’s race, and it’s poised to be a major theme in the 2022 U.S. midterm contests.

This advanced theory of critical race is not common outside of law schools. This theory states that U.S. law and institutions are biased against people of color. Teachers say that the American history of slavery, segregation after the Civil War and long fight for equality in racial justice is the most important lesson about race taught at U.S. secondary and primary schools.

Critics say Republicans have exaggerated the importance of critical racism theory to make it easier to attract suburban women. They are a party that is deeply concerned about education but has moved Democratic.

Republican Governor Bill Lee signed the law into effect in May. He told reporters that critical race theory was “un-American”.

The law prohibits public schools from teaching that anyone is “privileged” due to their race – a reference to “white privilege,” a term derided in conservative circles. Lessons also cannot make students feel “discomfort, guilt () anguish” because of their race or sex.  


At the center of the controversy in Franklin is a reading curriculum that introduces second graders to the U.S. civil rights movement. Steenman says the material is too focused on the country’s segregationist past, making kids feel uncomfortable about race.

In April, she launched a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a national organization whose website says it advocates for “parental rights” in education. 

Steenman’s members poured over second-grade books and marked up any that they found with sticky notes and highlighters. Steenman wrote an 11-page letter to Tennessee Department of Education on June 30 shortly after the law had been signed.

Among the books Moms for Liberty deemed inappropriate are “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington” and “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” about the Black 6-year-old who integrated a Louisiana public school in 1960. 

These books, written in simple language but framed as stories about perseverance and persistence, show some examples of racism experienced by the Black characters. Image include the King photo of firefighters hurling Black civil rights protesters at them with the spraying of a firehose. The Bridges picture shows the illustration of the child being carried to school in the U.S. The Marshals are seen navigating through the crowd of white jeering people. The teachers’ manuals includes discussion questions, such as asking students how young Bridges might have felt about her experience.

They are part of an English curriculum approved by Tennessee in over 30 areas.

In Steenman’s letter, viewed by Reuters, she said the books and pedagogy are divisive, giving children the impression that all white people are “bad” and that people of color are mistreated by whites.

Speaking to Reuters at her home last month, Steenman said she believes this history is not age-appropriate for second graders, and that it doesn’t do enough to explain the country’s progress. 

“There’s so much positive that has happened in the 60 years since, but it’s all as if it never happened,” she said.

The Tennessee Department of Education has proposed that only students enrolled in the state’s public schools, their parents and school staff be allowed to file complaints under the new law. Steenman said that her daughter attends private schools to avoid the strict COVID-19 face mask requirements in public schools. Another issue that divides Williamson County is this.

The state education department is still finalizing its rules. Steenman said she’ll wait to see how the agency proceeds, and for the outcome of the local school district’s curriculum review, before deciding her next move.

Teachers are also anxious. One of the most concerning clauses in the law states that teachers cannot teach students to feel negative about their race.  

“The bottom line is, we’re teaching facts, and how anyone internalizes those facts…we don’t have any control of that,” said Angela Mosley, a reading and math specialist at a Williamson County elementary school.

Beth Brown, president of the state teachers’ union, has invited Tennessee teachers to submit lesson plans to her, which she is sending without their names attached to the state education department to get pre-approval for anything potentially contentious. According to Brown’s spokesperson, she had received around 20 submissions thus far.


Some Williamson County parents are furious that the curriculum backlash seems intended to protect the feelings of white children in a district that has repeatedly shown insensitivity towards students of color, who account for about 20% of enrollment.

Two 8th grade teachers in the area assigned students a project that required them to imagine themselves as slave owners, and write down their expectations regarding human property. The district’s then-superintendent publicly apologized, and the teachers resigned.

In the same year, an analysis of school discipline against students with disabilities across Tennessee revealed that district students were subject to disproportionate punishments than white students.

Brian Blackley, spokesperson for Tennessee Department of Education said that the district had to receive about $1million in federal funds to address the problem. Williamson County Schools said in a statement that it spent the money on “early interventions” to reduce the need for punishment; it did not elaborate on what those measures were.

Revida and Jennifer Rahman, mother-teachers in Williamson County’s public schools, created the non-profit organization “One WillCo”, along with several parents, to help them push for improvements they have been looking for for years. The group pressed the district for more African-American staffers, more training of teachers, more culturally and race sensitive field trips, as well as to explain white supremacy’s links to Confederate monuments. 

Cory Mason, spokesperson for Williamson County Schools said that the district had reevaluate its field trips several years back and decided to stop visiting certain sites. However, he did not give specifics.

In order to assess its progress on diversity, inclusion and other priorities of One WillCo, the district hired this consultant. Superintendent Golden defended that decision in a public address in May, saying the schools’ struggles were “deep enough and common enough” to warrant it.

In a report released last month, and viewed by Reuters, the consultant deemed Williamson to be “a county divided,” and said its schools could use a “culture reset,” with new policies like annual diversity education for teachers. 

Moms for Liberty saw this document as another liberal attempt to segregate the community by race. At the group’s August chapter meeting in a Franklin church, attended by Reuters, Steenman spoke to a few dozen women, one of whom sipped from an insulated tumbler labeled “leftist tears.”

“They recommend a ‘culture reset.’ Does that sound scary?” Steenman said of the report, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “It smacks of, like, cultural revolution.”

The group is now reading the middle and high school curricula for material they deem inappropriate and in need of district review. Members also are forming a political action committee, “Williamson Families,” to back conservative candidates for local school board elections in 2022, when half the district’s 12 seats will be up for grabs.