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Teachers Union President Weighs In On Critical Race Theory Debate

A U.S. flag hangs in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School in Denver, Colorado. (David Zalubowski/AP)
A U.S. flag hangs in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School in Denver, Colorado. (David Zalubowski/AP)

More than two dozen Republican-led states have either passed or proposed restrictions on how systemic racism is talked about in schools. They argue that critical race theory is divisive and teaches kids that white people are inherently racist.

The academic term is built around a legal framework that Democrats argue is being misused and is not even taught on the K-12 level. This fight is now drawing the attention of the nation’s largest teachers union.

The National Education Association is promising to defend the right of teachers to teach the truth about racism. NEA President Becky Pringle says teachers cannot allow lawmakers to stoke fear in an attempt to curtail voting rights or diminish democracy.

However, standing up to legislation that targets K-12 educators can leave a chilling effect on students' access to a rigorous curriculum. Pringle says today's youth notice America's systemic issues and are curious about it.

"Our kids are so much smarter and more prepared than many adults give them credit for," Pringle says. "And we can’t shortchange them."

Pringle recalls a time she helped her 8-year-old grandson on a family history report for his class. She told him about her great grandfather being enslaved in Charlottesville, Virginia, which raised more questions than answers for her grandson. She recalls how her grandson wondered about the impact her great grandfather's enslavement had on not on history but how it impacted the young boy's life today.

Questions and issues surrounding racism are something that adolescents around the nation are currently wrestling with, Pringle says. She thinks teaching about the systemic inequalities at the earliest levels of a child's education can intertwine with teaching the foundational meaning of "value" and "respect" toward others.

"Our kids ... they see the inequities in the systems," Pringle says. "And it is important for them to understand why it is that some students have and some students don’t. So that they ask those questions and they realize that’s not right and it’s not fair."

It's essential that schools are allowed to educate students about the inequalities rooted in the nation's social systems so they can become informed adults that can go on to dismantle them, Pringle explains.

However, some parents think their children's classroom is not the time or place to foster conversations about racism. Many feel they have a right to express their input or even control what is taught at their local schools. Pringle says she and the NEA are open to having honest and transparent conversations about the curriculum with them.

"We welcome those conversations [with parents] to ensure that their students are prepared with the complete information, comprehensive information and that they are allowed to grow and thrive," Pringle says.

For some educators, teaching about the impacts of systemic racism may put their careers at risk. In response to that, Pringle says the NEA is prepared to provide them with guidance, support and any legal information that can help them.

"[We will make] sure that we’re beating back at pundits and politicians that are just using this... [to] try to isolate their own power in ways that are not in the best interests of our students and, honestly, are not in the best interests of this country," she says.

The NEA's promise to protect teachers' right to teach the truth about racism comes with potential legal battles.

"That very well may happen," Pringle says. "And if it does, we will be ready."

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Xcaret Nuñez adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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