In affluent Williamson County, an uproar over critical race theory

Senate leader casts doubt on Williamson curriculum debate swirls

By: - June 25, 2021 5:01 am
Franklin High School (Photo: Williamson County Schools)

Franklin High School. Battles between parents and school boards have been heated in Williamson County. (Photo: Williamson County Schools)

Amid uproar over Williamson County Schools’ curriculum, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson is questioning the district’s Wit & Wisdom reading program and whether it teaches critical race theory.

Johnson, a Franklin Republican whose children attend system schools, said this week he reviewed a large part of the Wit & Wisdom curriculum and found items that are “very problematic and certainly not age appropriate, if appropriate at all.”

Great Minds’ Wit & Wisdom, which received failing grades from initial reviewers of the state textbook commission but finally passed muster with the Education Department with waivers approved by curriculum Commissioner Penny Schwinn, is under attack from a parent group called Moms for Liberty.

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin (Photo: John Partipilo)

“I think there certainly are elements of the Wit & Wisdom curriculum that could be construed as being aligned with critical race theory,” Johnson told Tennessee Lookout.

But while Johnson avoids publicly criticizing the Williamson board and its decisions, he said he has spoken to board members about Wit & Wisdom and its efforts with the vendor, Fostering Healthy Solutions, which is working on a diversity, equity and inclusion program for the district.

One of the problems with the term critical race theory is that people have different ideas of its definition, Johnson said.

“But whether Wit & Wisdom is or is not aligned or synonymous with critical race theory, I think it is certainly problematic. Elements of it are,” Johnson said.

Views are also wide-ranging on Wit & Wisdom and whether it incorporates critical race theory. The Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education is one of several districts statewide that adopted the curriculum in 2020 and is in the process of using it in K-5 English Language Arts. The district chose it after a thorough review by teachers committees as part of a comprehensive curriculum designed to improve literacy rates, according to a spokesman.

“We do not consider it a problem, but rather an important tool to increase rigor and build our students’ knowledge and reading comprehension skills while scaffolding in social-emotional learning supports that help them understand and process difficult and complex subjects related to their real-world life experiences,” said Sean Braisted, spokesman for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

The General Assembly passed legislation this year prohibiting teachers from broaching critical race theory, which is typically taught in law schools and defined as discussing inherently racist institutions or policies such as red-lining or the refusal to give home loans to African Americans to live in certain neighborhoods.

A key amendment to the legislation is innocuous at the start, prohibiting schools from teaching that one race or sex is inherently superior or that a person is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive by virtue of the individual’s race or sex or that an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of race or sex.

Williamson County’s legislative delegation, including Reps. Sam Whitson and Brandon Ogles, voted for the bill banning the teaching of critical race theory. Rep. Glen Casada told the Lookout he supports Moms For Liberty. Whitson declined to comment on the school board events, and Ogles could not be reached for comment even though his assistant was contacted.

The legislation turns, though, when it prohibits teaching that people bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex or that an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or psychological distress because of race or sex.

Teachers would be allowed to teach about the institution of slavery in America, but as the theory is generally understood they could be prohibited from teaching that white Americans should take the blame for their ancestors perpetuating one of the worst evils in the nation’s history on some of the ancestors of Black Americans.

Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican who sponsored the legislation, pointed out during House floor debate that critical race theory is not mentioned in the legislation. He also argued that teachers should stick to the facts about slavery and World War II, for example. He drew criticism from Democrats who contended students should learn that Nazism should be considered an “evil” philosophy for perpetrating the Holocaust, the extermination of tens of millions of Jews and other groups of people.

Johnson is not alone in his assessment, and finding dissidents in the Republican-controlled Legislature is difficult. 

Rep. Glen Casada, former speaker of the House of Representatives, also said via text this week, “I support Moms for Liberty and their efforts to keep half truths and non age appropriate material out of Williamson County schools curriculum.”

Williamson County’s legislative delegation, including Reps. Sam Whitson and Brandon Ogles, voted for the bill. Whitson declined to comment on the school board events, and Ogles could not be reached for comment even though his assistant was contacted.

Conservative legislatures across the country are passing bills to block the notion that whites should be blamed or feel bad because of slavery and the ensuing decades of injustice against Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other races and cultures.

Such moves are leaving school districts and teachers to figure out how to carry on, especially with groups such as Moms for Liberty popping up nationally to push back on curriculums and reading materials they don’t like.

Williamson County Schools spokeswoman Carol Birdsong, however, said the district is following state law, including the new provision passed this year governing the items that can be taught. Districts could have funds withheld if the state finds violations.

“The state Department of Education will provide guidance to districts regarding how the law affects certain curriculum that may or may not be being used in the districts,” Birdsong said.

The 2020-21 school year was Williamson County Schools’ first for a new English Language Arts K-5 curriculum, and it is still tweaking the program, which was approved by the state and included a waiver because Wit & Wisdom didn’t have a phonics component in the early grades.

Robin Steenman, who leads Moms For Liberty, says the Wit & Wisdom curriculum teaches “all white people are bad.” A spokesman for Williamson County Schools says Steenman’s group is pulling excerpts from books and distorting them.

The state did not answer specific questions about whether Wit & Wisdom books and lessons teach critical race theory.

The state’s waiver review didn’t delve into issues of sensitivity or bias but was limited to evaluating coverage of Tennessee’s academic standards, according to Department of Education spokesman Brian Blackley.

“Issues of the appropriateness of an individual text, lesson or passage are best left to local communities. Ultimately, it is individual school districts that sought waivers to utilize their locally-selected curricula in their individual districts,” Blackley said.

The department will issue guidance, but it is up to school districts to make sure material meet state law, he said.

Moms for Liberty steamrolled the Williamson County School Board meeting this week with dozens of complaints about the Wit & Wisdom reading curriculum for second-graders, saying it teaches about suicide, encourages students to be either “furious or mad,” describes reproduction of seahorses by the male seahorse, supports cannibalism and furthermore is anti-American, especially in the description of government treatment of native Americans.

Robin Steenman, Moms For Liberty (Photo: Submitted)
Robin Steenman, Moms For Liberty (Photo: Submitted)

Robin Steenman, who leads Moms for Liberty in Williamson County, said she decided to form the group when she read a letter from the parents of a biracial child who became ashamed to be an American after reading the second-grade curriculum. Steenman said she is funding its work and getting paid back by members with no outside funding help. 

Those books include works on Martin Luther King, “Ruby Bridges” and “Separate But Never Equal,” a story about Sylvia Mendez and segregation in California.

“On the surface, that all seems fine. But when you start going through the books and see there’s a definite slant, a constant drumming into the child that white people are bad, and that’s just day after day after day for nine weeks and there’s never a part about redemption, all the strides we have made since then,” Steenman said, “it just kind of leaves the child with injustice, injustice, injustice and never addresses the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance, or the fact that all schools are desegregated today.”

Pulling out excerpts from numerous books and calling those critical race theory distorts the district’s work, according to the Williamson County Schools spokeswoman. Elements of “Charlotte’s Web” could be considered troubling, she pointed out, because they deal with birth and death, yet the book is considered a children’s classic.

“Our teachers are professionals, and they look at the entire piece of literature, and they also know their students,” Birdsong said. 

Despite the raft of complaints from Moms for Liberty, the Williamson board extended the contract for Director Jason Golden to June 2025. 

Going after diversity

Moms for Liberty’s mission is two-fold, though. Not only does it hope to derail Wit & Wisdom and ultimately oust Golden, it wants to upend the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion program, which is being put together by Fostering Health Solutions. 

Steenman contends that diversity, inclusion and equality are all worth pursuing but that once it starts looking at the vendors’ work and similar efforts nationwide, it finds out the goal is to upend individual character and enable students to have the same outcomes no matter how hard they work. 

The district is paying the vendor $55,000 to come up with a strategy for the equal treatment of students. And it has the backing of groups such as Williamson Strong and One WillCo, which work counter to Moms for Liberty without really addressing the group.

Anne McGraw, a former member of the Williamson County School Board, now leads Williamson Strong, comprised of parents supporting public schools. (Photo: submitted)
Anne McGraw, a former member of the Williamson County School Board, now leads Williamson Strong, comprised of parents supporting public schools. (Photo: submitted)

They're trying to get parents and community members agitated and trying to sway local elections so they can get like-minded people in these local positions.

– McGraw, a former school board member, says of Moms For Liberty

Anne McGraw, a former school board member who leads Williamson Strong, said she has “faith” that Golden understands diversity is a problem that needs to be addressed within the district because of its impact on students and families. She predicted Golden won’t listen “to the minority noise” on the matter.

For years, McGraw said, she heard anecdotal evidence of mistreatment of minority students in Williamson County schools. But no system existed to keep track of incidents, making them hard to quantify, especially if parents and students declined to report them.

The work by Fostering Healthy Solutions is designed to come up with a strategy to reshape the way teachers treat students of color.

Jennifer Case Cortez, leader of One Willco, is working in the same direction “because students of color in our schools were facing pervasive racial harassment,” even by teachers and principals.

“What we’re fighting for is to make our schools safe for all students, welcoming for all students, and we particularly are focusing on students of color because there were families of color already working toward that, and we just wanted to be an on-ramp for the larger community to join in with that,” she said.

The group requested the Williamson County School Board hire a consultant to assess the situation, gather data and come up with strategies. She’s concerned that her group is getting “swirled” into the criticism being leveled at the Williamson County School Board over Wit & Wisdom and critical race theory but says the effort will continue to grow its membership.

Cortez and McGraw agree that Williamson County Schools is not teaching critical race theory. Then again, Cortez acknowledges she probably has a different view of the theory than Moms for Liberty.

“Critical race theory, in my opinion, is just the latest thing being used in part of those circles to make people angry and fearful,” Cortez said.

She also believes the Legislature intended it to be “intentionally confusing,” and she is worried it will make teachers afraid to follow through on “accurate historical narratives.”

Jennifer Cortez (Submitted)
Jennifer Cortez (Submitted)

What we're fighting for is to make our schools safe for all students, and we particularly are focusing on students of color.

– Jennifer Case Cortez, One WillCo

McGraw, meanwhile, saw a similar situation play out in 2014 – the impetus for Williamson Strong – when people starting raising a ruckus about Common Core, a national education curriculum once used in Tennessee schools. Opponents charged the curriculum was trying to indoctrinate children into Islam. 

It has since been outlawed, and the GOP-dominated Legislature passed a bill this year prohibiting Common Core supplemental materials from being given to children.

“They’re trying to get parents and community members agitated and trying to sway local elections so they can get like-minded people in these local positions,” McGraw said. “And it worked in 2014 with the school board. So we’re just trying to make sure people understand what’s at stake here, and that people don’t have to go through that trauma again of having our school board taken over by extremists.”

Johnson takes a different view. He sees the level of engagement between parent groups and the Williamson County School Board as “healthy.”

He also believes a national movement is under way to indoctrinate students with critical race theory. He’s proud of the bill the Legislature passed this year and contends it is easy to understand. He encourages teachers with questions to contact the state, noting this is not a “gotcha moment.”

“All you’ve got to do is watch cable TV news and see some of the commentators on there that are proponents of teaching critical race theory and listen to what they have to say, and I absolutely would say there’s a movement out there to teach things I don’t want being taught to my kids and I don’t think most Americans, certainly most Tennesseans, don’t want being taught,” Johnson said.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.