The Waunakee school district has received several questions about its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts since the teaching of critical race theory became a nationwide debate late last year.

Some parents have questioned the purpose of an ad-hoc committee that was formed to address DEI issues in the district, while others are asking about the curriculum that is being covered in their child’s classroom and whether it goes beyond the scope of culturally responsive teaching.

“It really scares me when you have children coming home and talking about how evil America is, and how the whole country is systemically racist. Where are the kids getting this?” WCSD resident and father of two students in the district, Erik Pearce said. “It’s concerning when you have children that are coming home with these kinds of ideas. And where are they learning it? Especially during the pandemic, when they weren’t hanging out with all their friends, the only real interactions they had was the school district.”

Pearce was one of four parents at the Waunakee school board’s July meeting – and a growing contingent of parents nationwide – to express concern with the way racism is being covered in K-12 classrooms.

Those concerns arose earlier this year, after critical race theory (CRT) became a talking point for many in the political arena. An academic framework for scholars to look at issues of systemic racism, CRT emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a way for university students to better understand the long-term effects of institutional discrimination in the United States.

Intellectuals have praised its founders for providing an alternative lens through which academics can view structural racism and the way it has impacted modern society.

Opponents have argued that CRT is divisive, and a way to admonish white people for events that took place in the past. The topic has become a rallying point for many conservatives, who have begun using the term CRT as a way to describe any classroom discussion about racism.

Some high-ranking politicians have used it to motivate members of their base, spending the past few months focusing on the narrative that CRT is now being taught at K-12 institutions.

“Critical race theory teaches children as young as kindergarten to be ashamed of their skin color,” former vice president Mike Pence asserted during a speech to GOP members last month.

Now, hundreds of groups have formed throughout the U.S., with the objective of combating CRT and its teaching inside the classroom. It has been reported that as many as 600 people attended a recent event in Pewaukee, where participants were empowered to fight CRT at the local level.

Leaders have encouraged CRT opponents to speak out at school-board meetings, to identify CRT in their district and its curriculum, and to prepare themselves for the inevitable backlash anyone who takes a strong stance on controversial issues is bound to receive.

From the national stage to the local school board

Like other districts in the area, Waunakee Community School District appeared to be an outside observer to the debate until earlier this summer. CRT was a topic of national debate, far away from the village of Waunakee.

All that changed over the past few weeks, as the Waunakee school board put the DEI committee on its agenda to consider changes to its membership.

Several parents used the opportunity to express their concerns about both CRT and DEI issues.

WCSD resident Dan Feldmeier brought his concerns to the Waunakee school board on July 19, stating that the board seemed to be embracing parts of CRT and either didn’t realize it or was hiding the fact. Feldmeier argued that equity was often used as a cover for CRT and put students into groups based on race, gender, ability and socio-economic factors.

“Equity is not fair to all students,” Feldmeier told members of the board. “Equity, under CRT, assumes white privilege and systemic racism is the reason for a group underperforming. Their solution is to provide extra opportunity to underperforming groups, while not providing the same opportunity to groups that are performing well, in order to have an equal outcome. CRT calls this social justice. I call that racism.”

A father of two daughters in the district, Greg Gentz spoke at the school board’s July 12 meeting, raising questions about whether CRT principles were being taught in the schools.

“I’m here to speak about partisan political indoctrination concerning theories of systemic racism and potential initiatives put forth through velvety terminology of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gentz told school-board members. “Theories that are structural principles of critical race theory – CRT – derived from Marxist oppressor-oppressed ideology, which I would be happy to discuss, have no place in a K-12 setting or in any indoctrination-type role of students or staff.”

Gentz cited a recent community learning project that was partially funded by the school district as evidence that it supported CRT, pointing out that the author of the book around which that project centered acknowledged legal scholar Derrick Bell as someone who had influenced him. Bell has been credited for helping to develop the CRT framework during the late 1970s.

The Waunakee Tribune reached out to district administrators earlier this week, asking for clarification as to whether CRT had ever been taught in any of the district’s K-12 classrooms.

Superintendent Randy Guttenberg said CRT is not taught by WCSD instructors.

“The Waunakee Community School District does not teach Critical Race Theory,” Guttenberg said. “Critical Race Theory is an intellectual and academic construct. It is not a curriculum and it is not something we teach in school. We value making connections with our students, and through positive relationships develop a safe, supportive and inviting learning environment that advances opportunities for all students.”

Guttenberg added that there were many things being titled CRT which are not.

The district had created a DEI committee in the spring of 2020, and received little to no criticism over its formation before CRT entered the public arena. Recently, the two have been conflated.

An attorney and parent of two elementary schoolers, WCSD resident Jon Nitti spoke at the July 12 school-board meeting as well. Nitti expressed concern about the district’s DEI committee, arguing that promoting the welfare of one entity over another could leave district facing liability.

“I want to talk about my concerns over the diversity, equity and inclusion committee and its objectives,” Nitti told board members during the public-comment section of their meeting, “what precisely they’re looking at and why we’re looking at it. I get the feeling that we’re sort of assuming why things are the way they are, when that’s not necessarily accepted by everybody in the sense that we believe there’s systemic racism everywhere…whether you call it CRT, whatever you want to call it.”

One school-board member noted that the district was required, by law, to devote resources to equity – leaving districts throughout the country in a position where it’s difficult to combat arguments in which the other side conflates CRT with equity.

School-board members agreed to reconsider the DEI and its membership later this summer nonetheless.

A public event focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in the district has been scheduled for this Wednesday at 6 p.m. Titled “For Our Kids: A DEI Community Conversation,” the event will take place Waunakee Public Library. Event details and registration information can be found online, at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/for-our-kids-a-dei-community-conversation-tickets-162111093645?utm_source=eventbrite&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=reminder_attendees_48hour_email&utm_term=eventname&ref=eemaileventremind.

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