10-2-17 State Capitol

The Louisiana state capitol stands tall on Oct. 2, 2017, in downtown Baton Rouge.

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education standards review steering committee voted to endorse new K-12 social studies curriculum standards regarding minority groups Saturday.

The new standards will focus on introductory Louisiana and U.S. history for kindergarten through second grade students, and third through fifth graders will learn world history from prehistory to the 1600s before segueing to indigenous Louisiana history and early French colonization.

Junior high students will learn both U.S. and Louisiana history and “evaluate historical events from a variety of different historical and cultural perspectives.”

The Sept. 25 meeting was rescheduled from July 31 after the committee received negative public comments about how the proposed standards would portray historical American race relations.

Louisiana students will be expected to “analyze the role, major contributions of, and limitations placed on” a variety of groups, “including but not limited to women, Latinos, American Indians, Black Americans, European immigrants, and Asian immigrants,” according to the new standards. 

Proponents of the new standards say current history standards fail to take experiences of minority groups throughout U.S. history into account. Others have taken issue with the language.

Public comments at the previous meeting included parents concerned that the new standards will teach children that their race is inherently either oppressive or oppressed.

Several community members gave feedback at Saturday’s meeting, including Democrat state Rep. Tammy Phelps of Shreveport and one LSU student.

LSU psychology sophomore John Savoy said his experience of Louisiana social studies education prior to the new standards had little focus on the experiences of ethnic minority groups.

“I’ve attended Louisiana education institutions all my life,” Savoy said at the meeting. “I believe the onus is on your shoulders as a committee to amend the standards of my generation that failed to adequately depict slavery and the role people of color played in our state’s great history.”

He added that his social studies education glossed over the achievements of prominent African Americans like Louisiana Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback, the first Black governor in American history.

Only one committee member, Woody Jenkins, voted against endorsing the standards, saying they need further revision. Jenkins talked about the diverse makeup of the Louisiana population and said the standards are meant to further a political agenda.

“Everybody tends to think their group suffered the most,” Jenkins said. “We need to let our young people know that they can be used for political purposes by emphasizing our differences.”

Several parents and community members also said the standards will open the door for schools to teach critical race theory, a topic at the forefront of education policy debate in recent months.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines the ways white supremacy and racial discrimination have influenced public policy and power dynamics throughout U.S. history.

“People are going to say this is critical race and you will have to deal with it,” community member Steven Wilson said at the June 26 meeting.

Sociology professor Heather O’Connell said the standards are too general to reflect a critical race theory perspective because they don’t focus on race.

Critical race theory has been at the center of controversy around the standards despite no specific passages mentioning it. O’Connell says she believes this is because the implications of the field are at odds with much of society’s viewpoint.

“CRT is a body of work that is led primarily by people of color that centers the experiences of people of color,” she said. “That is threatening to white folks."

She added that the standards do not guarantee a positive outcome of more informed and open discussions of race in the classroom, but it is necessary to deal with the consequences of talking about historical racial injustices more clearly.

Republican state Reps. Valarie Hodges, Chuck Owen and Ray Garofalo, along with several parents and community members, voiced their displeasure with the progress of the revisions at the June 26 committee meeting. 

Garofalo was previously ousted from the House Education Committee after he introduced a series of bills that would have prevented Louisiana schools and colleges from teaching that the state or the nation is “systematically racist or sexist” and said schools should teach “the good, the bad and the ugly” of slavery in a hearing.

Garofalo later lost his chair position amid pressure from the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus following his comments. 

Public comments from Phelps and Louisiana Save Our Schools President Jennifer Kerrigan criticized this and other portions of the revisions as lacking specificity and expressed concerns about the consequences of leaving standards open to the teacher’s discretion.

Phelps asked the committee if teachers will have resources provided to teach the updated standards or if they will have to get educational materials on their own and voiced her concern about a lack of framework to enforce the standards in local districts.

“Would this information be provided in a textbook, or would this be information a teacher needs to resource on their own?” Phelps said. “If it’s up to the autonomy of the school district...This will bring about a different learning experience for the student.”

Committee member Joseph David also expressed concern about how school districts will be held accountable to the new standards if they are approved.

The proposed standards are now available online for public comment, and the BESE will review and finalize them in December. All members except one voted to endorse the new standards.

Pending approval, the standards will be implemented in the 2023-2024 academic year.

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