Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s plan to completely overhaul its social studies standards for the first time in 20 years has gone from a low-profile task to a full-fledged culture clash in a matter of weeks.
The debate reached a crescendo Friday, with state public education officials hearing a wide range of views from more than 90 teachers, parents, school board members and legislators during a remote public hearing that lasted for more than five hours and took place after a GOP-backed rally against the standards.
Critics argued the new curriculum would inject liberal “anti-gun” and “socialist” ideologies like critical race theory into classrooms statewide, while backers defend the proposed standards as an overdue update that would reflect New Mexico’s diverse population and sometimes bloody history.
Joe Garcia, the father of two children who attend Albuquerque Public Schools, said he supports the proposed social studies standards as both a parent and a citizen.
“In order for children to be able to be invested in our state, they need to feel represented in our state,” Garcia said in an interview.
But Tiffany Shirley, a newly-elected school board member in Carlsbad, said during Friday’s hearing the proposed standards have caused “great concern” in her southeast New Mexico community and called on the PED to extend the public comment period for an additional six months.
And Valerie Fox, a Los Alamos parent, said teaching students about sexual orientation in particular would violate parents’ religious rights.
“We do need to update, but I think these updates are dangerous,” Fox said. “These are our children, not yours.”
The debate over the proposed New Mexico social studies standards comes amid rising national scrutiny of how schools teach racial conflicts and inequalities in American history – and how they’ve shaped the nation.
Some critics of the new proposed curriculum cited recent events in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor this month after making education issues a central part of his campaign.
And several parents vowed they would remove their children from New Mexico public schools and instead teach them at home if the standards are adopted.
In all, more than 1,000 people submitted written public comments on the standards before a Friday deadline, with those comments filling more than 1,400 pages as of Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Department said.
Public Education Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus said this week the department would consider all the feedback it gets before deciding whether to modify and adopt the standards.
He also said the proposed curriculum would better align the state in response to a 2018 court ruling that found New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional mandate to provide an adequate education to all students, especially Native Americans and non-English speakers.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to do what’s best for the children of New Mexico,” Steinhaus said.
Meanwhile, at least some individuals who testified Friday called the proposed changes necessary in a state where Native Americans make up 12.4% of the population and Hispanic residents make up 47.7%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“This is not an indoctrination, this is simply inclusivity,” said Mason Graham, a member of the New Mexico Black Leadership Council.
Group identities, NM history
The new social studies standards were crafted by a group of more than 60 educators from around New Mexico, who began their work in February.
If approved in the next two months, the standards would not take effect until fall 2023.
Top PED officials said this week that would give teachers more than a year to prepare and make lesson plans, though some teachers voiced concern Friday about whether they would be provided sufficient resources to implement the changes.
Under the proposed curriculum update, students starting in kindergarten would learn to “communicate a positive view of themselves and identify some of their group identities.”
By eighth grade, students would “examine how and why diverse groups have been denied equality and opportunity both institutionally and informally.”
The proposed curriculum would also include New Mexico history, including the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the state’s role in producing uranium-fueled weapons during the Cold War.
Left out: Critical race theory
Much of the recent Republican-fueled opposition to the New Mexico social studies standards centered on the role of critical race theory, an academic concept that deals with structural racism.
Some states, including Texas, have enacted laws banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools and mandating the teaching of “both sides” of issues.
During the rally outside the Public Education Building in Santa Fe that drew about 50 people, critics of the state’s proposed curriculum changes said they would lead to students learning about their differences – not their similarities.
“This is a national model for the state of New Mexico and I think it’s wrong,” said state Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, a former school board member. “We are not California.”
A few passing motorists weighed in with honks and shouts, and one nearby bystander could be heard calling the protesters “racist trash.”
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, a former educator, defended the Public Education Department’s handling of the standards, saying the department has allowed parents to provide input.
The lieutenant governor, a Democrat, also described the opposition to the new curriculum as being fueled by misinformation.
“In reality, it’s a smokescreen because critical race theory isn’t taught in the school system,” Morales told the Journal.
PED Deputy Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment also insisted critical race theory is not included in the standards.
She said once they are adopted, in their current form or after being revised, school districts around New Mexico will be able to decide how to craft courses to teach them.
“What are in the standards is historical accuracy,” she told reporters this week. “Truth-telling is vital to us as a community and to (our ability to) continue to progress.”