Racial equity language triggers state school board fight in Ohio

One year after the state school board approved a racial equity resolution, the board is now asking Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to determine if that resolution was legal, in an attempt to end a contentious debate.

The resolution, approved in a summer of nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death, spotlighted continuing academic performance gaps between races, and said “systemic inequity in education has relegated millions of children of color to under-resourced, struggling schools.”

The resolution condemned “white supremacy culture,” directed the Ohio Department of Education to require implicit bias training for its employees and contractors, and made ODE examine its model curriculum to eliminate any bias and ensure racism was accurately addressed.

The resolution was approved last year by a vote of 12-5-1, but opposition has continued. Last week, northeast Ohio state board member John Hagan, who had opposed the document last year, introduced a resolution calling for the attorney general’s review.

Hagan pointed to a May 2021 letter sent by 20 state AGs, including Yost, criticizing the U.S. Department of Education’s priorities on history and civics. They ripped “the deeply flawed and controversial teachings of Critical Race Theory,” saying historic analysis primarily through race distorts understanding of U.S. history “and, therefore, is fundamentally at odds with federal and state law.”

Hagan argued that “the priorities outlined in the board’s resolution are very similar to the priorities stated in the Attorneys General letter.” He called the impact of the resolution “an affront” to the state of Ohio.

Multiple board members who supported the 2020 equity resolution said it never mentions Critical Race Theory, and instead is about ensuring opportunity for all students. Opponents — including Brendan Shea, who represents Greene and Clark counties, and Jenny Kilgore, who represents Warren County — argued that the resolution’s focus on race mirrors CRT.

State board member Antoinette Miranda proposed a shorter, amended resolution that removed much of the political language from Hagan’s document and simply asked Yost’s office for an opinion “on whether the resolution as adopted conforms with state and federal laws and is within the legal authority of the board.”

Board members argued over numerous pieces of the issue — whether board President Laura Kohler had allowed both side to present information on the issue, whether public opinion was for or against the resolution, and whether the required training was appropriate.

“I did go to all the training, the bias training,” said at-large board member Mike Toal, of Sidney. “I found it disturbing because I could never be that good. Being a Christian, I’ve learned over many, many years that none of us reach that level of purity.”

After multiple procedural votes on July 13, Miranda’s shorter, less political version was chosen over Hagan’s version, 12-6, with Hagan, Shea, Kilgore, Walt Davis, Diana Fessler and Kirsten Hill opposing.

Then the final vote, to send Miranda’s resolution to the AG, was approved 14-4. The “no” votes were board members who didn’t see the need for review at all — Miranda herself, plus Meryl Johnson, Michelle Newman and Christina Collins.

On Tuesday, Steve Irwin, press secretary for the Ohio attorney general’s office, said AG staff were in the process of an initial review, to see if it’s the type of issue the AG would even issue an opinion on.

“We are a divided board in some ways,” Collins said. “I would love to see us stop rehashing the same conversations about something that was already passed so we can move on and actually do something for kids in Ohio.”

Issues of race will continue to be prominent. Kilgore has announced she will introduce a resolution in September ending the board president’s right to limit public comment on certain topics, specifically citing Critical Race Theory and the New York Times’ “1619 Project” on the impact of slavery on American history.

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