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Supporters say equity training bill for schools in Washington has no link to critical race theory, but conservatives cry foul

Daffodils bloom outside the Legislative Building, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.   (Ted S. Warren/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Daffodils bloom outside the Legislative Building, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.  (Ted S. Warren/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The recently passed bill requiring public schools to provide annual “equity training” to staff is controversial with some groups, but it is expected to have little to no impact on Spokane Public Schools.

The district has had annual equity training sessions for staff for the last two years, said Heather Bybee, chief academic officer, as a result of teacher interest and students sharing their stories of their experiences in schools.

“We’re already there,” Bybee said late last week, a few days after the Senate gave final approval to the equity training bill and sent it to Gov. Jay Inslee.

Conservative groups, including the Washington Policy Center, are urging Inslee to veto the bill, arguing it will force schools to embrace “critical race theory,” a way of looking at the nation’s history, society and laws as they intersect with race and the treatment of minority groups. It emphasizes the role of white privilege and institutional racism in the shaping of American society and the law.

Last week, the Idaho House of Representatives specifically banned the teaching of critical race theory in that state’s schools, with Republicans saying they were trying to head off a suspected mandate from the federal government.

But the term “critical race theory” does not appear anywhere in the bill approved last Tuesday by the Washington Legislature, and was only mentioned in committee hearings or floor debates over the bill by detractors.

Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center said the bill would create a mandatory training policy “that runs afoul of our core civil rights.”

“It would promote decisions based on appearance and race,” Finne said.

When the bill came up for a vote, Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham, contended it would “soon turn children against their parents and churches,” take away local control of schools and make the state’s Republican form of government “unstable.”

Supporters accused Republicans of manufacturing a nonexistent issue.

“This bill doesn’t have anything to do with critical race theory,” said Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, the bill’s prime sponsor, who added it deals strictly with training staff. “It doesn’t mandate any particular curriculum.”

School board members will be able to select a training curriculum that emphasizes diversity, equity and inclusiveness, Das said. During the 2021-22 school year, districts will be required to devote one professional learning day to some combination of cultural competency, diversity, equity or inclusion. Starting with the 2023-24 school year, a day of that training will become an annual requirement.

The bill was one of the first to be voted out of the Senate in January after a series of debates over Republican amendments to either add or subtract language.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, who noted she has an Asian American grandson who sometimes experiences bias, thought the bill should specifically mention Asian Americans and make sure students learn about things like the Japanese American internment during World War II.

Das countered that Asian Americans would be considered without calling out specific minorities and possibly skipping others.

Other Republicans thought it should require school staff to consider students from “rural, underserved areas,” special-education or highly capable students. Democrats held firm on their stance that the existing language that covers “race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, age, educational status, religion, geography, primary language, culture, and other characteristics and experiences language” was broad enough.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, argued the training should only apply to districts where there is institutional racism. “If there’s not, I don’t want to cure something that’s not a disease,” he said.

But Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said he experienced racism for his Japanese ancestry while he was in school. The bill would give all students a chance to feel like every other kid in their school, he said.

Hobbs said someone painted a racial slur outside his home growing up.

“If this law had passed, maybe that wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

The bill passed the House on a party-line vote on April 11, with every minority member of the Democratic caucus leading the debate. They easily defeated GOP amendments to make the training optional or add language to forbid any training that suggests one race or sex is superior to another, or that “the United States is a fundamentally racist nation.”

Staff at Spokane Public Schools are already in the second year of a four-year program that devotes four hours to some form of equity training, Bybee said. The first year focused on staff being more culturally aware and understanding students come from diverse backgrounds so that “everybody has a story,” she said.

This year focused on classroom management and building a positive culture for the students. Because much of the year was conducted virtually, the district used the time to do training around the many unique populations found in Spokane, including Marshall Islanders and members of local Native American tribes, Bybee said.

Although the law would eventually require devoting a full day of professional learning to equity training, she said she doesn’t see that as a problem because there are many ways to hit the targets in the legislation. The district does not use critical race theory in its professional training.

A few parents have asked whether the district’s staff is receiving training in critical race theory, Bybee said, but any concerns have been alleviated by an explanation of the actual program.

“I have yet to meet a parent who believes that all students shouldn’t be seen and valued,” she said.

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