Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s bid to fight critical race theory in public schools is likely to pull Montana into a political debate over history and social studies education that’s taking place across the country.
On May 12, Arntzen made a formal request that Attorney General Austin Knudsen issue an opinion on “the legality of teaching so-called ‘antiracism’ and Critical Race Theory in Montana Public Schools.”
Knudsen has not released a public opinion, but he was among 20 Republican attorneys general who signed a May 19 letter to the U.S. Department of Education that describes critical race theory as “deeply flawed and controversial.” The letter of eight pages asks the Department of Education not to fund grant projects that are based on the theory.
Critical race theory describes an academic approach to teaching racial disparities in the United States and the way it has shaped public policy. EducationWeek notes the concept is roughly 40 years old but only recently in the limelight.
Antiracism shows students that no race is superior to another but that previous ideas about white superiority created disproportionate opportunities for white people. Mica Pollock, the editor of “Everyday Antiracism,” describes it as “a pro human lens.”
The same day Arntzen sent her request to the attorney general, she published a blog post on Medium.com criticizing “fringe philosophies” and “debunked theories,” and she cited examples of teaching exercises she finds problematic in California, New York, Oregon and Missouri.
In a phone call and follow up email, a spokesperson for the Office of Public Instruction confirmed the superintendent does not have “widespread” examples of concern in Montana. Arntzen did not grant an interview with the Daily Montanan from a request made last Wednesday.
“Fortunately, Montana has not seen widespread examples of the kinds of divisive and discriminatory exercises and practices the Superintendent has cited from all across the nation to this point,” said OPI spokesperson Chris Averill in an email.
OPI did not provide any examples of teaching in Montana the superintendent considers problematic. Among the examples on her blog post from outside the state was this one: “In Cupertino, California, an elementary school forced first-graders to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities and rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege.’”
In a letter posted on the district’s website, the Cupertino Union School District interim superintendent said the materials used a in third-grade class were not part of the district’s adopted curriculum. The district expects materials to be age appropriate and values diversity, and the school addressed concerns as soon as parents raised them, said the letter.
In Montana, Averill acknowledged some people may consider Arntzen’s request to the attorney general to be a “solution in search of a problem,” but he said the superintendent seeks to prevent such teaching in Montana.
“Superintendent Arntzen’s purpose in writing her opinion piece and requesting the Attorney General opinion is to reflect the concern of Montana families and ensure that those practices do not come to the Treasure State,” Averill said in the email.
Although the concern from Montana’s top public schools official doesn’t appear to be linked to any classroom teaching in the state, a couple of educators note the action Arntzen has taken could have ramifications for K12 education here in the future.
“Our new social studies standards actually stipulate that students will be able to analyze various perspectives, historical narratives, biases, misinformation, and stereotypes, especially in primary and secondary sources,” said Dylan Huisken, a Bonner teacher and 2019 Montana Teacher of the Year, in an email. “It will be hard to meet this standard if we can’t be upfront with students on how racism has shaped society and law, especially if broaching such subjects leads to bad faith accusations of indoctrination.”
Arntzen’s request is also a political statement driving less at curriculum in Montana than at bigger cultural questions being debated across the country, said Lee Banville, a University of Montana journalism professor and political analyst. He said her letter to the attorney general also potentially raises her profile on the national stage.
“It’s asking the state of Montana to take a stand on federal education policy — and a pretty provocative stand,” Banville said.
In her letter to Attorney General Knudsen, Arntzen points to a recently proposed new federal rule establishing priorities for grants in American History and Civics Education programs released by the U.S. Department of Education.
“The rule would offer priority to grant ‘projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives,’” Arntzen wrote, citing the federal registry. “OPI has serious concerns about the effect of this proposal on the education of students in Montana. It also raises serious questions as to whether it encourages schools to treat students differently on the basis of race in violation of federal and state nondiscrimination laws.”
In a portion of her letter titled “Legal Analysis,” the superintendent points to the Department of Education’s call that “the teaching of American history and civics creates learning experiences that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students.” The federal agency cites the scholar Ibram X. Kendi, and Arntzen takes issue with the author’s book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” describing it as “quite radical,” including its ideas of “institutional racism” and “systemic racism.”
In the letter, Arntzen said she specifically wants to know if antiracism and critical race theory “may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Article II, Section 4 of the Montana constitution, or other applicable nondiscrimination laws.”
The letter from the attorneys general to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona echoes Arntzen’s objections to critical race theory. Printed on Indiana Attorney General letterhead, it states the theory is “an ideological construct that analyzes and interprets American history and government primarily through the narrow prism of race.”
“The Department should not adopt the proposed rule or, at a minimum, should make clear that grants may not fund projects that are based on CRT, including any projects that characterize the United States as irredeemably racist or founded on principles of racism (as opposed to principles of equality) or that purport to ascribe character traits, values, privileges, status or beliefs, or that assign fault, blame or bias, to a particular race or to an individual because of his or her race,” the letter said.
The letter notes “the Department does not overtly refer to CRT in its priorities,” but it said the agency is prioritizing “this highly controversial ideology through the vehicle of this grant program.”
A spokesperson for Attorney General Knudsen had not responded by press time to a question sent last Wednesday and follow-up requests via email and voicemail about whether his office would issue a legal opinion on critical race theory.
The jockeying over educational theory in letters written by political leaders to other political leaders seems far removed from Montana classrooms. Montana has one room schoolhouses, its largest district, Billings, counts more than 17,000 students, and the state has schools on and off its seven Native American reservations.
Robert Hall, director of Native American Studies for Browning Public Schools, said educators in his Native-majority Blackfeet Indian Reservation schools approach students knowing the community exists in trauma that stems from the expansion of the American government.
“We deal with a lot of societal ills, but we want to approach it in a holistic manner,” Hall said.
The trauma creates people who are, in some cases, “young and hormonal and angry,” and he said the educational approach seeks to give students tools they need to be calmer.
But Hall said he would argue colonization was traumatic for people on both sides, and he pointed to Baker’s Massacre of 1870. Bob Burns, a descendant of Chief Heavy Runner killed in the massacre, described the event as “a war crime” in a 2010 commemoration.
The Bozeman Chronicle described the killings as part of the War Department’s plan to punish hostile Indians, and the story said the slaughter of at least 173 women, children and old men was “the worst Indian massacre in Montana history.”
“That trauma still persists in our community today,” Hall said. “There is still those remnants of that pain still vibrating.”
During the massacre, though, Hall said young white men were told to “kill children, to stomp on their heads,” and he said the people who participated in the slaughtering were traumatized as well. As a result, he said some of them may have gone home and beat their children or wives because of the pain.
“What I’m really trying to say is these massacres, they also traumatize white America to be more violent,” Hall said.
White America has the luxury to check out of discussions of race, he said. And Hall said racism is so interwoven into the fabric of the country, it can be hard to see.
“There’s that old saying of the fish asking the older fish, ‘Where’s all the water?’ And the older fish being like, ‘You don’t see it?’”
Critical race theory could help bridge understanding, but not if people who share the same landscape don’t agree it’s important, he said. (“We watch ‘Duck Dynasty.’ You know what I’m saying? We expose ourselves to your culture.”)
“It’s really unfortunate that there’s this source of knowledge that could enrich our country and make us get along better and understand each other,” Hall said. “And it’s unfortunate that it’s become a politicized thing.”
Huisken, who teaches social studies for grades six to eight in Bonner, said he has faith in his colleagues across the state. Bonner is a small district in Missoula County whose student population is majority white and roughly 50 percent economically disadvantaged.
“I unequivocally believe in Montana teachers’ abilities to approach a subject with nuance, and to teach students methods for thinking clearly and critically, rather than telling them what to think,” he said in an email.
It’s his eighth graders who learn American history and civics. When Huisken asks them to read the Declaration of Independence for themselves, he said “many are shocked” to find Jefferson referred to Indigenous people as “merciless Indian savages.
“An animus and mistrust toward Native tribes helped fuel the Revolution,” he said. “How do we reconcile that, or Jefferson’s ownership of enslaved people with the other ideals in this document? I can’t answer that for students.”
He said he often tells his students that if people can’t wrestle with the past, they won’t be able to fight for the future. And he said he believes it’s important for educators to teach and model reflection and critical thinking.
“Ignoring and sidestepping its presence won’t help us create a more perfect union,” Huisken said.
The letter from Arntzen has sparked reaction from educators who are training the next generation of teachers as well. Kirsten Murray, professor in the UM Department of Counseling, teaches graduate students who will be school counselors, and she said it’s impossible to talk about racism without talking about power structures.
Murray said she is a white professor teaching all students about racism, and that it is a particular and acute type of pain for which counselors need to have empathy. She said it’s important the professionals are equipped to be responsive to all students, and that students trust them.
“My counselors in training need to understand, grapple with and enter their school systems ready to intervene when racism happens,” Murray said. “If we start eliminating their ability to teach and talk and help their school systems learn about racism and intervene with it, I think what will happen is that we will just continue to perpetuate racist behavior, both intentional and unintentional, and knowingly and unknowingly.”
In her blog post, Arntzen said she had heard from “countless families statewide” on the topic of critical race theory. OPI did not provide examples of those comments by press time, but in her blog post, Arntzen encourages people to watch out for problems.
“Be mindful of examples of this radical indoctrination in your communities,” she wrote. “Be engaged in your child’s schoolwork. Pay attention to local school board meetings and school curricula, and speak up if you are concerned. Write letters to the editor in your local newspapers.”
Tobin Miller Shearer, professor of history and head of African-American Studies at UM, said the push from Arntzen in Montana and legislators in other states comes in part out of the previous Trump administration’s executive order that put “an effective gag order on any antiracism education.”
“That was overturned by the Biden administration within the first couple weeks of them getting into the White House,” Miller Shearer said. “And I think we have some evidence that this is a direct response.”
The incident Arntzen noted from California also was highlighted in January by conservative activist Christopher Rufo. Rufo appeared on Fox News last year decrying critical race theory, and in an August tweet, he asked Trump to “issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory in the federal government.”
But Miller Shearer said the people who are drafting legislation he’s seen are using cookie cutter language and do not have a grasp of what critical race theory is or how it contributes to the work of dismantling racism or any of its nuances. He said Arntzen’s letter illustrates the same lack of sophistication.
“I’m absolutely flummoxed by this, that the superintendent here or the legislature in any given state would look at the breadth of thought emerging from the academic community and say, ‘Oh, this area of intellectual inquiry is so threatening to us and so dangerous that we’re going to try to outlaw it,’” Miller Shearer said. “That’s basically saying that we don’t want our thought to be challenged by the facts of history.”
Critical race theory makes connections between the history of the practice of slavery and segregation and ongoing abuses, he said. For example, policies in the real estate industry historically kept properties from being sold to people of color, and at the same time, they privileged white communities.
“We can talk about that right here in Missoula. It makes those linkages apparent so we can know how we’ve gotten to where we are. And the first step in changing those practices is to know where they’ve come from,” he said.
Montana is distinct in that the 1972 Constitution calls for the state to recognize the “unique cultural heritage of the American Indian and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.” Subsequent legislation and court orders mandated teaching about Native Americans, in particular Montana tribes, for all students in public schools.
Miller Shearer said all of the teaching around Indian Education for All conceivably falls under the umbrella of critical race theory. And the responsibility is a charge of OPI, among other offices.
“She is working against the mandate of her own office. That seems apparent,” Miller Shearer said.
Banville, UM professor and political analyst, said the move by Arntzen is more about taking on broader cultural questions than about creating specific curriculum. Sending such a letter could mean she’s simply responding to the voters who elected her in November, he said, or it could mean she’s seeking to raise her profile in the state or nationally as someone taking a stand against what is seen as political correctness.
“This could be the first step of a much bigger battle that Montana wants to wage,” Banville said.