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Yes, Michigan schools are teaching about race. Here’s how. 


Need to Know

  • Republicans are accusing schools of teaching critical race theory.
  • Critical race theory is not taught in Michigan’s public schools.
  • These are parts of larger attacks against education, designed to put money into private schools instead.
  • Teachers feel under attack, and it’s contributing to burnout and churn in the profession. 

GRANDVILLE, Mich.—As a middle school US history teacher, Blake Mazurek begins every year by asking his class a simple question: “What did you think when you first saw that you were going to be in history class?”

Often, students answer that they expect it to be “boring”—a common sentiment among 10- and 11-year-olds and a textbook criticism of a subject steeped in the past. But not the way he teaches it, Mazurek promises them.

“My goal is to help kids understand, make connections, see that all the threads of history do connect,” Mazurek said.

In the past two years, however, the 28-year teaching veteran has been faced with a new reaction to history education and his profession as a whole—not from the kids, he said, but from a vocal minority of their parents.

“Bastions of communism” and “un-American” are accusations that, Mazurek said, seem pulled from another era. Yet as the president of the Grandville Education Association, he’s heard them in real time from parents lobbing insults at the school board, individual teachers, and himself.

“To me, it feels like a coordinated effort to diminish the role of our public educators,” Mazurek said.

During the pandemic, one parent noticed that Mazurek had an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper pronouncing “Black Lives Matter” in the backdrop of his virtual school setup. The school board’s policy states that teachers can’t show support to “political” groups, so Mazurek agreed to cover it up, he said. 

Still, parents were irate about the poster, and the school was soon fielding calls for one of its most longstanding teachers to be fired. He wasn’t, but ever since then, he’s been on the receiving end of attacks every two weeks or so, either directly toward him or aimed at his colleagues.

Mazurek’s experience is part of an alarming trend. Over the past two years, a small but loud number of parents have been calling public school curriculum from district to district “racist.” Goaded by alt-right media outlets and politicians, the parents’ complaints have a few common themes: that educators are teaching their children to hate America, to feel guilty for slavery, and to embrace radical ideals such as communism.

Thomas Morgan, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, said he has yet to hear of a single legitimate example of a Michigan teacher trying to “indoctrinate” students. 

“I haven’t heard of anything. It’s not going on in Michigan schools,” Morgan said.

Mazurek is quick to not portray these parents as villains. In their defense, he said, it can be easy to digest misinformation without realizing it.

Whenever a parent comes to him with questions regarding what he’s actually teaching, he’s happy to answer. 

“If all the things that these folks were being fed were true, I understand why they would be concerned,” Mazurek said. “But the fact of the matter is that … these claims are not founded in fact. So this feeds into the level of distrust that folks have.”

Conservative politicians and partisan groups have been quick to lean into pockets of distrust between parents and teachers, weaving a narrative that makes inappropriate instruction seem widespread and malicious–and promising change come elections. 

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The fabric of their claim is “critical race theory,” an umbrella term that’s taken on a meaning of its own and which conservatives have inaccurately defined as, essentially, discrimination against white people. The alt-right story claims that school board standoffs about CRT stem from a grassroots movement that’s been stewing. It’s anything but grassroots.

It’s also not being taught in public schools. Critical race theory is a university-level curriculum seeking to understand how systemic racism interplays in American life and law; it does not encompass education having to do with race. 

“I feel like they’re also just being given false information,” Mazurek said, of the parents.

How people hear about critical race theory, however, is through a well-funded and intentional political ploy, with messages sown on social media and by conservative political committees descending on school boards. Republican legislatures have seized on the momentum to push rhetoric that takes aim at non-existent problems, including here in Michigan.

In a now infamous fundraising email, Michigan Republican state Sen. Lana Theis attempted to raise donations by accusing her colleague, Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, of supporting the incorrect notions of critical race theory—and worse.

Theis ended her email with the appeal: “We need more leaders willing to stand up and fight the progressive mobs trying to steal our children’s innocence. If you are with me, I hope you will stand up with me by making a donation today!”

As of this publication, Theis, who chairs the Michigan Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, has not issued an apology for her attack. However, she has continued to take aim at public school teachers. 

A bill she introduced in 2021 would bar schools from teaching “anti-American” theories, and while the terms of what qualifies as CRT are broadly interpretable in her proposal, the punishments associated with them are not. School districts found to have a single incident in violation of the bill, which lingers in the legislature, would have 5% of their funding stripped.

A review from the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency found that “the bill would have a negative fiscal impact on the [Michigan Department of Education] and local school districts.” The Michigan Board of Education opposes it.

MORE: Everything You Need to Know About Michigan’s May 3rd Elections

Actual critical race theory is not being taught in Michigan schools, but race and race-related issues are. For a history class, the story of the United States is not complete without “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” as Mazurek likes to say.

Education advocates worry that recently introduced bills might have a chilling effect on teachers and outright stop them from teaching fundamental lessons about democracy.

Autumn Butler, a Black mother of 12-year-old twins, believes that’s a dangerous road for the country to go down.

“If the premise of the public school system is to educate people to be well-informed citizens,” said Butler in a prior interview with the ‘Gander, “then in the US specifically, how can you ever have an open and transparent conversation if you’re not talking about race?”

Debating where race factors into history isn’t new, but the venom in attacks on schools that teach about race’s role in American history is. 

In response to the question of “why now,” educators in Michigan have a fair idea. In an election year, a sizable majority of Republicans support banning critical race theory, alongside 43% of independents, according to the Detroit Free Press. 

As Republicans yell “smoke” in public schools—attended by more than 90% of Michigan students—former education secretary Betsy DeVos and her supporters have flanked public education with a voucher scheme that would divert public funds to private schools. 

Shirking state law, which prevents public funds from going to private education, DeVos’ plan would give people and companies tax breaks for donating to a state-owned scholarship fund. That fund would then distribute vouchers to pay for private education or home schooling. DeVos’ plan is circulating throughout the state as a petition named “Let MI Kids Learn”– on its surface, a fairly harmless plea. 

Most Michigan residents sign the petition believing they’re supporting a simple ballot measure—that is, that they’re in support of the Let MI Kids Learn plan going on the Michigan midterm elections ballot, where voters could elect it or turn the measure down. However, DeVos has made it clear that she hopes to exploit a legislative loophole, which allows the plan to be passed without the approval of voters or the governor. All she needs is 340,047 signatures on the petition, though the petition is tracking behind schedule.

READ MORE: Signature gatherers don’t have a legal obligation to tell the truth about their petitions

Michigan has been a petition hotbed, where conservative activists have spent their time and money targeting this idea. Paid circulators have been out and about on Michigan streets, lying about what they’re peddling, and book-banning efforts have soared to levels unseen for decades.

Just as the Michigan Education Association has supported Democrats financially, DeVos and her family have continued to bankroll Michigan’s Republican party and its candidates, but to a far greater degree. DeVos is a major backer of Sen. Theis, who introduced the anti-CRT bill in the Michigan Senate. As of 2019, the DeVos family was Theis’ fourth-biggest backer.

In public schools, however, teachers are exhausted from the combination of a manufactured crisis and the real workplace struggles they’ve encountered—low morale from the pandemic and consistently low pay. Already, the state is leaking more than 5,000 teachers a year, Morgan said. State leaders on both sides of the aisle have recognized this much, offering solutions to stem the teacher exodus. Last year, the two parties agreed to allocate $10 million to support teacher recruitment, amid other policies as part of a larger budget package. And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent education budget would offer a $2,000 bonus to every public school teacher, but it remains subject to approval by the Republican-majority Michigan legislature.

Mazurek is fearful for the future of public education in the state. But despite the barrage of attacks from parents, he doesn’t blame them. Who he blames, however, are the politicians and activists pushing a carefully curated, well-considered hit job on his career.  

The Grandville teacher is also worried about the truth—being able to tell it, that is. The lesson of history, he said, is to build perspective and understanding of those who came before, and for students to apply that context to their own decisions in the future. 

“Teachers are constantly seeking ways to help kids understand the world around them,” Mazurek said. “In doing so, we need to be honest in our education.”

Mazurek then quoted Sen. Mallory McMorrow’s response to the attacks from Sen. Theis, which recently went viral and had Democrats around the country reconsider how social issues are framed. He thought it perfectly summarized the issue at hand.

“No child alive today is responsible for slavery. No one in this room is responsible for slavery,” McMorrow said. “But each and every single one of us bears responsibility for writing the next chapter of history.”