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Pingerelli: Teaching fear in the name of racism


On Dec. 10, 2020, a new course offering was passed by the Peoria Unified School District Governing Board by a vote of 3-2.

Because the governing board was only given a brief description about the course and we heard several district parents voicing their concerns, I expressed reservations about approving such a course.

RELATED: New Peoria Unified American studies course riles parents

Below is a portion of the course description, so parents are aware of this educational trend within our district:

“Students will explore the experiences and perspectives of a diverse array of American groups and study concepts like identity, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality and culture. This course will help to cultivate respect and historical empathy for the experiences, struggles, and achievement of a variety of American identities, including African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBT Americans, and other groups. Students will become more conscious of the political, social, and economic frameworks that impact Americans’ experiences. Students explore their own identity, drawing personal connections to their local and global histories. They analyze how factors like power and privilege impact historical and contemporary events.”

Since this description was the only information the board or the community was given, I voted against adding this course as presented. I believe it’s irresponsible to divert resources for new course development when our students and families need the district administration and the governing board focused on helping them overcome the academic setbacks caused by the pandemic. Every district and board resource should have been — and should still be — dedicated entirely to addressing student achievement gaps in Language Arts, Math and Science.

I also share the view held by many — politically charged curriculum has no place in our district schools.

PUSD history curriculum should focus on individual rights and responsibilities, the principles of good governance, and the mechanisms for redressing grievances provided to every American in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Elective courses should expand on these topics, and students should leave high school knowing how to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and as Americans, they should know their success is dependent on their actions, not their identity.

In contrast, curriculum developed around the subjective and arbitrary use of terms such as power, privilege and identity can have unintended consequences that raise serious concerns. These potentially include:

• Creating unnecessary fear of different ethnic and racial groups where none existed, as well as reinforcing or substantiating existing fears. This is wholly inappropriate in any setting, but particularly in public education when students assume the information they are provided is accurate, complete and unbiased. Race and ethnicity are complex issues that require a measured and impartial approach. Our district does not have the expertise required, nor should our district pursue this expertise given the funding and resources needed to address growing student achievement gaps.

• Inadvertently promoting reverse racism. When students are taught that racism is inherent within different racial and ethnic groups, they will naturally assume that every personal or political event is motivated by racism. Students may also assume that reverse racism is an appropriate response to any perceived or actual prejudice. Growing anti-Semitism in our major cities is but one example.

• Assuming unnecessary identities. The course description explicitly states that “students explore their own identity.” This implies that students who don’t know their “identity” will be expected to assume one — or it will be assigned to them. Any identity, assumed or not, can strip students of their individuality at a time when they are especially vulnerable to peer pressure and demands for conformity. This will only be exacerbated by a political and social climate weaponized by the “cancel culture.” If anything, our students should identify as individual Americans who are unique — unique even within their own heritage. They are not black, white, brown, or LGBQT students who happen to be Americans.

• Empathizing with one group often leads to distrust or hatred of another. By necessity, case studies can’t adequately describe the circumstances leading up to an event or those that follow. This can lead to historical distortions that portray groups in purely positive or negative terms, when in fact, historical events are often gray. Because negative portrayals contained in case studies can promote unnecessary distrust or hatred, they can easily deepen existing divides.

Consider, for a moment, students of mixed race. Will they be identified as white supremacists or victims? Will they be considered the oppressor or the oppressed? Will their identity be assigned based on how they look or by what they believe as individual Americans? The answer is obvious. They shouldn’t be categorized at all. No student should be, and I’m dismayed that this would even be contemplated, much less implemented.

Our schools should discourage all forms of prejudice, bigotry and racism, and we should refuse to segregate our students based on race, ethnicity, orientation, or any other category. Although this course was approved by a majority of governing board members, I fundamentally disagree with this approach, and will continue to advocate for identity neutral curriculum that uniformly delivers knowledge and skills to our students irrespective of individual characteristics, race or heritage.

Fast forward to May 27, 2021. At a recent board meeting, our district superintendent signaled that critical race theory taught should not be taught in our school. Hence, let’s codify responsible curriculum development using our current PUSD policy and Arizona state statute. I requested the following agenda item for the future board meeting and study session.

I would like to revisit our policy IGD (curriculum adaption) and incorporate additional language that prohibits teaching critical race theory or highly politicized and biased instruction or curriculum that promotes anti-Americanism. In crafting such policy revisions, I suggest we reinforce what is already in Arizona Revised Statute under 15–111 which states, “The legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.”

The revised policy should also have built into it, consequences for not adhering to policy.
Let’s first continue to focus on the educational fundamentals which will empower students to become successful in the workplace.

Editor’s note: Beverly Pingerelli is a Peoria Unified School District Governing Board Member and a Arizona House Representative for Legislative District 21

Additional note: The course in question is planned to be an elective course for students at Centennial High School.