Discussion on Anchorage School Board race and equity policies heats up

A line of elementary children line up and walk down the hallway out to recess in the winter
Kindergarten and 1st grade students at Kasuun Elementary in Anchorage head outside for recess on March 2, 2020. This year students have an extra 10 minutes to play outside as part of the district’s wellness initiative. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

After two town hall meetings and additional work sessions, the Anchorage School Board heard more passionate testimony from community members Tuesday night, during the first public reading of its proposed race and equity policies. 

The first policy clarifies the district’s position on racism, saying it rejects all forms of racism, and will work with the superintendent to change “racially inequitable policies and procedures.” The second policy asks the superintendent to submit an annual report measuring student outcomes and the equity of resources allocated to schools and students. 

Anchorage’s schools have never been more diverse. Minority students comprise close to 60 percent of the student population, which numbers over 40,000 in Anchorage, according to Anchorage School District demographics. Of that, 18% are Asian or Pacific Islander, 15% identify as biracial, 11% are Hispanic, 8.5% are Alaska Native or American Indian, and about 5% are Black. About 20% of district students speak a language other than English at home. ‌

The majority of testimony was in favor of the policies. Several members of the Alaska Black Caucus testified including Aidan Weitzner, a member of the caucus’ education working group. Weitzner said the policies were needed in order to address the needs of the district’s student body.

“Now more than ever, students and families of color and our community need to be listened to. And not only that, but action must be taken,” Weitzner said. “No student should have their education hindered, especially not because of the color of their skin. This policy is not about regulating the way our children think or behave, but instead allows for the creation of a safe space to discuss issues that truly affect us all and are important to discuss.”

Some parents at the meeting pushed back, expressing concern over how the policies would be implemented in the classroom and saying the policies would single out or demoralize white students. Others suggested the policies were out of bounds for the district and didn’t want their students learning about the issues proposed in the policies. 

Jeff Lafferty testified in person at the board meeting against the policies. Lafferty said he would remove his son from the district if the policies passed. 

“I’m not the only one thinking like that – other parents will go to homeschooling, other parents will go to private school,” Lafferty said. “I think if you do implement critical race theory at the level that you want, I think you’re going to see a huge backlash from this community, one that you haven’t seen ever before.”

Read more: Anchorage School Board seeks public comment on new race and equity policies 

Board Member Dave Donley expressed opposition to the policies in their current form, suggesting six amendments, including explicitly barring the use of “critical race theory.” The policies do not explicitly mention critical race theory, which is an intellectual and legal framework that recognizes race is “socially constructed and socially significant,” and that racism is “embedded within systems and institutions” according to an article published by American Bar Association.

Former President Donald Trump brought the academic framework into wider public view, taking aim at it several times publicly, including when he was asked to explained why the administration ordered all federal agencies to stop anti-bias trainings. It has since become a talking point among some conservatives.

For several weeks Donley has said he opposes resources posted on the district’s website that discuss race and equity, calling them biased and one-sided. He’s asked the district to put up resources that critique critical race theory. Donley also asked the district to add a disclaimer to the webpage saying it doesn’t endorse the books listed, which the district did do.

Donley also suggested adding language to the policy celebrating the progress the U.S. has already made towards addressing racism. 

“The United States is one of the least, if not the least, racist countries in the entire world,” Donley said. 

Board Member Alisha Hilde spoke in favor of the policies as presented.  

“The reason to do this for me is: the most significant thing I’ve heard in this process is children say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable speaking up if I experienced racism in my school districts.’ That’s a big problem for me,” Hilde said. “Racism happens in our district. My own child has experienced racism – told to go to the end of the line because of the color of her skin.”

If the policies are approved, it’s unclear exactly how they will be implemented. The process that determines implementation is largely led by the superintendent.

The school board will read the policies again on April 20th, when they are scheduled to vote on whether to approve them.

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