Bordered by the James River to the north and the Appomattox to the south, more pastures than plazas line the Virginia Powhatan County’s main roads. Historically conservative and close-knit, with a population around 30,000, it is a place where neighbors offer a hand without asking questions, where children grow up and stay to raise their own families.
Twenty miles to the west, Richmond and its politics seem a world away from Powhatan’s rural towns. Until recently, when big-city politics were uncovered in Powhatan’s classrooms.
On May 3, county Board of Supervisors member Mike Byerly addressed community members concerning taxpayer funding for curriculum. He shared a PowerPoint presentation published by Powhatan County Public School (PCPS) teachers about teaching critical race theory under the guise of “cultural competency.”
Byerly had requested information on school spending from the previous year but had yet to receive an itemized account of curriculum purchases. Byerly also shared a concerning list of companies and organizations funded by PCPS that included CRT and Black Lives Matter proponents such as the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium. In contrast, Byerly also noted a recently mandated African American history class would be a positive addition to county schools.
Byerly’s address led to a cascade of community responses, the majority from parents who were shocked and frustrated by the school board’s involvement in divisive training and curriculum counter to American values.
“We want all of history to be taught, but we also don’t want our children to pay for the sins of past generations,” said former teacher Vicki Hurt, a member of the grassroots education organization No Left Turn, at one of several recent public meetings about the issue.
Teachers Push CRT on Conservative Area
Locals in Powhatan take pride in their schools boasting high achievement and strong relationships. But the curriculum funding inquiry was just the beginning. At the Board of Supervisors and school board joint meeting on June 22, Byerly shared a Facebook post in which a Powhatan teacher called on fellow educators to foster CRT and social justice learning within classrooms.
County Supervisor David Williams shared slides from the Virginia Inquiry Collaborative (VIC), a consortium encouraging race-based teaching to include the oppressiveness of “white culture” and learning through the lens of “systemic racism.” The slides included the emblems of seven participating school districts, primarily from big city counties. Rural Powhatan’s emblem stood out alongside those of Charlottesville City Schools, Fairfax County Schools, Madison County Public Schools, Rockingham County Public Schools, and Albemarle County Public Schools.
“Why are we sending teachers to a conference to re-write Virginia history which focuses on whiteness and the color of someone’s skin?” said Sarah Taylor, a Powhatan resident and No Left Turn member. “What does this have to do with curriculum in Powhatan County? What does this have to do with math and science? This idea of race being the predominant factor in curriculum has got to go.”
Williams also presented a training slide from the collaborative entitled, “Construction of a Dominant Narrative: ‘Whiteness,’” describing race as “not based on genetics,” a “social construction” and “not ‘real’” but containing consequences for the “racialized.” Race, the slide goes on to say, “was created to and remains the main tool for maintaining social, economic and educational inequality in the U.S. and beyond.”
Multiple Powhatan teachers attended the VIC over the course of two years, without any community input or a public announcement. So Williams asked board members why Powhatan had joined this effort. School board members remained silent or in denial, claiming a lack of awareness and approval for teacher involvement at the time it occurred.
“Apparently, the School Board was unaware of PCPS being involved in this pilot program, and our Superintendent Dr. Eric Jones seemed to have taken it upon himself to participate and have very little forward thinking on how this should have been a community decision,” said Sarah Koch, a local taxpayer and former land developer assistant. “Instead, his actions further promulgated division within our community.”
During the June 22 joint meeting, Byerly proposed just an immediate motion to ban CRT in PCPS classrooms. But school board members stalled. A “definition” of CRT would be necessary for his recommendation for a ban, Jones said.
Powhatan’s Participation in ‘Re-Writing History’
Then the Powhatan County Public Schools website published updated information about its participation in VIC. Found under “Department” and then “Instruction,” the only mention of VIC is included in a brief and general description of the inquiry-based learning approach.
“Participation was voluntary and there was no cost for these teachers to participate,” the website posting states. According to school leadership, Powhatan is no longer attending VIC meetings.
Lack of dialogue and transparency between Powhatan’s school board and constituents on this issue continues to plague the school-parent relationship. Community members and the Board of Supervisors have repeatedly called for town hall meetings with school board officials for better dialogue and discussion.
Thus far, however, the board has refused to hold individual meetings with the explanation that it is awaiting “legal advice” on a larger forum. Attendees expect to hear a critical race theory definition, clarity on the school board’s willingness to motion for a ban, and confirmation on town hall meetings on July 13.
“We don’t really hear about core subjects anymore,” Taylor noted of her frustrations with the school district. “We hear about ‘diversity’ and ‘inequity,’ and that seems to be the center of our curriculum… Powhatan has got to take a stand here or we are pulling kids from school. People who are concerned about this don’t feel as though they can trust the current administration to protect their children from indoctrination.”
Parents Call for a Ban
Neighboring Chesterfield County Public Schools recently approved a critical race theory ban at their June 1 meeting. In a prepared statement, Chairman Ryan Harter wrote, “In Chesterfield, our goal is unity, not division.”
“I think often about the consequences of teaching these young children of color that they are oppressed,” Taylor said of Powhatan’s involvement in the collaborative’s critical race-infused work. “To teach them that they are going to have that handicap is just crippling.”
At the June 22 Powhatan joint board meeting, Hurt noted the U.S. Department of Justice makes it clear that any administrator or school official that creates an atmosphere hostile to any race, religion, national origin, or political affiliation violates federal law. Administrators are called to employ disciplinary measures upon any teacher introducing these ideologies into the classroom.
“I think critical race theory is trying to resolve a disease that is incurable and proposing ‘solutions’ that are really not practical,” Koch said. “I can’t imagine a child going into school and being told you are oppressed or you are an oppressor. One thing that I agree with is words have meaning… So what kind of words are we speaking into our children, calling them ‘microaggressive’ or ‘abusive’? Those are words we’re laying onto our child’s conscience and forming. Every parent has to get involved in this fight.”