Protesters confront Tennessee education commissioner over claims of critical race theory in curriculum

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details provided by the state education department about Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s meeting Wednesday with Williamson County parents.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s bus tour of summer learning programs across Tennessee was interrupted Wednesday when protesters gathered to criticize a state-approved curriculum they said promotes critical race theory and discusses sexuality.

The protest, organized by the Sumner County Republican Assembly, singled out Wit & Wisdom, an English language arts curriculum that introduces themes that some parents say aren’t appropriate for elementary school students.

About 40 people, many carrying protest signs, confronted Schwinn outside of Benny Bills Elementary School in Gallatin, the third stop on that day’s four-stop tour of rural and suburban schools outside of Nashville.

The commissioner paused for about five minutes to speak with the Sumner County group before reboarding her bus bound for an elementary school in nearby Wilson County.

The protest was the first Schwinn encountered during her whirlwind road trip of 50 districts in 10 days. The tour, which wraps up on Thursday, has spotlighted summer programs that districts must offer to bolster learning disrupted by the pandemic.

The discussion was civil as Schwinn stopped to listen to the crowd’s concerns about Wit & Wisdom.

“It’s failing in Louisiana; we don’t need it here in Tennessee,” Joanna Daniels, a Sumner County mom and board member with the Republican group, told the commissioner.

Schwinn didn’t answer when Daniels asked what she thinks about Wit & Wisdom but noted that curriculum is chosen locally. She encouraged parents to stay informed and praised them for advocating for their children.Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

“As a parent, I read every book that is coming in front of my kids,” she told the group.

The protest brought together parents and grandparents in rural and suburban Sumner County. Organizers promoted the gathering on social media and via email through notices that mentioned critical race theory and invited people to “protest the indoctrination of our kids.”

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. A new Tennessee law — spurred in part by the nation’s reckoning with racism and new attention to critical race theory — will limit what teachers can discuss about racism and bias when the new academic year begins.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. The original version of this piece first ran here.

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