January 20, 2022

Dow seeks ban on teaching critical race theory in schools

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The Santa Fe New Mexican

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, sits on the House floor Wednesday. Dow is introducing House Bill 91, which would make it illegal to teach critical race theory.

By Robert NottThe Santa Fe New Mexican

A leading Republican lawmaker and gubernatorial hopeful has introduced a bill to prohibit the state from including critical race theory — a controversial and often-misunderstood concept that is seen by some as a potential electoral wedge issue — in New Mexico’s school curriculum. 

Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences said Wednesday the theory is “racist” and is being misrepresented. 

“We are a state of diverse cultures, and we should be promoting the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr.  — judging people on their character and not color of their skin,” Dow said. “Critical race theory takes us in the wrong direction.”

A draft copy of her bill, which Dow provided to The New Mexican, says the state Public Education Department “shall not allow a course in critical race theory to be taught in public schools.”

The legislation says critical race theory “espouses the view that one race is inherently racist, sexist or intentionally or inadvertently oppressive.”

Some of Dow’s critics were quick to point out critical race theory isn’t currently part of curriculum in New Mexico and is an attempt by the lawmaker to increase her profile among the eight candidates vying for the Republican Party’s nomination for governor in 2022.

Dow first voiced concerns about critical race theory in a statement she released in the fall, saying it implies New Mexico parents are racist and need reeducating on issues of race.

Asked Wednesday if she thinks critical race theory will become a campaign issue this year, Dow said: “I don’t know if it’s an election cycle issue, but it is another area where Santa Fe is overreaching its authority and imposing their left-leaning views on families and school districts across the state.”

Advocates say critical race theory is in no way racist, but merely a way to understand how a society can become systemically racist through legal and judicial policies and procedures. Many social studies teachers last year said a planned overhaul of the state’s social studies standards should simply allow for teachers to handle controversial subjects such as race and social justice in a well-rounded, historically accurate manner.

In the fall, when New Mexico announced it would update its social studies standards, many people protested the move during a demonstration at the Public Education Department building in downtown Santa Fe. Some expressed concern that critical race theory might become part of the new curriculum. 

At that time, Public Education Department officials said they had no plans to incorporate critical race theory into lesson plans. 

Whether critical race theory becomes an election-year issue is still unclear. Some political pundits say it helped Republican Glenn Youngkin win the governor’s race in Virginia last year. Youngkin this week announced his plan to ban its teaching in public schools, saying it is an “inherently divisive” concept.

New Mexico State University history professor Jamie Bronstein said critical race theory can easily become a campaign topic to fire people up. 

“Of course it could,” she said Wednesday. “I just look at Virginia and see what happened there. It was an issue that was used very cleverly by a candidate who miscategorized what is taught in schools and managed to eek an election victory out of it because people hadn’t really bothered to educate themselves about what is taught in schools.”

Jay Block, one of Dow’s opponents in the Republican gubernatorial race, said he thinks it will become an issue in the New Mexico race. He believes some state schools may be teaching it under different names or guises now.

“We have to teach the history, but when you start teaching the entire system is systemically oppressing you and these people are always going to oppress you and you are born an oppressor, I don’t support that,” he said.

Block said he has been discussing the issue long before Dow first spoke up about it, after she announced her bid for governor.

“I’m curious why she brought it up now,” he said. 

A spokesman for Mark Ronchetti, a former TV weather anchorman who is also running for the Republican nomination for governor, said the candidate “has always opposed the teaching of CRT” in schools.

The state Democratic Party blasted Dow for her action. In an email, spokeswoman Delaney Corcoran wrote: “Critical Race Theory is not taught in New Mexico’s K-12 schools. Rebecca Dow’s newest bill is a blatant partisan political move, meant to insulate Dow from attacks from the right and her opponents in the Republican gubernatorial primary.”

Whether the bill actually gets a hearing during the 30-day session is unclear. By state statute, the 30-day session is focused on budgetary issues. Lawmakers can only introduce bills not considered germane to the budget if the governor approves them. 

Asked if Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham might put Dow’s legislation on the docket for consideration this year, spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett replied by email: “No such curriculum is taught in K-12 schools. The governor’s legislative agenda is focused on programs and policies that benefit New Mexicans across the state.”

Dow — who supported a 2021 bill creating the Black Education Act, designed to improve educational outcomes for Black students — said she hopes the governor doesn’t stymie her effort to get the bill a hearing.

“It’s an important issue for the state and a national issue,” she said. “We should define critical race theory so there’s no question of what it is and what it isn’t.”

Bronstein said she does not believe critical race theory is being taught in any public school system. But as a history professor, that concerns her, she said. 

“You cannot really teach American history without covering topics that are going to make people uncomfortable,” she said. “Because that’s just part of what happened in the United States.”