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VT School Board Approves Controversial Racial Equity Policy

School bus
Pat Bradley/WAMC

The Essex Westford School District in northwestern Vermont has about 4,500 students from Essex Town, Essex Junction and Westford attending preschool through high school. Last week, it approved a new equity policy.  The process was challenging with multiple public hearings in which opponents claimed the district was attempting to pursue Critical Race Theory as part of the curriculum and proponents noting the need for policies that promote racial and gender equity.  The final meeting as the vote was taken mirrored previous debates.

Last week the Essex Westford School District Board held its final meeting before voting to approve an equity policy. The virtual meeting was rife with arguments for and against the validity of the school board implementing such rules. Resident Molly Jesse wanted the vote postponed. 

“I also object to the fact that reading, writing and arithmetic are no longer good enough to teach our children, that they have to be taught how to be moral," Jesse said. "And that’s something that should be done in the family not in the school." 

“I think that this Critical Race Theory is ridiculous," Kevin Packard said. "I think that what you’re doing is a disgrace to this country and to the children and it’s waging war against the innocents.”

Passions were equally strong from supporters of the proposal. Genevieve Melle noted the board is approving a policy and not classroom courses. 

“Opponents of the equity policy refer to it as a curriculum," Melle said. "It is not a curriculum. And they refer to it as Critical Race Theory. It is not Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory is taught at the college level mainly in law schools. This is an equity policy. It’s totally different. Politicizing this creates a great disservice to all.”

“Supporting marginalized students and creating a system where a child’s outcome is not predictable because of their race, ethnicity, linguistic background, economic class, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical or cognitive ability or any other cultural marker is the right thing to do," said Chris Miller.

The only people of color on the school board are the two student representatives and they cannot vote. One is Iris Hsiang, who urged approval of the policy. 

“This policy is incredible," Hsiang said. "It’s written by the people who it’s about and it’s crafted to make real changes. Voting no on this policy would send a message that we don’t support the students experiencing these hardships and it’ll signal that they’re not welcome here.”

During board debate Brendan Kinney said opposition helped insure his decision was informed and well researched. 

“I have another message specifically for a smaller subset of people who are opposed to the work of equity in our district," Kinney said. "These actors are part of a national, political and partisan movement with the ultimate goal of undermining the institution of public education. To this group I have a different message: shame on you for using the children of our community as pawns in your culture war. A person in our community stated that any member of the board who votes in favor of the equity policy should be considered and I quote the enemy. Is this the kind of community that we’ve become?”

The Equity Policy was approved on an 8 to 1 vote.

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