by Winifred McCarthy
BURLINGTON – Does the Burlington School Board have the right to demand that teachers, students, and all involved in the education process reject their beliefs and values? Further, do they have the right to decree how new values will be defined, enforced, and investigated with surveillance by designated authorities over every aspect of school interaction? If this sounds too extreme, the citizens of Burlington better read the ninety-nine page Recommended Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion commissioned by the Burlington School Board, and reported on by the Diversity Task Force.
The goal posited by this plan is to bridge opportunity gaps in the schools-gaps caused by racial and economic inequality. So far so good.
However, how the plan proposes to eliminate this gap is by taking an “anti-racist stance against the conventional white, middle class, Judeo-Christian culture that invisibly permeates the current social environment that exists in the Burlington schools.” (p.4)
In fact, the cause for the achievement gap throughout the report is a moving target. The first it is the conventional white, middle class, Judeo-Christian culture”; further down the page it is the “white, able bodied, heterosexual, middle class students”; later in the text it becomes the “white, middle class, Judeo-Christians;” a few paragraphs later it is “conventional, white upper middle class, Judeo-Christian values and beliefs” (p.31). The fourth reference has a new emphasis: “primarily White, male, upper middle class, Christian, and other privileged perspectives and approaches”. The only category that is always included is “white”; and even that classification is inconsistent because there may be “other privileged groups”.
Similar problems exist with the minority group classification. The total number of minority students is counted as 27%. Jewish and Muslim are also referred to as minority group members in another context, but there is never a percentage or actual number assigned to either group, nor is it clarified how or why Jewish students are considered a minority and not a part of the “Judeo [emphass added]-Christian,” culture.
Rule of the “Culturally Competent”
Those who will usher in this new era of racial justice are defined in the Report as the “culturally competent” – “inclusive of diverse races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religious and spiritual beliefs, ages, and physical and learning abilities. The administration shall report to the Board annually on its progress, barriers and outcomes.” (p.3)
The goal for the Task Force is in the next three years the to make the Burlington School District “known for its highly capable, highly talented, diverse and culturally competent staff.” By the end of five years, all teaching and administrative staff shall be regularly engaged in anti-racism, cultural competency work.
The astonishingly large number of actions to be taken include the monitoring of all hiring through the Diversity and Equity Office (p.30); the developing, selecting, and implementing of research instruments that “measure everyone’s cultural competency” and also measure the school’s “climate”; needed also is a continuous examination of “physical, cultural and curricular challenges that contribute to isolation of particular student groups”; there must be “annual climate audits” that will be “posted on websites and distributed to the public”; everyone must be trained in “bias awareness, bias reduction, diversity, equity, cultural competence and inclusion”.
The enforcers of these new commandments, must all be given bias awareness training. This training must have “breadth, depth and rigor” because the newly trained ‘Cultural Competents’ will be expected to seek out biases in the school, biases that are “present or latent”. Furthermore, “key stakeholders” from the community will be selected to also oversee this process. These individuals will, through their oversight, “improve the overall climate”. It isn’t clear who will select these stakeholders.
The newly created authorities will be “empowered with increased strength and power and oversight” for “recruitment, screening, hiring, training, professional development and retention” (see pp 46, 47). Those in charge include the Director of Diversity and Equity and the Equity Officer for Employment and Retention: They will have the power to oversee the details of “every aspect of education in the public schools” and to “hold employees accountable for all aspects of employment.”
The training records of all teachers, administrators and staff will be maintained by, we must assume, a ‘culturally competent’ Director; they will be accessible to the Equity Officer for Employment and Retention. It will be critical to “address white privilege without assigning guilt.”
Further reform of the community’s values will involve hiring “culturally competent applicants and not resumes that are comfortable to the majority group and culture”. Is the discomfort of the majority a requisite? (Note that they are “applicants” when referring to cultural competence but “resumes” when the “applicant” might be someone “comfortable” to the majority.) The Search Committee will also spell out “desired traits, experiences, diversity and cultural competencies”. These “must be approved by the Equity Officer for Employment and Retention”. (p.52).
These draconian measures are highly questionable in themselves. Professional organizations dedicated to protecting individual rights in the workplace would most assuredly find legal grounds for invalidating many of them.
Whether the belief systems were being attacked by the “Judeo-Christians” or the “Cultural Competents”, the question must be asked: are these invasive examination techniques unconstitutional?
There is no mention of the higher ideals of education, the unifying power of knowledge itself, the assimilative and culturally integrative power of “e pluribus Unum”: the ways in which cross cultural sharing has been integrated into the fabric of the United States. Our legal system embraces the concept of separation of Church and State. In this report Judeo-Christian religions are not separated from the state, they are decimated by it.
All of these demands, the processes for examining of the “latent”and the “unacceptable” values and beliefs: these surveillance techniques resemble secret societies and totalitarian, authoritarian powers where one surrenders one’s legal rights and protections. The ACLU, the NEA, the AFT, and any group that protects individual rights and freedoms in the United States would have a feast of prosecutorial claims against the School Board and its committees.
To assume that the values of one religion or one culture are the sole source of problems involving inequality is wrong. All cultures, religions, political parties have some biases, some prejudices, some “we’ versus “they”, “in” and “out” groups. Common ideals are the common ground for all of us.
Winifred McCarthy has been a sociology professor for thirty years. She earned her doctorate in that field from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research.