Sen. President Craig Blair looks on, shortly before a vote on a resolution that would let voters decide whether lawmakers should have more authority over educational policy. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature.

West Virginia lawmakers are taking aim at how decisions are made — top to bottom — in the state’s public schools. 

On one end, Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that opponents fear will limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. On the other, lawmakers want more top-level control: They’ve just passed a resolution that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot giving them final say over statewide education policies. That would include decisions about curriculum, typically left to the state Board of Education. 

While the loud and lengthy debates about what teachers should and shouldn’t be allowed to say about race in their classrooms have attracted attention and highlighted deep divides both in West Virginia and across the country, lawmakers have harnessed the moment to more quietly accomplish what they were unable to get the support for last year  — the constitutional amendment.

All this is happening while there are serious problems facing West Virginia’s schools, which continue to rank among the lowest in the country. Teachers and students face a wide variety of challenges that make everyday learning difficult. 

“Every day I deal with kids who are in actual crisis, because of what’s happening in their home, or because of addiction, or because of poverty, or because of mental health,” said Berkeley County teacher Jessica Salfia. “When I look at what Charleston is doing, and what these people are saying about education, it is so far removed from the important work of my classroom.”

Lawmakers are moving several bills that address some of these basic and educational needs: establishing a feeding program for hungry West Virginia public school kids, creating a new suicide hotline, requiring teachers to address eating disorders in classrooms, and further enforcing requirements for grade school kids to meet reading levels.

Still, through much of the 60-day legislative session, the educational focus of lawmakers has been not on improving performance, but on trying to control how teachers are allowed to address race and sexuality in their classrooms at a moment when American society is increasingly confronting dark parts of its past.

Hard conversations

On its face, the bill regulating classroom discussions of racism and sexism is fairly benign. It would prevent teachers from promoting ideas that any race, ethnicity or sex is inherently superior to another. It would also outlaw teaching that anyone should feel “guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race, ethnicity, or biological sex.”

Proponents of the bill have stated in committee meetings and floor sessions that the bill exists solely to outlaw explicitly racist teachings.

“It is a bill to stop racism,” said Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, the bill’s sponsor. 

Asked why she believed the bill was opposed by the West Virginia NAACP, the Black Appalachian Coalition, and why similar bills across the country are being opposed by Black advocacy groups, Rucker said, “I don’t know why they oppose it,” adding that she believed the groups should support the measure if their goal is to root out racism.

But lawmakers advocating for the bill can’t point to specific examples that it would address in West Virginia schools. And teachers see the legislation as a gag order.

Sheila Coleman-Castells has spent 25 years as both a teacher and a trainer of other educators, most of it in West Virginia. 

She said hard conversations about the realities of racism and sexism have been necessary throughout her career, and believes it’s important that trained professionals who have been taught what is developmentally appropriate for children should have the freedom to direct these conversations as they see fit.

“Teachers are cultural transmitters,” Coleman-Castells said. “It’s not just supplying knowledge to young people. If that were the case, the internet could educate people and everybody could stay home.”

A larger moment

West Virginia isn’t alone in pushing legislation that would curb teachers’ ability to address the realities of racism and sexism in their classrooms. Across the country, dozens of bills aimed at limiting how teachers can discuss the subjects of race and sex, or requiring them to publicize all parts of their curriculum that pertain to those subjects, have been introduced in nearly every state, according to research by the nonprofit PEN America.

The genesis of the current backlash against these types of discussions can be broadly traced back to the New York Times’ 2019 publication of the 1619 Project, a special issue in which historians attempted to analyze America’s past and present through the lens of the subjugation of Black people and minorities, and its inclusion a few school curriculums. The bills outlawing such teaching began to appear en masse as nationwide demonstrations against police violence towards Black Americans and racial health disparities underlined by the COVID-19 pandemic spurred conversations about historical inequities and the impacts of racism in America today.

This year’s bill hasn’t yet passed the House — and it’s scheduled for a public hearing at 8 a.m. on Monday, March 7. But this effort isn’t even the first such attempt in West Virginia. Bills that would outlaw the teaching of “divisive concepts,” “critical race theory,” and put in place “curriculum transparency” requirements that educators called impractical, have all failed in the last couple years — though once again this year the curriculum transparency push appears to be moving in a standalone bill, this time without singling out material that relates to race, sex, ethnicity, or sexuality.  

But it’s against this backdrop that voters will be asked whether or not to give more power over classrooms to a Legislature that has shown a willingness to put restraints on trained educators hoping to have nuanced discussions about race and sex, and their roles in society.

This fall, voters will choose whether lawmakers should have direct control over all Board of Education decisions. Currently legislators don’t have direct control over the board, but the body is made up of political appointees chosen by the governor and approved by the Legislature. And the Legislature often inserts itself, regardless, with little pushback.

While a similar resolution to put an amendment on the ballot passed the House with bipartisan support last year before dying in the Senate, this year, support has been largely from Republicans. 

House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, voted for the measure last year, along with almost every other House Democrat. He says the sentiment behind the resolution this year is different. “It’s one thing after another, even telling teachers what they can and can’t teach in schools,” he said.

The sponsor of this year’s resolution, Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, refused to answer any questions about it, including why he felt it was necessary.

But Sen. Owens Brown, a former representative of the West Virginia Education Association, and the only Black state senator, sees the efforts as a cynical gambit to gin up election support. 

“A lot of these [lawmakers] will be using that, I believe, on the campaign trail to win votes,” said Brown, D-Ohio. “People have taken this CRT issue and made it a public issue, like it’s going to be taught in public schools even though it’s not going to be.”

And that same support could factor in at the ballot box when voters consider the constitutional amendment. 

For Coleman-Castells, the politicization of teaching history isn’t new. A decade ago, she and three others resigned from a West Virginia sesquicentennial commission. The commission’s initial purpose was to educate West Virginians about the realities of the Civil War, and the state’s messy role in it; ideas that complicated the narrative that West Virginia simply seceded from Virginia and fought slavery. But Coleman-Castells and Beth White, another member of the commission who resigned, said the group’s purpose shifted from educating West Virginians about the Civil War and slavery to planning a party for the state’s 150th anniversary.

“This is long in coming,” Coleman-Castells said. “This isn’t something [lawmakers] just dreamed up. This has been a long fight.”

The current moment has also drawn comparisons from activists to the 1970s Kanawha County “textbook wars.” Then, a decision to introduce books to the K-12 curriculum to increase multicultural learning resulted in protests, shootings and firebombings.

Coleman-Castells says the current push contributes to a “white supremacist narrative.” The bill includes language talking about “guilt” and “anguish,” which she says indicates lawmakers are thinking primarily of white students as the ones who will benefit. 

“We don’t want white children to feel bad about what white people did all over the world,” she said. “We’re telling the truth and it’s uncomfortable for them. One has to ask, ‘why are you so uncomfortable?’”

While arguments over critical race theory are distracting lawmakers across the country, West Virginia’s proposed constitutional amendment could result in a massive transfer of power.

Meanwhile, students and teachers are left to navigate a new set of constraints that lawmakers are imposing, and a new set of concerns from parents over how their students are being taught about race.

Salfia, the Berkeley County teacher, is concerned that the current climate undercuts teachers to the extent that voters will approve the constitutional amendment this fall, giving lawmakers even more control. 

“They’re creating problems that they then feel like they have to control,” Salfia said. “But we have real children in front of us with real problems that we could use real help with.”

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.