Labor Voices: Keep partisan agendas out of American history
As parents, we’re disappointed when our kids fail to learn something in school — and their grade reflects it.
But what if they fail to learn important events in our nation’s history because those events are kept from them?
That is a real possibility if controversial changes to Michigan’s K-12 social studies standards are adopted by the State Board of Education — changes pushed by a group of conservatives that included state senator and gubernatorial candidate Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton.
State standards outline expectations for what students are to learn from kindergarten through graduation. The proposed changes to the history standards are drastic, eliminating references to important issues and events in our nation’s history.
Colbeck’s stated purpose for the myriad of changes was to ensure that they were “politically neutral and accurate.” However, this group providing input on the standards failed to provide that intended balance, with no representation from Democratic legislators or progressive groups to balance the conservative viewpoints Colbeck and others brought to the table.
In defending the changes to the social studies standards, Colbeck said, “I’m not letting Democrats rewrite history.”
Colbeck, we’re not interested in you rewriting history either. Our children deserve to learn about and from our past without political interference.
Colbeck’s insistence on deleting the word “democratic” from the phrase “core democratic values” is especially puzzling. Colbeck said the phrase is “not politically neutral…It’s got the word ‘Democrat’ in there.” The word “democratic” of course refers to our country’s founding documents and is found in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which unite American citizens with our nation and each other.
Other examples of proposed changes include removing “the racial and gender integration of the military,” the “integration of baseball, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington (1963) and the freedom rides” from the section on Civil Rights in the Post-World War II Era. In the Civil Rights section, references to accomplishments and setbacks for Native Americans, Latinos, new immigrants, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians would be deleted. They even include an alternative explanation for the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, stating that the “KKK was founded as an anti-Republican (party) organization, not an anti-black organization.”
Keith Kindred, a South Lyon social studies teacher, expressed indignation at the proposed changes: “Right wing conservatives with extreme views hijacked a review of these state standards in an attempt
to force their world view on all of Michigan’s children who attend public schools. This is about more than some obscure document only social studies teachers see. It’s about a public statement of our values. It’s about the kind of society we want our children to aspire to.”
As we’ve repeatedly said, education should not be a partisan issue. Inserting politicians (of any party) into decision making over what is taught in our schools is a dangerous road. Front-line experts in classrooms across the state should make those decisions—Michigan’s teachers. When partisan politics insert themselves into this process, it interferes with and undermines the efforts of those professional educators. In the end, students will suffer when history is literally white washed and they are not taught about important events that shaped our nation.
Controversy over these changes has increased interest in this process of developing our state’s social studies standards. Michigan’s Department of Education has held a series of public forums which have been well attended and contentious. In light of the increased interest, the department has extended the deadline for public comment through September 30. I urge you to make your voice heard at www.michigan.gov/mde and urge the State Board to reject these dangerous changes
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.