Lia Brodnix and her daughter Kathleen, a freshman at Los Alamos High School, stood on the sidelines as Republican politicians and families rallied in downtown Santa Fe against the state’s proposed new social studies standards for K-12 public schools.
Some rallygoers, who had gathered at the headquarters of the New Mexico Public Education Department, said they feared the overhauled standards — the first update in a decade — would lead to loss of local control in education. Many reiterated the term “critical race theory,” a concept in higher education that explores the role of race in the U.S. legal system.
The draft standards make no mention of critical race theory, and several people who spoke at the rally acknowledged this. But they used it to describe how the standards — updated to include modern historical events, LGBTQ history, Native American history and civics — would require teachers to address gender, sexuality and race, using words like “equity” and “oppression.” They aim to keep this kind of talk out of classrooms.
Kathleen voiced her view of the proposed standards overhaul in simpler terms: “I hate it. It disgusts me,” she said.
In her eyes, her social studies classes are already “anti-conquistador.”
While some parents who’ve spoken out against the draft standards have said they’ll remove their kids from public school if the changes are implemented, Brodnix said her daughter likely would stay at Los Alamos High.
Friday’s rally, hosted by the Republican Party of New Mexico, came ahead of an hourslong virtual public hearing on the controversial proposal, when people were able to provide comment. Friday also was the deadline to submit written comments to the Public Education Department.
While advocates for the new standards applaud the way they call on students to voice their own identities and deepen their knowledge of Indigenous history, people like Ethel Maharg, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and director of the New Mexico Right to Life Committee, beg to differ.
Maharg, one of three GOP contenders in the governor’s race who spoke Friday, said when she was a math teacher in Cuba, she “didn’t allow the students to talk about different races.”
She called for a concentration on teaching students about the state and U.S. constitutions and urged more local school board control over what is taught.
Maharg and others at the rally pointed to political fights across the U.S. over how race and gender should be addressed in schools. Some referred to the recent triumph of Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin, who defeated Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, in an election for the state’s top job earlier this month. A few political pundits have said the social studies debate weighed heavily in the race.
“Folks, it happened in Virginia,” Maharg said. “Our future is in the ballots right now.”
Karen Bedonie, another GOP candidate in the governor’s race and a member of the Navajo Nation, lumped the state Public Education Department’s effort to revise social studies standards in a category with gun control, carbon emission caps and vaccine mandates: “There are four markers when they start to overtake a people,” she said.
Earlier this week, all 24 members of the state House Republican Caucus signed a letter to Public Education Department Policy Director John Sena stating “strong opposition” to the proposed standards and calling for a public comment period extension to July 2022.
The lawmakers also requested formal hearings in the Legislature and said social studies education should focus on how existing government structures work to fulfill American ideals. Their letter said the “free-enterprise” system has resulted in “a standard of living that is the envy of people across the globe and which provides a beacon of economic opportunity for all.”
Under the draft social studies standards, they argued, students would be taught that socialism should replace capitalism.
The buzz over social studies standards reminiscent of controversy that erupted in 2017 when the administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez was planning changes to science standards. The modifications would have included scaling back or eliminating mentions of evolution and human causes of climate change. There would have been no mention of the Earth’s age.
That proposal spurred outrage across the state and throughout the nation.
Eventually, however, the education department pivoted to fully adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, used by numerous states.
“[There was] a lot of discussion and a lot of debate,” Lt. Gov Howie Morales said of the science standards uproar in a recent interview. “That has kind of quieted down. And that’s going to happen with the social studies standards once it’s understood that it’s not a political issue.”
Morales calls the social studies standards update an education issue of pressing importance as the state works to bring more “cultural competency” to classrooms under a 2018 ruling in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit that found the state was failing to provide an adequate education to several groups of students, including Native Americans.
Still, lawmakers like state Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, a gubernatorial candidate, are calling for legislation that would limit how teachers discuss gender and race in the classroom.
Would such a bill make it to the governor’s desk for her signature?
“I don’t see any likelihood of that taking place,” Morales said.