Can political discourse heal the divisive arguments over Guilford Schools?

I would like to expand on Kendall Svengalis’ discussion of the public education division at Guilford (Connecticut Mirror, Viewpoints, June 17, 2022). I believe the discussion has implications beyond Guilford for political discourse in Connecticut.

Despite his attack on the school board and Paul Freeman, Superintendent of Schools, Svengalis and I share common ground. I appreciate his discussion on “Group Think”. We should come out of our echo chambers to understand the opposing points of view. I agree that we should be guided by “State laws requiring (schools)” to provide access to all points of view without deliberate distortion of the subject. “We share the desire to have the best for our children and fear any harm that may befall them.

Laurent Rizzolo

From this common ground, I would like to examine his arguments. To avoid division, it is important to avoid inflammatory language and clearly define terms. Unfortunately, the groupNo left turn(NLT), who share Svengalis’ views, often use inflammatory language and misuse various terms. Let me define a few terms to get us on the same page.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a theory studied in law schools. He asks if 400 years of discrimination has led to unconscious bias in our laws (systemic racism). Over the past 20 years, jurists have uncovered and corrected many biases. To the extent that schools could teach the results of this research, schools help students understand our laws and areas of controversy.

Marxism is a political and economic theory that proposes that the propertied classes would accumulate wealth at the expense of the workers, and that there would be tensions between these classes. Assessing this theory requires extensive training in economics and political science.

Socialism, as practiced in the United States, promotes opportunity and stability in our society. A partial list of socialist programs includes: public schools, Social Security, social services, city parks and recreation services, and affordable health care and prescription drugs.

The misused terms “Marxism” and “socialism” in NLT literature confuse “equity” with “equality”. Instead of making students equal, equity programs respond to individual needs, allowing each student to achieve a higher academic standard through their own efforts. They don’t drag down our best students.

Nationally, the far right distorts and weaponizes these terms to mask the real practices in our schools. They divert us from the debates we should be having about public education.

The first concern raised by Svengalis is “Group Think”. His analysis can easily be applied to his own group. National anti-CRT rhetoric distorts the CRT to suit the right’s own goals and provides the “groupthink” that informs the NLT. Rather than “knowledgeable,” as he described the group, their misuse of the above terms suggests otherwise. They should realize that much of the agenda they oppose has been in place for over 15 years. Current reforms build on this excellence recognized by the state and nationally.

The second concern was about the “so-called (Independent Party)”. A bit of background: Republicans and Democrats on the school board unanimously supported the superintendent’s initiatives. The new leadership of the Republican City Committee (RTC) chose not to endorse the three Republican Board of Education members who were being re-elected. RTC-endorsed NLT candidates won their primary. In the general election, the RTC fielded five NLT candidates to fill their three seats and hopefully unseat the two Democrats for re-election. The Republicans would then hold the majority and could remove the superintendent. The dissatisfaction aroused by this list inspired the independent party to present three candidates.

The Independent Party is conservative. As of late, around 70% of its endorsed candidates have been Republicans and 30% have been Democrats, true to its independent nature. Because they agreed with the board of education and Freeman, they endorsed the two Democrats in the election and the Democrats endorsed the three independents. Thus, the council would have minority representation and we could expect a lively debate on other issues before the council.

The election presented voters with two clear choices regarding the direction of Guilford’s schools. In a high-turnout election, Republicans lost by a nearly three-to-one margin. Clearly, the vast majority of voters weren’t buying what the Republicans were selling. Rather than trying to figure out why so many people disagree with them and rework their platform, NLT advocates are writing threatening letters to teachers and the school board. Public outcry against NLT’s efforts has been vigorous. Rather than indoctrination, students praised the ability to explore a wide diversity of viewpoints.

The third concern was that minority rights have been frustrated by “rigid ideologues who feel justified in imposing a racist and highly divisive ideology on innocent school children”. In fact, Svengalis’ group adheres to rigid ideologies that blind them to what is really going on in the schools.

They are furious that Freeman attributed the book”How to be anti-racist” at the Faculty. Close examination demonstrates that the superintendent’s goal was not to persuade, but to get the faculty to think outside their echo chamber and debate the issues raised in the book. To promote fair and balanced classroom discussions, the BOE has hired faculty development coaches to better facilitate classroom discussions that respect and encourage all viewpoints.

In this way, students develop skills for critical thinking and civil discourse. Where else could students practice these skills? After all, today is the loving and supportive public school – tomorrow is the bustling public square. No-Left-Turn’s desire to teach a more narrow and restricted curriculum could be called “indoctrination”.

Svengalis is right that we should cut out the vitriol and try to understand why different groups feel the way they feel. Understanding the root of NLT’s dissatisfaction could lead to community healing. We should examine our deepest fears and the roots of our own beliefs.

Despite accusations to the contrary, Freeman has encouraged public debate and continues to do so through posts on the school board’s website and public meetings. We should also accept the results of elections, especially ones as decisive as this one.

Lawrence Rizzolo lives in Guilford.

Lucas E. Kelly