Montana Public Radio

Montana's Schools Superintendent Pushes Back Against Critical Race Theory In Schools

May 14, 2021

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen is pushing back against the federal education department for proposing a program that would teach educators how to incorporate racially and culturally diverse perspectives into their lesson plans. 

In a memo, Arntzen says she takes issue with the proposed program using the New York Times’ 1619 Project on the history of slavery and teachings about antiracism.

She wrote that these teachings are similar to what’s known as critical race theory, and that she doesn’t want that taught in Montana schools. Critical race theory says that systemic racism is a social construct ingrained in American life and laws.

Arntzen says she believes Montana’s social studies curriculum was diversified enough when it was updated this year, and that the federal program will promote ideas that are too political. 

“We, after two decades, dusted off our social studies standards, which include history, civics, economics and geography,” Arntzen says.

Elsie Arntzen Montana's superintendent of public instruction.
Credit courtesy

Arntzen sent a letter to Attorney General Austin Knudsen asking him to write an opinion on the legality of the federal education department’s proposal. 

Arntzen’s request comes on the heels of state legislatures in Texas and Idaho banning critical race theory from being taught in public schools in those states. 

Anthony Johnstone, a constitutional law professor at the University of Montana, says it’s unclear what an opinion from the state attorney general would do because it wouldn’t be binding for federal officials. Further, the program is optional. 

“Montana’s schools are still free to accept or reject the content of those programs,” he says.

Arntzen says an opinion from the attorney general will let Montana public schools know whether state law permits participation. 

Chris Young-Greer is the education initiative lead for the nonprofit Montana Racial Equity Project. She says educators would benefit from the federal program and that Arntzen’s attempt to block teachers from participating is wrong. 

“It seems to me that she’s actively seeking to thwart the education process. And while this may not have any teeth, it sets a very dangerous precedent.”

Attorney General Knudsen has not yet indicated whether he’ll take on the opinion.