Mother and daughter facing camera, dauther has white streak in hair
Mandy Marger and her daughter Arliss, a rising freshman, both testified at Cherokee County school board meetings in support of social emotional learning. (Allexa Ceballos/Fresh Take Georgia)

A pushback on social and emotional learning in the schools is starting to surface as some parents believe this concept relates to tenets of the highly politicized critical race theory.

Parents at recent Cherokee County school board meetings have debated social and emotional learning, a process long used by educators trying to help students grow into productive adults. 

It is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning as a framework “through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” 

Critical race theory is an academic framework developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and ‘80s that examines history through the lens of racism, and centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, which function to maintain white people’s dominance in society.

Concepts of social and emotional learning have been present in schools for much longer than critical race theory have also been discussed in school board meetings, but some parents believe that social and emotional learning is a gateway to discussions of critical race theory.

Two concepts conflated

Karen Hawley, an education professor at Reinhardt University as well as a former teacher and principal, told the Cherokee County school board that some parents have mistakenly conflated the concept of social and emotional learning with critical race theory.

While she understands their concerns about social and emotional learning, Hawley said children ultimately have to be prepared for the outside world, where these concepts are lived and experienced.

“The theory has been going on since the mid ‘90s, when we realized we have to do something to help kids to feel good about themselves to do well,” she said. “Because that’s what schools are all about; they should be all about helping that student become a successful, gainfully employed human being out in the world, and you’ve got to look at the whole child, and not just look at the academics.”

Some parents have stated that topics covered under social and emotional learning are inappropriate for children. In December 2020, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, also known as CASEL, updated its criteria to include evaluations based on “educational equity.” 

According to CASEL’s December 2020 report, “issues of educational equity may pertain to a variety of student characteristics including race/ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, socioeconomic status, health, and risk status.” 

Equity has become another buzzword that certain parents associate with a liberal agenda. They also argue these student characteristics are inappropriate for teachers and students to discuss. At a June Cherokee County school board meeting, parent Shannon Wymer said she believes topics in the program intentionally place children in uncomfortable conversations that don’t belong in schools.

“They should have the freedom just like us all to learn, love and be educated without having to be asked questions that, to be honest, 30 years ago weren’t even allowed on our television, let alone in our schools,” she said.

Mandy Marger, another parent from Cherokee, argued at a May school board meeting against banning concepts that the public doesn’t fully understand.

Parents have different views

But what some parents see as political, others see as progress.

“No matter your family’s political background, we should have the same opportunities in education,” she said. “Progressive seems to be a bad word, but I mean, if you really break it down and become a student of history, you’ll see that we’re enjoying where we are right now because of progressive ideas, and really the idea of allowing kids to talk about feelings or concerns.”

Marger’s daughter and rising freshman, Arliss, spoke at the June meeting.

“People have suggested teachers stick to core subjects and not be allowed to stray from narrow topics, but I learn so much more in school than just the basics,” she said at the meeting. “I’m likely not going to be a scientist, mathematician, author or historian, but I am going to be a global citizen who is learning now in school how to relate to people, how to relate history to current events, and the idea of my future.”

Arliss was heckled by parents following her testimony. She said her classmates have used the internet to form opinions on these topics that differ from parents who speak for them. For Mandy Marger, this dynamic makes it hard to navigate relationships in her community.

“It’s difficult to separate kids from their parents,” she said. “Even the parents who were at those meetings and who were wearing what I regarded as kind of ugly t-shirts with mean sentiments on them, I know they’re not bad people, and I want my kids to be friends with their children. I want to be part of this community, but I want this community to have a heart.”

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