The Colorado State Board of Education on Thursday approved much-contested social study standards, adding back references to people of color and the LGBTQ community that were removed following critical feedback from board members and the public.
The vote was along party lines with Democrat board members Lisa Escárcega, Angelika Schroeder, Rebecca McClellan and Karla Esser voting in favor. The three Republican board members — Debora Scheffel, Joyce Rankin and Steve Durham — voted against.
The board revisited its social study standards to comply with a 2019 bill passed by the state legislature that sought to add more diverse views into students’ social studies lessons. The bill said students must learn about the history, social contributions and culture of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, the LGBTQ community and religious minorities.
Revisions have been in the works for a year. They represent broad guidelines of what students should learn but local school boards and educators decide what specifically is taught in classrooms and which textbooks are used.
“The passage of the social studies standards today solidified Colorado’s place as one of the first states to fully include marginalized groups and LGBTQ+ individuals in its social studies standards,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, high school counselor and president of the state teacher union, Colorado Education Association. “We breathe a sigh of relief knowing that our students will have access to an honest and inclusive education in our public schools in Colorado.”
The committee tasked with making the changes — made up of social studies teachers from across the state — watered down its initial proposal, saying they received public feedback questioning the “age appropriateness” of the content.
Debates included issues such as whether LGBTQ figures and their contributions should be included and how students learn about the Holocaust and the Nazi party. The final round of revisions not only removed references to the LGBTQ community in standards for young students, middle and high schoolers but also stripped many references to African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Indigenous Peoples and religious minorities.
Rankin previously said the terms “LGBTQ” and “migration” being taught to elementary students “could be interpreted as indoctrination.” Rankin complained about the committee’s “numerous references” to people of color and those in the LGBTQ community, writing that the list was not inclusive of other groups such as German Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans and Norwegian Americans.
Escárcega proposed adding the cut references back to the standards, which will take effect next school year. After the meeting, Escárcega said she was pleased with the results and that the standards reflect the feedback she heard from Colorado parents and students
“It’s making sure there are opportunities as early as preschool for students to express themselves and share their families.”
An example of the approved amendment to the standard for first grade is changing the phrase “discuss and give examples of what makes a culture unique” to “discuss common and unique characteristics of different cultures, including African American, Latino, Asian American, Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ, and religious minorities, using multiple sources of information.”
Local community members, nonprofit groups and politicians including Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzalesc and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez advocated for the stripped-out references to be put back. And public comment Thursday heavily favored adding references to LGBTQ people and specific minority groups.
Tally Shannon, a 16-year-old junior at Denver Public Schools, who is a transgender lesbian, said during Thursday’s public comment her identity would be brushed under the rug if the standards took out references to the LGBTQ community.
Shannon said she knew she was different by first grade but didn’t gain the language or education to understand herself for seven years and, even then, only learned about transgender people in the context of ridicule. She had to learn about the struggles, activism and triumphs of the LGBTQ community on her own.
When Shannon met her first transgender teacher, she cried tears of joy.
“This was proof I could be intelligent, alive and happy,” Shannon said.
Durham, however, maintained his objections to the inclusion of “LGBTQ” in the standards, saying teaching children about LGBTQ “sexual issues” in school is inappropriate. He said he considered showing a video of children watching a drag queen perform to make his point but concluded it was child abuse.
Parent Mary Goodley said the responsibility for educating children about the LGBTQ community lies solely with parents. A teacher discussing these topics with her son without knowing his emotional maturity would be inappropriate, she said.
“It is concerning sexuality has become a topic in social studies when educators are already spread thin,” Goodley said.
McClellan said students were not being taught about sex and that the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the standards would allow, for example, a child to share without fear with the class that their parents are gay while discussing family units.
Scheffel said during Thursday’s meeting that she worried Colorado students weren’t properly learning history and wanted to use the American Birthright framework, created by a conservative education coalition. Last month, the board voted against adopting the American Birthright framework, modeled after Florida’s guidelines.
“Our standards seem very one-sided,” Scheffel said.
The board once again voted down the American Birthright framework.