During the 2020 fall semester, Kali Fontanilla—a high school English language teacher working in the Salinas, California, school district—noticed that many of her students were failing one of their other classes: ethnic studies. This was at the height of the pandemic, and instruction was entirely online, leaving many students in the lurch. Still, Fontanilla thought it was odd to see so many Fs.
Salinas has a majority Mexican population; all of Fontanilla’s students were Hispanic and were learning English as a second language. Education officials who propose adding ethnic studies to various curriculums—and making it mandatory, as the Salinas school district did—typically intend for privileged white students to learn about other cultures. There’s a certain irony in requiring members of an ethnic minority to study this, and an even greater irony in the fact that such students were struggling intensely with the course.
“My students are failing ethnic studies,” says Fontanilla, who is of Jamaican ancestry. “I would say half of them are failing this ethnic studies class.”
This made Fontanilla curious about what the course was teaching. All of the high school’s teachers used the same online platform to post lesson plans and course materials, so Fontanilla decided to take a look. She was shocked by what she saw.
“This was like extreme left brainwashing of these kids,” says Fontanilla. “Critical race theory all throughout the lessons, from start to finish. The whole thing.”
“The teacher had the kids all learn about the four I’s of oppression,” says Fontanilla. The four I’s were institutional, internalized, ideological, and interpersonal oppression. “And then there was a whole presentation on critical race theory and they actually had the students analyze the school through critical race theory.”
Slides from lesson plans provided by Fontanilla confirm that the ethnic studies course references critical race theory by name.
The original meaning of the theory, at least when taught at the college level, is that racism so pervades U.S. society and U.S. institutions that it is impossible to separate race from other issues: All policies, structures, and laws were built under the auspices of racism, a sort of original sin that shapes the country’s institutions. In common parlance, opponents often use the term “CRT” to refer a broader set of concepts, like intersectionality—the idea that there are different kinds of oppression that all stack on top of each other—and privilege.
Salina’s version of the course included a “privilege quiz”: Students were expected to rank themselves based on their marginalized status or lack thereof. The lesson plan included an image of two white girls—former Republican President George W. Bush’s twin daughters, to be precise—at the top of the privilege hierarchy.
“Some people are born in third base and think they hit a triple,” says Fontanilla, recalling the intended message of the exercise. “So basically, they were born on third base and they graduated college because they had a head start.”
Many people might consider such activities to be a form of left-wing activism infiltrating the classroom . Fontanilla is one of them. As a Christian, a conservative, and a black woman, she doesn’t believe that students—especially her students, learning English as a second language—need to be taught to check their privilege.
“It’s hyper-race-focused,” says Fontanilla. “And whenever there’s hyper race focus, racism will follow.”
Fontanilla decided that district parents had a right to know what was in the curriculum, and took steps to obtain the lesson plans so that she her job would not be at risk if she leaked them. She contacted an attorney for help, but when they finally received the documents, the district had omitted the slides that included the words critical race theory.
She decided to write a letter to the school board in protest of the ethnic studies curriculum. It was read aloud at a meeting on June 22.
“I do not appreciate constantly being pandered to and treated differently because of the color of my skin, especially since I did not have the freedom to not go along with it,” Fontanilla wrote, warning that the curriculum was an attempt at left-wing indoctrination. The statement elicited cheers from other parents attending the meeting. In response, the school board prohibited anti-CRT comments at its next public gathering.