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Cedar Attanasio
Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. — Critics of New Mexico's proposed overhaul of the social studies curriculum decried the standards as racist and Marxist Friday in an online hearing and on the street outside the offices of the state education department.

Holding signs like “My children identify as American,” a few dozen protesters including Republican gubernatorial candidates took turns criticizing standards, which include adding ethnic studies and introducing children to social group identity starting in kindergarten.

One protester outside the education department offices said he would homeschool his 7-year-old if the race and ethnicity portion of the curriculum is implemented.

“My daughter won’t be part of it,” said activist Phillip Munson, of Rio Rancho, adding that identifying group identity starting in kindergarten, as the standards propose, “take away from the common values we’re trying to instill.”

The education department’s proposed social studies curriculum updates topics in history for the first time in 20 years, and is based on recommendations from educators it convened this summer. It plans to publish final standards this spring to implement a new curriculum in fall of 2023.

Friday marks the final day of the public comment period, culminating with oral feedback in an online forum. Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said Thursday that the department won’t extend the public comment period, which at least a dozen school districts have asked for.

Many letters express concern over resemblances between new standards that require students to learn about racial identity groups and so-called “critical race theory.”

(Related: South Dakotans overwhelmingly support teaching of Native history, culture)

An Albuquerque grandmother read her letter out loud at the protest Friday.

“This is blatant, ugly racism,” said Ruth Ann Peterson, arguing that the proposed standards teach critical race theory by using words like “inequity” and “racism” and phrases like “unequal power relations.”

Public Education Department officials insist that they have no intention of having K-12 teachers teaching critical race theory, dismissing it as a college-level legal concept.

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State Republican leaders have planned a protest outside education department offices, in opposition to the focus on race in objection to the education officials' decision to hold the oral comment forum online instead of in person.

Others support the expanded focus on Native American history, as well elements of the plan they see as “anti-racist.”

Sylvia Miller-Mutia, an Albuquerque reverend and parent of three, wrote in support of the proposal to expand ethnic studies in the curriculum and other elements aimed at "humanizing oppressed people to avoid perpetuating racism and stereotypes. Thank you for working to make history education in New Mexico more just and anti-racist.”

In over 1,000 pages of public comment received by the education department in the past 45 days, there’s an issue that has received more mention than race: personal finance.

The letters stem from a lobbying effort by Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan education policy group that wants money matters updated in the social studies standards, which include economics. They want students to learn more about debt, savings and investment.

New Mexico's conservatives are finding new energy in the critical race theory debate after it was credited for tipping the scales toward a Republican winner in the recent governor's race in Virginia.

“Virginia should be a wakeup call,” said Elisa Sanchez, speaking against the proposed standards in the Zoom meeting.

Outside the education department offices, one Republican candidate handed out flyers billing herself as the only candidate who can beat Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a heavily blue state.

Candidate and businesswoman Karen Bedonie, Navajo, decried parts of the social studies standards that ask students to discuss privilege based on social group identity.

“We are said to be victims consistently,” Bedonie told the crowd of around two dozen, adding that educated “many-paper-degrees” people are “telling us how we need to think.”

Native American intellectuals across the state disagree and say the proposed standards are crucial to providing education to Indigenous children that allow them to see themselves.

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