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Uncovering Who Is Driving The Fight Against Critical Race Theory In Schools

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A battle in the culture war is being fought over critical race theory, which many conservatives say is being taught in K-12 schools. Critical race theory, CRT, examines the impact of systemic racism on American laws and institutions and is taught in some university programs. But K-12 teachers and schools that address racism in American history or America today have been accused of indoctrinating students by teaching CRT. There are now at least 165 local and national groups that are trying to disrupt or block lessons on race and gender, according to an NBC News analysis. These groups are being reinforced by conservative think tanks, media outlets and law firms. The tactics include disrupting school board meetings, ousting liberal school board members and harassing parents who support teaching about equity issues. Legislation has been drafted to ban teaching CRT.

Tuesday night, at a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Va., a fight broke out, a man was arrested, and the meeting was shut down. Two-hundred-sixty people had signed up to speak. Many were protesting the teaching of critical race theory in the schools. Yesterday, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, was asked a challenging question by Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida, about teaching CRT in service academies. Milley forcefully pushed back.

Yesterday morning, I recorded the interview we're about to hear with Tyler Kingkade, who has been investigating the people and the money behind this anti-CRT movement and their tactics and larger goals. He's a national investigative reporter at NBC News. He focuses on vulnerable populations, civil rights issues, education, sexual harassment and assault cases and the treatment of teens in traumatic situations.

Tyler Kingkade, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the basics. What is critical race theory?

TYLER KINGKADE: Hi, Terry. Thank you for having me. Critical race theory is really a legal academic concept that was developed in the '70s and '80s. Derrick Bell is considered the father of the concept. Kimberle Crenshaw is often one of the most frequently credited scholars responsible for honing it in the 1980s. And essentially, a short way to boil it down is it's a way of studying systemic racism and its impact on society and how it permeates many aspects of society. It's a way of looking at things.

And instead of - for example, you could have a debate about raising the tipped minimum wage and stick to whether it will cause food prices to go up, whether restaurants would close if they couldn't afford it, or you could debate it and talk about the fact that we have a tipped minimum wage as a result of a bargain during the New Deal to get Southern segregationist members of Congress not to block the regular minimum wage. And so looking back at those racial implications, either at the creation of a law or at the way it's handled or addressed currently.

GROSS: So my understanding is that critical race theory started at the university level, and I think it actually started in law schools. But the big debate now is really being waged on the local school level - grade school. So how is critical race theory being defined by its opponents?

KINGKADE: Right. So you have a situation where virtually all school districts confronted about this are saying, we don't teach critical race theory. It's not part of our curriculum. But opponents are using critical race theory as really more of a catchall to include anything teaching students about systemic racism, any mention of white privilege, and, really, the definition that they're using has expanded to include anything related to equity, diversity and inclusion. They tossed in terms like social-emotional learning. These are not things that the average person maybe gives a lot of thought about, but these are very commonly used terms in K-12 schools across the country.

So what they'll do is they've highlighted, in many cases, examples of perhaps a diversity workshop for employees, a lesson for students. They'll point to things that are said during the lesson and say, this is an example of critical race theory and that it's teaching students that they are either oppressors or the oppressed and that America is basically racist at its core, and there is no redeeming value to our country.

GROSS: Are the critics of CRT being taught in the schools - or what they define as CRT being taught in the schools - are they basically denying that racism has been woven into American history?

KINGKADE: I would say, to an extent, they are. I've talked to a lot of parents on the side of opposing critical race theory, and many of them have told me they don't believe that systemic racism exists. I've had conversations with parents who say they don't think that they have any sort of white privilege, though they are white. I think when you get down to it, when you drill into these conversations, there is a fundamental disagreement between the parents who are getting involved and advocating against critical race theory and the way that anyone who would study critical race theory - again, like in the academic world - there's a fundamental disagreement in how they see the world.

GROSS: So, you know, one of the objections to the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools - and you refer to this - is that it's divisive. It teaches divisive concepts. What are some of the things that are considered to be divisive concepts?

KINGKADE: Well, I just - even the notion of talking about white privilege is seen as divisive or, you know, it gets back to talking about the issues at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, about whether Black people, people of color, are disproportionately harmed or mistreated by police. Those are issues that I think people see as ongoing and therefore unsettled and not something that we should be teaching to K-12 students. And what educators would say is, look, this is what's going on in the world. These kids know what's going on.

I mean, even elementary school kids - they see what's on TV. They hear what parents are talking about, and they need some sort of frame of reference to understand these issues. So we can't just ignore them and say, well, we haven't come up with a solution to police brutality or we haven't come up with a solution to systemic racism, so let's just not talk about it for now. I mean, educators are saying, no, we - if we want our kids to be prepared to talk about them, to address them as they become of age, we need to start teaching them when they're young.

GROSS: The objections to the teaching of critical race theory kind of date back to the protests last summer over the police killing of George Floyd. So what's the connection?

KINGKADE: Yeah. So last year, especially during the summer, a lot of educators were searching for ways to talk about what was going on and also evaluating what they had taught already and whether they could do a better job talking about our nation's history with racism and not just boiling it down to we had slavery, the Civil War and then Jim Crow, but we passed the Civil Rights Act, and here we are today. I think, like, that's what (laughter) a lot of Americans have gone through in their education.

And so very early on, educators were really taking the lead and saying, I want to do more - to do my part addressing this. And before there were these widespread demonstrations against critical race theory, last fall, I was noticing a lot of teachers getting in trouble or getting subjected to complaints from parents because they displayed a Black Lives Matter banner or because they tried to teach about what the Black Lives Matter protests were about. And they would say, look, I'm supporting Black Lives Matter as a movement, as a statement, not as an organization.

There was one teacher I wrote about in Burlington, Wis., which is very close to Kenosha, which had a police shooting of a Black person last year, and that resulted in protests. And the teacher there was like, these kids are seeing what's going on. They're hearing about what's happening from their parents. I need to teach them just some basics about what's going on. But parents were upset that the mere inclusion of Black Lives Matter in any form in the classroom was something they objected to.

So I would say this argument against critical race theory and this activism we're seeing here in the spring is something that was really boiling starting last year. And it just took a while before it kind of manifested itself into what we're seeing today.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is NBC investigative reporter Tyler Kingkade. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with NBC investigative reporter Tyler Kingkade. He's been reporting on how the right has mobilized against the teaching of critical race theory, the study of systemic racism, leading to the ousting of school board members accused of supporting teaching it and the drafting of legislation to ban teaching it. You've been reporting not on reflective conversations between adults who disagree about how racism should be addressed in the schools. You're reporting on pretty aggressive tactics on the local levels, and school boards seem to be under attack in some areas by opponents of CRT. Describe some of the tactics that have been used against school boards and school board members.

KINGKADE: In a lot of these, they are getting to be pretty aggressive. And most of these disputes that we've seen and looked at are taking place in smaller towns or in suburbs. So this is not happening generally in the center of large cities. It's happening in places where everyone knows everyone. And so it gets very personal very quickly. We talked to folks in one town in Cumberland, Maine, where one of the lead activists against critical race theory has put up photos of school board members on his front lawn, billboard-sized photos, and then allegedly booby trapped them so that no one would take it down and displayed Christmas lights over them. We've seen - in Loudoun County, Va., they just announced that they're going to be driving around a mobile billboard on one of those small trucks with a school board member's face on it as part of their efforts to get that school board member recalled.

The money is being raised at the local level in Texas as well. There's been school board races where they've attracted, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars, which may not sound like a lot, especially in what we think of when we think of how much is spent on politics. But in a small school board race, you know, it doesn't take a lot of money to have a lot of impact. And so this is very quickly becoming something that's not of scale that school boards have dealt with before.

GROSS: There's been threats of violence in Nevada.

KINGKADE: Yeah, in a lot of school districts in Nevada, in Arizona, in many others, they've had to move to - back from in-person school board meetings, back to remote meetings because of security concerns. They've added extra security guards and metal detectors in school board meetings that have never had those before. It's really frightening some of the people.

I've also talked to people who have advocated for equity curriculum or have, you know, been part of anti-racist groups who have faced death threats and harassment online, leading them to install extra security cameras in their homes. There's a school district in Missouri where I've talked to folks that they had to - the school district actually hired security to patrol two administrators homes just because of the volume and the nature of the threats that were coming in. Again, all of it is tied in some way to this disagreement over how schools are talking about racism, gender identity and sexuality issues.

GROSS: So you mentioned that some school board members who are seen as supporting teaching CRT and who aren't, like, opposed to it - that they've been vilified, and they're actually physically afraid. They need security. What are some of the things happening at school board meetings now?

KINGKADE: This week in multiple states, in Texas, in Virginia, in California, there have been crowds that arrive at these school board meetings carrying signs, making noise, chanting stop CRT before a school board meeting even starts. There have been complaints - I've heard from school board members that they're getting people coming in from out of their district that have no children in their district and no connection to the schools but are still showing up to speak about critical race theory. And there have been school board members that have told me that they've had to ask for police escorts to their vehicle when they leave the building, or they've - you know, the whole school board has elected to have remote school board meetings again instead of going back to in-person.

There's just a lot of fear right now because people don't know where this is leading. And this is something that has caught a lot of emotion. It's caught a lot of energy in such a short time that school administrators and school board members are worried that someone could take it too far. And they just don't know.

GROSS: The Nevada Family Alliance proposed putting body cameras on teachers to make sure that they weren't teaching critical race theory. What was the reaction to that?

KINGKADE: Yeah. That idea of putting body cameras on teachers is something that, as you said, has been proposed in Nevada by a conservative group. That's also something that's gained steam on certain corners of social media - on Facebook, on YouTube, where conservative commentators have said, let's put body cameras on teachers. And I think, really, the idea of that is sort of reflective of what has been going on over the last year. A lot of this activism really started as parents first got upset about schools remaining closed or remaining on remote learning. And a lot of parents will say that gave them a chance, also, to overhear what was being taught in their classes, to capture video of school lessons that before would have been in a classroom of, you know, 20 to 30 students and the teacher and nobody else. And they're saying, look; now that we've seen what's behind the curtain, we need to make sure that we never miss something again.

But it's something that I don't know has a lot of backing to actually make that a reality. I would imagine it would take either action by the school boards and the school districts themselves or action by state legislatures, and then a lot of funding. But it's - I think it just represents the nature of where these conversations are going, and also just reflects - the idea of putting a body camera on a teacher also says that they don't trust the teacher. I mean - and I think, like, that's another difference here. It's not just them saying, we think the bureaucrats or the administrators running the schools are not to be trusted. But in many cases, the parents simply don't trust the teachers either.

GROSS: One of the goals of this movement seems to be to oust liberal school board members. How many school board members have been ousted already by the movement?

KINGKADE: So far, there's only been a handful. But according to research that we've gotten through Ballotpedia, which is a website that tracks a lot of this, there have been more school board recall initiatives and petitions launched so far in 2021 than any previous year that they've tracked going back two decades. And it's - in many cases, they're not just trying to pick on a single school board member, where that is what researchers say often would happen in the past when they try to recall school board members. They're going after ousting the entire school board. And this is happening in communities that lean blue, that lean red, that are solidly blue, solidly red. This is not something that's only a red-state phenomenon or something where conservatives outnumbered in a blue state are rising up. This is really happening across the board.

GROSS: So another thing that's been happening to school boards is that many school boards feel like they are under attack because the conservative groups are demanding that the school boards make records public, like hundreds or thousands of records. And for a little school board, that can be really hard to do. It's time-consuming. It could be expensive. Talk a little bit about that.

KINGKADE: Yeah. This is an interesting phenomenon. And it's one that - you know, I'm a reporter. And I file a ton of records requests. It's a very common part of my job. I'm all for open government. But this has been something that's been promoted a lot of times by activist groups, especially some of those that are organizing at the national level, to say, fill out records requests. And submit them to your school district. And ask for these materials. That is really what's been driving a lot of the outrage and drives a lot of media stories about this. This is a tactic that we've seen especially in Rhode Island, where several school districts have been inundated with records requests.

In one case that got a lot of coverage in South Kingstown, R.I., a woman filled out more than 200 records requests within just a couple months. And these are not just records requests looking for, you know, tell me all the curriculum you're giving on, you know, racism lessons or lessons about American history as it pertains to racial divides. They're asking for everything from 10 years of emails with superintendents to 10 years of harassment complaints. These records requests have asked for all the reading lists for English classes from seventh through 12th grade. And this was filed by a parent whose child is just about to enter kindergarten. Initially, the school board said, this is going to take over 300 hours. It's going to cost you, the requester, close to $10,000 to fulfill because, you know, every school district is mostly allowed to charge for their time processing the records requests.

And this is a relatively small school district. So they would have to reassign people to deal with this. And they're saying, this is coming at a time when we're finishing out a crazy year disrupted by COVID and trying to give kids a normal prom and just finish out, you know, one, hopefully, last school year that is disrupted by a pandemic. We just don't have time for this volume of records requests. But then when they push back and say anything about how cumbersome it is, it became a controversy because then it's seen as if they are trying to hide something.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is NBC investigative reporter Tyler Kingkade. We'll talk more about the conservative movement opposing the teaching of critical race theory after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN BATISTE TRIO'S "KINDERGARTEN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with NBC investigative reporter Tyler Kingkade. We're talking about the new conservative movement that has mobilized against the teaching of critical race theory. Critical race theory is the study of systemic racism, but this movement has included the study of equity issues, about equality, under this umbrella. This movement has led to the ousting of school board members accused of supporting teaching critical race theory and the drafting of legislation to ban teaching it. Kingkade has been investigating the people, money and strategy behind this movement.

Prominent Republican figures are rushing in to support the parent activists who are protesting the teaching of what they describe as critical race theory. Why are Republican figures rushing in to support this? Do they have larger goals? What are their goals?

KINGKADE: Yeah, there are absolutely larger goals at play. I think there are a lot of people in conservative activist circles and in Republican circles who see this as their chance at another Tea Party-like wave. There has just been a transfer of power at the national level. There's a lot of people who feel frustrated that their side lost, and they're looking for a place to channel that. And at the same time, this is really something that, I think, gives folks who get engaged with this a little ownership in it. Like, this is their school board, their school district. Like, they feel like they are the ones to make a difference.

And so school boards are typically nonpartisan. I mean, these are not races where school board members, you know, run for their (laughter) nomination with the Democratic or Republican Party, but they are still elections. And so I think there is a sense - that has been, you know, explained by Steve Bannon, former Trump advisor, for example - that they can get people engaged here at the local level, get them involved in the process and then they'll be energized to propel Republicans in midterm elections as well.

GROSS: Yeah. Let me let me quote what Steve Bannon said on a podcast. He said, "the path to save the nation is very simple. It's going to go through the school boards." So expand a little bit more about what it would mean to have conservative-leaning school boards, what it would mean for conservative politics and politicians.

KINGKADE: Yeah, and to an extent, like, conservatives have already tried to get on school boards and have been on school boards. In some of these cases, these are school districts that already have people who self-identify as Republicans. But, you know, you can go back and look at a lot of debates over what kind of textbooks will be used in school boards. You know, they can have some influence - if not directly on the curriculum as the school board, then over the superintendent - in limiting what is taught or what is approved to be displayed in school districts. For conservatives to win at, you know, getting more school board members ousted, I think it would energize a lot of folks.

I would also say, you know, Steve Bannon compared this to the Tea Party wave. I mean, we are not the ones who came up with looking at this like Tea Party 2.0. That's been something conservative activists point out. If you look at scenes from school boards, whether it's this week or going back a couple months, a lot of these scenes look very similar to what we saw in 2009, 2010, when the Tea Party wave started, and folks were confronting members of Congress over the debate of the Affordable Care Act. And this is something that I do think really does have the chance to result in a Tea Party-like wave.

GROSS: Trump, when he was president, weighed in on critical race theory, too. He issued an executive order - I think this was last September - ordering the Office of Management and Budget to stop funding training on CRT for federal employees, and he called the training a propaganda effort. What was he trying to do? In what way was the Office of Management and Budget funding the training of CRT?

KINGKADE: This was in an order that President Trump gave after hearing about some of these trainings on Fox News. There's a conservative activist named Christopher Rufo who takes credit for inspiring this executive order because he reported last fall about how there were some trainings going on with federal contractors that subjected people to talk about their white privilege and, the way he saw it, as blaming white people for problems. President Trump took this on. I mean, Trump is known for someone who takes on a lot of these race issues with sort of a, you know - people liken it to dog-whistle politics. And so from President Trump's view, it was a step he could take, without getting members of Congress involved, to strike at a culture war issue.

And at the time, you know, this was a couple months before the election. Perhaps it could rile up his base, to get people motivated to think we've got to keep Trump in because otherwise this is the kind of thinking that will wash over in a potential Biden administration. President Biden, upon taking office, immediately revoked this order banning how certain diversity training can be taught. But this was something that President Trump took action on with regard to federal agencies and federal contractors to limit how they can do these sort of diversity and anti-racism trainings for employees.

GROSS: So there has been legislation drafted on the state level to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools. How far has that gotten so far?

KINGKADE: Yeah, so a handful of states have already passed some version of a ban on either critical race theory or the teaching of divisive concepts in schools. And this is something we found in our reporting, that conservative groups, like The Heritage Foundation, which is a think tank, have been hosting calls between activists leading some of these on-the-ground parent groups and conservative lawmakers to talk about the different bills, the different legislation that they've been pushing through. Republicans have also taken a step forward in other ways.

For example, in Florida, the State Board of Education voted to ban it, so it didn't take a vote by lawmakers. In Montana, the attorney general issued an opinion that effectively banned or limited how critical race theory or divisive concepts can be taught in schools. And it's really unclear how these laws are going to play out. I mean, very few of them have been on the books for, you know, more than a month. So I think a lot of schools and a lot of, you know, teachers are just waiting to see, like, well, what does this mean? What can I talk about then? - because a lot of school districts said to begin with they weren't teaching critical race theory. And suddenly, this ban has passed. So what does it mean that they can't talk about it if they don't think they were teaching it to begin with?

GROSS: There's a group called ALEC, which is an acronym for the American Legislative Exchange Council. And what they do is draft model legislation that can be used - conservative model legislation that can be used by states as a template. How has ALEC gotten involved in this fight about CRT?

KINGKADE: Yeah. So ALEC, like the Heritage Foundation, is one of the groups that have been hosting webinars, especially over the winter between the election and the inauguration of Biden, to talk about critical race theory. And so this predates this wave of activism we've seen confronting school boards, where they were getting together and talking about how critical race theory was infiltrating schools and what needed to be done to stop it. And essentially, that's one of the ways that you can look at how this sort of gestates before it reaches local parents, who then show up at school boards to talk about it.

The idea of a webinar can sound sort of, you know, dry and kind of an academic or kind of a nerdy approach to these things. But, you know, those videos then get shared. They get uploaded to YouTube. They circulate on Facebook. And as a parent, you know, in whatever town gets upset about something they hear the school is doing as it relates to gender or race, you know, they go looking for what's going on. They find these. And then they go, ah, it's critical race theory. This is what they were talking about a few months ago. This must be what I'm seeing as well.

GROSS: All right, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is NBC investigative reporter Tyler Kingkade. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "ENVISIONINGS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with NBC investigative reporter Tyler Kingkade. He's been reporting on how the right has mobilized against the teaching of critical race theory, the study of systemic racism, leading to the ousting of school board members accused of supporting teaching it and the drafting of legislation to ban teaching it.

Who are some of the people, what are some of the groups that are backing the opposition to the teaching of critical race theory in the schools?

KINGKADE: Yeah. So one of the first groups that sprouted up around this started last summer. It's called No Left Turn in Education. It was started by a mother living in a suburb of Philadelphia who was upset with some anti-racism lessons taught to elementary school students in her town, in her district. She wrote a letter to the superintendent saying that these were not appropriate for kids their age and that this was woke indoctrination. She was upset. She got a little bit of media coverage and then ended up going on Tucker Carlson in September. And she told me that after that appearance on Tucker Carlson, the group that she had started, No Left Turn in Education, shot up from fewer than 200 followers on Facebook to 30,000 within just a day. And she told me that, really, Tucker Carlson started her movement. She said, quote, "he doesn't know it, but he did."

And this is something that has kind of been how many of these other groups developed. They would start within a district and then get some media attention, and then more people would flock to join their cause. Another group that started from the top, at the national level, is called Parents Defending Education. And they've taken the approach of really going more through the teaching route, teaching parents how to become activists, how to file records requests, how to submit tips that Parents Defending Education can then share with reporters and then gen up more media attention to this issue. So there have been a handful of different groups that have taken similar approaches, though, of coordinating activists and helping them link up with other parents or giving them resources or sort of a toolkit, an explainer of how to become an activist at their local level within their own school district.

GROSS: And, of course, conservative media has played a big role in amplifying the anti-CRT message. We mentioned Tucker Carlson. What else has been happening on conservative media that is making this into a really big conservative issue?

KINGKADE: Yeah. This is something that has been mentioned, at this point, as of mid-June, over 1,300 times on Fox News within the past few months. There is coverage daily on Fox News. And Fox News is really the biggest platform for this. But a lot of the right-wing media have been focusing on this for months. So - you know, websites like The Daily Wire, Breitbart, Washington Free Beacon. They cover everything from the parents organizing against the school boards to individual lessons or videos that leak and they get a hold of and they can highlight as an example of what they think is too ideological or too far left of teaching to kids.

GROSS: And other conservative outlets have been amplifying the message, too. And just this week, right-wing talk show host Michael Savage was on the right-wing news site Newsmax. And he said that the teaching of what he describes as critical race theory in schools is, like, exactly what was done to the Jews in Germany. And it's the road to the death camps for white people. And then the co-host of the show, Steve Cortes, had earlier say, I'd prefer to call it anti-white racism because, let's face it, no matter what flavor this takes or what shape this takes, the goal always is to shame white people. So this is becoming a big national issue. Do you think conservatives are hoping this will affect the vote during the midterm elections, that it will be a hot-button issue that drives people - that drives conservatives to the polls?

KINGKADE: It is definitely something that people in conservative, in Republican circles think is going to help them in elections. This is something that aides to Republican campaigns have said is something they see as an issue they can paint all Democrats with. And I think it really remains to be seen. There's been some polling out already just within May and June that looked at this issue and Americans' approval or disapproval of it. Some of the polling, though, has found a really large percentage of Americans still don't know what critical race theory is.

And I think that's one of the things here that's going on is, like, there's a rush to define it, to associate critical race theory with a negative implication before anyone else can hear about it and say, well, I've heard about critical race theory and I don't really care about it, I don't mind it. But if you can introduce it, and this first time a parent hears about it, they hear about something bad happening, then maybe they'll remember that later when it's brought up as just sort of a key word that they listen to on the campaign trail in - later in 2021 for some states like Virginia, or in 2022, when we have midterm elections in Congress.

GROSS: It's such a confusing issue for some people because what's being taught in the schools isn't critical race theory, because critical race theory is something that pertains to the university level. It's, you know, it's an academic pursuit. It's not something you're going to learn in kindergarten or sixth grade or seventh grade. But the idea of racism and equity is something that is being introduced in schools. But that's not the language that the opposition is using. They're not saying we're against children learning that there's racism in American history. So do you think that the way this conservative movement is positioning and describing CRT is misleading?

KINGKADE: Yes, certainly. I've talked to many parents at this point who said when they first heard the word equity, they thought it meant the same thing as equality. And only later did they find out a different definition of equity. And the way they look at it is equity, which is something that you'll hear in many companies, in many school districts as a goal, as something that they may even have someone hired to focus on, the parents against critical race theory will say equity means everyone gets the same grade or that a child who is Black or Latino is going to get a better grade just because of their race. And that's just simply not it.

I mean, equity is something that has already become a dirty word in many school districts, even though if a child has dyslexia, they will get extra tutoring to make sure that they can finish reading an assignment. And it's not so that they get an automatic A grade. It's so that they can finish the assignment just like the rest of the class. That's really what equity is. But then when equity is discussed within the confines of race or class, then it becomes something that parents see as associated with critical race theory and something that they think is inherently wrong.

GROSS: Well, Tyler Kingkade, thank you for your reporting. And thank you for talking with us on FRESH AIR. I really appreciate it.

KINGKADE: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It's been great to talk.

GROSS: Tyler Kingkade is an investigative reporter with NBC News. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review the two albums bass player Mario Pavone recorded as a kind of final statement when he knew he was in the end stage of cancer. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY GOLDINGS' "DARIO AND BARIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.