After five years of political turmoil and some unwanted national media attention, Michigan has new social studies standards.
They were controversial to the end, with dozens of Michigan conservatives pleading with the State Board of Education to reject the standards – a year after liberals complained about a previous draft.
A 2018 draft of the standards that guide history and social studies lessons in public classrooms eliminated references to climate change and gay rights, and cut “democratic” from the phrase “core democratic values,” at the behest of a group of conservatives who helped draft an earlier version of the standards.
Those deletions are reversed in the draft approved Tuesday by the Michigan State Board of Education, with the board’s six Democratic members voting yes and two Republican members voting no.
The standards likely won’t be implemented in Michigan classrooms until the 2020-21 school year, Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said.
That proved little comfort to the board’s two dissenters.
“It’s clear these (standards) are biased to the left,” said Tom McMillin, R-Oakland Township. “The result is not what everyone at this table wants - it’s going to (result in) less support for public education, more people pulling their kids out (of schools).”
Nikki Snyder, R-Dexter, said the standards “perpetuate distrust” between the public and state school leaders because conservatives’ views are not reflected in the final version.
Some parents who spoke at the board meeting Tuesday said the standards were biased against Christians, with several telling the board they were unhappy with references to gay rights.
Tiffany Tilley, an African-American Democratic board member from Southfield, rejected that criticism.
“All I’m hearing is that we should exclude some of the things that make America great,” Tilley said. “My people were excluded from history for a long time. People have been saying we’re pushing a gay agenda. No, we just want to stop excluding people.”
Standards are state guidelines for what topics are to be taught in a given subject at each grade level, and are periodically updated. Specific curriculum (i.e., how topics are covered, which textbooks are used, etc.) is generally set at the local level.
A public uproar followed a 2018 Bridge article detailing conservative-tinged changes to an earlier draft. The education department held 18 public meetings around the state in 2018 in which the vast majority of comments, according to education department officials at the time, were critical of proposed revisions, which critics said were politically motivated.
A new draft was presented to the board in April that reversed many of the 2018 changes, leading to a backlash from conservatives. Several dozen spoke to the board Tuesday, urging them to vote no on the standards.
One parent called the standards a “political document” presenting “our nation as nothing more than one among many.”
Many were upset that there are references to the United States being a democracy, rather than a constitutional republic. The standards have 14 references to democracy and 12 to republic.
Janice Daniels, a former mayor of Troy who was recalled after several controversies including saying homosexuality was a mental illness, spoke against the standards. She said the standards approved Tuesday were “a globalist agenda” that will “push our children into a collectivist mindset that’s designed to destroy their ability to self-govern.”
MDE held nine public meetings around the state in April and May and took comments on the standards online. Among those who responded to a survey, 54 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with the standards, along with 67 percent of teachers who were satisfied or unsatisfied, according to MDE.
Few substantive changes were made to the standards following those meetings. A reference to the Ten Commandments was added to a section on the influence of legal codes and belief systems on the development of empires. A reference to loss of sturgeon was added as an example of current threats to Michigan natural resources.
The board was fiercely split along party lines. At one point Tuesday, board members debated the difference between socialism and authoritarianism. Republican members McMillin and Snyder said the standards were tilted too far left – a mirror of the complaint Democrats on the board had with the 2018 draft.
Board chair Casandra Ulbrich, D-Rochester Hills, said the five-year process “brought as many voices into the process as we possibly could.”
You can compare the 2018 draft that Democrats criticized with the April 2019 standards Republicans criticized, which are very similar to the final standards approved Tuesday, here.