A flat vector illustration depicting a mother pulling her child out of school during history class.
Credit: Denise Kyeremeh / UNC Media Hub

This piece was originally published by UNC Media Hub

VALDESE, N.C. — Gina Walker-Bailey is a well-known conservative presence in Burke County, a Republican stronghold in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. She is the chairwoman of the Burke County Republican Women, the second vice chair for the Burke County GOP, and helped create the Foothills Conservative Network, a local organization that sells T-shirts with American flag iconography and phrases such as “Just a Regular Mom Trying to Raise Conservatives” printed on them. 

While she recovered from surgery on a broken arm, Walker-Bailey would spend her free time substitute teaching in Burke County Public Schools, where her two youngest children were enrolled. During her time in the classroom, she remembers seeing multicolored LGBTQ+ pride flags pinned to classroom walls and lesson plans on police brutality against Black Americans.

“When I grew up, I didn’t know what my teacher even liked for dinner. I didn’t know what she liked to watch on HBO, if she had cable even. I didn’t know if she liked President Reagan, I didn’t know if she liked Barack Obama,” she said.

Walker-Bailey is the poster child of one side of the debate on racism education in public schools. She represents a small but vocal faction of parents and politicians who fear that curriculums that overly focus on race will only contribute to more division. On the other hand, some educators worry that children who do not learn about racism and oppression are doomed to repeat those same cycles.  

Gina Walker-Bailey

In a speech given at a county school board meeting in June 2021, Walker-Bailey expressed concern about a Scholastic News magazine that covered the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests that was assigned as required reading in a middle school in Burke County.

“I am very disappointed that the Burke County school system has not been proactive and advanced in putting a stop or a parameter around our children when it comes to critical race theory,” she said. 

“Critical race theory” is a term that has been used in conservative circles and in popular culture to describe a high-level field of study that teaches that racism and oppression of people of color is systemic, institutional, and embedded into the legal and political frameworks of the United States. Both the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and Burke County Public Schools contend that critical race theory is not required in the North Carolina Standard Course of Study at any grade level, and as such is not officially taught in any public school classroom in North Carolina.  

“Critical race theory is not taught in the K-12 setting. It is a high-level law course that is taught in graduate and postgraduate studies,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, who is the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “What we do teach, and what we aim to teach in our K-12 settings, is an honest and accurate education history for our students to understand themselves and the world and their communities around them. So many of the things we try to teach in order to be culturally responsive and historically accurate for our students have lately, over the past few years, been conflated into critical race theory.” 

Walker Kelly has not taught full-time since assuming her role as president in 2020, but she previously worked as an elementary school music specialist in Cumberland County. Her goal as an educator is to develop students into engaged citizens who are involved in their local communities.

“Equipping our students with the knowledge that allows them to interact in ways that continue to help our communities and our state and our nation be better to each other, ultimately, you know, makes the whole world better,” Walker Kelly said. 

In a music classroom like Walker Kelly’s, that looks like listening to music pieces performed by artists of diverse backgrounds and exploring the contexts in which songs were written. When teaching her fifth grade students about the famous folk song “This Land Is Your Land,” Walker Kelly made sure to include that the song was written as a form of protest during the Great Depression.

“Thinking about, okay, so does that change how you think about the song now, now that you know that it’s not just a song that celebrates the different lands but talks about something completely different?” she said. “When students are able to talk about that song when they leave my classroom, then they know that that song has a story. It doesn’t just exist in isolation.” 

North Carolina does require public school students to learn about the general topics of race and racism in social studies classes.

Tamika Walker Kelly

“Race and racism are located within the social studies standard course of study but there is no one place or grade or course where it is specifically addressed. Instead, these concepts continue to build in depth and complexity as age-appropriate,” said Blair Rhoades, the communications director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, in a statement to UNC Media Hub. Individual educators are given the discretion to decide how exactly those concepts are implemented and taught in the classroom. 

Even though critical race theory may not be an official topic in the state educational standards, Walker-Bailey fears that some teachers will toe the line and use the classroom as a tool for political indoctrination.

“It has infiltrated every part of our classrooms,” Walker-Bailey said. “A majority of that is going to come in your college courses, however, it’s in your classroom books, it’s in your libraries as young as elementary school.”  

Ultimately, Walker-Bailey fears that race and racism-related education in her children’s schools will contribute to an atmosphere of division in her household. She takes issue with curriculums that focus on institutional racism and teach that bias against another race often forms outside children’s own conscious awareness. 

Walker-Bailey and her children are white, but her husband and her children’s stepfather is Black.

“I live in a bicultural, biracial household, in a household where I do not need my son or my daughter to come home and tell me how they are oppressing their father, or how my husband needs to look at his son and say that ‘you know what, you don’t like me because of the color of your skin,’” Walker-Bailey said during her speech at the June 2021 school board meeting.

Less than two years later, she disenrolled her youngest daughter, Addison, from Valdese Elementary School over growing concern with the racism education there. 

The Republican-led North Carolina House of Representatives has introduced several bills that aim to restrict race and racism-related education in public K-12 schools in the state. The most recent, House Bill 187, was filed in March by Republican Reps. John Torbett, Hugh Blackwell, David Willis, and Diane Wheatley, and prevents teachers from requiring students to affirm that certain individuals are oppressed on the basis of race or sex, among other similar tenets of racism education. The bill is similar in content and language to House Bill 324, which was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in 2021. 

Walker Kelly, along with 4,200 educators across the country, signed a pledge vowing to continue to teach race-related topics in her classroom even if the state legislature were to successfully pass a bill outlawing those sorts of discussions in public schools.

“Students want to know about the world they live in and the people around them, and it is my responsibility as an educator to facilitate learning for students,” she said. “And so helping students ask questions about the world around them, to help them find information, and also to build those positive relationships between the students, the parents, and the school, that is my goal as an educator, and so that is one of the things that I will continue to do, pledge or no pledge.”  

As House Bill 187 works its way through the North Carolina General Assembly, lawmakers will have to make decisions on how far educators can go when examining political and cultural issues in public school classrooms.

For Walker-Bailey, politics have little place in the classroom, but for Walker Kelly, these discussions are of the utmost importance. Their viewpoints echo a larger debate on school standards and curriculum not just in Burke County or in North Carolina, but across the United States. 

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

Support independent local journalism

Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.