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Some school board candidates this year are pushing to limit lessons on Black history. Where do Champaign Unit 4 candidates stand?

Lawyer Betsy Holder (right) says she fully supports teaching about racism. From left: Mark Holm, Jamar Brown, Mark Thies, Betsy Holder.

CHAMPAIGN – Some conservative groups are mobilizing in Illinois school districts against what they call “critical race theory,” or teaching about systemic racism.

With early voting for April 4 school board elections underway, we asked the Champaign Unit 4 Board of Education candidates for their positions on the topic.

Six candidates say students should learn African American history and the history of racism. The seventh, business owner Mark Holm, declined to be interviewed.

  • Incumbent Amy Armstrong – “When you look at the way we have taught children, slavery is white history. It is not Black history. And we need to be teaching African American history. Where did you start? Where did you and your family come from? And show the roots and the beauty of their existence before slavery ever became involved. That is their history. And it’s a beautiful thing, and children should know it. And absolutely all of us should know about slavery and what awfulness happened between one race and another. It was terrible, and it was a crime against humanity, and it should be talked about.”
  • Past board member Jamar Brown – “I think if it happened in America, and we’re saying we’re teaching history, then our students need to hear about it. There’s no way to argue that we want our students to be versed in all of American history if we don’t teach all of American history.”
  • Retired executive director of the State Universities Civil Service System Jeff Brownfield – “American history is American history. It doesn’t matter what person was affected by that. It doesn’t matter that George Washington was white, he was still our first president. Slavery happened in our country. Bad things have happened through Jim Crow, through the Civil Rights Movement, to people mostly of color, but it’s our history. That history should be taught completely, and without shame. And without a particular bent of political right or left to the subject.”
  • Attorney Betsy Holder – “I could not be more pro-critical race theory if you want to use a buzzword. Many people alive today had to use a different drinking fountain. I mean, it is prevalent in our communities. We need to learn about it and we need to learn how it has shaped culture and our communities and how we view race and everything.”
  • Financial planner Mark Thies – “I think all history needs to be taught.” [Illinois Public Media: “Including African American history?”] “Absolutely.”
  • Social worker AJ Zwettler – “Racism towards African Americans is a huge problem. We definitely need to make sure that our schools are teaching to be kind to everybody, to check our biases and to make sure that we’re inclusive.”

In March 2021, Governor JB Pritzker (D-IL) signed into a law requiring all public schools in Illinois to teach an expanded version of Black history. Lessons should include the period that pre-dates enslavement dating back to 3,000 BCE, the reasons for slavery and the American Civil Rights Movement. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican opponent against President Joe Biden in 2024, has attracted nationwide attention with his administration’s effort to reject an Advanced Placement course on African American History in its schools, saying the class pushed a political agenda rather than teaching students history. 

Jamar Brown (center) is the only Black candidate running for the Unit 4 school board this spring. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

About one in five Champaign Unit 4 students are Latino/x/è/Hispanic or Asian, but there are no candidates from either race or ethnicity running for the school board.

Jamar Brown is the only Black candidate. He says more education about the power of the position would help communities of color get involved.

“Getting families educated on everything that the district does, how it’s going to affect them, and how their voice can be of help is the only way that we can do that,” Brown said.

From left: school board candidates Jeff Brownfield, AJ Zwettler, Amy Armstrong, Mark Holm.

The only incumbent, Amy Armstrong, said there are economic barriers to serving on the board too, since they are volunteer positions. She said every meeting she attends costs her $75 to $100 in specialized childcare.

She said the vitriol board members receive online can also deter candidates of color.

“Three people I recruited to run for this board said, ‘I can’t take the abuse’,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong, Brownfield, Holder and Zwettler identify as White. Thies declined to say his race.

Three Unit 4 seats are not up for reelection this year. Gianina Baker, Bruce Brown and Heather Vazquez fill those seats. Baker and Brown identify as Black, and Vazquez does as White.

Illinois Public Media talked with the candidates after a February 26 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Champaign County, ILVOTE of Champaign County, NAACP Champaign County Branch, Indivisible Rural Illinois, Bend the Arc Jewish Action:Champaign-Urbana, and The News-Gazette.

Watch the livestream of the forum here.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter@amihatt. Information on Gov. DeSantis was provided by the Associated Press.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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