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Federally funded critical race theory program removes 'critical race theory' from description

Second grant application to the Department of Education is nearly identical to the first, except for omission of politically charged concept.

Published: November 29, 2021 2:53pm

Updated: December 3, 2021 2:26pm

Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Education approved a grant application for a summer research program whose "core feature" was introducing student fellows to "critical race theory."

The feds approved a five-year extension of the original grant for the Research Institute for Scholars of Equity (RISE) this year, with one notable and unexplained omission: the term "critical race theory."

The change suggests promoters of CRT are shying away from using the term as it becomes more politically charged. This summer, the U.S. Senate approved an amendment to the budget reconciliation bill that would ban federal funding for the teaching of CRT in schools.

The 2016 version says students will use "critical race theory (as well as mixed-methods research techniques) as a means of studying issues such as teacher quality, education policy, and race and social justice in education." The 2021 version simply mentions "mixed-methods research techniques." 

A new sentence may be intended to surreptitiously refer to CRT: "During this institute, fellows study the sociocultural contexts of American schooling and learn how to formulate culturally competent research questions." 

The two applications otherwise barely changed, mainly to reflect different participating institutions, according to a web page comparison engine. For example, "Latino/a" remains in both even though the gender-neutral "Latinx" is now standard in higher ed and was already common in 2016.

North Carolina Central University runs the program, which has now received more than $2.6 million in taxpayer dollars across the two five-year grants. RISE "strongly encourage[s]" underrepresented minority students — which typically means non-Asian nonwhites — to apply.

Students get a $6,000 stipend and up to $900 for research-related expenses, among other perks. The 2021 award from taxpayers was more than $400,000 greater even though it serves two fewer students.

The RISE page on the historically black institution's website still specifies CRT is core to the program, even though it otherwise aligns with the 2021 application, including the expanded participant list and new coprincipal investigators.

While the renewed grant was announced this summer, the removal of "critical race theory" doesn't appear to have been publicized until The Center Square newswire referred to the wording change in a post-Thanksgiving report.

The university didn't tell Just the News whether it was aware of the discrepancy between the 2021 grant application and its depiction of the program, and whether the omission of CRT is benign or misrepresents RISE.

Spokesperson Kia Bell provided a statement Dec. 2 that said its description was just "a summary" from the full application, which specifies that "theories - including but not limited to critical race theory - will be explored."

"[I]t is essential to conduct research from the perspective of those under study," in this case African American and Latino/a students, the statement says. "Having frameworks - including but not limited to cultural competence and critical race theory - facilitates the data collection and analyses processes in a way that facilitates the understanding of the impact of systems, in this case, the education system, on marginalized communities from their perspective."

Even though the statement emphasizes "theories," it concludes by noting critical race theory is the perspective through which RISE students analyze issues affecting minorities in education.

NCCU has actually omitted the phrase "critical race theory" from the flyers it promoted to students interested in the RISE program in various years.

The 2017, 2018 and 2020 flyers don't mention any variation of "critical," but all refer to "social equity," another possible euphemism. So does the 2021 flyer. (Just the News couldn't find a 2019 flyer.)

The wording change hasn't been consistent across or even within institutions participating with NCCU. 

The University of New Mexico, a "collaborating" institution, described the June 2020 program as encompassing CRT on an events page but not a flyer. CRT is also missing from the flyer for next year's program.

Pennsylvania State University, which replaced the University of North Carolina Wilmington as the official "partner" in this application, used the academic word "critical" three times in a press release on the grant this summer.

Participating students will be provided with "experiences in conducting critical, mixed-methods education research, year-round mentorship and support in preparing for doctoral study," it said.

"This program is designed to prepare the next generation of critical education researchers to tackle some of the country's most pressing challenges related to access and equity for Black and Latinx students," said Royel Johnson, coprincipal investigator. He'll teach a RISE course on "critical theoretical frameworks."

Principal investigator Wynetta Lee of NCCU, the onetime dean of its education school, didn't respond to queries. Neither did Penn State's Johnson or the other coprincipal investigator, Nina Smith of NCCU.

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