`Bunk' in eye of governor a longtime schools priority

Teaching multiculturalism in regulations since 1970s

May 18, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

It might be "bunk" to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but multiculturalism has been a priority in Maryland public schools since 1970s, when the State Board of Education first issued regulations addressing the contributions of other cultures, which Ehrlich is sworn to uphold.

In widely publicized comments made on a radio station this month, the governor derided the concept of multiculturalism as pushed by advocates promoting what he calls political correctness. "Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and other places, you run into a problem," the governor said.

Those "other places" include every public school in the state, a fact unmentioned as the dispute over his comments has escalated.

Maryland schools operate under what are now called "Education That is Multicultural" regulations that carry the force of law, and require that books, lesson plans and instruction in prekindergarten through 12th grade include mention of the problems and contributions of different cultures in the United States.

The laws have been altered several times since first formulated at the insistence of African-American leaders seeking equality.

Substantive changes were made in 1993 and 1999, under the guidance of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, an ally of the governor who was considering becoming his running mate in 2002.

Under the regulations, the State Department of Education must help schools develop a curriculum that "enables students to demonstrate an understanding of and an appreciation for cultural groups in the United States as an integral part of education for a culturally pluralistic society."

The curriculum, according to the law, is supposed to include "emphasis on correcting the omissions and misrepresentations of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women and individuals with disabilities," as well as "political, social and economic conditions which cultural groups have experienced and continue to experience in the United States."

Ehrlich would not respond directly to questions about the regulations yesterday, but an aide said he reviewed them after a reporter's inquiry and did not find them objectionable.

`A disconnect'

"He looked at it for five minutes," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "He thinks there is a disconnect between the term and the provisions. The provisions do not fall under the governor's definition of multiculturalism."

Ehrlich "has always defined multiculturalism as a separating off of different communities into different camps based on ethnicity," Fawell continued. "In the governor's mind, these provisions [in current law] help students understand different ethnicities, and how they contribute to the American way of life."

While the governor must uphold existing laws, he also can use his authority to change them. He could ask the General Assembly to approve legislation altering the way multiculturalism is taught in schools, or he could direct the schools superintendent - a member of his Cabinet - to bring new curriculum and instructional goals to the school board.

But the governor will probably not make such an effort, Fawell said. "I didn't get any indication today that that would be the case," he said.

The regulations also touch on language. Under the law, teachers are supposed to "promote a school climate in which different cultural linguistic patterns are respected."

It was the language problems of a McDonald's worker in Severna Park that angered Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, and launched the debate. Ehrlich made his comments as he came to Schaefer's defense.

While Ehrlich has said he wants American values to reign supreme, state law mandates that books and other instructional materials reflect the viewpoints of different cultures.

Textbooks and other materials used in Maryland schools must be "materials that avoid stereotyping, discrimination, bias and prejudice," the law states, and "materials that reflect diverse experiences relating to cultural groups and individuals."

Grasmick, the superintendent, said the current regulations were developed to help address an achievement gap between minority and white students and to accommodate an increasingly diverse population.

"We now have 190 languages spoken in our schools," Grasmick said. "We need to develop in our programs an understanding of other cultures and ethnic groups."

As Schaefer alluded to in his initial comments, "English is the unifying language" in Maryland schools, Grasmick said. "That is the expectation, that students are going to develop English proficiency," she said.

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