- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2021

The National Education Association teachers union has sued a mother in Rhode Island, seeking to block a local school district from giving her public records she wants about how critical race theory is being taught in public K-12 schools there.

The lawsuit against Nicole Solas, filed in state court, means the NEA, one of the two largest teachers unions in the U.S., is making good on its vow to go after parents and groups that challenge the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.

“I wish I could say I was shocked, but this is exactly the kind of bullying tactics the teachers union uses,” Ms. Solas said. “It’s actually pretty predictable, as I think it’s just another way for the school committee to get around releasing public records.”

Ms. Solas and the public school system in South Kingstown have clashed for months as she sought information on what would be taught to her daughter, who will enter kindergarten this fall. 

Ms. Solas initially was curious why the words “boys” and “girls” are no longer used in South Kingstown kindergarten, which grew into concern about the extent of critical race theory in the curriculum there. Feeling stonewalled when she approached school officials, Ms. Solas filed some 200 public records requests. In response, school administrators asked for $74,000 in fees and the elected members of the district’s school committee contemplated filing their own lawsuit against her.

Lawyers at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative public interest law firm in Arizona that is representing Ms. Solas, called the NEA’s lawsuit an overreach.

“This is plainly an intimidation tactic,” attorney Jon Riches said. “This is unprecedented. The law just doesn’t contemplate a third party suing someone trying to get public records out of a government entity.”

Critical race theory is a Marxist concept birthed in law school that has morphed into a broad campaign, called “anti-racist” by its practitioners, to overhaul education and institutions in the U.S. Critical race theorists argue U.S. laws and institutions are inherently racist and that Whites still oppress Blacks and other people of color.

The committee and administration are also named as plaintiffs in the NEA’s lawsuit, although the union said that is because they are the custodians of the records sought by Ms. Solas and another plaintiff, identified as John Doe Hartman, who has filed 20 public records requests.

Some legal experts said the case smacks of collusion between the NEA and South Kingstown officials, given both parties have tried to prevent Ms. Solas from obtaining the records.

“My initial take is that this smells collusive,” said William Jacobson, a conservative law professor at Cornell Law School who runs the Legal Insurrection blog and has followed Ms. Solas’s odyssey closely.

“South Kingstown doesn’t want to produce records and the union is helping them out,” he wrote last Thursday on his blog. “The lawsuit purports to prevent disclosure of ‘private’ information, but the public records laws and Solas’ request pursuant to those laws only require the district to produce public records. The district has been very aggressive in asserting exemptions and redacting documents, so the union’s concern and rush to court seems peculiar, at best.”   

The public records requests from Ms. Solas and Mr. Hartman sought emails and other documents, including possible disciplinary actions, against a handful of named individuals who are NEA members or working with NEA members in some capacity in South Kingstown schools.

For example, Ms. Solas has requested information about a BIPOC Advisory Board that was formed to craft “anti-racist” policies for the schools and was led by Robin Wildman, a former teacher turned outside consultant. BIPOC is an acronym that stands for “Black, Indigenous and people of color.”

Ms. Wildman, whom the lawsuit says is a former NEA member, has publicly expressed her belief that political advocacy and teaching go hand-in-hand.

The NEA contends records and correspondence between Ms. Wildman, other teachers and former superintendent Linda Savastano may include information that is not subject to public records laws and should not be disclosed.

The NEA’s suit also argues its union activities are not public records and that the sweeping nature of the requests may violate its members’ privacy.

“We are asking the court to conduct a balancing test to determine whether our members’ privacy rights outweigh the public interest,” said Jennifer Azevedo, deputy executive director of NEARI, the teachers union’s Rhode Island branch. “We believe they do, and those records should either not be disclosed or should be redacted accordingly.”

“While NEARI and NEASK [NEA-South Kingstown] support access to public information, the organizations firmly believe in protecting the rights, safety and privacy of its members and will continue to advocate strongly on their behalf,” Ms. Azevedo said.

The lawsuit cites Ms. Solas’ appearances on Fox News among the reasons the union needs to protect its teachers. 

“Given the circumstances of the requests, it is likely that any teachers who are identifiable and have engaged in discussion about things like critical race theory will be the subject of teacher harassment by national conservative groups opposed to critical race theory,” it says.

The NEA on Thursday sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Ms. Solas in Rhode Island Superior Court.

“Will teachers’ unions bullying moms be an everyday thing now?” Ms. Solas asked on Twitter.

Education professionals and consultants have said critical race theory is not a part of K-12 education or that what is being taught doesn’t amount to critical race theory. Opponents say the phrase is accepted as shorthand for what has been occurring in the classroom.

The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers said last month that they would defend any teachers challenged for teaching critical race theory, with the 3 million-member NEA saying its official position is that it is “reasonable and appropriate” to teach the theory. The unions also said they would pay for “opposition research” on groups and people who oppose critical race theory.

South Kingstown school committee members accused Ms. Solas of working with Parents Defending Education, a conservative group formed to combat what it calls critical race theory’s pernicious impact on K-12 public and charter schools. 

The group denied mentoring Ms. Solas personally. It offers advice for parents on its website and encourages parents to take action against schools and school boards that are using critical race theory or spending public money to implement it.

At least five states have banned critical race theory from their public and charter schools, with other legislatures considering similar action.

The fight has sparked federal lawsuits in Nevada and Minnesota that say critical race theory practices violate civil rights laws and the First Amendment rights of students.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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