Long Island Regent Roger Tilles spoke to community members in...

Long Island Regent Roger Tilles spoke to community members in Great Neck about "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion" and how it differs from critical race theory. Credit: Hans Pennink

It’s hard to recall any issue capturing the national conversation as quickly as our sudden, no-holds-barred battle over "what they should be teaching our kids in school."

The ferocity of the argument is a little easier to understand if we can admit that for many, it’s not just about what they should be teaching our kids in school.

We are disputing the facts of our history and our present, and disagreeing over how we justly address them.

The fight in our school districts is over the soul of the nation, not whether "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" should be taught in 8th grade or 10th.

These conflicts strike at the root of our identities, and the policies that flow from them shift money and resources from one set of constituencies to another.

Tuesday night at John L. Miller North High School in Great Neck, Long Island Regent Roger Tilles spoke to community members about "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion." After some frighteningly fractious recent conflicts in the district, Tilles was asked to explain "DEI" as a theory and a policy, and explain how it differs from "critical race theory."

Those differences are interesting, but if many CRT protesters at school board meetings have been satisfied by official explanations that DEI is both different and dandy, those conversions haven’t been publicized.

Tuesday’s meeting was courteous and well attended. Tilles made a short speech, then answered questions, relayed by volunteers, inspired by both sides of the debate.

K-12 schools generally don’t teach critical race theory, a complex legal argument stating inequity is built into the structure of our society so firmly that even if we all, as individuals, left racist behavior behind, minorities in general, and Black people in particular, would still be disadvantaged. It’s at least partially true, and worth exploring.

But the core argument is over whether systemic, structural racism exists (it does), what impact that has (it’s significant, but can be overstated), and what to do about it. And some of the conflict is as much about money as race.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in schools is more behavioral and immediate: It includes thought and action designed to make all kids feel accepted and comfortable, and to provide everyone with what they need to learn.

Many of the questions to Tilles focused on the difference between equity and equality. Here’s a scenario to test how we each feel about that contrast.

Take two 1st-grade classes, one wealthy and mostly white, and the other poor and mostly Black. Imagine that, thanks to funding finally being equalized, the students in both classes have the exact same brand-new textbook, "Fun But Tedious!! An Introduction to School Life!"

Now imagine that 80% of the poor class have only just mastered their ABCs, while 80% of those in the rich one, a haven of great preschools and highly educated parents, already read at a 3rd-grade level.

The distribution of identical books is equality. Adding teaching resources for the poor school to try to give these kids the same ability to benefit from the books is equity.

Whether the kids in poor schools need and deserve extra help is one big part of what we’re arguing about. Whether to fund extra help for poor schools by taking resources from rich students, or hiking taxes on rich parents, is another.

With such clashes being contested across the battleground of race, the intensity of the argument is easy to understand.

Columnist Lane Filler’s opinions are his own.