In this April 26, 2021, file photo, a student holding a U.S. flag upside down stands atop the steps at the Idaho Capitol building in Boise. The Idaho Senate has approved legislation aimed at preventing schools and universities from "indoctrinating" students through teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law. Credit: Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman via AP

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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

A man tries to wash his hands using an automatic soap dispenser in a public restroom. No soap.

His friend has no trouble getting soap to flow from the same dispenser. It works fine.

What’s going on here? The first man is Black and the second is white. The sensor activates the flow of soap by bouncing light off a user’s hands. The Black man’s hands absorb too much light to reflect it back.

Nobody in this story is a racist, yet the Black man has a sense of second-rate treatment. When the faucet was designed and tested, the problem of skin color was overlooked. Though nobody knows, the designer may have been white.

This story may illustrate the mildest possible expression of critical race theory, which is stirring controversy these days. Its worst expression may be the George Floyd case, the public murder of a Black man by a white police officer.

Critical race theory has been described as arguing that “racism is rooted in the nation’s founding and that systemic racism continues to affect the way people of color are treated at all levels in society.”

The U.S. Department of Education under the Biden Administration has proposed that some federal aid to education require instruction favorable to this theory. The proposal has met with strong opposition from some states.

The attorneys general of 20 states have asked the federal government to back off this plan. They claim that the theory “props up an idea based not in fact, but on the idea that the United States is a nation founded on white supremacy, patriarchy, and oppression and that these forces are still at the root of our society.”

Some people, mainly Black people, feel the harm and danger of racism daily and believe others need a better understanding of their lives. Other people do not consider themselves racists or implicitly to be white supremacists. Those conflicting sentiments set up the issue.

Legislatures in some of the objecting states have moved to block the teaching of this theory in their schools. The states opposing the proposed requirement are all under Republican control and the issue risks becoming partisan.

It would be difficult to find a more difficult or serious issue in American life. The Education Department does not profess to be neutral, but would condition the flow of federal funds on the teaching of a disputed interpretation of the facts.

That is what has made it a political issue. Republicans may see it as giving them the opportunity to defend traditional American beliefs, based on a set of values that may be widely admired if not supported by history. For example, “all men are created equal” did not even legally apply to women and Blacks until long after the Declaration of Independence.

The federal government seeks to influence classroom instruction by requiring what must be taught and some legislatures want to ban a subject from the same classroom. Both depart from the concept that parents control their children’s educations, within the law, acting through local school boards.

That’s not the only major case of an historic, political battle over what is taught in school. Another is about religion.

Historically, many public schools included prayer in daily activities. Public funds for prayer or celebrating Christmas were ruled illegal, violating the ban on government endorsing religion. Politicians charged there was a “war on Christmas.”

Schools could still teach about religion, including the religious beliefs of the nation’s founders, without teaching religion itself. The Supreme Court decided that public funds for specific purposes should go to all schools, public or religious, though not for religious instruction.

Going further, a federal appeals court last week ruled that Vermont could not deny tuition payments for students in religious schools, which may provide religious instruction. The result could aid religious schools, allowing them to draw students away from public education. Maine may face a similar situation.

Using public funds to favor teaching of critical race theory or to support religious instruction places government in a position of great influence over education. The focus on race and religion may obscure the impact on education.

What’s more, education is increasingly drawn into the current partisan conflict. By seeking to influence teaching about race or religion, the parties may be as concerned about attracting voter support as the quality of education.

Students are at risk. Education is supposed to give them the tools to make their own judgments. If public policy leads schools to guide their thinking toward conclusions on which wide differences of opinion and belief exist, they may be influenced by whoever controls the government of the day.

Education, funded by the public, should keep the school’s doors open to all ideas and theories, however disputed, without taking sides.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.