Equity & Diversity

A $5 Million Fine for Classroom Discussions on Race? In Tennessee, This Is the New Reality

By Eesha Pendharkar — August 03, 2021 5 min read
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Tennessee aims to levy fines starting at $1 million and rising to $5 million on school districts each time one of their teachers is found to have “knowingly violated” state restrictions on classroom discussions about systemic racism, white privilege, and sexism, according to guidance proposed by the state’s department of education late last week.

Teachers could also be disciplined or lose their licenses for teaching that the United States is inherently racist or sexist or making a student feel “guilt or anguish” because of past actions committed by their race or sex.

The guidance received immediate backlash from advocates of students of color in the state who say it would have a disproportionate impact on already underfunded, majority Black and Latino school districts.

“There’s also a fear for young students of color who are in districts that are majority white and now there’s no protection for them and their white student peers in learning about truthful history and racism,” said Cardell Orrin, the executive director of Stand for Children Tennessee, a group that advocates for historically disenfranchised students.

The new guidance lays out the complaint process that a current student, parent, or employee can initiate against a district if they believe an educator has violated the law, but it does not elaborate on what specifically school districts are banned from teaching, as many teacher advocates had hoped. Instead, it cites 11 broad concepts that teachers can’t teach or use materials to promote. For example, students can’t be told that they are “inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,” or bear responsibility for past actions committed by members of their race or sex. Experts have called the language of these laws vague.

Tennessee’s department of education will allow the public to weigh in on the rules until Wednesday, Aug. 11, according to the Tennessean.

Tennessee is one of 11 states this year that have drastically curtailed the ways that districts can fight systemic and individual acts of racism, homophobia, and sexism in the classroom and how teachers can talk to students about the ways America’s government has historically discriminated against minorities. Another 16 states have similar bills that are set to be considered during next year’s legislative session.

Advocates of the bills argue that public school districts are indoctrinating students with teachers’ political agendas and, through their equity initiatives, giving students of color an unfair advantage over white students.

Opponents of the bills argue that school districts can no longer ignore longstanding academic disparities between white students and students of color and are obligated to teach all students a more complete and nuanced version of America’s racist past.

In most instances, the laws spell out which anti-racist initiatives districts are no longer allowed to practice and what “divisive” concepts teachers are no longer allowed to discuss, but state legislatures left room for state departments of education to determine how to enforce the laws.

Several lawyers Education Week has spoken to have expressed fear that state departments will make the laws more stringent through the rules.

States are getting specific about penalties under ‘critical race theory’ laws

Tennessee’s Department of Education is the second in the country to release additional guidance on how its censorship law will be enforced, following Oklahoma’s state department, which released guidance in mid-July.

Oklahoma educators could have their teaching licenses suspended or revoked and schools could lose accreditation if an investigation finds evidence that they taught about racism and sexism in ways that violated the law.
Oklahoma will also allow parents the right to inspect curriculum, instructional materials, classroom assignments, and lesson plans to “ensure compliance.”

Tennessee’s 11-page document outlines the process of filing a complaint alleging the violation of the law and the consequences that teachers might face if the district or state determines that they used prohibited materials or discussed a banned concept. For the most part, school districts will be in charge of investigating a complaint and deciding a course of action. In instances where the accuser or the accused disagree with the district’s decision, the state’s commissioner of education will have the final say.

Like Oklahoma’s rules, Tennessee’s also require school districts to investigate complaints if parents or students claim that an educator violated the law.

Parents, students or district employees can file complaints up to 30 days after the violation allegedly occurred, according to the rules. After a district receives the complaint, it has 60 days to investigate. If it finds the allegations to be true, it must start remedial action such as removing the reference material cited in the complaint from the curriculum or taking “disciplinary or licensure action against a teacher,” the rules say.

Either the complainant or person the complaint accused of violating the law can appeal the district’s decision within 15 days to the state department’s review committee. If the committee finds that a prohibited concept was taught, it can file a report to the commissioner, who will determine if the allegation is substantiated.

“It could be worse. It could’ve been that [complaints] go straight to the state and the state decides to take money away,” said Orrin. “This puts enough layers of local control in the process that it makes a lot of sense to allow teachers to teach what they need to teach, and figure out where complaints are coming from and then start to address it from there.”

If the department then determines that a violation occurred, it can withhold $1 million or 2 percent of the district’s state funding, whichever is less. The fines ramp up with each violation, amounting to a penalty of $5 million or 10 percent of state funding for the fifth time a district is determined to be in violation of state law.

Tennessee’s state department has already started to receive complaints of violations of the law.

In June, the Williamson County chapter of the national group Moms for Liberty, a group advocating for “parental rights,” wrote to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn objecting to a lesson about Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an elementary school in Louisiana, which they said made white students in the class feel uncomfortable.

“Targeting elementary age children with daily lessons on fighting past injustices as if they were occurring in present day violates Tennessee law and will sow the seeds of racial strife, neo-racism (and) neo-segregation,” Robin Steenman, the chair of the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty wrote in the complaint.

A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2021 edition of Education Week as A $5 Million Fine for Classroom Discussions on Race? In Tennessee, This Is the New Reality

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