How do you write a policy to implement a state law you disagree with?
That’s the conundrum that faced Atlanta Public Schools after Georgia lawmakers passed a law this summer restricting certain classroom conversations about race and racism. Under the law, school districts were required to formulate policies aligned with it.
It’s a task districts across the country this year may face in the wake of a wave of so-called “anti-CRT laws,” passed by 17 states. Georgia’s law, which went into effect July 1, outlaws teaching students that anyone by virtue of their race “bears individual responsibility for actions committed in the past by other individuals of the same race,” or that they “should feel anguish, guilt, or any other form of psychological distress,” because of their race. It bans “race stereotyping” or “race scapegoating,” espousing personal beliefs which the law deems indoctrination of students, or teaching that the United States is fundamentally racist.
The Atlanta school board was already on record opposing those kinds of limitations on teaching. Its new policy, drafted by the school board last week, walks the tightrope between meeting the requirements of the law and protecting educators’ freedom to continue to have honest, uncensored conversations about race and racism. Parents will have 30 days to comment on this version, after which their feedback will be considered for any edits to be made before final version of the policy goes into effect in November, said Eshé Collins, chair of the Atlanta Board of Education.
“If you firmly believe that teachers should be able to have this intellectual freedom to teach and our students should have the opportunity to learn and experience the world that we are actually preparing them to enter into, what it takes are courageous steps to speak out,” Collins said.
“Knowing our city, knowing what our parents are demanding and the type of education that they want their children to experience, it was important for us to lead the way and speak out against the bill.”
Atlanta’s draft policy states that the school system “supports and encourages an environment that fosters independent and critical thought, including the studying and teaching of issues which may be considered controversial or divisive.”
And it explicitly says that teachers and students have the right to teach and learn about issues considered controversial or divisive and to express opinions on them without fear of retaliation.
But, in keeping with the state law, the draft policy also outlines a process for parents to file complaints against the district and advises teachers that they can continue to discuss controversial issues “in a professionally and academically appropriate manner and without espousing personal political beliefs.”
And it notes that the school system can’t prohibit curricula from addressing slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, or racial discrimination.
“That encapsulates what I believe that boards of education and school systems should be putting in their policies to say ... ‘we are going to teach these concepts because they are important, and we don’t believe it violates the law,’” said Gerald Griggs, an attorney and the president of the Georgia’s NAACP chapter.
“And so I think that it will survive any type of legal scrutiny because of the vagueness of the law,” he added.
Vague language opens laws to interpretation
In other states, these laws have led to teachers self-censoring because they’re afraid of retaliation or complaints. Districts have been penalized after parents complained about lessons or books about race and racism violating the divisive concepts laws, and educators have been fired or have quit in opposition to the censorship and scrutiny.
“Teachers have been teaching about race and racism in U.S. history because race and racism exists in U.S. history. But no one is telling individual students that they should be held accountable for the actions of people centuries ago,” said Kristen Duncan, an assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning at Clemson University.
Georgia’s law, much like most of its precursors in other states, is so vague that districts can interpret it as they choose when it comes to policymaking and implementation, Griggs said. Atlanta’s interpretation balances the rights of students and teachers with the legal requirements of having to pass a policy, he added.
Atlanta is a predominantly Black school district with a large population of Black teachers, which is why it’s especially important that lessons on race and racism are not censored in the district, Duncan said.
“These conversations that have been deemed controversial in a lot of places have always been happening in these spaces, because Black teachers often feel it is part of their responsibility to help Black students in particular, learn how to navigate racism,” she said. “And it looks to me like APS wants to ensure that this is able to still happen, because this is one of the ways that Black teachers care for Black students.”
How effective the policy is will depend on how teachers interpret it and how it influences curriculum, said Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies in education at The University of Texas at Austin and the co-founder for Center for Innovation in Race, Teaching, and Curriculum.
“But from the standpoint of their objectives, it appears that they are acknowledging that it’s important for students to learn about race and the truth about our nation’s history,” Brown said. “And Atlanta public schools are saying we believe this is important, and so we are going to strike that balance.”
Could Atlanta’s policy be a blueprint for others?
Whether or not this policy will be a model for other districts across the country depends on each state’s law, she said. But it’s a good example of a district standing up for accurate and honest lessons about race, racism, and history.
“What I think this gives us that might be useful across the country is an example of a school district that is stepping up and saying that we can’t do the work that we are supposed to do without making sure that our students have access to an accurate body of knowledge as they’re moving through school.
“By saying that,” Brown continued, “it brings some level of security for teachers, that they don’t have to worry about mentioning race, or talking about race, when race actually has to be talked about in order to address specific kinds of curricular knowledge, like slavery or civil rights.”
Collins, the board chair, hopes it will serve as a template for other districts in Georgia and beyond, and has spoken to some leaders in other states who are in the position of coming up with a resolution or policy to align with these laws.
“There is this fear and intimidation from their state legislatures and state leaders, if they do, in fact speak out,” she said. “I often tell them about the organizing and the coalition-building that needs to happen to gain the support that they need to issue a statement and to have a firm stance and firm position on that.”
Atlanta Public Schools had support in its opposition to the law and in drafting the policy from community groups and leaders, state senators that represent the area, and labor unions, Collins said.
But she’s worried about rural Georgia districts without the community support Atlanta has buckling under the pressure of the law.
“It is always our goal to lead by example,” she said. “Because the reality is, in other parts of the state where we have more of our rural school systems, they’re probably feeling a lot more pressure because their communities and constituents are a lot more singular than the diversity that we have in the metro Atlanta area.”
However, Griggs from the NAACP fears that other Georgia districts will not interpret the law the same way and that some conservative districts will perceive the policy as a political statement, which he said it shouldn’t be. “If teaching that dogs were sicced on people, and people were excluded from voting with poll taxes and literacy tests—if that makes people feel uncomfortable, and thus should be banned by law, I would argue that the law is unconstitutional,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Atlanta District Drafts a Policy to Carry Out State’s ‘Divisive Concepts’ Law