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Four States Have Placed Legal Limits on How Teachers Can Discuss Race. More May Follow

By Sarah Schwartz — May 17, 2021 7 min read
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Four states have now passed legislation that would limit how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other controversial issues. It’s Republican lawmakers’ latest effort to rein in the approach to subjects they claim are divisive and inappropriate.

The legislation, passed so far in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, bans teachers from introducing certain concepts. Among them: that one race or sex is inherently superior, that any individual is consciously or unconsciously racist or sexist because of their race or sex, and that anyone should feel discomfort or guilt because of their race or sex.

Governors in Idaho and Oklahoma recently signed these bills into law; bills in Iowa and Tennessee are awaiting the governors’ signatures. A similar law also passed in Arkansas, though it only applies to state agencies and not public schools.

In total, lawmakers in at least 15 states have introduced bills that seek to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues.

The legislation, all introduced by Republican lawmakers, uses similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity training for federal workers. The order has since been rescinded by President Joe Biden.

Supporters of these laws say they’re designed to get schools to stop teaching critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped the U.S. legal system. The Idaho legislation specifically mentions critical race theory by name. Lawmakers claim that teachers have adopted its tenets, and are teaching about race, gender, and identity in ways that sow division among students.

But opponents—including many teachers—say they fear such legislation will stifle discussion of how racism and sexism have shaped the country’s history and continue to affect its present, by threatening educators with the possibility of legal action. And scholars of critical race theory have said that the laws mischaracterize the framework.

“I don’t know whether or not I’m going to have the academic freedom as an African American male to tell the truth,” said Lawrence Lane, a high school government and world history teacher at Checotah High School in Oklahoma.

Similar proposals are working their way through the legislatures in other states, too. In Arizona, a bill that would fine teachers $5,000 for promoting one side of a controversial issue just passed the House.

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Texas lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban schools from giving course credit for internships in social or public policy advocacy, as well as limit how teachers discuss controversial issues; this bill has also passed the House.

And in Missouri, proposed legislation would ban the use of specific resources, including the 1619 Project, Learning for Justice Curriculum of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Lives Matter at School, Teaching for Change, and the Zinn Education Project.

Daven Oglesby, an elementary school special education teacher in Nashville, thinks this wave of legislation is a pushback to the antiracism initiatives some schools took on after the murder of George Floyd and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

“It basically says, ‘We know what’s going on in society in terms of police brutality, but ... don’t bring that conversation into your classroom,’” said Oglesby, who is Black.

Could teachers be breaking the law if students feel ‘discomfort’?

Some school boards, teachers’ unions, and history education groups have already voiced opposition to these new laws.

In Oklahoma City, the school board voted to formally disavow the state’s law. Board member Ruth Veales said the legislation aimed to “protect white fragility” at the expense of teaching about race, the Oklahoman reported.

“I worry that teachers might be so on guard that they might touch a nerve somewhere inadvertently, that they become afraid to even host those discussions” about sensitive issues, Kathy Davis, the chair of Idaho’s Professional Standards Commission, said in a video with the Idaho Education Association.

The Zinn Education Project launched a pledge for educators who oppose the legislation, and “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events—regardless of the law.” The group offers lessons and professional development based on historian Howard Zinn’s approach to teaching history from the perspective of people whose stories have been marginalized or ignored in dominant narratives.

Legal scholars have also raised concerns that the legislation threatens academic freedom and questioned whether teachers would be able to parse what would and would not be acceptable under the law, Chalkbeat reported.

These bills “overstep the government’s legitimate authority” in K-12 schools, wrote Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Instead of encouraging learning, the bills effectively gag educators and students from talking about issues of the most profound national importance, such as the impact of systemic racism in our society. This is a blatant attempt to suppress speech about race these lawmakers disfavor.”

The content of these laws is also confusing to some teachers. Betty Collins, an 8th grade U.S. History teacher in Union Public Schools in Tulsa, said that some pieces of the Oklahoma law misunderstand what’s actually going on in classrooms.

For example: The law prohibits teaching that anyone is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive by virtue of their race or sex. But Collins says that’s not what social studies teachers say when they’re teaching about racism.

“Nobody is teaching, ‘You, white male, are horrible, you should feel guilty for the way that you’re born,’” said Collins, who is white. “What people are saying is that the laws and systems of our country were purposefully developed to elevate white, cis males. That is the truth. It doesn’t mean that any one person is to blame for that. But it does mean that we as a culture and we as a society have a responsibility to make sure that in further laws and further systems, that is erased.”

It’s unfortunate, because it's going to have the biggest impact on students of color. It’s saying we know that you have a history in this country, but we’re not going to discuss it in this classroom.

She doesn’t think that this specific clause in the law will affect her classroom practice. But other parts of it worry her—like language saying that a course can’t include the idea that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

Every year, Collins has her students listen to narratives of formerly enslaved people collected by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, and then discuss them together as a class. The project can be emotionally difficult, Collins said: “The number of middle school boys that cry during those conversations, you wouldn’t believe it.” But she said it also fosters empathy and helps students build a deeper understanding of history.

Now, she thinks she could face retaliation from parents for assigning it. “If a kid comes home and says they’re uncomfortable, now you’re breaking the law,” Collins said.

This language about guilt and psychological distress also concerns Lane, the Checotah High School teacher. He covers the Tulsa Race Massacre in class: the day in 1921 when a white mob attacked the homes and businesses of Black residents in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, decimating an area known as “Black Wall Street” and killing and injuring hundreds.

“How do you leave that out of the history book?” Lane said. “And if I teach that, am I going to cause a student to feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish?”

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, set up to commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of the event this year, removed Oklahoma’s Gov. Kevin Stitt from the group last week, after he signed the bill into law.

Oklahoma’s law does specify that none of the new restrictions should be interpreted to prohibit the teaching of concepts aligned to the Oklahoma Academic Standards—which, in social studies, include the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Other legislation has similar clauses: Tennessee’s says it shouldn’t be interpreted to ban “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people;” Iowa’s claims it shouldn’t be used to “inhibit or violate the First Amendment rights of students or faculty.” And in Arizona, where a bill is moving through the legislature, sponsor Rep. Michelle Udall has said that “accurate portrayal of historical events” would be permitted.

Still, Lane feels that the language outlining what is and is not allowed leaves too much up for interpretation—it’s not clear, he said, if a teacher would be in the wrong if something in the state’s social studies standards made students feel uncomfortable.

If teachers are self-censoring, it’s the students who will lose out, said Oglesby: “It’s unfortunate, because it’s going to have the biggest impact on students of color. It’s saying we know that you have a history in this country, but we’re not going to discuss it in this classroom.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 2021 edition of Education Week as Four States Have Placed Legal Limits on How Teachers Can Discuss Race. More May Follow

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