Republicans this year have drastically broadened their legislative efforts to censor what’s taught in the classroom, according to an Education Week analysis of active state bills.
What started in early 2021 as a conservative effort to prohibit teachers from talking about diversity and inequality in so-called “divisive” ways or taking sides on “controversial” issues has now expanded to include proposed restrictions on teaching that the United States is a racist country, that certain economic or political systems are racist, or that multiple gender identities exist, according to an Education Week analysis of 61 new bills and other state-level actions.
In Florida, a bill would ban teachers from saying “racial colorblindness” is racist. In South Carolina, a bill would ban teaching that “equity is a concept that is superior to or supplants the concept of equality.” In New Hampshire, “promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America” could become illegal, if a bill were to pass.
In at least 10 states, legislators have proposed bills that would require administrators to list every book, reading, and activity that teachers use in their lessons, a process that educators argue would be cumbersome and expensive. Some of these bills also require districts to give parents prior right of review for new curriculum adoptions or library additions.
Since January 2021, 14 states have passed into law what’s popularly referred to as “anti-critical race theory” legislation. These laws and orders, combined with local actions to restrict certain types of instruction, now impact more than one out of every three children in the country, according to a recent study from UCLA.
Similar to legislation passed last year, many of these new bills propose withholding funding from school districts that don’t comply with these regulations. Some, though, would allow parents to sue individual educators who provide banned material to students, potentially collecting thousands of dollars.
In interviews with Education Week, state representatives said these new bills are designed to prevent teachers from telling children what to think, encouraging them to see divisions, or asking them to adopt perspectives that are different from those of their parents on issues like policing, Black Lives Matter, gender identity, and human sexuality.
Doug Richey, a Missouri Republican who introduced a Parents’ Bill of Rights in that state, said that families are upset that schools have turned to a “quasi-activist approach.”
“I filed this bill because there has been an obvious erosion of trust, and I want that trust to be rebuilt,” he said.
But opponents of these bills argue that the legislation is aimed at stifling conversation about racism and oppression. Heather Fleming, the founder of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership, an advocacy organization that supports anti-bias and anti-racist education, said the bills are designed to privilege the desires of white parents over others.
“They’re packaging some of these laws as ‘parents’ bill of rights.’ What parents? Because my daughter is entitled to see her culture and her heroes, people who look like her, in the curriculum, too,” said Fleming, who is Black.
Both the bills’ supporters and critics agree that providing students’ families with more avenues to challenge materials would fuel the ongoing battles on local school boards, where heated debates have already erupted over instruction that addresses racism, oppression, and gender identity.
Local pressures against “critical race theory” have led to educators self-censoring, districts abandoning equity initiatives, and equity officers receiving threats, according to the UCLA study. A lot of the 900 districts were in states with no ban on lessons about race or gender, researchers found.
Legislators expand lists of ‘divisive concepts’
“Parents’ rights” has taken off as an issue for Republican legislators over the past year, as communities have fought school boards over pandemic-era policies like students masking, and remote learning has given many families up-close access to teachers’ lessons.
During the 2021 legislative session, though, only a handful of state bills concerned curriculum transparency or parents’ rights to object to classroom materials. Instead, most prohibited teaching a list of “divisive concepts,” which originally appeared in an executive order signed by then-President Donald Trump in fall 2020.
The order banned certain types of diversity training in federal agencies, preventing trainers from saying, for example, that one race or sex is inherently better than another, that all people of a certain race have unconscious bias, or that the United States is a fundamentally racist or sexist country.
Other conservative advocacy groups, some with ties to Trump, developed model legislation that would ban public schools from teaching these concepts—in some cases labeling them as “critical race theory.” The term refers to the academic theory that racism is perpetuated by structural forces like laws and policies rather than individual acts of bias, but proponents of these bills have used the term to refer to a broad swath of lessons about racism, oppression, and other social issues.
Thirty-six bills introduced this year still include this list of prohibited concepts, and 30 ban the teaching of “critical race theory” outright. But more legislators have broadened the scope of banned topics, beyond the original list in Trump’s executive order.
In several states, teachers are not allowed to teach that America is fundamentally or irredeemably racist.
A Virginia bill would prevent teachers from saying that “market-based economics is inherently racist,” while several Mississippi bills would ban teaching that “the concepts of capitalism, free markets, or working for a private party in exchange for wages are racist and sexist.”
In Indiana, lawmakers are trying to ban “race-based scapegoating.”
Robert May, a Republican representative who introduced a South Carolina bill, said schools should make clear that the American judicial system is based on equality under the law, rather than equity of outcome. “The idea that the entire jurisprudence system is based on systematic racism is ridiculous,” he said.
More bills also include language about “controversial” social and political issues, preventing schools from asking teachers to discuss these topics, and requiring that if teachers do, they evenly present both sides.
More bills target lessons on gender and sexual identity
Still, a number of bills banning certain instructional topics don’t mention race at all. Instead, they’re focused on gender and sexuality.
In Arizona, Florida, and Indiana, students have to seek permission from parents before being taught about “human sexuality” and districts have to disclose to parents what those lessons would entail.
One proposed bill from Indiana requires parent permission before students learn about topics such as abortion, “transgenderism,” and gender identity.
Students also need written permission from parents before receiving counseling or medical attention related to abortion, gender-transitioning, hormone blockers, gender-reassignment surgery and “pronoun selection.”
The same bill also requires that students “must receive instruction that socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded.”
The author of the bill, Republican State Rep. John Prescott, did not respond to requests for comment.
Another bill, introduced in Oklahoma, would ban school libraries from housing, and teachers from using, “books that make as their primary subject the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues or recreational sexualization.” The bill clarifies that recreational sexualization means “any form of non-procreative sex.”
A similar Oklahoma bill would prohibit school libraries from having books “that make as their primary subject the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or books that are of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it.”
The author of this second Oklahoma bill, Republican Sen. Rob Standridge, did not respond to requests for an interview. But in a Facebook post from December, he claimed that the availability of books on gender identity, sexual orientation, drag, and consent in school libraries contributed to “oversexualization of children in our public schools,” calling it “grooming.”
“Public school libraries are not the appropriate place to provide and promote such sexual material; this is exclusively the role of parents and guardians unless a parent or guardian explicitly gives informed permission for such sexual training,” he wrote.
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group, GLSEN, sees these bills as evidence that LGTBQ students are the newest target in the fight against “critical race theory.”
The proposed legislation is a backlash to the increased visibility and rights the community has gained over the past decade, she said, noting that the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 also was met with similar pushback.
“It’s about the advancement of the recognition and the representation of these distinct minority communities,” Willingham-Jaggers said. “Both of these communities have long been silenced, marginalized ... kept out of power and positive representation, and I think that there is a coming together for both of these communities.”
‘Parents’ Bills of Rights’ enable curriculum review, book challenges
Unlike bills that restrict teaching around race and gender, “parents’ rights” bills don’t generally name specific topics that families might object to. But some of these bills’ sponsors have drawn a link between anti-critical race theory legislation and the parents’ rights push.
All share the common aim of directing “more focus on core academic concepts and less of a focus on cultural factors,” said Dave LaRock, a Virginia Republican who introduced a parents’ rights bill in the state.
Many of these “parents’ bills of rights” share language with a Florida law of the same name, signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in June 2021.
The law states that school districts cannot withhold information from parents related to minor children’s “health, well-being, and education.” It also requires schools to develop a procedure for parents to object to instructional materials, based on concerns about “morality, sex, and religion or the belief that such materials are harmful.”
Texas’s governor, Republican Greg Abbott, introduced a similar proposal last month.
There’s also model legislation on the issue: The American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market, limited-government group, has a model bill that proposes involving parents in pre-approval of all instructional material used in social studies courses and posting lists of all those materials online.
But some experts say parents already have options for questioning instruction or materials that they feel emphasize the wrong lessons.
“Teachers do hand out syllabi, libraries do have open access to the catalogs. This is assuming that there is an adverse relationship when there isn’t one,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Most school libraries also have a procedure in place for parents who want certain materials reconsidered, she said. The ALA recommends that libraries put such a policy in place, she added, and provides a toolkit that can help them craft one.
When it comes to in-class readings, teachers usually share the outlines of a course, but they’re less likely to post a list of every worksheet a student might do or every in-class reading they might assign, said Marc Turner, the president-elect of the South Carolina Council for the Social Studies, and a high school teacher. But, he added, there’s a reason why this isn’t common practice.
Most teachers aren’t just using a textbook, instead pulling from a lot of different sources to craft their lessons. And these plans often change day to day and week to week, especially during the pandemic when school schedules are so often disrupted.
A requirement that teachers post all of the materials they use could encourage district leaders to standardize teachers’ lessons out of caution, potentially sacrificing the opportunities for critical thinking that students gain when they can compare the perspective of multiple sources, Turner said. “It would just push people back to things like textbooks.”
Anti-racism advocates worry that ‘outrage motivates’
In interviews with Education Week, representatives who introduced these bills said it’s necessary to codify parents’ rights to review curriculum into law, even if they might place administrative burdens on educators.
“What we’re asking for is not to do new paperwork, but simply to provide us with the lesson plans that we have now, the paperwork that we have now,” said Rep. John Wiemann, a Missouri Republican who introduced a parents’ rights bill. “We just want to make sure that’s transparent to parents.”
Some bills, including ones in Indiana, Missouri, and Virginia, go farther, giving parents prior right of review before new materials are added to the library or new curriculum is selected. LaRock said these provisions are necessary to filter out books that don’t have “any value to children.”
Caldwell-Stone said that ignores the professional training and judgment of librarians and educators, who have detailed protocols for selecting resources. This kind of policy would also be an “administrative nightmare,” she added.
But, more importantly, she said, one parent shouldn’t have the right to make decisions for school libraries that serve entire, diverse communities.
“School libraries do more than support the curriculum,” Caldwell-Stone continued. “For many students, they may be the only library that students have access to. … They provide entertainment, artistic expression, access to literature that may not be part of the curriculum.”
In some cases, these bills would allow parents to challenge school districts and individual educators directly in court and collect damages.
A bill in Oklahoma would require individual educators to personally pay up to $10,000 in damages if parents find them to be teaching “critical race theory.” Under proposed legislation in Missouri, parents could collect up to $5,000 from a school district per violation, if the district doesn’t provide lists of all materials used and honor parents’ requests to review materials or opt out their children.
Richey, the Missouri representative who filed this bill, said it includes safeguards against parental overreach—parents can lodge a complaint with the school board, which has the power to reject it. Schools shouldn’t have to “chase after every frivolous interest or concern that a parent might be able to come up with,” he said.
Even so, Fleming, of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership, worries that this bill and others like it could have a chilling effect on teachers if signed into law. The proposed legislation suggests that teachers are spreading messages in public schools that families should object to, she said.
“When we look at the general public, outrage motivates.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Here’s the Long List of Topics Republicans Want Banned From the Classroom