A New York grand jury’s indictment of former President Donald Trump is the latest in a series of current events that some teachers aren’t sure how to—or if they even can—bring up in the classroom.
Last week, Trump became the first former U.S. president to face criminal charges, following an investigation into allegations that he paid hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels during his first presidential campaign in 2016. He is expected to appear in court in New York on Tuesday.
The indictment is unprecedented and historic, but also highly controversial, involving a porn star, a divisive national figure, and a heated political moment.
In states with laws limiting how teachers can talk about so-called divisive concepts, such as race, gender, sexuality, and politics, some educators may worry about how or if they can talk about the indictment. Eighty-six percent of educators said they would not talk about Trump’s indictment in an informal Education Week poll posted on LinkedIn that generated nearly 1,400 responses. (Some respondents said the topic wouldn’t be relevant given their subject areas or students’ ages.)
But, experts say, discussions of current events are important and necessary for students to grow into adults who are critical thinkers with a sense of agency.
“If we don’t have opportunities within classrooms for students to apply what they’ve learned to current events and situations, then they’re really not making any of that content knowledge or skills meaningful,” said Shannon Pugh, president of the National Council for the Social Studies.
Laws limit how teachers can talk about politics, current events
Texas and Kentucky are the only states so far with laws limiting how teachers can talk about politics or current events.
Texas’s Partisanship out of Civics Act, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed in 2021, prohibits teachers from “being compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” If a teacher does choose to discuss a such a topic, they must “strive to explore that topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”
In essence, it prohibits teachers from discussing controversial issues with any sort of bias, but doesn’t define “controversial.”
Last year, Kentucky lawmakers passed a similar law—overriding a veto from the state’s Democratic governor—that requires “instruction or instructional materials on current, controversial topics related to public policy or social affairs” to be “relevant, objective, nondiscriminatory, and respectful to the differing perspectives of students.”
“They don’t define impartiality,” said Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, a free-speech advocacy organization, “which means basically anyone can say you’re not discussing [controversial issues] impartially and then you can be reprimanded for it.”
Lawmakers in a handful of other states, including Arizona, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, have introduced their own versions of the bill, according to PEN America’s tracker. The bills mostly follow the wording of the model “Partisanship out of Civics Act,” which was authored by Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group. None of the proposed bills define “controversial” or “current event.”
Texas’ law doesn’t include a penalty for teachers who talk about current events with bias, but some versions of the bill pending elsewhere do. In Missouri, schools would suffer penalties or potentially lose state financial support for violations, and teachers in Alabama would be subject to “professional discipline.”
Teachers who choose to talk about Trump’s indictment are likely to approach it without bias, regardless of laws in their state, Young said.
“I can’t imagine a teacher going into a K-12 classroom, talking about the Trump indictment, and talking about it from a partisan perspective,” Young said. “This is not a close judgment call about whether you should be definitively partisan about it or not.”
But the bills and other policies like them may make teachers question whether they should touch on the issue at all, said Amanda Vickery, an associate professor of social studies and race education at the University of North Texas.
“To me, teaching about the [former] president being indicted is not controversial,” Vickery said. “That is what’s happening right now. It’s history being made right now, so we need to talk about it. But, for other people, that can be considered controversial. So it’s very subjective and teachers are unsure of themselves.”
Teachers should trust their judgment when discussing the indictment
The indictment raises many relevant topics for social studies discussion. Teachers can use it to facilitate conversations about the judicial process, campaign finance, and presidential history, Pugh said.
It also serves as a good moment to promote civil discourse in the classroom, Pugh said.
“This is a great opportunity to really focus on perspective and why some people feel one way about this case while others feel another way,” she said. “It’s also really important, regardless of the content, that teachers always help students see different views of issues. It’s a critical skill for our students.”
But teachers should ultimately trust their judgment when it comes to discussing Trump or the indictment, especially with Daniels’ background as an adult film star. Pugh recommends that teachers review their local and state standards and be mindful of their students’ maturity levels to determine how they talk about the indictment if at all.
Teachers should also work to make sure the conversations about the indictment are a natural extension of the classroom environment, she said. If a classroom hasn’t ever discussed current events and a teacher decides to start with Trump’s indictment, that may raise some concern in the community.
“April is probably not the first time that anyone should be discussing a challenging topic in the classroom,” Vickery said. “Teachers just need to be mindful when they teach current events that it should be part of a natural process.”
It may also be helpful for teachers to let parents know that they will be discussing the indictment in class and provide details on what that will entail, Vickery said.
“Teachers need to trust themselves and do what they’ve been doing,” she said. “They know what’s best for their kids.”