NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) – New measures restricting how race is dealt with in classes have sown confusion and anxiety among many teachers, who in some cases have begun pulling books and canceling lessons for fear of punishment.
Education officials banned classes on contemporary issues in the Tennessee area, removed Frederick Douglas’s autobiography from reading lists in the Oklahoma school system, and, in one case in Texas, advised teachers to present “opposing” views of the Holocaust.
At least a dozen states have adopted measures this year to restrict the teaching of racism, sexism and other topics in schools. While educators are still waiting to see how they will be implemented, the vagueness of some of the measures, coupled with harsh penalties, including the potential loss of teaching licenses, are already causing intimidating talk about race in schools and, in some cases, have consequences that are likely , go far beyond the intentions of the approving measures.
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Matt Hawn, a high school social studies teacher in Tennessee, said he heard from teachers concerned about how they would teach controversial topics since he was fired this spring as state legislators finalized new teaching restrictions.
“It definitely gives them a warning, like, ‘What happens if I teach this? “Because the penalty is so steep,” Hawn said.
Hawn was fired after school officials said he used offensive material and was unable to present a conservative point of view when discussing white privileges in his classroom on modern issues, which has since been excluded.
Discussions about race and diversity grew with wider recognition that racial injustice did not end in America with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These efforts have generated backlash, especially among Republican voters.
In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s election this month on promises to ban critical racial theory; the term has become a replacement for concepts such as systemic racism and latent bias. His Democrat opponent has faced criticism for saying that parents should not tell schools what to teach.
Some sections of the new laws are not objectionable. Tennessee law prohibits the teaching that one race or gender is inherently superior to another race or gender. But other sections are more vague, prohibiting learning that fosters separation or makes children mentally distressed because of their race or gender.
These vague bans made teachers fear that any instruction on complex topics like slavery or modern racism could be interpreted by parents as breaking the law, said Alice O’Brien, general counsel for the National Education Association.
“These measures are problematic because it is not clear what they mean and are very important to the observer,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s worth understanding that every state already has pretty detailed rules for students under 12 about what teachers should teach. And they are required to teach the entire history of the United States … and not just those parts that make us particularly happy. “
Some have referred to the new laws in an effort to exclude teaching materials.
In Tennessee, a conservative group of mothers in the Nashville suburb of Williamson County, Moms for Liberty, disputes how schools teach the civil rights movement to second graders.
In a letter to the Department of Education, Robin Steenman complained that the texts and accompanying teacher manual imply that “people of color continue to be oppressed by the oppressive” evil, vicious, frightening, mean, loud, violent (rude) and (hate ) “White population”. The books Steenman cited included Ruby Bridges Goes to School and Martin Luther King Jr. and the March to Washington.
In Oklahoma, Edmond public school teachers said books by color authors were removed from the list of anchor texts that English teachers use to base their curriculum. The lawsuit, filed by teachers, students and parents, says the district also removed conventional black writings from the curriculum, including the autobiography of Frederick Douglas.
School system spokeswoman Susan Parks-Schlepp said some reading assignments were made optional as part of the annual review to ensure they comply with state guidelines.
In Texas, a Republican MP tasked the committee he chairs with collecting information on the use of at least 850 books on topics ranging from racism to abortion.
State spokesman Matt Krause, running for the state attorney general, said five Texas school districts removed the books “following objections from students, parents and taxpayers.” Two districts confirmed that they had received copies of the letter and are working on the matter, but did not comment further.
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Clay Robinson, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said the letter only exacerbated the confusion teachers faced after the state passed legislation requiring teachers to teach “both sides” topics.
“The teachers already feel like Big Brother is looking over their shoulder,” Robinson said.
Racial divisions in support of these measures were evident at a school board meeting in Alabama in August, where two black members voted against a resolution condemning “discipleship instructions” in ideologies promoting a particular race or gender, while seven white members voted in favor.
Opposing the move, school board member Tonya Chestnut said that all children deserve to be in an environment where they feel safe and can value their legacy, but the resolution could “put teachers in a position that makes them uncomfortable and even afraid to teach the truth. “
James Copeland, director of legal policy at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the blood-curdling effects are real, but properly adapted new laws are needed to show schools what is appropriate and what is not.
He pointed to several episodes, including a teacher in Cupertino, California, who told elementary school students to “deconstruct” their racial identity, and an elementary school in Philadelphia, in which students appeared on the stage in an auditorium with the words “In Trump Prison.” and Black Power Matters. … “
“We don’t want to stop sincere discussion and clear study of history,” Copeland said. But he said that students should not be forced to adhere to a set of beliefs associated with racism and sexism.
Derek W. Black, professor of law at the University of South Carolina and author of Burning Down Schools: Public Education and the Attack on American Democracy, said these measures were unnecessary. Federal civil rights law already bans discrimination in the classroom, he said.
He has no doubts that some teachers are bad at teaching racism and sexism, or that some parents have legitimate claims, but said they should “go along with 1001 other legitimate claims.”
“Why is this number 1? Politics. Right. Politics.”