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Dozens of Republican-backed bills banning the teaching of divisive topics on race and inequality are piling up in Congress and in statehouses across the country, even as a new survey of high school students shows that many never learn about such issues in classrooms anyway.
Just over half, or 56%, of students surveyed reported that they had opportunities to discuss race and racism “sometimes or a great deal” at school, according to the report from the nonpartisan America’s Promise Alliance, an education organization that partnered with its research arm, the Boston University-affiliated Center for Promise, GradNation, an organization that advocates for higher graduation rates, and others. Only about 3 in 5 students reported that their school curriculum represented non-white communities “sometimes or a great deal.”
And the extent of those experiences varied widely. Black students reported a small, but statistically significant higher rate of opportunities to discuss race and racism compared to white students. In addition, fewer students of color reported that their curriculum represented their own specific racial and ethnic backgrounds compared to white students.
The report concluded that “while police violence, protests, and calls for racial justice have occupied the public discourse in communities across the country, many students continue to lack access to opportunities to discuss race and racism within their classrooms.”
But the study’s suggestion that a substantive racial dialogue is absent from many classrooms belies the public attention emanating from GOP-led states that have seen divisive discussions about how racism and oppression are represented in school curricula and in the wider culture.
The culture war touched off two years ago when The New York Times published “The 1619 Project,” plucking the concept of critical race theory out of academia and propelling into the public consciousness the idea that the racial inequality that’s built into so much of how the U.S. operates today has its roots in slavery. Critical race theory has since roiled Republicans in statehouses and in Congress, who see it as divisive. But of late it’s become a buzzword for some in the GOP who are looking to exploit its politicization to fire up the party’s base ahead of the 2022 midterms. It’s led to a series of bills aiming to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory specifically or to prohibit contentious talks about racism, discrimination or privilege in general.
“Now more than ever, we need policies that bring us together, not rip us apart,” Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma said upon signing a bill into law in May that would prohibit the teaching that people – consciously or unconsciously – are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.
“As governor, I firmly believe that not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex,” he said. “That is what this bill upholds for public education.”
Oklahoma is far from alone.
The GOP-controlled legislature in Tennessee passed one of the most sweeping laws banning educators from discussing racism, sexism, bias and other social issues with students – a measure that passed along party lines in early May, the day before the General Assembly recessed for the year. Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed it into law May 25.
The law stipulates that the state education commissioner must withhold state funds if a public school “knowingly violates” the ban on teaching 14 different concepts that the Republican-controlled state legislature concluded are divisive – concepts that range from discrimination to privilege to racial bias to the idea that “all Americans are not created equal.”
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has promised to provide guidance to teachers in the Volunteer State by Aug. 1 to clarify what they can and cannot teach, the process her office will use for evaluating complaints filed and financial penalties for teachers that fail to adhere to the new law.
Earlier this month, amid a push by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis – a potential 2024 presidential candidate who is currently readying his gubernatorial reelection campaign – Florida’s State Board of Education passed its brand of restrictions on critical race theory and other issues concerning U.S. history and civics, which the governors said would prevent educators from “teaching kids to hate their country.”
Under the rule, teachers are prohibited from sharing their personal views or attempting to “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view” not aligned to the state’s academic standards. In particular, the law stipulates that educators cannot teach critical race theory, which it describes as “the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed a bill to become law – by choosing not to sign it but also not to veto it – which bars public schools and state agencies from teaching “divisive concepts” during racial and cultural sensitivity training, including teaching that American is an inherently racist nation.
Meanwhile, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law earlier this month that bans teaching that the U.S. or Iowa is systemically racist or sexist and other concepts the GOP-controlled legislature deems divisive in classroom curriculum and in government diversity training. Notably, it would not ban educators from answering questions about those concepts or from discussing them as part of a larger lesson.
Bills have also either passed or are being considered in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.
Efforts abound in Congress as well, even though under federal law the federal government is prohibited from setting, enforcing or in any way shaping K-12 curriculum, which is controlled at the local level.
Earlier this month, congressional Republicans introduced the Saving American History Act, a bill that specifically prohibits public schools from teaching “The 1619 Project” and threatens to withhold federal funding for professional development for those that do.
“American schools should be a place for education – not indoctrination,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. “This state sponsored anti-American propaganda must be kept out of the classroom.”
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky entered the fray, criticizing public schools of “spoon feeding students with a slanted history.”
The push from the GOP to restrict what students can and cannot learn about racism and its impact in the U.S. collides with the top-line recommendation from the America’s Promise Alliance report – that schools “need to teach a comprehensive and accurate history of race and racism in the U.S.”
“The findings here suggest that opportunities to grapple more honestly with difficult issues in the classroom can meaningfully shape student mindsets and that these learning experiences and mindsets can equip students to engage more readily in social action to address the social, political, and economic realities around them,” the report stated.
The report also underscores the importance of schools leaning into conversations about how race and racism has shaped American culture, economics, wealth and other facets of society, underscoring that doing so helps students become better critical thinkers, sets them up for success after graduation and makes them more likely to take action when they see injustice.
“For young people from historically marginalized groups, this content provides validation and corroboration that their experiences as marginalized young people have affected the way they learn and are treated in the world,” the report concludes.
The survey was based on roughly 2,500 16- to 19-year-olds enrolled in high school during the 2020-21 school year – a year that highlighted and exacerbated racial gaps in the country’s public education system and elsewhere – and was administered in April.
The goal was to understand what types of opportunities students have to learn about race and racism in school and how those learning opportunities shape their interpretations of power, privilege and oppression, as well as their likelihood of engaging in social action.
Questions posed to high school students asked whether they have a chance to discuss issues like race and racism, how much they’re taught about the history of racism in the U.S. and how well their school curriculum or school-based experiences reflect the history of people with non-white racial or ethnic backgrounds.
While conservative culture wars tend to flash, fizzle and fade, the obsession with critical race theory has proved otherwise and is poised to play a central role heading into the 2022 midterm election. The debate is currently igniting protests at local school board meetings across the country – even when the issue is not on the agenda for discussion – and conservative political groups have begun pouring money into school board races in states where they’re hoping to claw back suburban voters who fled the party during the 2020 presidential election.
Parents and residents protesting critical race theory Tuesday in Virginia’s Loudoun County descended on a school board meeting, which the sheriff’s office ultimately declared an unlawful assembly after it erupted into a shouting match and protesters started singing the national anthem.
‘It’s not over,” one man who refused to leave said while being restrained and escorted out by six officers. “It’s not over.”