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GOP ‘Culture War’ Limits Teaching on Race in Diverse Classrooms

June 11, 2021, 8:30 AM

Public-school educators in Florida face new restrictions on teaching current and historical events on race and racism to a student body where at least 63 percent identify as non-white, the latest development in a culture-war issue many Republicans have seized upon in gearing up for the 2022 midterm elections.

The Florida Board of Education on Thursday approved a measure (Rule Amendment 6A-1.094124) banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools, becoming the most-populous state to do so. Texas—with the most teachers and second most students of any state—is expected to enact a similar measure next, with legislation (H.B. 3979) before the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

“The woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read, but we will not let them bring nonsense ideology into Florida’s schools,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in a statement Thursday. DeSantis also spoke before the state education board.

State officials are acting on broad GOP criticism of the academic doctrine, which emphasizes the impact of racial disparities in the U.S. Many Republican officials across the country are calling for bans and saying they are countering efforts by minority groups to rewrite American history. To critics, the laws will only drag students and teachers into the middle of a culture war.

“This is simply part of a movement to quash truth and to make angry White people happy,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Texas.

Broad Impact

Florida follows at least five other GOP-controlled states, which implemented similar restrictions or ordered reviews of how students are taught about race. Texas and Florida bring those restrictions to the second- and third-largest public-school populations in the country.

Texas had 5,479,229 public-school students in fall 2019, according to the most recent National Education Association data, and Florida had 2,844,269. The states only trailed California which had over 6.1 million students.

The law will also impact public school student-bodies that are overwhelmingly made up of students of color. Over 70% of students enrolled in Texas public schools in the 2019-2020 year identified as non-White, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. And in Florida, 34.5% of students were Hispanic, 21.6% Black and 3.3% Asian, Native Hawaiian, or American Indian, according to state Department of Education Numbers for 2019-20.

And with at least 5 other states mulling their own legislation, critics say Texas could embolden others to pass their own restrictions, impacting even more students nationwide.

“As Texas goes, so goes the rest of the nation,” said Jennifer Mitchell, the governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

New Restrictions

The measure approved by Florida’s education board specifically mentions the teaching of critical race theory, which it defines 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.”

It also restricts the use of material from The 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative on the role of slavery in the nation’s founding.

The Texas measure doesn’t mention critical race theory, but bars teachers in public schools and open-enrollment charter schools from presenting certain concepts, including that an individual “is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” or “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

The Texas measure will insure teachers don’t push concepts such as “racial superiority or collective guilt,” according to Rep. Steve Toth (R) who authored his state’s bill.

Teacher Backlash

Teachers groups in both states have bristled at the restrictions, which they say will intimidate educators and chill classroom discussions on race and racism.

“Rather than talking about the policy changes necessary to enable all our students to succeed, these politicians create boogeymen and use Florida’s public schools as a political football,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, in a tweet Thursday.

Rob D’Amico, spokesman for the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said the restrictions on teaching about race push teachers into a political fight.

“It creates this opportunity for a wedge issue and conflict on the local level,” said D’Amico.

“Teachers are professionals and know that they need to create a balance when discussing controversial subjects,” he added. “They need that freedom to teach without interference from what is really an ideological culture war battle with lawmakers.”

Representatives from teachers’ groups said they are bracing for potential litigation, particularly from parents who think educators have broken the rule, because of uncertainty over the law’s language.

“It’s going to scare teachers away from discussing these matters, which impedes education,” said Derek W. Black, professor of education law at the University of South Carolina, of the Texas bill. “Local authorities may think things are prohibited, but aren’t actually prohibited. And then they’re going to act to punish teachers for that.”

‘Culture Wars’

To opponents, the Texas race theory bill is part of a broader effort by Republican legislators to play up conservative cultural issues to appeal to White voters in a state with changing demographics.

D’Amico said “the ban in Texas is a perfect example of critical race theory.”

“It’s actually displaying what that theory is talking about,” he continued. “The intersection of the legal and race and how that impacts people, particularly of color. So it’s just kind of ironic.”

This session, Abbott signed a bill (S.B. 8) that would ban abortions as early as six-weeks if a fetal heartbeat is detected. Other measures sent to his desk include a bill (H.B. 1280) to immediately ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court repeals Roe v. Wade, legislation (H.B. 1927) to allow the permitless carrying of firearms, and legislation (S.B. 4) requiring the playing of the national anthem at sporting events at taxpayer-funded stadiums.

Abbott on June 8 signed another education-related bill (H.B. 2497) establishing the “1836 Project” to promote “patriotic education” about Texas history. The Texas initiative mirrors a project from former President Donald Trump, who created the 1776 Commission to counter efforts to teach about the role of slavery in U.S. history. That commission was disbanded by President Joe Biden in January.

“There has been no attempt to involve stakeholders or to involve actual Texas teachers in the construction of this bill,” Mitchell said of the race theory legislation. “It’s political red meat for lawmakers who are desperately trying to prove their conservative voter bonafides ahead of the 2022 election.”

Bledsoe said restricting how ideas about race are taught is not new, pointing to the Trump administration executive order in September 2020 restricting federal contractor diversity training that included “divisive” concepts. The order was rolled back by Biden.

“These are really things that need to be taught and people just don’t like to be taught things that make them feel uncomfortable,” he said.

Abbott and Toth did not return requests for comment for this story.

Challenges Ahead

Bledsoe said Texas NAACP chapters had discussed the measure and agreed they “needed to take whatever appropriate actions we could to try to fight it.” Bledsoe did not say if that would include litigation.

“This is dumbing down Texas, and putting our arms around ignorance and kissing it in the face is really a problem,” he said.

Jamal Robinson, a board member of the Texas Alliance of Black School Educators, predicted teachers and students would feel the impact immediately.

“One thing about this bill and Texas history — you can’t erase it away. Slavery, for example, is a very big part of Texas history. There’s no dancing around it,” he continued. “They kind of created a conundrum that they don’t realize they’ve created yet.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com

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