BY STEVE NUZUM
Some of my AP Seminar students have been watching the online testimony concerning the five bills currently being considered by the South Carolina Education and Public Works Committee, online and on their own time; I believe they are struck, as I am, by the apparent hypocrisy of the bill language, which is clearly copied not from academic or legal scholars, but from partisan right-leaning think tanks Heritage Foundation and National Association of Scholars, with language from a now-repealed Trump Executive Order sprinkled in for good measure. Despite the expressed intentions of many of the committee members, the language of the bills does not suggest that they are truly intended to prevent “indoctrination” or “coercion” in public schools, but to advance a specific partisan agenda which has no place in schools.
Fundamentally, the problem with the bills and the arguments for them boils down to this partisan hypocrisy:
Banning specific concepts and materials from discussion, as H. 4343 does with the 1619 Project, will not level the playing field. By removing a view of history reflective of the experiences of some children and leaving the many views of history reflective of others, we will only make it more uneven. As others have pointed out, the broad language of the ban would, among other important writers, ban the poetry of South Carolina poet Nikky Finney, whose poetry is included in the project. The language of the bill reads, “A public school shall not teach, use, or provide for use by any pupil the 1619 Project as part of any curriculum, course materials, or instruction in any course. Schools may not teach, affirm, or promote as an accurate account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America any of the claims, views, or opinions presented in the 1619 Project as part of any curriculum, course materials, or instruction in any course given in such school.”
Because the project is not a single text, but a wide range of materials including poetry, essays, historical information, photography, and other materials, it seems difficult even for someone who objects to the overall aim or thesis of the project to justify banning it with such broad language. Banning the entire project (or any similar collection of works) is a serious overreach that eliminates perspectives very important to my students. If the bill truly seeks to avoid a scenario where “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex,” the committee should consider the discomfort many students of color may feel on account of their races if their perspectives are made illegal.
Banning the use of students’ preferred pronouns and recognition of their chosen names and their gender identities, as H. 4605 requires, takes away those children’s agency and, as research has demonstrated, harms their mental health and increases their risk for self-harm and suicide. According to a nationwide survey by the Trevor Project, “"Even just one accepting adult in an LGBTQ kid’s life can lower their likelihood of attempting suicide by 40%. Trans and nonbinary youth who reported having their pronouns respected by the people they lived with attempted suicide at half the rate”.
Language like that in the bill also explicitly teaches the classmates of LGBTQ+ students that discrimination is both allowable and encouraged by the state and school system. This kind of gender-based discrimination is illegal under Title IX, and will lead to the same kinds of unnecessary and costly litigation the state has already faced over masks. It puts teachers in a situation where they will have to choose between following the law and perhaps district rules, and using students’ preferred names and pronouns, something that doesn’t harm anyone else and may save lives.
Attempting to address issues like the terribly misguided lesson in which a teacher asked students to roleplay as slaves (an example brought up by a committee member in defending the need for some version of the bills), by potentially inhibiting the broad and thoughtful discussion of history and current events required in our standards, is counterproductive in the extreme. To be frank, our schools should be discussing race more broadly and completely to reduce the number of people who would ever think such an activity was a good idea. Avoiding uncomfortable topics will not get us there; ignorance breeds ignorance. Ironically, the kinds of culturally relevant teaching practices (not the same thing as Critical Race Theory) and district workshops which have been frequently derided by proponents of the bills would hopefully have helped the teacher who provided that assignment to understand why doing so was hurtful to her students.
The incident described above also occurred in 2016, was swiftly dealt with by the school district, and didn’t seem to bother many proponents of the bills until it fit into their anti-CRT rhetoric.
Using a relatively small number of anecdotes about problematic topics or lessons to justify pre-written legislation, while ignoring or failing to seek out the many other parent, student, teacher, and taxpayer concerns about legislation would be a mistake. It is, frankly, clear that few of the committee members, Republican or Democrat, have deeply investigated these issues. It is comforting that there are a small number of educators on the panel, but these voices seem to be drowned out by suppositions about what might or might not be happening in schools. I would urge the committee to seek out actual, confirmed examples of problematic teaching or materials, and weigh that against all of the other teaching that is going on.
It is especially troubling to hear many proponents of these bills (and the language of some of the bills, themselves) deny the existence of systemic racism, while also insisting that CRT has been systematically built into the school system (a premise without which the bills cannot be justified). Either systemic racism is possible, or it is not. If it is possible, outlawing the discussion or analysis of it makes no sense, whatever you call that study (and, to be sure, there are many ways to analyze and understand systemic racism in addition to Critical Race Theory). H. 4799 and H. 4392 both contain language making the “systemic nature of racism” difficult to teach or discuss. This is especially striking because it is the “systemic nature of racism” that makes it most possible to discuss racist outcomes in society without blaming individual people or groups.
Two weeks ago, Representative Adam Morgan (R-Aiken) was kind enough to visit my classroom and speak to my AP Research Seminar students. My students shared many of the concerns outlined above with him, and as I was walking him out of the building, I told him that if any of them were to pass in their current forms, I would almost certainly not return to teaching next year, even though teaching is a profession that has brought joy and meaning to my life. Unfortunately, I know other teachers who feel the same. In a year where, according to a CERRA report released last week, there are 1,121 unfilled teaching vacancies in the state, we can’t afford to lose more teachers.
Most teachers value being honest with students, in being open to their ideas, and in helping them make their own decisions. That, it seems, is one of the few points of consensus among House E.P.W. committee members, as it should be. Even more than that, teachers value giving students a safe space in my classroom where they can be themselves without fear.
Many of our students have already experienced terrible discrimination because of their race, gender identity, religion, disability status, English Language Learner status, family income, and other characteristics. A number of proponents of the bills have used the dream of Dr. King that children will “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” to suggest that somehow that dream has already come true, and to support language in the bills prohibiting the teaching of the concept of “systemic racism,” language inherited directly from the Trump administration EO.
But King also wrote, “there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” It is so significant that King talked about “tension” and discomfort as complementary to “creative analysis and objective appraisal”. It seems inexcusable to use his words out of context to suggest we live in a post-racial society in which all of our problems have been solved, in which avoiding the “discomfort” of some students is more important than making others feel truly included in the educational system by valuing and recognizing their lived experiences.
The “anti-truth” bills (as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has termed them) as written, will not make our classrooms less partisan, or probably the even less comfortable, but they will make them less safe, and they will add an unnecessarily political dimension to conversations and topics that should be approached with opens and intellectual curiosity.
One valid claim made by proponents of the bills, including members of the House E.PW. Committee is that they do not explicitly prohibit the teaching of history about race. That’s at least partly true, but the intent of the model bills which provided almost all of the language in the proposed legislation certainly is to chill these discussions. School districts will absolutely prohibit many topics, materials, and discussions in classrooms if they believe there is even a chance state funding is on the line, and all of the bills, to some extent, dramatically challenge state funding to schools which teach the forbidden concepts. H. 4799 even provides the incredibly extreme consequence that districts “utilizing” the “tenets” of CRT as defined in the bills “will be precluded from receiving additional funds for that fiscal year and the following ten fiscal years” While it may be unlikely that such extreme language would pass the full House, its presence in even a first draft of the bill shows that this legislation is intended as an assault on public schools. No district in South Carolina could function without state funding for a decade, and because the language of the bills is so broad and diffuse, they would pose a real threat to even districts which might not intend to violate the provisions of the legislation. In fact the same bill forbids districts from requiring any “training, workshops, forums or similar programming relating to the tenets of critical race theory”. How could school districts even provide teachers with necessary information and training on how to avoid the forbidden concepts, if training isn’t allowed?
Those of us who have worked in public school districts and saw how they responded to last year’s mask proviso or “partisanship curriculum” proviso know that it doesn’t really matter what the language of these bills is, anyway: if the legislature comes anywhere close to creating a taboo or prohibition through state statute, school districts across the state will, for better or for worse, act to defend themselves, and many will go too far. As I shared with Representative Morgan, state legislation can and does have a chilling effect on teaching. For example, the budget proviso on “partisan curriculum,” though it did not contain the words “CRT” or “Critical Race Theory,” was widely interpreted by districts, including mine, and by Superintendent Spearman, as a prohibition against the teaching of “CRT.” And as we have seen from the past two hearings, “CRT” has many different meanings to both the public and to lawmakers; therefore, in practice districts have been afraid to allow teachers to teach everything from the history of racism in the country, to writing about systemic racism, to any lens of theory that includes the words “critical” or “race”.
It’s unfortunate, and maybe not accidental, that the House members who introduced these bills started with such partisan models. Many of the promoters of these bills on the national level have explicitly tied similar legislation, as well as the Trump EO, to a kind of culture war in which schools, teachers, and students now find themselves unwilling participants.
Partisan legislation cannot possible hope to stamp out “partisanship” in the classroom, and the committee should consider stripping out language that has a purely partisan aim, such as banning or requiring any particular concept (including the academic discussion of “Critical Race Theory,” the 1619 Project, the 1776 Report). There is a state-regulated process for developing and revising curriculum; it should be followed, overseen by appropriate entities including the legislature and state department of education, and then respected. At the moment, we have the potential of passing legislation that conflicts with existing standards. In fact, the College Board, the nonprofit which creates the AP exam and grants the AP course designation, in response to similar bills which have been passed or are being considered in SC and other states, “AP opposes censorship. AP is animated by the respect for the intellectual freedom of teachers and students alike. If a school bars required topics from their AP courses, the AP Program removes the AP designation from that course, and its inclusion in the AP Course Ledger provided to colleges and universities”.
History will likely remember this as a dark time in American education. Just as many people who didn’t live through the Civil Rights era have trouble believing there was time when angry mobs would menace and terrorize young children trying to attend historically segregated schools, and just as many people who didn’t live through the McCarthy era have trouble believing there was a time when Congress could set out on a witch hunt that destroyed the lives and careers of innocent people, our children are going to one day ask how we ever thought it was okay to derail the formal process of creating curriculum and selecting materials through legislation written by partisan “think tanks”. They will ask how we could in good conscience, and in violation of federal law, pass legislation that allowed some students’ identities and preferences to be respected, while others were made illegal to recognize in schools.