Enrichment Education

Restrictive curriculum bills nearly tripled in 2022, report finds

Between January and August, 36 states introduced 137 pieces of legislation that would limit how teachers may address certain topics in the classroom.
Charlotte Herman, 13, listens as history teacher Wendy Leighton discusses the Salem witch trials with her students at Monte del Sol Charter School on Dec. 3, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M. As conservative-run states across the U.S. move to restrict discussion of race, gender, and identity in the classroom, progressive-run states are trying to prioritize those discussions. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio, File)

Story at a glance

  • Nearly three times the number of restrictive education bills have been introduced this year compared to last year, according to a report released Wednesday by PEN America.

  • Most measures target classroom instruction related to race, but a growing number also seek to limit how teachers and students may communicate about topics including sexual orientation and gender identity.

  • Restrictive curriculum bills introduced over the last two years have become law in 15 states, affecting an estimated 122 million Americans, according to PEN America.

State legislative proposals to restrict how topics including race, gender identity and sexual orientation are addressed in schools have skyrocketed over the last year, nearly tripling from 2021, according to a report published Wednesday by the group PEN America.

Between January and August, 36 states introduced 137 pieces of legislation that would limit the ability of educators to teach their students. In 2021, 54 bills were introduced in 22 states, according to PEN America, a free expression and literary organization.

Similar to both 2020 and 2021, most measures introduced this year target lessons about race, but a growing number — 23 this year, according to PEN America — single out classroom instruction related to LGBTQ+ issues or identities.

That includes a new Florida education law that heavily curtails the ability of public school teachers to address topics including sexual orientation and gender identity with their students, as well as another measure with substantially similar language that was signed into law in Alabama in April.

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Similar education bills targeting LGBTQ+ identities were introduced this year in states including Ohio, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana and Kentucky, among others, but failed to become law.

Legislation targeting classroom instruction this year mostly focused on K-12 schools, but an increasing share would apply the law to colleges and universities. 

Restrictive curriculum bills introduced this year have also tended to be more punitive compared to those of previous years, according to the PEN America report, and more than half of bills introduced in 2022 contained explicit punishments for violations, including private rights of action, large monetary fines, faculty termination and loss of institutional accreditation.

Lawmakers who support such measures have argued that their primary intent is to give parents a larger role in their children’s education, in some cases alleging that public school classrooms are inappropriate forums for discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity because those topics may be in conflict with the religious beliefs of some families.

Those opposed to the bills have accused the mostly Republican state legislators backing them of capitalizing on the issue, which has ignited a fierce nationwide debate over “parental rights” in schools, for political gain. Of the 137 restrictive curriculum bills introduced this year, just one — in Arizona — had a Democratic legislative sponsor, according to PEN America.

Suzanne Nossel, the group’s chief executive, on Wednesday said legislation that limits meaningful discourse in schools poses a threat to how young people are able to navigate the nuances of reality later on in life.

“Lawmakers are undermining the role of our public schools as a unifying force above politics and turning them instead into a culture war battleground,” Nossel said in a news release. “By seeking to silence critical perspectives and stifle debate, they are depriving students of the tools they need to navigate a diverse and complex world.”

Reports of self-censorship in schools or stunted intellectual exchanges as a result of restrictive curriculum bills have already surfaced. In Iowa, a group of high school students in April staged a walkout to protest a number of such measures, including one that prohibits “divisive concepts” being taught in school.

Recent research from the RAND Corporation found that a quarter of teachers nationwide have been directed by school administrators “to limit discussions about political and social issues in class.”

Restrictive curriculum bills introduced over the last two years have become law in 15 states, affecting an estimated 122 million Americans. PEN America on Wednesday said the group expects more to be filed in the coming year, especially where similar measures have failed only narrowly.