Teachers on edge over critical race theory debate

Teachers across the country are on edge amid the heated national debate over critical race theory, as Republican lawmakers in multiple states have passed or introduced legislation that would limit how race and racism are discussed in classrooms.

Leaders at professional educators associations and unions say the measures have led to uneasiness among some educators about what the legislative push means for classroom discussions going forward, while others are using their collective voice to object to the bills they say are unnecessary and dangerous.  

Colin Sharkey — executive director for the Association of American Educators, a national nonunion and nonpartisan professional educators association with roughly 25,000 members — said the push to regulate classroom discussions about race and racism has some teachers worried about possible retribution. 

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“When you feel in the middle or on the hot seat or you're being pulled in different directions or parents want one thing but the school required something else, teachers get concerned about very practical matters,” Sharkey said, adding that “Am I going to get sued or fired if I do or don't say something?” is one such question.

The bills offered by Republicans prohibit teaching that the U.S. is “fundamentally or systemically racist,” that traits such as “a hard work ethic” were created by “a particular race to oppress another race,” or that individuals by virtue of their race are “inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members” of the same race, among other things.

Nearly two dozen states have introduced such bills in recent months, and five GOP-led states — Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee and Iowa — have passed them.

Republican governors who have greenlighted the legislation have touted the bills as countering “discriminatory indoctrination” and concepts they claim will divide students over race, all the while decrying the decades-old construct known as critical race theory, though the majority of the bills avoid using the term.

Amanda Curtis — president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, a labor union that has more than 20,000 members, more than half of whom are educators — told The Hill that the “biggest response” she's seen from educators is “really just confusion” about the legislative push related to racial discussions and the conservative firestorm over critical race theory.

“Our members wanted to know, what does this really mean? What does this really say? How does this actually affect me? And do I need to change what I'm doing now?” Curtis told The Hill. “And the answer to those questions is, nothing. It doesn't affect you. And no, you don’t need to change it.” 

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Lisa Covington — an educator in Iowa and leader with Black Lives Matter at School, a national coalition committed to racial justice in education — said some educators she works with have already reported “a chilling effect” among colleagues regarding race instruction. 

Covington said educators have noticed the change in the months since Iowa lawmakers introduced a bill that bans diversity training, including teaching the concept that the state and the U.S. "are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist."

“Teachers are scared to teach the truth about U.S. history. ... You have kind of this self-policing a little bit of educators, specifically white educators who tried to teach about race and racism, going back to this old way of teaching,” she said.

In Oklahoma, where Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) last month signed legislation banning classrooms from teaching concepts about race, one school cited the law when canceling a teacher's course on white privilege.

A spokesperson for Oklahoma City Community College confirmed to The Washington Post that the school canceled the class after “learning more” about the recent law and “how it essentially revokes any ability to teach critical race theory, including discussions of white privilege, from required courses in Oklahoma.”

Though the law does not include the term “critical race theory,” it features language seen in other bills barring schools from teaching that “an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex” or that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”

Experts say Republicans are using the phrase critical race theory as a catchall for uncomfortable conversations about race and misleading the public with a new boogeyman term in order to appeal to their base.

Richard Benson, who teaches critical race theory as an associate professor in Spelman College's Department of Education, described the concept as a theoretical sociological construct that emerged in the legal sphere in the early to mid-1980s.

The construct, Benson said, essentially “just states that racism is endemic to every sector of American society.”

“If someone wants to actually take an overview of [critical race theory], they would look at some of the tenets and say that it theorizes the way that race and racism challenges and impacts the larger society,” he said.

Benson said the tenets of the theory are not the same as the concepts being criticized and banned by Republicans and noted that critical race theory is typically taught only in graduate school or law school.

In Montana, Curtis said some educators have expressed concerns about lawsuits after state Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) last month issued an opinion saying that “the teaching of critical race theory or so-called ‘antiracism’ in Montana schools violates the U.S. Constitution.”

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Curtis blasted Knudsen for the "ridiculous" opinion and said any lawsuits that emerge from it will “have zero standing.”

“The attorney general even cited at the end of his opinion [that it] shall have no effect or encroachment on academic freedom or freedom of speech,” she stated. “So he kind of even recognizes in his own opinion that this document is really just political grandstanding and won't have any effect on teachers and schools.”

Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said her group has fielded some concerns that parents and administrators “will react based on media coverage” as opposed to “the actual language” of the legislation in her state.

“These concerns are that some parents may allege a teacher is teaching content prohibited by the bill based solely on what has been said and published about the issue,” she said.

Laura Renée Chandler, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Oglethorpe University, said that in discussing critical race theory, people “should reject or at least be a little bit more critical about having this conversation” on the terms of the conservatives who are targeting it, whom she noted are “not even defining it correctly.”

"It's really important that we have informed voices who understand this work and who understand what teachers are actually doing in the classroom," she said. "Those are the people who should have the conversation and not these politicians."

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Chandler said she thinks the Republican push against critical race theory is in part “backlash” to the nationwide focus on racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who pinned his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest in May 2020.

"As a nation, we've been having more conversations about race and racial injustice and in police violence than I think we've ever had really, certainly in my lifetime, and I think these individuals are very uncomfortable with these conversations," she said.

She pointed to the controversial executive order from the Trump administration last year that took aim at “divisive concepts” in certain diversity training for government workers as the “precursor” for the recent GOP-backed legislation banning similarly worded concepts in schools.

“Now you have all of these state legislators that are trying to keep that going,” she said.

Some of the legislation that has been introduced or advanced in certain states, including West Virginia and Tennessee, includes provisions that threaten to withhold funding from state agencies or schools that violate restrictions on racial discussions.

In the past several months, Republican lawmakers have also filed legislation seeking to mandate funding and budget cuts for schools that include The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their history curriculum.

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The New York Times Magazine launched the 1619 Project, which examines the role slavery played in the in the nation’s founding, in 2019. The project has drawn widespread praise and support from historians and has since been used as an educational tool in classrooms across the nation.

However, the project and its creator, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, have faced criticism from former President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE and other prominent Republicans who claim the project “rewrites American history.”

Becky Pringle — president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union — said the bills won’t stop teachers from having discussions about race, noting that educators her organization has heard from remain committed to teaching students “the truth” about race.

She also noted that educators are professionals who are equipped to handle discussions about race in classrooms and “to ensure that we prepare our students with the knowledge and skills and the ability to think critically about difficult issues.”

"As an eighth-grade science teacher for over 30 years, I can tell you that there's nothing that I would want less than having a politician make educational decisions for our students," she said. "That is for us, educators, the professionals."