Education

Tennessee law restricting classroom discussions on race inspires passionate feedback

Tammy Williams, a resident of Franklin, Tennessee, called anything that resembles critical race theory “racist” and divisive.

Deborah Edwards, a grandmother near Memphis, expressed dismay at her home state’s “attempt to censor the teaching of American history.”

And Michael Franklin, a Vietnam veteran from Nashville, said a new state law limiting classroom discussions about racism reminds him of McCarthyism in the 1950s, when one U.S. senator’s paranoid hunt for Communist infiltrators forced thousands of people out of their jobs.

Their statements — passionate, sometimes poignant, often enraged — were among hundreds of comments submitted online to the Tennessee Department of Education on its proposed plan for enforcing a new state law aimed at shutting down teaching that delves into concepts like systemic racism and white privilege.

The feedback is being considered as Tennessee develops its final rules around the controversial law. Those rules will help determine how Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn will respond to complaints of alleged violations. She will have the power to suspend or revoke teachers’ licenses or withhold funding from schools.

It’s unclear when the state will begin enforcing the law, which took effect on July 1. Most students went back to school in early August.

“The process is ongoing,” state spokesman Brian Blackley said Friday when asked for a target date.

According to a Chalkbeat analysis of approximately 900 comments obtained through a public records request, almost half came from people identifying themselves as parents or grandparents. Nearly 60 came from current, former, or retired educators, and another 21 were submitted by advocacy, professional, or citizens groups. A smattering was written by elected or district leaders. The rest came from people mostly identifying themselves as Tennessee citizens, residents, or taxpayers.

Outsized input

At least a third of the comments came from Williamson County, an enclave south of Nashville that is mostly affluent and conservative, with significant political influence in a state government that’s under a Republican supermajority.

Some Williamson Countians spoke against any attempt to skirt historical facts about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. “My children and their peers deserve an education that is honest about this country’s history,” wrote Elizabeth Smith, whose oldest child goes to Williamson County Schools.

But the vast majority of Williamson Countians wrote that they supported the law, while also listing concerns about Schwinn’s enforcement plan. They didn’t like the 30-day statute of limitation for filing a complaint — and that only students, parents, or employees of the school or district in question would be eligible to file one.

“We parents need your help to resist the indoctrination of our children into this dishonest and divisive radical ideology,” said parent Cara Michelle, who accused Schwinn’s proposal of “watering down” the law at the expense of parents and grandparents who want a larger say in what their children are taught.

Hundreds of commenters appeared to use a template promoted by one of several politically active groups that have flooded Williamson County school board meetings this year with concerns about learning materials for students, diversity training for teachers, and school mask mandates during the pandemic.

“This new rule is too vague, too limiting, and does not protect the rights of parents or students,” says the language, used in more than 300 separate complaints.

Public venting

While the state solicited feedback on its proposals for carrying out the law, many writers used the platform to speak either for or against the new statute. Lawmakers passed the measure in May on the last day of the legislative session, just days after introducing the bill and without inviting educators, parents, or students to testify about its merits. Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law soon after.

“How are you passing legislation prohibiting teachers from teaching history accurately while also watching people die from COVID due to your inaction?” wrote Karen Ekeh, an elementary school teacher in Memphis, referring to the governor’s unwillingness to support mask mandates and another new law preventing schools from requiring COVID vaccinations.

Arlene Martin noted that lawmakers seem concerned about showing sensitivity to the feelings of today’s white students, when they aren’t doing the same for students whose skin is brown. She called the law an “old playbook.”

“Four hundred years ago, whites outlawed reading & writing for Blacks,” Martin said.

But Kristen Metzinger said she welcomed the law to shield students from teaching that she said “shames children based on their skin color.”

“I lived in California and fled due to the horrible living conditions and the liberal and progressives that are destroying schools and our children’s lives. I can’t believe that it is taking shape in Tennessee,” wrote Metzinger, who did not identify where she currently lives.

Michael Spain, who works at a middle school in Gibson County, worried about any teaching that appears to frame all lessons through the lens of race. “It deepens divisions,” he wrote, “and thus keeps us from true racial reconciliation.”

What can teachers teach?

Commenters for and against the law complained the prohibited concepts are vague.

Since the law prohibits discussing that “this state or the United States is fundamentally … racist or sexist,” does it also bar teaching that some of the nation’s founding fathers espoused racist views or owned slaves? asked Heidy Weinberg, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, which opposed the law.

“This law does not clarify what teachers can and cannot teach,” wrote Weinberg, who worried the lack of clarity will “dissuade a wide range of instruction in the classroom.”

Jeanne Haddock, a former teacher from Knoxville, suggested the state ban classroom use of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which she called “despicable, divisive, and untrue.” The collection of articles and essays argues that the foundations of America’s history includes the legacy of slavery and contributions of Black Americans.

A group of demonstrators in Memphis in 2020 protest the recent deaths of Black Americans by police.
Courtesy of Joe Rondone / The Commercial Appeal

Beverly Bond, who teaches history at the University of Memphis and taught public school in Germantown for 11 years, said it would be impossible to teach American history without talking about race, gender, and ethnicity. She called the proposed guidelines “ahistorical and frankly ridiculous.”

“Teaching about race and racism does not weaken or confuse students; it does not embarrass or humiliate them,” Bond wrote. “Tennessee teachers are professionals who know their subjects and are sensitive to the feelings and needs of their students.”

Punishment and penalties

Under the state’s proposed plan, school systems found guilty of knowingly violating the law could lose $1 million, or 2% of annual state funds, whichever is less. Repeat offenders could forfeit the lesser of $5 million or 10% of funds.

But numerous commenters called those penalties excessive.

“At this critically important time, when schools are being asked to meet the social-emotional needs of students through the COVID pandemic and striving to address learning loss amid unprecedented demands on public education, it is not the time to place additional financial burdens on overworked, underfunded systems of education,” wrote Joseph Gutierrez on behalf of the Maddox Foundation.

The Nashville-based foundation also challenged the proposed penalties to revoke or suspend teacher licenses during a time when schools are already short-staffed.

“The punitive measures recommended by the Department of Education create a fear-based environment for teachers … and steal the joy that teachers find in seeing students thinking critically about complex subjects,” Gutierrez wrote.

Crystal Colter, whose daughter attends Maryville City Schools, said she fears for her daughter’s teachers. Politicized accusations are likely, she said, which would create a toxic environment.

“I do not want our hardworking teachers to be distracted or distressed about having a target on their backs regarding what they are teaching,” Colter wrote.

Several comments came from Tennessee lawmakers who were instrumental in the law’s passage.

Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Republican from Maury County, suggested the department remove any dollar amounts from the proposed penalties and stick with percentages of state funding. “The larger districts who may challenge the legislation would be able to afford the fines,” wrote Cepicky, referring to school systems in Memphis and Nashville.

Most of the groups weighing in opposed the law. They included the Tennessee Education Association, the Education Trust in Tennessee, the YWCA, the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, and the Student Press Law Center.

A coalition representing Tennessee libraries called the law “an act of censorship” that is contrary to the democratic ideal of free access to information.

For all of the hubbub, Nashvillian Stephen Bryant questioned why. He noted that the academic framework of critical race theory is mostly used in higher education — not K-12 schools — to explore how race and racism influence American law, culture, business, and politics.

“My main concern is the distrust of public schools and school teachers that this law and these guidelines foster, without warrant,” wrote Bryant, a retired United Methodist leader. “The publicity around this matter calls great attention to a problem that does not exist.”

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