Senate takes up revised HB324, which could limit how schools teach American history

Posted 7/21/21

A state Senate education committee took up revised legislation last week that prohibits public schools from “promoting certain concepts,” including that the United States was created by members …

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Senate takes up revised HB324, which could limit how schools teach American history

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A state Senate education committee took up revised legislation last week that prohibits public schools from “promoting certain concepts,” including that the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.

That legislation, House Bill 324, was first filed under a pre-existing bill on charter schools in March under the name, “Ensuring Dignity & Nondiscrimination/Schools.” Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Dist. 30) announced the revised bill would be taken up last Wednesday.

Democrats, joined by many educators, worry the legislation would prevent schools from having accurate discussions about the country’s history as it pertains to race and sex. Still, Republicans warn such measures are necessary to guard against the indoctrination of students.

“Children must learn about our state’s racial past and all of its ugliness, including the cruelty of slavery to the 1898 Wilmington massacre to Jim Crow,” Berger wrote in a statement last week. “But students must not be forced to adopt an ideology that is separate and distinct from history; an ideology that attacks ‘the very foundations of the liberal order,’ and that promotes ‘present discrimination’ — so long as it’s against the right people — as ‘antiracist.’”

The original bill prohibited the “promotion” of seven concepts, including: “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” “an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” and that “any individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.” (For a full list of concepts, see sidebar to the left.)

The bill defined promoting such concepts as: compelling school community members to affirm or profess belief in such concepts, including such concepts in curriculum, reading lists, workshops or trainings or “contracting with, hiring, or otherwise engaging speakers, consultants, diversity trainers, and other persons for the purpose of advocating” them.

The new version of the bill adds six new concepts that can’t be promoted, including that the U.S. government should be overthrown and that the rule of law does not exist. It also changed that definition to mean “compelling students, teachers, administrators, or other school employees to affirm or profess belief in the concepts described in subsection (c) of this section.”

Many education experts have said the implications of the bill are not clear, calling into question who will be the judge of whether teaching promotes the listed concepts and whether the bill would cause teachers to censor themselves from teaching certain historical facts or events out of fear or uncertainty.

Though the bill doesn’t specifically mention critical race theory, it joins legislation across the country proposed by Republicans to limit discussion of CRT — an academic framework widely criticized and incorrectly or vaguely defined by some vocal conservatives, according to those who teach about critical race theory. The concept, more than 40 years old, is wide-spanning, but essentially views racism as systemic and therefore woven into legal systems and policies — including America’s.

Still, the vast majority of teachers do not use the term “critical race theory” with students, or teach from the work of scholars who specifically use that framework.

Even so, the debate over critical race theory has driven the passage of laws restricting how school’s teach about America’s history. Only eight of the 26 bills introduced actually refer to critical race theory, according to an Education Week analysis published last month.

In the case of bills such as the one proposed in North Carolina, the language is vague, clouding specific desired outcomes, but likely still having a chilling effect on teachers, education experts say.

“This bill is founded on the unfounded fear of Critical Race Theory,” Raleigh Democrat Jay Chaudhuri said during Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting. “This bill, I believe, attempts to do away with so-called Critical Race Theory. But what I fear it really does away with is critical thinking in our classroom.”

State and national debates on how to teach history

At the CCS Board of Education meeting Monday night, CRT was discussed at a meeting for the first time, with two parents expressing opposition to critical race theory.

“I encourage everybody to teach our children how to think, not what to think,” one parent, Neil Giles, said, likening discussion of CRT to public health initiatives encouraging masking. “Our children have been exposed to misleading information as we all as citizens have been.”

“I am all for people. I am all for equality. But I think it’s almost in some cases creating more division,” another speaker, Rose Kinkaid, said. “I think schools should get back to being the basics of what education is, and some moral issues could be left to the parents and the children.”

The introduction of this bill follows a statewide debate on how to teach history, including the passage of new social study standards — controversial among some conservatives — which include language to discuss racism, discrimination and the perspectives of marginalized groups. Prior to this year, much of the public discussion surrounding history lessons in schools emphasized the shortcomings in curriculum accurately teaching about topics such as slavery, genocide of Native Americans and other instances of racial violence in the U.S., if such subjects were taught at all.

The introduction of the original bill also followed Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s creation of a task force in March to collect complaints from parents, students and teachers in public schools across the state about “indoctrination” in the classroom, first reported by the News & Observer of Raleigh.

On Wednesday, Berger also filed for legislation calling for a state constitutional amendment to ban affirmative action, which refers to the practice of proactively admitting or hiring applicants from underrepresented backgrounds or historically disadvantaged groups. It is different from racial quotas, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978.

‘We’ll continue to watch closely’

In his remarks Wednesday, Berger said that the bill “forbids public schools from promoting certain discriminatory concepts.”

The revised bill also requires schools to make information regarding the following actions available to the public at least 30 days in advance: teaching instruction regarding the prohibited concepts, contracting with or hiring speakers or diversity consultants for the purpose of discussing the prohibited concepts or who have “previously advocated for the concepts…”.

If passed, Chatham County School’s Amanda Hartness previously told the News + Record that the bill could potentially pose challenges in discussing “hard history.” And while she doesn’t think the bill would prevent the district from moving forward with its current equity work, it could make it more difficult.

“On the surface, when anyone reads the title of the bill, ‘Ensuring Dignity & Nondiscrimination in Schools,’ I think we would all agree that is something we would all strive to do,” said Hartness, who is the district’s assistant superintendent of academic services and instructional support, in May.

“The part that I think has some question marks behind it that we’ll continue to watch closely would be the components particularly about being able to teach certain parts of the social studies curriculum,” she said. “And depending upon how you interpret the way the bill is currently written, one could take from it that it would prohibit us from having certain equity-related conversations that many school districts are having across the country to help address achievement gaps.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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