NASHVILLE — In the final days of the legislative session, Republicans in the Tennessee House reopened an education committee to rein in what public schools will be allowed to teach on the topics of racism and inequality.
Members of the House education administration committee — which had previously closed for the year — returned Monday morning and advanced legislation intended to prohibit schools from teaching lessons about systemic racism, among other topics touching on race and sex.
Three Democratic lawmakers — all of whom are Black — were the only legislators to vote against the measure during the committee.
The effort, spearheaded in part by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, comes as conservative activists nationwide have increasingly sounded the alarm about ideas aligned with critical race theory being taught in both primary schools and higher education institutions.
“We as legislators and citizens must take a stand against hucksters, charlatans and useful idiots peddling identity politics,” Ragan said as he explained his legislation to the committee.
In his amendment, Ragan calls for the state education commissioner to withhold funding from schools teaching the themes in question.
“We’re getting lots of calls from all over the state, from parents in schools where they feel very uncomfortable with children coming home being exposed to certain things,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who chairs the committee. “So when we hear that, we’ve got to address it.”
The Idaho legislature in recent days passed a bill to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools, while Republicans in other states this year have proposed similar legislation.
Critical race theory teaches that racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and that people who are white benefit from it. It’s an academic movement that’s difficult to define, but one that has been the subject of controversy among school parents and has caused rifts in the Southern Baptist Convention.
As corporate and academic institutions last year placed a new focus on combatting racism, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order in September banning diversity trainings for federal employees and contractors, an effort that was eventually blocked by a federal judge.
The Democrats on the committee slammed the GOP proposal.
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, asked Ragan if he believed systemic racism exists. Ragan did not answer the question, saying the term “systemic racism” does not appear anywhere in his amendment or in the state’s instructional standards.
“There are those, and I’m among them, who feel that systemic racism is real in America,” Hakeem said. “Systemic racism doesn’t say the people of America are bad. We’re talking about the systems within our government, within our communities.”
In advance of the committee hearing, Ragan declined to offer specifics about the problem he intends to address.
“Tennessee values, Tennessee standards,” Ragan said without elaborating. “That’s what this is about.”
He said his new amendment to House Bill 580, which is a larger bill that outlines various rules and policies for the state Department of Education, will be public when it is discussed Monday in committee.
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“Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the modern state of Germany, said lovers of the law and sausage should watch neither being made,” Ragan said in an interview Thursday. “And so we’re in the sausage-making process here.”
When informed that it is the role of news reporters to observe the legislative process, Ragan said, “Certainly feel free to watch it, but don’t expect me to tell you what’s in the sausage before it’s made.”
Regan’s legislation would prohibit public or charter schools from teaching that:
- One race or sex is superior;
- Any individuals are “inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive” because of their race or sex;
- A person should receive adverse treatment due to their race or sex;
- Their moral character is determined by race or sex;
- A person bears responsibility for past actions by other members of their race or sex;
- A person should feel discomfort or other psychological distress because of their race or sex;
- A meritocracy is racist or sexist or designed to oppress members of another race or sex;
- The United States is fundamentally racist or sexist;
- Promoting the violent overthrow of the U.S. government;
- Promoting division or resentment between race, sex, religion, creed nonviolent political affiliation or class; or
- Ascribing character traits, values, moral codes, privileges or beliefs to a race or sex.
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While Ragan declined to provide specifics about the complaints he has received from parents regarding lessons being taught on race, White said he heard a story about a second-grade child who came home from school and asked her mother, “Am I a racist?”
It’s unclear where the family from the story lives.
“You know something’s going on that we need to address if a second-grader has to ask that question,” White said. “When I was a second-grader, I didn’t see differences in people, because my family never taught me that. So we need to be very careful.”
The Federal Register in April issued public notice that the U.S. Department of Education is considering offering grants to help schools “incorporate anti-racist practices into teaching and learning,” among other priorities.
Schools applying for the grants must describe how teachers will “take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history,” the notice reads.
The Tennessee bill would likely prevent schools from being able to seek out those training grants.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said some members were concerned about “things coming out of the Biden administration” with regard to teaching critical race theory in schools.
“There’s been conversations about is there a way to do something on critical race,” Sexton said in an interview last week. “At this point, whether or not they can get to a point where the House and Senate can agree at the very end, I’m not sure. But I know there’s been conversations going on.”
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Diversity lessons have remained a contentious topic in Williamson County which borders Nashville.
Conservative activist groups like Tennessee Stands and the Tennessee Eagle Forum have attempted in the past week to mobilize parents to contact state lawmakers, asking them to stop CRT from being taught in Tennessee schools. The groups have not provided specific examples of which schools are teaching it.
Eric Welch, a member of the Williamson County Schools (WCS) Board of Education, on Thursday released a statement saying recent accusations that CRT is being taught there are “FALSE.”
“WCS is not now, nor has it ever, taught CRT in our schools,” Welch wrote on his board member Facebook page. “In Tennessee, public school curriculum starts at the State level and WCS follows State curriculum guidelines.
“WCS is currently working on culture strategy planning to improve how we serve all our students, and we that will not include critical race theory.”
Laurie Cardoza-Moore, the newest member of the Tennessee’s Textbook & Instructional Materials Quality Commission, in March released a statement praising Florida Gov. Ron Desantis for proposing a civics instruction plan for schools that banned the teaching of critical race theory.
Both Gary Humble, the founder of Tennessee Stands, and Cardoza-Moore are also Williamson County residents.
White said legislators have received complaints from parents on the issue from “all over” Tennessee, including in Memphis, Knoxville and “south of Nashville.”
“We hear from our teachers all the time they don’t have enough time in the day to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, and here we are with another lesson,” White said of the instruction on racism reportedly being taught.
Controversy over cultural sensitivity and anti-racism lessons doesn’t always come with the title of critical race theory. The conflict has unfolded for years in Williamson County, where parents and school officials have at times been at odds over trainings and lessons offered to both students and teachers.
The former Williamson County Schools superintendent Mike Looney in 2019 walked back a series of teacher training videos on race and bias after complaints from school board members.
Looney said the in-house videos, which included references to “white privilege,” would no longer be used.
Around the same time, two teachers in the school system resigned after assigning eighth-grade students homework in which they were asked to pretend they owned slaves and had to “create a list of expectations for your family’s slaves.”
If Ragan’s bill is successfully passed on the floor, the Senate would then need to vote to conform with the House’s version.
The bill in its earlier version, carried by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, previously passed the Senate.
Follow Natalie Allison on Twitter: @natalie_allison.