The latest fight over diversity and equity in Georgia’s schools was waged Thursday in a tense boardroom across the street from the state Capitol.
There, more than a dozen teachers and advocates approached the microphone and, one by one, made impassioned pleas against a proposal to remove words such as “diversity,” “equity” and “social justice” from the state’s educator preparation rules.
Members of the governor-appointed Georgia Professional Standards Commission dialed into the meeting virtually, their cameras off during the roughly hourlong public hearing. The commissioners voted without discussion to delete those words and scores of references to so-called “ambiguous terms” from the rules that guide the colleges and programs that train future educators.
The decision is a continuation of a rewrite that began last month when commissioners unanimously agreed to change “diverse” to “different” and eliminate a definition of diversity that included examples such as race, sexual orientation and gender identity, among other edits.
The latest rule changes, which go into effect July 1, are among a series of steps legislators and policymakers have taken in Georgia and beyond to rid schools of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
As commissioners lodged their virtual votes from behind computer screens, shouts of “shame” and “cowards” rang out from the in-person audience. After the vote ended, most of the audience members left the room in disgust.
“It’s a travesty,” said DeKalb County teacher Chris Andrews moments later, from a hallway outside the meeting. “Without some sort of diversity, equity, inclusion training, or even mention thereof, are we even able to interact with each other in effective ways?”
Commission chairman Brian Sirmans gave a brief explanation about the rule change that was similar to what he offered during last month’s meeting. He said the University System of Georgia asked the commission to “remove or simplify words that in recent years have taken on multiple and unintended meanings.”
He said that teachers colleges are still expected to prepare future educators who are “well-equipped to address the learning needs of all students.”
But over and over, those opposed to the changes told commissioners that “words matter.”
“By removing DEI training requirements, this body turns a blind eye to students’ academic, psychological and emotional needs,” said Sarah Hunt-Blackwell, First Amendment policy advocate for ACLU of Georgia. “Changing language does change intent.”
Among those changes: cutting out requirements that programs prepare literacy coaches to “recognize their own cultures, belief systems, and potential biases.”
In another section pertaining to elementary education, the new wording erases a reference to “culturally and linguistically diverse” families in favor of more generic phrasing. Effective school leaders should no longer push for “equity, inclusiveness, and social justice” but instead for “fair access, opportunity, and advancement for all students.”
The new language uses “fairness” instead of “equity.” That difference matters to opponents who say equity means giving each student what they need, which may not be the exact same thing their classmates need.
Unlike at last month’s commission meeting, advocates this time gathered enough signatures to force a hearing on the rule changes.
Anne Marie Fenton, director of rules management and educator assessment, said the meeting was scheduled to be virtual, which is why the commissioners participated online. However, members of the public who spoke at the meeting were made to do so in person.
“The in-person speaking requirement helps ensure a secure oral hearing,” Fenton said in an email, adding that it “provides additional logistical control and assurances” that the hearing will be well-managed.
Requiring the public to attend in person while decision-makers tune in remotely is not the best way to hold a public hearing, said Richard T. Griffiths, spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. He noted in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that other government entities successfully heard public comment online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Critics of the changes approved Thursday said they will continue to monitor for any additional proposed rule revisions and consider ways to proactively hold the commission accountable.