Critics say Georgia race bill threatens financial blow to schools

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

They say financial penalties for violations would harm districts

Legislation that would penalize Georgia schools for teaching about race in ways deemed inappropriate could drain hundreds of millions of dollars from public education, opponents warn.

House Bill 888 would dock school districts 20% of their state funding for violations of the numerous prohibitions in the 18-page proposal.

Critics say the tally could mount to a staggering sum, including in those districts represented by the more than 30 lawmakers backing the new bill, which has not yet had a hearing.

The proposed financial penalties would “sow chaos” and harm students, says a statement by the coalition of more than half a dozen groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund, its lobbying arm.

Mike Tafelski, an attorney with the fund, thinks the legislation also would limit what teachers can say about civil rights history. “This really is a censorship bill,” he said.

The Intercultural Development Research Association sees it as an attack on schools that have been trying to support students of color in the wake of racially-charged murders of Black people by police, regional director Terrence Wilson said.

“I think that a 20% financial penalty is particularly egregious,” he said.

HB 888 prohibits teaching that “the United States is a systemically racist country.” Other prohibitions include teaching that individuals “bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible” for past actions by members of the same “race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin” or “that any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish” or other psychological distress on that basis.

It is the latest local example of a national backlash against what conservative activists — spurred by former President Donald Trump and by disagreement over masks and other COVID-19 protocols — have labeled a divisive attack on American values.

Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, said he signed HB 888 after hearing constituent complaints about classroom discussions about sex and race.

Legislative hearings may help establish whether what he’s heard are isolated complaints or evidence of a widespread problem, he said. “The reason I signed the bill is to bring up discussion.” He said he doesn’t want to harm public schools with the financial penalty; he just wants to ensure they are using public money to “do what we’re supposed to do.”

Another backer of HB 888, Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville, said the bill addresses concerns he’s heard from constituents about “indoctrination,” “radical political ideologies” and political polarization in classrooms.

The former school board member is among the handful of HB 888 signers from the House Education Committee, where it will likely be assigned for hearings. He said he dislikes the financial penalty: “In my opinion, as one member, I don’t know that that piece will survive the committee process.”

Opponents of HB 888 worry about the general direction lawmakers — and the nation — seem to be headed.

Alex Ames, 19, an organizer of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, said students have been cursed at and threatened with violence when speaking at school board meetings.

The Georgia Tech sophomore attended public schools in Fulton and Gwinnett counties and said the financial penalties in HB 888 would exacerbate budget cutting she saw throughout her lifetime.

She thinks the bill addresses “manufactured emergencies” and that lawmakers are pushing it for political gain.

“What they’re more interested in is running in a 2022 election where they know the more radical they appear, the more attention they can get,” she said.