The move is “a step back,” said the Georgia Coalition for Education Justice, an advocacy group that held a news conference immediately after the meeting.
”This is terrifying to me,” said Tracey Nance, a former Georgia Teacher of the Year. “They’re changing the word. They’re changing the intent. They’re changing the meaning. And they’re going to change the outcome in our state for kids and for educators.”
The rules outline the standards that dozens of colleges and other programs that train Georgia’s future K-12 teachers and other educators must meet to earn and maintain approval from the state commission.
Agency officials said the revisions were requested by the University System of Georgia and are aimed at removing “ambiguous terms” that have taken on “multiple or unintended meanings.”
Opponents, including some college education professors, have slammed the rewrite as the latest attack on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to pop up in Georgia and in other conservative-led states.
“Taking away diversity and devaluing it in the teaching standards means that college students will see less relevance in their future work. That means that the teaching profession becomes less exciting to them,” said Yacine Kout, an assistant professor of education at the University of North Georgia.
Fewer people may decide to pursue a career in education, worsening Georgia’s teacher shortage, he said.
Those who advocated against the rule change fear it will prompt some colleges and programs to scale back or stop training teachers on how to best work with children from diverse backgrounds. They say attention to diversity is critical because it leads to better classroom culture, increased student engagement and more academic success.
Commission chair Brian Sirmans said the changes do not require programs to “redefine” how they equip prospective educators to meet students’ learning needs. Nor is it intended to “prescribe the way” programs meet the standards, he said during the meeting.
The rules set a “minimum level of expectation” for programs, which still must train educators to meet the needs of all children, said Penney McRoy, director of the commission’s educator preparation division.
“That is not changing. We are simply changing some words,” she said at the meeting.
But others said the commission wouldn’t have bothered changing the wording if it didn’t mean something. They worry it will snowball into new laws that seek more control over how and what instructors teach.
School-based diversity initiatives have become a political target in recent years. Republican legislators last year passed a law banning what they contend are divisive teachings about race in Georgia’s K-12 classrooms. Teachers cannot assert, for example, that the United States is fundamentally racist or that someone should feel guilty because of their race.
Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts also face scrutiny at public colleges, where budgets are tightening because of enrollment declines and a state funding cut. In April, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones asked the University System of Georgia to explain how much its 26 schools spend on such initiatives.
And the commission isn’t done with its rule revisions.
On June 8, it’s expected to consider removing more references to “diversity” and “equity” sprinkled elsewhere in its rulebook.
Among those upcoming changes is cutting a reference to “equity, inclusiveness and social justice” in favor of the phrase “fair access, opportunity and advancement for all students.”
The current rules state that educators should be prepared to work effectively with children from “culturally and linguistically diverse” families. That phrase would be deleted and replaced with more generalized language.
Instead of striving “for equity” in education, school leaders should strive “for fairness,” according to the proposal. And they should create a school culture that values “learner differences” not “diversity.”
The commission will accept public comment through May 23 on those and other changes.