Georgia House approves bill to control how race is discussed in schools

Students march around the state Capitol protesting what they call censorship legislation Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. The Georgia House approved one of the controversial measures, House Bill 1084, on Friday, March 4, 2022. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Students march around the state Capitol protesting what they call censorship legislation Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. The Georgia House approved one of the controversial measures, House Bill 1084, on Friday, March 4, 2022. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Following a playbook used by Republicans in other states, the Georgia House of Representatives approved legislation Friday that would limit what could be said about race during classroom discussions.

House Bill 1084 passed 92-63 in a party-line vote.

It is the first of four such bills to reach a vote by one of the chambers during this legislative session. It comes in the wake of national outrage over the notion that K-12 teachers are promoting the college-level academic concept known as critical race theory, which is used to examine the effect of racism on society.

Critics of the bills say they would hinder the teaching of history, but the bill’s sponsors say that is not their intention.

The four bills identify nine concepts that could not be used in classrooms, including that one race is inherently superior, that the United States is racist or that people should feel uncomfortable because of their race.

Supporters say the measures confront a rampant problem in classrooms that they have yet to document to the satisfaction of skeptics. Opponents call it a cynical strategy to pump up turnout in an election year after the pandemic and racial protests divided the country.

Rep. Will Wade, the author of HB 1084, has produced a list with a handful of incidents, including an old high school syllabus in Gwinnett County with the words “critical race theory” (the district said it was never shown to students) and an Atlanta school where students allegedly were assigned to classrooms based on race. He said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he just wants due process for parents who think their school may have crossed a line.

The legislation would “put a process in place to confirm, OK, what is the actual there that’s there,” the Dawsonville Republican said. “Let’s talk about what happened.” It would give parents a chance to feel like they’d been heard, he said, adding, “if there is a serious infraction, I really believe most schools will address it.”

Teachers would still be able to teach history, he said, but couldn’t express their political beliefs. He said he worked with groups representing teachers and school boards in writing the bill.

They have said they do not support it.

“All this bill does is muzzle our teachers and make them into a straw man for political gain from the true divisive voices in our communities,” said Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, a former sixth grade teacher. Wilson, who is white, cast the legislation as a reaction to the discomfort of white people about race in America. “This bill is whiter than the paper it’s printed on,” he said.

Rep. Doreen Carter, D-Lithonia, serves on the Education Committee that vetted the bill and said she never got a convincing answer from Wade about the need for it. She called it a “solution in search of a problem.”

The language in the four Georgia bills was drawn substantially from a September 2020 executive order by then-President Donald Trump that identified “divisive concepts” and banned them from federal worker training. (The order was reversed by President Joe Biden.)

Educators say no one in public K-12 schools is teaching such notions, but the Republicans backing these bills insist it is a big enough problem to warrant such explicit prohibitions.

Scores of similar bills have been filed in other states, and at least a dozen states have created laws or directives that govern how race can be taught in schools, according to The Washington Post, which documented early fallout, from canceled teacher training in Florida to student or parent complaints about political symbols, such as a Black Lives Matter or rainbow flag.

Wade said he drew the language in his bill from legislation in other states and from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative national group.

People see different things in the legislation, depending upon their vantage point.

Abbie Fuksman, a board member of the Atlanta Jewish Community Relations Council, said in a legislative committee hearing Monday that the language in Senate Bill 377, which is similar to that in HB 1084, would introduce a “slippery slope” that could erase the teaching of slavery or the Holocaust.

“This type of legislation is intended to shield Georgia students from uncomfortable conversations, but history by its nature is uncomfortable,” she said at a legislative hearing in late February. “It’s filled with people being wronged by others.”

But Taylor Hawkins, a lobbyist with Frontline Policy Action, a fundamentalist Christian organization that supports restrictions on abortion and on transgender students in sports, disagreed. He said the prohibitions wouldn’t prevent teaching about the Holocaust or slavery but would prohibit espousing supremacy.

“It doesn’t restrict the teaching of the history of that,” he said. “It does restrict you being racist in the classroom as a teacher.”

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said such legislation creates an “adversarial” relationship between teachers and parents. She worries that overworked administrators will be barraged with parent complaints and will feel political pressure to substantiate them.

Current Georgia legislation

House Bill 1084: Would allow the state education board to punish districts that teach divisive concepts by removing their access to waivers from state education law. All but two of the 180 school districts have them.

Senate Bill 377: Would punish schools that teach divisive concepts by withholding up to 10% of their state funding. Colleges and universities could lose an unspecified amount. It also targets worker training for state agencies.

These bills have been introduced but not yet discussed

House Bill 888: Would dock school districts 20% of their state funding for violations. It doesn’t use the word “divisive” but the wording of the concepts it would prohibit is similar.

Senate Bill 375: Would prohibit divisive concepts in worker training for schools as well as for state and local government agencies.