Georgia lawmakers try to identify critical race theory in schools

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Republicans in Georgia’s legislative chambers have vowed to rid the state’s schools of “critical race theory,” but first they say they have to legally define it.

Critical race theory is used in higher education to examine the effect of racism on society. Public school leaders say the theory itself is not taught in k-12 classrooms, but critics say its tenets about systemic inequity have influenced teachers and curriculum.

State Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Cornelia Republican, said Tuesday that a blanket ban on teaching CRT is the “most straightforward approach” but that legislators need to better define what they see as the problem.

“In order to have an honest dialogue, we have to define the terms,” Hatchett said. “We believe that there are concepts that are being taught in Georgia colleges and universities and seeping down into our k-12 schools — concepts that an overwhelming majority of Georgians outright reject.”

Also on Tuesday, a coalition of supporters of the first such legislation to be introduced under the Gold Dome this year, House Bill 888, identified what they see as examples of the way “concepts of CRT” have “infiltrated” Georgia schools.

The coalition, which includes national groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Manhattan Institute, and Georgia groups such as Protect Student Health Georgia, identified programs on social emotional learning and diversity, equity and inclusion.

They said the Georgia Department of Education is one of the entities “promoting this destructive worldview,” linking to a document on the agency’s website. The agency subsequently removed the document, saying it had not been reviewed or endorsed by State School Superintendent Richard Woods.

It was written by former Atlanta teacher Tracey Pendley for training purposes two years ago. Contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pendley said an Education Department administrator approved it.

Pendley said it was not an example of critical race theory. Social emotional learning is meant to teach people how to interact with others from different backgrounds, she said

“The whole point of SEL is to make better decisions for yourself but also to have empathy ... be able to walk in others’ shoes,” she said.

Hatchett said he plans to file a bill that will ensure students don’t learn lessons in school that make them feel guilty or inferior based on their race.

“We can uphold free speech and academic freedom while ensuring that our history — with all of its shining moments and its painful stains — is something we are to learn from, not something that is stamped into our DNA,” he said.

Hatchett is one of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders.

Kemp said in his State of the State address earlier this month that he would work with lawmakers this session “to protect our students from divisive ideologies like critical race theory that pits kids against each other.”

In May, when angry parents were attending local school board meetings to complain about how race, diversity and equity were addressed in classrooms, Kemp urged the state Board of Education “to ensure that critical race theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards and curriculum.”

The board, which is appointed by governors, then adopted a resolution on the teaching of race. The board has no authority over curriculum, which is controlled by the teachers and leaders of the state’s 180 school districts. There was no enforcement mechanism in the resolution.

CRT has become an issue nationally. Virginia’s new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, used outrage pumped up by conservative media and partisans in his successful campaign for office. One of his first official acts was to sign an executive order banning the use of CRT in schools.

A handful of school board members in metro Atlanta have spoken out against HB 888. So have some public school advocates, who say the financial penalties — the bill would dock violating schools 20% of their state funding — would harm students.

Lawmakers who back HB 888 said they were responding to constituent complaints.

At a press conference held by the Senate Republican Caucus, Hatchett’s proposal was among four pieces of legislation that are priorities of the majority party. Senate Republicans also plan to back legislation that would increase penalties on those involved in violent protests, invest in the expansion of apprenticeship programs and push to stop social media organizations from banning politicians and political candidates.

None of the bills had been filed as of press time.