Georgia Senate OKs legislation to limit race discussions in classrooms

The Senate bill is similar to one already passed by the House
Sen. Bo Hatchett (R-Cornelia) at the Georgia Capitol on March 29, 2021. The Senate passed his Senate Bill 377 on March 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Sen. Bo Hatchett (R-Cornelia) at the Georgia Capitol on March 29, 2021. The Senate passed his Senate Bill 377 on March 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Georgia Senate on Friday moved the state a step closer to final passage of legislation that would prevent schools from teaching that America is racist.

The Republican-led Senate voted 32-20 along party lines Friday to approve Senate Bill 377. It started out as legislation prohibiting the use of nine “divisive concepts” in schools and colleges. Higher education was later cut from the legislation, as was a financial penalty for violations.

The prohibited concepts involve generalizations based on race. They are substantially similar to those in a bill already passed by the House. The passage of both bills means the two chambers agree on the core issues, making final passage of one of them into law all the more likely.

Other states have passed similar laws.

Gov. Brian Kemp has said legislation addressing critical race theory is a priority for him this year. The Senate bill and one passed by Republicans in the House were prompted by a concern sweeping the nation that critical race theory is taught in K-12 classrooms.

The theory is used in some college classrooms to examine the effect of racism on society, but K-12 educators say it is not used in their schools.

These two bills — the other is House Bill 1084 — would prohibit teachers promoting certain notions, including that one race is inherently superior.

The language was drawn substantially from a September 2020 executive order by President Donald Trump that identified what were considered “divisive concepts” and banned them from federal worker training. The order was later reversed by President Joe Biden.

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

During two hours of debate, Democrats attacked SB 377 on the Senate floor Friday, calling it an incoherent attempt to censor painful discussions about race.

“This language is so vague and confusing it’s actually hard for me to pinpoint what the bill actually does,” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, noting that it allows the teaching of past racism while prohibiting talk of it today.

Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, said it would force neutrality when teaching about the atrocities of slavery. “I have to say there are both sides,” he said. “I can’t say I condemn that. Is that really where we are?”

Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, defended his bill, saying “99.99%” of Georgia teachers would not teach the prohibited concepts. But students need to be protected from the teachers who do, he said.

Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, said education began losing its focus decades ago when liberal protesters became teachers after the Vietnam War. He said the bill would help education find its “true north” in preparing students for gainful employment.

The legislation now heads to the House, as HB 1084 awaits a hearing in the Senate. In a signal of collaboration between the chambers, Hatchett, the author of SB 377, said he will present the House bill to the Senate.