Opinion: When Georgia Legislature pays attention to schools, look out

The upcoming session of the Georgia Legislature will likely include efforts to limit discussions around race and white supremacy in history classrooms. The template is a controversial new Texas law that seeks a balanced presentation of history and mandates avoidance of divisive or race-related concepts. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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The upcoming session of the Georgia Legislature will likely include efforts to limit discussions around race and white supremacy in history classrooms. The template is a controversial new Texas law that seeks a balanced presentation of history and mandates avoidance of divisive or race-related concepts. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Lawmakers seek to woo base with bans on books and discussions of race

The education priorities in the upcoming legislative session bring to mind the chorus of a Don Henley song that goes, “Kick ‘em when they’re up, Kick ‘em when they’re down.”

In multiple surveys, teachers describe the pandemic as the most trying chapter of their careers, with record numbers reporting they are considering retiring or quitting. Educators are being asked to reduce learning gaps caused by the COVID-19 shift to remote learning and address the surge in student mental health problems that is overwhelming Georgia’s already stressed health care system.

The Legislature is responding with politically driven bills that will only make the jobs of schools harder. In the past, public education advocates have bemoaned lawmakers’ lack of attention to schools. With a political circus around critical race theory and witch hunts over indecent books, those advocates may wish education could remain safely on the sidelines.

One bill would ban some books dealing with race and gender that critics assert are too graphic. State Rep. Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the Georgia House, announced she’s working to “ensure obscene materials have no place in public schools.” The books being targeted are those decried by the parents who contend schools are held captive to liberal agendas.

ExploreGeorgia schools targeted in battle over library books, online content

Republicans in Georgia are following the successful strategy of conservative politicians such as Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. Under a banner of stronger parental rights, Youngkin ran an ad that featured a Republican activist who fought eight years ago to have Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel “Beloved” about the horrors and legacy of slavery banned from her son’s school because the book’s imagery gave the teen nightmares. Never mind that her son was a high school senior reading the book in an advanced class that offered college-level material.

Also likely are bills attempting to limit discussions around race and white supremacy in history classrooms. The template is a controversial new Texas law that seeks a balanced presentation of history and mandates avoidance of divisive or “race-related concepts that even hint that someone is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” based on their race or sex.

Enacted this summer, Texas House Bill 3979 stipulates that teachers who reference “a current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affair” must “strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” That led the executive director of curriculum and instruction in the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, to instruct teachers during training on the new law to “make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing — that has other perspectives.”

The prospect of similar legislation in Georgia worries Jennifer Susko, who resigned her Cobb school counseling job in July after the district banned discussions of critical race theory. In a recent interview, Susko said the ban amounted to a gag order preventing staff from talking to students about race-based trauma and their experiences as children of color in America.

“You are canceling their entire identities in terms of being able to look at their ancestors,” she said. “It is empowering to talk to students about their history because they know what the people before them went through and what they are capable of. These laws about how our history is taught want to prevent students from being discomforted or anguished, but the laws are really talking about white students. What about when black students and kids of color also feel anguish or distress?”

A report released last month by the federal Government Accountability Office showed a rise in hate crimes in schools, noting that 1 in 4 of all students ages 12 to 18 in the 2018-2019 school year saw hate words or symbols written in their schools, such as homophobic slurs and references to lynching.

A longtime education spending analyst, Stephen Owens of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute urges state lawmakers to focus on actual funding issues rather than manufactured hysteria.

For example, Owens said Georgia remains one of only eight states that provide no additional dollars in their funding formula to educate students living in poverty. Nor has Georgia fully funded the sparsity grants that assist low-enrollment rural districts. Georgia has the perfect opportunity to finally address these pressing needs with the federal COVID-19 dollars available over the next two years and then step up with state funds, he said.

“You can be a die-hard conservative champion and still recognize that 90% of children in this state go to a Georgia public school,” Owens said. “It does not have to be outside conservative orthodoxy to do right by our public schooling system.”