Republican bill opens new front in culture war over Georgia schools

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Legislation could change how sex and gender is discussed in schools

Georgia Republicans are proposing prohibitions on classroom discussions about sex and gender, re-engaging in a cultural conflict that dominated state education policy last year but has been mostly absent so far this year.

The prohibitions in Senate Bill 88 would apply equally to public and private schools and in many cases to other places that oversee children, such as camps.

Teachers and others overseeing children under 16 would be prohibited from providing sex education without parent consent, a major shift for schools that must by law offer sex ed. They also could not discuss sexual orientation or gender identity “other than the child’s biological sex” absent consent.

SB 88 threatens loss of tax-exempt status for nonprofit organizations and withholding of funding for public schools.

Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, the bill’s primary sponsor, said the legislation would require that parents be told what their children are learning, though he said he’s working on an amendment in cases of suspected abuse at home.

“We want to protect parents, we want to protect the teachers, we want to protect anybody — campers, church, wherever,” he said at a hearing in the Senate Education and Youth committee Tuesday. “This is simply a bill that gives some protections and allows people in charge to know what is being taught to their children and the curriculums that they’re dealing with.”

The legislation initially had 10 other male, Republican co-sponsors.

Tracey Nance, a former Georgia Teacher of the Year, said SB 88 would have a chilling effect on speech, not unlike a law last year that limits classroom discussions about race. She likened the new Georgia bill to a recent Florida law governing classrooms through third grade that critics dubbed “don’t say gay.” It prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity that “is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” per state standards.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Nikhil Vashee, a policy director with the New York-based group Family Equality, said he has been monitoring scores of similarly-themed bills around the country.

He thinks such a law would lead teachers to avoid many topics that might not seem inappropriate today. For instance, a pregnant teacher might head off questions about her impending motherhood, fearing the questions and conversation it might elicit from students with gay parents.

“I think the impetus would be to shut that conversation down as soon as possible because otherwise you’d really be opening yourself to the kind of liability described in this bill, which could be a forfeiture of funds for your school,” he said.

Parents in Florida have sued, alleging the law there is unconstitutional, violating federally-protected rights including freedom of speech. A lawyer from ACLU Georgia who spoke at Tuesday’s Senate hearing asserted that SB 88 would violate the First Amendment were it to become law as is. The lawyer, Sarah Hunt-Blackwell, added that rising suicide rates among LGBTQ+ students suggest that they need more, not less, conversation about these issues.