- On Tuesday, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill along party lines that would prohibit schools from teaching critical race theory — which holds that race is a social construct systemically woven into the legal system and other institutions in a way that creates a caste system limiting people of color to the bottom tiers — or risk losing state funding.
- The bill would also prevent schools from teaching that "an individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged" and "the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist."
- Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey, who drafted the language for the conference committee report that initially passed the state Senate 25-7, tweeted the theory "teaches that the rule of law does not exist [and] is instead a series of power struggles among racial groups," which is "harmful to our students" and "antithetical to everything we stand for as Americans." Gov. Bill Lee is expected to sign the legislation.
I was proud to draft the conference committee report to end Critical Race Theory. It passed the Senate 25-7 and is on to the House.— Brian Kelsey (@BrianKelsey) May 6, 2021
During a Tuesday session, Republican Rep. Mark White and other proponents of the legislation, said it still allows "teachers in the classroom to talk about the good, bad and ugly of history" but it would "stop the blame game" in those discussions. Democratic Rep. Yusuf Hakeem and other critics of the legislation said discussing systemic racism is necessary "to give people a broader understanding of history."
The legislation is among a string of similar pending bills introduced, and in some cases moved forward, by states seeking to prohibit classrooms from teaching "divisive concepts." These concepts, according to various bill texts and the Education Commission of the States, an organization that tracks the education bills, include teaching "the United States is fundamentally/systemically racist or sexist" and ascribing privileges to a race.
Idaho recently signed into law a similar bill, and other states seeking to prohibit the teaching of similar concepts include West Virginia, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.
Contrasting those efforts are bills promoting or requiring instruction around diversity and inclusion or, more specifically in some places, on the history of racism in the United States. New Jersey, for example, enacted legislation requiring schools to teach "the impact that unconscious bias and economic disparities have at both an individual level and on society as a whole." Minnesota, Oregon and Delaware have introduced legislation to include anti-racist education or Black history in curriculum.
Culturally responsive, anti-racist and trauma-informed curricula, while growing buzzwords in education in recent years, gained traction particularly after the police-involved deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans. While some teachers reported their students were hungry to discuss and process current events, others noted the resulting second-hand trauma and reluctance of their students to take part in the discussions.
However, Tennessee Council for Social Studies President Joshua Kenna said he believes "the vast majority" of Tennessee social studies teachers do not teach about critical race theory. "Perhaps my biggest concern with the bill is it leads the general public to believe that this is a prevalent issue in Tennessee public schools, when it likely is not," Kenna told K-12 Dive in an email.
Still, he anticipates that school administrators will caution teachers "to stray away from select topics and curriculum materials."
Mark Finchum, executive director of TCSS, agreed with Kenna that critical race theory is "not a current issue among Tennessee teachers."
"However, I do believe that teachers who are seriously working to teach standards and skills and connect them to current events will see this bill as an obstacle," Finchum said in an email.
Barry Olhausen, assistant executive director for the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, said superintendents are anticipating guidance from the Tennessee Department of Education and Board of Education.
The state's decision and the efforts of others to advance legislation prohibiting the study of systemic racism in K-12 follows a recent controversy over The 1619 Project, which mounted prior to President Donald Trump's departure from the White House. Trump had said the project "rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom."
Trump countered with a 1776 Commission that encouraged communities in "reasserting control of how children receive patriotic education in their schools." By contrast, President Joe Biden rescinded the commission shortly after entering the Oval Office as part of his early executive orders and efforts to advance racial equity.