‘This law is a slap in the face of Tennessee’s educators’: New guidance up for public comment on teaching race in schools

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Protesters stood in the parking lot of Benny Bills Elementary in Gallatin early July wanting to get their voices heard on what should be taught in Tennessee public schools. (WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The deadline is approaching for people to weigh in on new rules about how race is taught in Tennessee’s schools. Lawmakers are calling it a way to keep ‘critical race theory’ out of Tennessee classrooms.

“I think that history is incredibly important. Civics is incredibly important. Teaching children that this is the most exceptional nation in the world is incredibly important,” said Governor Bill Lee. “But political commentary is not something we should be teaching children. Critical Race Theory is un-American. It fundamentally puts groups of people above the sanctity of the individual which is a founding principle of this nation. It’s appropriate that we do not teach Critical Race Theory in this state.”

Critical race theory is a concept from the 1970s that looked into whether new civil rights laws suppressed the Black community.

“If you go back to the 1950s, 60s, 70s, you see massive upheavals, largely driven by on the one hand: strong conservatism rooted in states’ rights, trying to maintain segregation and associated ills, and then you see liberation from people across spectrums and many circles. You’re seeing racial liberation, you’re seeing women’s liberation, LGBT, immigration, farmworkers, all of this is happening at the same time,” said Matthew Patrick Shaw, Vanderbilt University Education, Public Policy, and Law Assistant Professor. “One of the barriers to these liberatory movements was law. If you’re looking at laws, the law is, by design, a conservative enterprise – conservative with lower case ‘c’ – and there are good reasons for law being conservative. You want to be able to predict whether something can be lawful or not, whether you’ll have liabilities or not. One of the complaints of that is what happens if the system of order is built upon the subjugation of peoples.”

He said those were the beginnings of discussing this idea of critical race theory.

“What happens if the system of order is designed to make that subjugation permanent? What do we do then? Do we still have the same reliance on that system? That is the origins with respect to race for critical race theory,” Shaw explained. “Let’s look at the law as not just a tool for maintaining order but a tool for suppression in the maintenance of that order and let’s see what can be done to relieve it of that suppression if that’s possible.”

He said though the exact term might not have been used over the years, the issue has been discussed in the public realm.

“Whether anti-discrimination law tends to favor people of color or women is a conversation that we’ve been having for quite a while, but critical race theory has been moving that conversation forward,” said Shaw.

However, he added while critical race theory itself has not been taught in American public schools, the concept is difficult to avoid.

“I cannot imagine the standard elementary, middle, or high school students having had access to the terminology or to the concept before now,” Shaw said. “I think it’s unavoidable. I mean, you’re going to get into a social-cultural legal context whenever you’re talking about US history. I mean, the United States is a history where a group of colonial settlers arrived on lands that were already occupied, proceeded to take them over, and then bring people against their will to work those lands. You cannot avoid a critical race conversation in that. There’s no way to do it.”

The conversation was thrust into the public spotlight this year with the passage of legislation in Tennessee aimed at keeping critical race theory out of schools.

“First it’s important to point out our public schools are not teaching critical race theory. This has been a term that has been abused by the radical right and extremists to try to prevent history from being taught in our school and all aspects of history to give everyone a good perspective,” said Tennessee Democratic Representative John Ray Clemmons. “Critical Race Theory is simply not being taught in Tennessee schools. This is a strategic move by them. Nationwide there’s a lot of money behind this on the highest levels to score political points.”

Public Chapter 493 outlines the guidance schools are being asked to follow, but the Tennessee Education Association said it’s unclear what rules teachers are actually being asked to obey.

“When you look at the draft guidance that’s been issued from the Department of Education a lot of the concerns from educators have not been addressed. There’s nothing in there that talks about how do you keep from triggering a complaint, a lot of the vague language is left unaddressed,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “The bulk of the draft guidance is ‘these are all of the high stakes consequences that are going to happen should you be found allegedly in violation of this law’. And then the consequences are very high stakes, not just for districts but for educators as well.”

The guidance prohibits concepts such as that ‘One (1) race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,’ and puts enforcement of the new law into the hands of parents.

“According to the draft guidelines, what would happen is if a parent of a student who’s directly involved in a lesson or a class where they believe a violation has occurred, the parent has a window of opportunity to file a complaint with the district. The district is then tasked with conducting an investigation,” Brown explained. “Should the parent not like the outcome of the investigation then the decision is appealed to the State Department who will make the final determination.”

Brown maintains the new policies are unnecessary.

“Tennessee’s educators teach Tennessee State Standards, that is our job. That’s what we do. We are professionals with integrity, we are committed to doing our jobs well, to providing a well-rounded and high-quality education to our students. Sometimes that includes conversations about difficult topics that have occurred in history,” said Brown. “But, what we do is provide instruction in accordance with the Tennessee State Standards. This law is a slap in the face of Tennessee’s educators, it is a disservice to our students.”

Representative Clemmons said lawmakers need to just be concerned with giving children well-rounded lessons.

“We need to be focused on providing every child in Tennessee a good, quality education,” Clemmons said. “A big part of that is social studies and history. If we teach the facts, the history, and the perspective of all Americans and everyone who lives in this country I think our children will get a good, well-rounded education.”

Shaw hoped this recent discussion about critical race theory helps people become educated about how it impacts everyone’s lives today.

“If you’re not riding on interstate highways that were constructed largely through neighborhoods of color, then you’re going places that are heavily raced and segregated. In many instances. People like to think of it as economic segregation,” Shaw explained. “But so much of economic segregation in the US is racial segregation, by design and by experience. Just look around, you’ll see there’ll be places where you see concentrations of people of one racial group, and places where usually concentrations of other racial groups, and that is not necessarily by design and was not voluntary.”

Brown said the TEA is encouraging teachers to remain committed to doing their jobs with integrity.

“We have created a place on our website for our members to go in and submit lesson plans, just broad strokes, but demonstrating how the lessons that they’re teaching are connected to the Tennessee State Standards,” Brown said. “We’re going to be submitting those to the department calling on the department to provide pre-clearance, we want to just demonstrate that our educators are committed to doing their jobs.”

The draft rule was posted for public comment for 10 days from Monday, August 2nd, through Wednesday, August 11th. Comments can be sent to EDU.PublicComments@tn.gov

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