Lisa Morgan is facing one of the biggest challenges in her 23 years as a teacher in Georgia. It could cost her school millions of dollars if she gets it wrong.
Georgia lawmakers are considering a package of “divisive concepts” bills that would radically change how Morgan and thousands of other educators statewide can talk about race, gender, sex, history, and other sensitive subjects in their classrooms.
Under Senate Bill 377, for example, schools could lose 10% of their funding for violations of its ban on teaching the United States, groups, or individuals are–or ever have been–inherently racist or sexist.
That means more pressure for Morgan, a kindergarten teacher, at a time when teachers are already grappling with a pandemic, mask mandates, remote learning, and an education system that has already lost about $10 billion in funding over the last two decades.
Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, worries about the impact the proposed bills could have on her social studies lesson plan. Every January, she talks to her young students about the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.
“I usually start with a biography. I’ll read that Dr. King was shot, and he died,” Morgan told Atlanta Civic Circle. “A hand goes up. ‘Miss Morgan, who shot him?’ I can answer that, obviously. It’s factual.”
But after telling them James Earl Ray was arrested by the police for the shooting, she said, her students ask, “‘Miss Morgan, why did he shoot Dr. King?’”
”How do I answer that question?” Morgan wants to know, without violating any of the sweeping and broadly-worded prohibitions on discussions of racism, sexism and other “divisive” topics in at least five bills under consideration by state legislators.
A version of SB 377 in the House would dock school budgets by up to 20% for any educators teaching “divisive concepts.” Another bill, SB 449, deputizes parents to complain to school officials about lesson plans they don’t like, while still another bans “obscene” material from school libraries and reading lists.
Morgan has posed her question to lawmakers in public hearings about the bills. “Nobody’s been able to give me the answer,” she said.
Her quandary is shared by thousands of teachers nationally facing similar censorship threats from their legislatures on classroom discussions at all age levels, running the gamut from sex to slavery to socialism.
Since January 2021, state legislators have introduced or pre-filed 137 bills restricting what can be taught in 35 states, according to PEN America. Over 87 of those bills emerged this year, and 10 states have already passed restrictive laws.
Sen. Bo Hatchett (R-Cornelia), who introduced SB 377, insisted at a public hearing this week that his bill banning educators from teaching about racism and sexism is not meant to cause division.
“I vividly remember learning about slavery, about segregation, about the KKK,” Hatchett, who is white, told the Senate Committee on Education and Youth on Feb. 14.
“Students learn just how deeply flawed people can be, and how deeply flawed even our government can be,” he said. “Those lessons are not just valuable, they are imperative.”
“I do not want to inhibit the teaching of history,” Hatchett said, but added, “We do not need to teach divisive concepts to children. Ultimately, we need to give parents a voice in classroom subject matter that strays outside the bounds of simply teaching historical facts.”
The hearing also addressed a “parental rights” bill, SB 449, sponsored by Sen. Clint Dixon (R-Buford), that would give parents access to lesson plans and other instructional material–and allow them to remove their child from lessons or classes – say, sex education – they find objectionable.
SB 449, which Gov. Brian Kemp backs, cleared the committee by a 6-5 vote and now will go before the Rules Committee.
On Wednesday, State Rep.Will Wade (R-Dawsonville) told Political Breakfast podcast listeners about his bill, HB 1084, to prohibit teaching about race in ways that could be deemed divisive. It would also give parents a process for filing complaints.
“There’s nothing in my bill that’s going to prevent somebody from saying segregation is wrong and these are the academic reasons why, not just the emotional piece that we know in our heart,” said Wade, who is white, adding that he is still tweaking the bill.
A dangerous direction?
Roughly six in 10 Georgia public school students are children of color. “How could I teach my students about the potential impact that they have, if they don’t understand how they have been impacted by decisions from people who came before them?” asks Alfred Brooks, who teaches at Charles Drew High School, where most of the students are Black and Brown.
In the summer of 2020, when many of Brooks’ students took to Atlanta’s streets to protest George Floyd’s murder, he joined them. “That was the genesis for people’s fragility getting triggered,” Brooks told Atlanta Civic Circle.
It was then, he said, that he saw the stage being set for what’s now become a national movement among state legislatures to regulate what is taught in schools.
Observers say these bills are taking the country in a dangerous direction. The First Amendment “allows speech that makes people uncomfortable,” the former president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Richard T. Griffiths, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “We as a society grow when we learn things that don’t always make us comfortable. ”
Griffiths is particularly concerned about efforts to remove books from school libraries. Forsyth County’s school board recently banned eight books – including Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eyes – saying they were too sexually explicit.
Because a parent or student “is uncomfortable or disagrees, doesn’t mean [books] should be restricted from other students in the school. It’s a really dangerous place for us to go. It’s a very slippery slope,” he said.
“The United States is grappling with its social and cultural values,” Rayshawn Ray of the Brookings Institution told Atlanta Civic Circle. “And people are on very different sides of it.”
The national wave of classroom censorship bills are being used in a broader framework of censorship that “extends beyond discussions of race and racism to include discussions of sexism and homophobia,” Ray cautioned.
Ray recently co-wrote an article to explain how the controversy over these bills connects to what’s known as critical race theory (CRT), which is generally reserved for graduate-level university courses that assess racism as inherent to American society, affecting employment, healthcare, housing, and education.
But opponents say CRT portrays white people as oppressors and Blacks as victims, and incorrectly claim it’s being taught in secondary schools. The backlash has prompted school boards and state legislatures from Tennessee to Idaho to ban teaching anything about racism in schools.
Georgia’s bills don’t specifically refer to critical race theory, but instead seek to ban “divisive concepts” in publicly funded secondary schools, colleges, universities and even state agencies.
Critics of Georgia’s censorship bills say lawmakers have hijacked the controversy for political gains.
Georgia Tech sophomore Alex Ames is convinced the bills are nothing more than an attempt to win votes, and she’s spent the last month roaming the halls of the Gold Dome, imploring lawmakers to reject them.
“It’s an election year in Georgia, and Republicans are really nervous,” Ames, a member of the Georgia Youth Justice Alliance, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
“They’ve spent the past year criminalizing protests, making it harder for communities of color to vote,” said Ames, who is white. ”In order to turn out their base, as much as possible, they want to teach white parents to be fearful on behalf of their children.“
The 19-year-old activist, who’s the daughter of metro-Atlanta high school teachers, compared the current tactics to those of segregationists during the civil rights movement. “It’s using fear-mongering and racism as a weapon to win an election,” Ames said.
“It’s the same kind of fear-mongering we saw back in the integration movement before I was alive,” she said. “You should be scared that your child might sit next to Black children or Black teachers or learn about the humanity and oppression of Black people throughout American history. That’s what’s really behind this.”
This latest challenge to public education comes as the pandemic has already forced teachers and students to make major adjustments.
“We need to help our kids catch up after a year of school disrupted by the pandemic, not turn our schools into battlegrounds,” ACLU of Georgia’s executive director, Andrea Young, told lawmakers at the Feb. 14 Senate hearing on SB 449 and SB 377.
The bills making their way through state houses nationally could have a chilling effect on an already stressed educational system. “These bills are an attack on the integrity and the professionalism of educators,” said Morgan, the Georgia Association of Educators president.
Over half – 55% – of U.S. teachers say they plan to leave the profession earlier than expected, according to a January poll from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.
Meanwhile, teachers like Brooks brace for the classroom challenges these bills could bring.
Brooks said he knows of teachers who’ve been told not to display anything with the logo Black Lives Matter, because it could be seen as political. Brooks himself is known for wearing T-shirts in class emblazoned with messages such as Teaching Black History is not CRT or I’m the teacher Fox News warns you about.
Brooks, who teaches economics, finance, and government, acknowledged that these bills’ call for censorship “threatens the stability of my job.”
“I’m always going to teach the truth in my classroom,” he said. “I’m always going to help my students understand how decisions made in our country, our state, our locality 10 years ago–or 20, 50 or 100 years ago–impact them today.”
As for Morgan’s answer to those kindergarteners who want to know why King’s alleged killer, James Earl Ray, shot him?
To avoid accusations of “racial divisiveness” would mean she couldn’t say that Ray was racist–or that he didn’t like King calling out racism. Instead, she’d just have to tell her students that Ray “was a bad man,” Morgan said.
“As an experienced educator, and being who I am, I’m still going to answer that question,” she said, adding that her concern is for newer, more inexperienced educators–and their students who ask questions their teachers are no longer allowed to answer.
“Then the student says ‘Wait a minute, my teacher didn’t answer. Was that a bad question? Was that a wrong thing to ask?’ The student eventually stops asking the question, which is the exact opposite of what we want to happen,” Morgan said.
What are “divisive concepts”?
Georgia legislators backing these bills and their proponents define “divisive concepts” as any teachings that claim the United States is systemically racist, or any individual or group is inherently racist–consciously or not–because of their race, skin color or ethnicity.
The broad definition also includes teachings that make anyone feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish,” because of their racial, social, or ethnic background.
Here are the main classroom censorship bills before the Georgia Legislature:
HB 888: Bars schools from teaching “divisive concepts.” Schools that violate the measure would lose up to 20% of their funding..
HB 1084 Prohibits teaching “divisive concepts.” It also says that public school curricula and training programs, and those for state agencies, should encourage employees not to judge others based on race.
SB 226: Removes books and any other material deemed “obscene” from schools and school libraries. It also would allow parents to report any objections to material they find questionable to school officials. Public libraries are exempt.
SB 377: Prohibits teaching “divisive concepts.” Schools that violate the measure could lose up to 10% of their funding.
SB 449: Creates a “parental bill of rights” that would give parents access to instructional materials – lesson plans, books and worksheets. School districts would have to create a process allowing parents to object to material, and parents would be allowed to have their child opt out of a particular lesson.
Here’s a look at who is for and against the proposed classroom censorship bills:
From public comments at a Feb. 14 Senate hearing on SB 377:
“I have a letter …signed by 1,000 folks from around the state who support doing something to get rid of the Critical Race Theory types of activities that are going on in our public schools.
If our nation was built on racism, why does it say in our Declaration of Independence, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’ Does that sound like racism to you? It doesn’t sound like racism to me. It sounds like standing up for the rights of free individuals. That is the basis of our nation, not some critical race theory critique.”
– Jim Jess of Franklin Roundtable, a Marietta-based education advocacy group that promotes individual liberty and limited government
“We should be protecting our students…by banning the teaching of racism from the classroom.”
– Taylor Hawkins, advocacy director for Frontline Policy Council, a 501(c)3 Christian organization that “exists to glorify God and equip His people to transform the culture,” according to its website.
“We believe that what Senator [Bo] Hatchett has in this legislation is some good legislation that would work to bring us all together and be a better state because of it.”
– Rev. Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, which represents more than one million Georgia residents and 3,000 churches.
“Steering education of our students away from the difficult lessons of the past, including lessons that make students uncomfortable, would undercut their learning and ill-prepare them for post-secondary education and beyond. Such prohibitions would undermine Holocaust education in Georgia public schools and frustrate the important work of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust..”
-Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice-president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southern division
“[This] is an attack on educators.”
– Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators
“We are in opposition to [SB 449]. We need to help our kids catch up after a year of school disrupted by the pandemic, not turn our schools into battlegrounds. Allowing parents to object en masse to classroom content will contribute to a climate of classroom censorship.”
– Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia
Want to get involved?
*Find legislative bills here.
*Find more information and analysis for “divisive concepts” bills here from the Georgia Coalition Against Classroom Censorship.
*Here are some organizations to check out: