The Georgia Professional Standards Commission voted on June 8 to approve a rule change that removes the words “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” from the guidelines for recruiting and preparing the state’s public school educators in favor of words like “fairness” and “opportunity.”

These changes, effective July 1, will affect the training of public school educators through grade 12, such as English and literacy teachers, school principals and superintendents. 

Fifteen education leaders, teachers and students spoke out against the changes, while no one spoke in favor, but the 12-member commission voted unanimously to approve the new language, which was asked for by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents. 

Georgia teachers, students, education leaders and parents attending the hearing in person were left disappointed and distraught in its final moments, when the commission members, appearing via Zoom, approved the rule changes.

Brian Sirmans chairs the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. The commissioners attended the meeting virtually. (Photo/Elizabeth Rymarev, @lizardshots)

Several audience members even shouted “cowards” and “white supremacists” at the commission members. 

The aim in making the changes was to clarify the expectations for preparing educators, according to the commission. The preparation standards manual for teachers will swap out phrases like “equity, inclusiveness and social justice” for words like “fair access, opportunity and advancement for all students.”

But the citizens opposing the changes said they will harm teacher recruitment and preparation. “We’re not even preparing educators to reach diverse students, when we think about removing words such as diversity, inclusion, and equity,” said Jason B. Allen, a senior Georgia educator and the organizing director for the National Parents Union, during public comment at the hearing.

Aireane Montgomery, CEO of Georgia Educators for Equity and Justice, said that initiatives to recruit diverse educators are “a farce” when their retention becomes an “afterthought.”

Removing accountability for promoting diversity, equity and inclusion from teacher preparation, Montgomery added, will cause a drop in diverse teachers in Georgia, who can feel psychologically unsafe in work environments where there isn’t any training around simply “how to treat one another regardless of differences.”

As for student well-being and educational performance, said Hamidah Suad Labi, policy counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the changes in teacher preparation expectations will particularly affect students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities and English-language learners, because they are most vulnerable to preexisting biases. 

“When they are passing intentional legislation to rule out [DEI], they are ensuring that no teacher could ever support a child like me or any child that needs the support, that needs the understanding – through curriculum, through teaching, through mentorship or guidance,” said Jonathan Peraza Campos, an education policy fellow with the Intercultural Development Research Association. Campos said that as a gay, Latino student, he frequently experienced lack of understanding about his identities from teachers and educators during his school years. 

Campos said it was important to show up and speak against the rule change for educator standards because it will further reduce teachers’ understanding of students from the minority groups he identifies with and advocates for. 

Ruth Youn, a writer, activist and mother, said she was there to advocate for parents. As an Asian-American woman, she said, it’s important for educators to teach students how everyone’s histories are interconnected in the United States.

Ruth Youn, a writer, activist and mother, speaks during the Georgia Professional Standards Commissions hearing in Atlanta on Thursday, June 8, 2023. She advocated for the commission to vote against the approval to remove the words “diversity”, “equity” and “inclusion” from the educator’s standards in order to stop the divide between minority and white students. (Photo/Elizabeth Rymarev, @lizardshots)

After the meeting concluded, all of the citizen speakers stood in the lobby of the Professional Standards Commission’s building, located downtown at 200 Piedmont Ave., and shared their stories, thoughts, disappointments and plans for creating educator standards that make all students feel included. Many shared a similar sentiment – this is an ongoing fight.

“Changes are always possible. In terms of [being] hopeful – I can say that I see all of the people who spoke today. I think that’s where the work is,” said Yacine Kout, an assistant professor of critical pedagogy and cultural studies at the University of North Georgia.

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