WASHINGTON — In the first three weeks of 2022, more than 70 bills were introduced in 27 states aimed at regulating how and what educators can teach about race, history and sexuality in schools, according to a analysis published by a free speech group this week.
Supporters say the sheer number of bills — as well as the seriousness of many of them — are part of a sustained effort by conservative lawmakers in GOP-controlled state legislatures to censor lessons surrounding race and sexuality.
The analysis, conducted by PEN Americaa nonprofit group that promotes free speech, found that at least 71 bills had already been introduced or pre-introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2022. PEN America, which qualifies impartial but sued then-President Donald Trump in 2018, alleging his administration engaged in an attempt to censor the media, describing the bills as “educational gag orders.”
This is an “incredible escalation in both the number, intensity and scope of these bills coming from state legislatures,” said Jeffrey Sachs, PEN researcher and professor of political science at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.
“They massively target speech related to race and gender or sexuality,” Sachs added, and they “are getting tougher and tougher, bigger and bigger, and the punishments get tougher and tougher.”
The explosion of bills marks a significant increase in both scale – the 71 bills introduced so far this year represent more than half of the 122 introduced since January 2021 – and seriousness. Of those 122 (proposed in 33 states), 10 have become law in nine states.
Of the 71 bills proposed this year, 15 would give students, parents or people unaffiliated with the school in question the right to sue schools and recover damages in court – punitive measures that risk to “bully” teachers and defund public schools, Sachs and others say.
Nearly half of bills introduced so far this year target higher education (26% of bills introduced in 2021 did so), according to PEN, while 55% of bills introduced this year propose punitive measures for offenders (compared to 37% of the measures put in place in 2021). Republican lawmakers in Missouri proposed 19 of the bills, while eight were proposed in Indiana, many of which would allow the harshest punitive measures against teachers and schools.
One such bill, Indiana’s HB 1362, would prohibit public school teachers and college faculty members from teaching certain ideas about “gender, race, ethnicity, religion , color, national origin, or political affiliation,” including lessons explaining how these traits relate to “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic.”
The bill would also ban the teaching of “anti-American ideologies,” which it does not define.
The bill would allow violators to face civil suits. It would also require districts to post lesson plans online — a measure known as “curriculum transparency,” which critics say could lead to more censorship in K-12 schools.
Another bill from Indiana, HB 1040would prohibit public K-12 teachers from teaching that “socialism…or similar political systems are compatible” with the “principles” of the United States
Yet another bill from Indiana, HB 1231would prohibit teachers at all public educational institutions “from introducing any controversial subject or current event relating to the subject taught”.
The bill would also prohibit teachers from using courses that “include or promote” the idea that “the United States was founded as a racist or sexist state or nation and is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.” among teachers.
“We give authority to teachers just like we give authority to the police. They can’t do what they want, but they have limited leeway,” said Nicholas Christakis, a sociology professor at Yale University. Christakis predicted that many laws would not survive First Amendment legal challenges.
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The explosion in the introduction of such measures follows efforts over the past two years by lawmakers to limit the teaching of racial equity and white privilege.
In some cases, these concepts have been erroneously described as “critical race theory” — the academic concept typically taught in college courses to examine how laws and institutions perpetuate racism. Some conservatives, including politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, have used the term to describe ideas and books they deem too progressive or political for the classroom.
The broader tensions can be traced to the Trump White House, which in 2020 ordered a halt to funding federal training on diversity and critical race theory. Republicans made major inroads on the issue last year, when Glenn Youngkin won the governorship of Virginia, fueled in part by a promise to target the teaching of “critical race theory.”
His victory is seen as a model for other Republicans to win state and local elections.
“Last year, we saw that we had won this debate. By returning to session, state legislatures are cementing this victory with really concrete legislative language, which will become law in many states,” said Christopher Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. He added that the bills are designed to protect “children from abuse and indoctrination in the classroom”.