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The Georgia General Assembly has been somewhat generous to the state’s teachers of late, having approved $5,000 in across-the-board pay raises since 2019. Maybe that’s how lawmakers have assuaged the guilt that comes from knowing they’ve also made the job increasingly more difficult to do, and by doing so may drive more teachers from the profession.
The latest bomb lobbed at the state’s public schools by the Assembly landed last week, when the new “divisive concepts” legislation went into law on July 1.
Modeled after similar laws being enacted by conservative politicians across the country, the Georgia effort is meant to make sure teachers are appropriately cautious in discussion of any issues related to race so that no student is ever made to feel discomfort about how one race of people may have been treated by another in the nation’s history, or within the context of current events.
Much of the law is fairly benign and likely much less impactful than its supporters would have us believe. Among other things, teachers are prohibited from teaching:
That one race is superior to another;
That the United States is fundamentally racist;
That individuals are inherently racist;
That individuals should be discriminated against because of their race;
That moral character is determined by race;
That individuals are responsible for what members of their race may have done in the past, or;
That any individual should feel guilty because of their race.
We frankly can’t imagine that any of those subjects are items in the lesson plans of many of the state’s teachers anyway, so despite all the sound and fury it’s unlikely the new law is going to make a big difference on those fronts.
But then there is one niggling prohibition that does hold the potential to open a Pandora’s Box of confusion: “any other form of race scapegoating or race stereotyping.” The law defines scapegoating as meaning that “fault or blame” is assigned to a particular race.
If a course of study suggest European settlers were responsible for slavery, or The Trail of Tears, those lessons may need to be changed after all. Better be careful in talking about the role of Blacks in civil rights protests and riots, White supremacists in the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and presumably Japanese in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The law also prohibits teachers from espousing their own personal beliefs regarding any of the issues involved in the divisive concepts as identified by the legislation, though it goes on to say the right to free speech guaranteed in the Constitution will not be violated. Interpret as you will.
What does it all mean? We hope not much.
For the most part the new law seems to be pure political theater, a way for those who identify as members of the conservative political tribe to establish their bona fides while keeping in step with others across the nation who were set into motion by the incorrect notion that something called “critical race theory” was routinely being taught in the nation’s public schools.
After all, it’s an election year and what better way to stake out a political position than to accuse public school teachers of indoctrinating students by endorsing a liberal concept about race that heretofore had been little more than the stuff of rare intellectual discourses in college level classes.
Despite the controversy it has generated, most of what is in the new law would seem to have little application to what goes on in the vast majority of Georgia’s classrooms on a daily basis, yet still there is the potential for much malignant mischief from the legislation.
We worry specifically on two fronts.
The first is that the law is vague and ambiguous and may be interpreted any number of different ways by those determined to find a problem where none exists. At what point does a teacher’s observation about a current event become an expression of personal opinion? What amount of detail can be shared about certain historical events without an assignment of blame? Can you avoid discussions of race and be intellectually honest; can you be intellectually honest without violating the law?
The second concern is that the law will provide an unnecessary public platform for those determined to disrupt the operations of local schools and boards of education, as we have seen happen to a number of area school systems in recent years, though thankfully not here.
Those concerned about a violation of the law first take their complaint to local school administrators and then can appeal decisions up the chain to the local superintendent and board of education and ultimately to the state board of education. It isn’t hard to see that process getting out of hand. Look no further than recent events in Cherokee County to see the potential hazards of providing very public forums to heated political issues involving the schools.
The law doesn’t say what the potential impact on teachers will be if a complaint is upheld, beyond requiring that if the state Board of Education determines a violation has taken place that a “corrective action plan” will be created at the state level and presented to the local school district.
Bottom line? This particular effort to improve schools has a lot more to do with election-year politics and a national fascination with chasing conspiracy theories and jousting at imaginary windmills than it does with intelligent education reform. Until it’s challenged in court and given judicial detail and definition, we won’t know what it all really means, but in the short term it seems a lot more likely to create chaos than solve problems.