Educators Anxiously Wait On Fate Of 'Anti-Critical Race Theory' Bill
When Republican lawmakers presented House Bill 324 publicly in press conferences, they spoke about the harms of teachers indoctrinating students; of critical race theory permeating classrooms.
“House Bill 324 sets guardrails against the most extreme forms of indoctrination, but the only enduring way to fight back against critical race theory and its presence in our schools is to shine a spotlight on it,” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger said.
“Children must learn about our state's racial past and all of its ugliness, including the cruelty of slavery, the 1898 Wilmington race riots, the Jim Crow era. But students must not be forced to adopt an ideology that is separate and distinct from history,” said Berger.
House Bill 324 never specifically mentions critical race theory. The text of the bill doesn’t include the words "indoctrination" or "racism." The bill instructs teachers and schools not to promote certain concepts, then attempts to define those concepts.
The North Carolina General Assembly has passed the bill, and it now sits on Governor Roy Cooper’s desk. Cooper could veto it, sign it into law, or allow it to become law without his signature.
Teachers Worry Bill Could Limit How They Cover History
Valencia Abbott teaches social studies at Rockingham Early College High School, in Senator Berger’s own district. She says until critical race theory blew up in the news, she had never even heard of it.
Abbott has a poster by her desk. It reads: “I have the courage to teach hard history.” But, she says she couldn't indoctrinate students if she tried.
“I can't even get students to read the syllabus,” Abbott says with a laugh. “If I could make them do anything, I would make them do their assignments. But I'm not making or trying to force students to do anything.”
Still, she worries about this bill. She's not sure if it targets the way she teaches.
“I get to come in every day and tell stories, because that's what history is; history is telling stories,” Abbott says.
To her, that includes telling stories that are relevant to her students.
When an Asian American student commented that the class wasn’t learning much of her history, Abbott says she took a hard look at her own bias and incorporated new stories into her curriculum. She teaches graphic novels about a Black regiment in World War I, to engage boys. Abbott recently bought a bag of Mexican sweets to mix into her candy dish, to make her Latino students feel more included.
Breaking Down The Bill
Abbott looks over a copy of the latest version of the bill, the one that’s now on Governor Cooper’s desk waiting for his signature or veto.
“Can I write on this?” she asks. Abbott then proceeds to pull out a purple pen and starts to write in the margins.
“My first initial thought is, 'What are you trying to hide? What do you not want us to teach?'” Abbott asks. “I put a question mark, because I don't understand it. I really don't understand what this is saying.”
If it was a student’s paper, she’d ask that student to clarify.
The bill lists 13 concepts. The first one is that schools shall not promote that one race or sex is inherently superior to another – a basic tenet of white supremacy. She doesn’t teach that.
“Who in the world, but a Nazi or a Klansman, would even teach this stuff?”
Democratic Representative Abe Jones of Wake County, while debating the bill, questioned the point of the legislation.
“Who in the world, but a Nazi or a Klansman, would even teach this stuff?” Jones asked.
To read the full list of 13 prohibited concepts, check out the bill here.
The proposal would also require schools to submit materials to the North Carolina Board of Education and post them online 30 days in advance of holding any guest lectures or workshops that promote the 13 concepts.
Defending The Bill
“Most people, if they read the list, and they didn't have any idea about this debate, they had never heard about critical race theory, or about Fox News inspired ‘fear mongering’ and they read those 13 things, most people would say, ‘Yeah, I don't necessarily buy into these concepts,’” says Mitch Kokai, a political analyst with the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.
Some Republican lawmakers have argued Democrats who voted against the bill aren’t taking it at face value.
The language mirrors model legislation that has passed in other states led by Republicans.
“House Bill 324 started in the House on a different topic,” Kokai says. “When it reached the Senate, Senator Berger really used this as an instrument for a piece of legislation that he wanted to pass.”
“I'm not surprised that Phil Berger looks at this one and says, not only from the policy standpoint, that this is good policy, but also, from a political standpoint, that it's good politics,” Kokai says. “It’s the type of thing that gets a certain piece of the conservative base fired up.”
He said while the issue flared up after coverage on conservative news outlets, it’s also based on concerns here in North Carolina, after parents got a closer peek at what their children were learning during virtual instruction.
Some parents have filed complaints to an online portal set up by Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson to compile evidence of indoctrination in schools. The full list of submissions to the portal can be read here and the final report by a task force convened by Robinson can be read here.
“There are at least some submissions to that portal that suggest that some of the lessons taking place in schools are not really about teaching, but are more about trying to get students to buy into certain beliefs, some of which would cause real concern for parents,” Kokai says. “I think that is the underlying reason for legislators to try to tackle this issue.”
'Gaslighting?' Others Believe The Bill Is Motivated By Politics
“I think the purpose of these bills are to prevent any discussion about racism, sexism, race, or gender and diversity in our schools. I think that's the simple bottom line,” says Rashawn Ray, a political analyst at the left of center Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.
Ray has been tracking similar so-called “anti-Critical Race Theory” bills across the country. He says nearly all of them do not mention critical race theory, a legal framework for understanding systemic racism.
“Critical race theory is kind of a smoke and mirror, if you will, for what is actually happening, which is that some people do not want to discuss diversity, or multiculturalism, in any fashion,” Ray says.
Ray worries this bill, and others like it, will have a chilling effect. Teachers might be afraid of parent backlash and avoid talking about race, even if the bill doesn't prohibit anything they would actually teach.
Valencia Abbott thinks she gets it.
“What is that word? Gaslighting?” Abbott says, processing how to explain the bill. “Isn't that the point of gaslighting or or trying to manipulate somebody? It's not going to be obvious.”
Abbott said this bill is not going to make her change any of her lesson plans if it becomes law, but she’s not sure about other teachers.
“Over the last year, I have heard teachers say, ‘Well, I'm not going to do that, or I'm not going to teach that’ - because they didn't want the repercussions.”
Abbott says the repercussions could be serious -- facing an angry parent, or being sent to the principal’s office to defend a lesson.
Rodney Pierce teaches social studies at Red Oak Middle School in Nash County. He helped write the new social studies state standards that Lieutenant Governor Robinson has criticized.
Pierce enjoys weaving local history into his lessons, describing the origins of place names, the history of how nearby counties came to be, and the enduring vestiges of slavery and the Civil War.
“If [students] see memorials or markers that commemorate certain events that happened in the past, they can say, ‘Oh, okay, now I know why this is there. You know, Mr. Pierce taught us about that today,’” he says.
He says it warms his heart when students or parents tell him about connections they made outside of class, but also occasionally parents complain. Pierce responds to concerns by explaining his teaching methods, but he says this bill could lead to more complaints.
“Some parents who, who don't want their children to be taught certain things about the history of our state, the history of our country, the history of our locale, they may feel emboldened to push back,” Pierce says.
Pierce says he believes the bill is politically motivated.
“I honestly feel that this is basically a manufactured issue to help win more seats for a certain political party in Raleigh, and in D.C., in 2022,” Pierce says.
Valencia Abbott says whatever the bill says on its face, she's reading between the lines.
“No matter how you want to change the words around or throw the words around, the bill basically is saying that there are certain histories and certain stories that should not come to the table," Abbott says.
Governor Roy Cooper has referred to the bill as “calculated conspiracy-laden politics,” but hasn’t said outright whether he will veto it. He has until Monday to act on the bill.