Tennessee House OKs bill barring certain concepts about race from being taught in schools

Senate balks at amendments, so legislation will go to a conference committee

State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, File)

NASHVILLE - A Tennessee House effort to bar public schools from teaching concepts related to systemic racism to their students triggered a fierce floor debate Tuesday over America's past, with Democrats charging GOP colleagues are ignoring a history that lives to this day.

Following the lengthy debate, the Republican-dominated chamber approved the measure, which as amended restricts the teaching of history and social issues largely to the state's official curriculum, on a mostly party line 69-23 vote. Public schools and public charter schools risk the loss of state funds if they don't follow the guidelines, should the measure become law.

But there's a wrinkle: Representatives were amending a Senate education catch-all measure, Senate Bill 623. The Senate version, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is a 12-page clean-up bill addressing multiple issues ranging from K-12 education reporting requirements to student testing and advanced placement procedures as well as higher education matters.

While those 52 bill sections remain in the bill, the Republican-led Senate later Tuesday afternoon refused go along with the House's new Section 51, the provision containing House Republicans' effort to ban certain teachings about race and cultural hot-button issues OK'd earlier this week by the House Education Administration Committee.

The bill is now headed to a conference committee to iron out the difference as lawmakers try to wrap up their annual session on Wednesday.

Earlier, House Government Operations Committee Chairman John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, told colleagues that "we are one state, we are one nation. Unfortunately, there are those self-appointed guardians of equity among us who deludedly seek to make our union far less perfect.

"In shameless pursuit of power, these misguided souls leverage social, cultural and religious factors to fracture our indivisible nation," Ragan added.

Democrats pushed back, as they did the previous day when Ragan unveiled the amendment in committee.

"My question is whether the concept of critical race theory - and I'm pretty sure you understand the general concept - would that be prohibited in public K-12 education for teachers to engage the students?" Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, asked of Ragan.

Critical race theory holds that race is not biologically grounded but a social construct embedded in U.S. history, life and laws to oppress and exploit Blacks and other people of color.

"Did critical race theory play a part in the genesis of this legislation?" Hardaway asked.

Replied Ragan: "Teachers are already supposed to be teaching what is our state standards. The portion that has been added emphasizes that Tennessee's state standards are what are to guide our instructors in choosing what goes into their classrooms."

Ragan added, "I am not sure I understand your question because no one has defined critical race theory to me."

Hardaway asked "what happens when we restrict freedom of our educators to present the full picture of our history, especially in terms of the imperfect beginning and the ideals not being met. We know that Black folks were written in to be three-fifths of a person for purposes of the Census."

And, Hardaway added, had there not been the Civil War and the 14th Amendment, which gave Blacks and slaves citizenship and equal civil and legal rights, Blacks would still be in "chattel chains."

"There are two sides to a story, but there is only one truth," Hardaway told Ragan.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, asked Ragan, "What is the problem with a broader understanding of history? I'm not talking about blaming people."

Replied Ragan: "If you're concerned about breadth, the proper venue is state school board standards. The issues are already in our state standards."

Democrats also raised objections over bill provisions that allow for "impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history" and "impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region."

Committee Chair Mark White, a Memphis Republican, said, "What brought this about is how and what is being brought into our K-12 schools and how it's being taught to our children. We all understand history, it's how we are teaching it."

The House version of the legislation would allow state education officials to withhold funding from any school promoting or including certain concepts in the curriculum or any supplemental instructional materials. Among others, the banned ideas would include:

> "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

> "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex."

> "An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex."

> "A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex."

> "This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.