Amid Republican overhaul of education, Georgia teachers feel under attack

Students are instructed via tablet to direct their attention to the teacher during an eighth grade Spanish class at Autrey Mill Middle School in Johns Creek, Ga. on Thursday, May 9, 2013. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Teandra Storey is in the midst of a grueling rehearsal schedule for her high school's rendition of "A Raisin in the Sun."

The economics teacher is directing the play in honor of Black History Month at Grayson High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

"What I really like about 'Raisin in the Sun' is that it doesn't really fully focus on the relationship between African Americans and white Americans," Storey said. "Really, the main focus of the play is how this African American male is navigating a world that - during that time period - that really didn't allow for them to have as many opportunities."

The increased politicization - and polarization - of education nationally as it pertains to race has put teachers like Storey into an increasingly uncomfortable situation.

Across the state, teachers have found themselves caught in a conservative push to regulate certain "divisive topics" in classrooms, most of them centered on racial identity. Lawmakers are trying to keep a law school field of academics known as critical race theory from influencing K-12 students. Critical race theory centers on the idea that U.S. institutions may be imbued with inherent or structural racism.

During a conversation with reporters called by Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan asserted that the Georgia proposals are not the same as "critical race theory" bans being seen across the country.

"This is not a [critical race theory] bill," Dugan said. "[Critical race theory] is a specific model. That would be too narrow a focus, for one."

But after two years on the front lines of partisan pandemic politics, teachers say they are exhausted and now on constant alert about what they can and can't say in their classrooms.

One minute, they're worried about vitriol over masks in school; the next, they're worried about what law could get passed down from the General Assembly that puts them in the hot seat.

"Laws like this could make teachers question everything," said Storey, who is in her 10th year of teaching. "Even if it's factual, it makes them question it."

'Anti-education'

During his State of the State address this year, Gov. Brian Kemp pledged to "protect our students from divisive ideologies like critical race theory that pits kids against each other."

Since then, GOP lawmakers - many with ties to the governor - have launched efforts to pass laws that limit conversations around race and others that give parents more say over what their children are taught in school.

Committee hearings have featured hours of testimony on how teachers feel mistrusted and scared to teach a curriculum that has been part of their lesson plans for years.

Jameson Brewer, assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia, said state policymakers are taking up an attack against teaching about race in classrooms that started under former President Donald Trump.

"I think that [to] anybody paying attention to what's happening in Georgia as well as across the nation," Brewer said, "it seems that there's a fever pitch of anti-[critical race theory] bills."

"It's really just anti-education," he said. "It's anti-critical thinking; it's anti-student."

Conversations regarding what about race should be taught in K-12 classrooms - and how - have been brewing for months.

In June of last year, the Georgia school board passed a resolution targeting race in classrooms that states that the board "believes the United States of America is not a racist country, and that the state of Georgia is not a racist state."

Local school board meetings across Georgia have also been filled with angry parents who have alleged that teaching race in schools actually introduces racism and puts white students in an uncomfortable position.

This month, the Atlanta Board of Education passed a resolution unanimously opposing various bills that limit teaching about race and censoring of classroom materials being reviewed by the state legislature.

Board chair Eshé Collins said she worries about the affect these bills will have on the students - especially in the Atlanta school system, where more than 72% of students are Black.

"We know that those stories and what history tells us - and even the conversations - provide a level of critical thinking and analysis that we want our students and our children to be able to have," Collins said. "We want our teachers to fully feel free to teach - and to teach what is necessary for our students."

Storey first heard concerns about "critical race theory" at a Gwinnett County school board meeting. Storey is not only a teacher but helps curate social studies lessons in her county and for teachers across the country.

"It was very confusing to me as to why there was this uproar about critical race theory when nothing in our standard teaches critical race theory," she said. "It's laughable. It's laughable and something that we are not really talking about because we're not teaching it."

Parental voice

State Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Cornelia, Georgia, Republican and one of the governor's floor leaders, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 377, which seeks to curb "divisive concepts" in the classroom.

Hatchett argues the bill doesn't keep teachers from teaching history around slavery, oppression or segregation.

"I want to make it clear that I do not want to inhibit the teaching of history, which is why there's explicit language in the bill that speaks to this intent," Hatchett said. "Ultimately, we need to give parents a voice in classroom subject matter that strays outside the bounds of simply teaching historical facts. So we're banning specific divisive concepts in the teaching process."

The subjective nature of the language in the bills making their way through the General Assembly leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Storey wonders how she can talk about economic disparities between Black and white Americans without addressing the discriminatory systems that have played into the problem.

Brent Andrews, a 21-year English teacher at Cedar Shoals High School in Clarke County, said that in his American literature class, he asks students to probe the tenets of the "American Dream."

"Is there current evidence that there's racial discrimination in our country?" he said. "Is there evidence that policies of the past are still negatively affecting people's lives today? And I think that these laws that are coming through now are intended to stymie that."

Brewer, who teaches University of North Georgia undergraduates studying to become educators, said even his students are starting to think about what they can and can't teach in their classrooms.

"It hampers teachers," he said. "It will cause teachers to engage in some self-censorship just because it's confusing. It's not clear what these bills necessarily restrict and what they don't."

After more than two years of navigating partisan politics surrounding COVID-19 policies in schools, Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said teachers are "exhausted."

The flurry of legislation being considered by lawmakers this session feels like "teachers are under attack," she said.

"They are attacks on the integrity and professionalism of educators," Morgan said. "And they are an attack on the partnership that should exist between parents and educators for our students."

House Rep. Will Wade, a Dawsonville, Georgia, Republican, is the sponsor of House Bill 1084, the House counterpart to SB 377 that bans "divisive concepts" around race.

During a committee hearing on the bill, Wade pushed back against the idea that legislation pits parents and teachers against each other.

"Teachers are not the target," he said. "Administrators are not the target. I do believe in the vast majority of places in this state that local school administrators and teachers and parents can come together through a process to resolve these kinds of conflicts."