- Over the past 18 months, an unprecedented campaign of censorship and intimidation has been waged on America's classrooms.
- Under the guise of "transparency" and "parents' rights," state lawmakers have been pushing bills that regulate how educators address systemic racism, LGBTQ+ issues, and other so-called "divisive concepts."
- Standing up for their students and their profession, educators are mobilizing to reverse this disturbing trend.
The hundreds of educators who lined the hallway waiting to testify inside the Indiana Statehouse knew the odds were against them. Inside the Senate chamber, lawmakers were debating a bill to ban or curtail the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts” in school.
Topping the list of concepts was, of course, “critical race theory”(CRT), a decades-old academic concept in higher education that has never been taught in K– 12 classrooms. This fact hasn’t stopped politicians and some parent groups from distorting the term to stir up outrage at the idea that classrooms should be safe, constructive spaces for discussions about systemic racism.
Like some other states—namely Florida and Texas—that had already instituted similar measures, Indiana’s legislation went much further. If signed into law, the bill would have banned “the use of supplemental learning materials to promote certain concepts regarding sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.”
For this politically conservative state with a GOP supermajority in the legislature, passage of the bill should have been a slam dunk. But Indiana’s educators saw what was happening in other states, and they were ready.
“We knew it was coming and moved quickly,” said high school teacher Allison Haley, who helped mobilize hundreds of teachers against the legislation. “We fought like hell.”
By late February, momentum for passage had ground to a halt and—to the surprise of many—the bill was soon pulled from consideration.
“Indiana is a great example of what can happen when educators, parents, librarians, and others put pressure on moderate lawmakers, help them come to their senses and see how dangerous these bills are,” explains Jonathan Friedman of PEN America, an organization that works to protect freedom of expression. “Mobilization and awareness have an impact.”
The victory in Indiana, unfortunately, has been an outlier. Since the manufactured controversy surrounding CRT reached a fever pitch in the spring and summer of 2021, right-wing politicians—collaborating with well-funded groups claiming to represent parents—have launched a broad-based assault on America’s classrooms. They aim to root out honest discussions about race, turn back the clock on inclusion, and strip teachers of their autonomy and professional voice.
“This is a movement to sow distrust in public education and intimidate teachers—in whatever form is necessary,” Friedman says.
A Small But Vocal Minority
“Have you Googled yourself lately?” There are few more horrifying questions an individual can be asked especially if you are a public school teacher in 2022.
But this was the question a colleague posed to an unsuspecting Sarah Mulhern Gross in late 2021. Puzzled and alarmed, Gross quickly went online and discovered that right-wing media outlets had been trashing a School Library Journal article that explores the relevance of William Shakespeare’s works in today’s classrooms. Gross had been quoted in the article and was now the target of a vicious assault on social media
Gross teaches English at a STEM-focused high school in New Jersey and presents literature through a scientific lens. “This is where my students’ interest lies, and so I’ve always tried to angle my instruction that way, including how I teach Romeo and Juliet. We talk about brain development, adolescent decision-making, and what we know about the body’s reaction to falling in love.”
Gross believes Shakespeare deserves a critical eye, citing, among other issues, the presence of toxic masculinity in his plays, a point she made in the article. Soon the online mob started accusing Gross of wanting to “cancel” Shakespeare and sending her hateful messages on social media platforms.
After teaching for more than 10 years, Gross says she was suddenly branded a “woke teacher indoctrinating kids.” Although the state where she teaches is unlikely to take on the draconian laws that have gripped other parts of the country, Gross fears that social media leaves too many teachers exposed to intimidation or even threats over their instructional choices.
The perception that hordes of angry parents are constantly monitoring educators’ every step has a chilling effect in the classroom. “This is a small, vocal, but well-organized minority,” Gross says." But [they’re] still intimidating teachers, forcing them to avoid certain topics or certain books out of fear of getting in trouble. It’s the soft censorship that these educators are undertaking that really worries me.”
The ‘Ed Scare’
“There is no national uprising among the majority of parents, regardless of what the media coverage may suggest,” Friedman says. National surveys have also found this to be true.
According to a 2022 poll by National Public Radio, 76 percent of parents said their child’s school does a good job of keeping them informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics. Only 18 percent of respondents said that the way their school teaches gender and sexuality is “inconsistent” with their values; only 19 percent said the same about race and racism.
And a recent Associated Press poll found that 71 percent of parents believe their local schools’ focus on racism was either “too little” or “about right.”
This hasn’t stopped certain lawmakers and right-wing groups from pushing disinformation over social media, disrupting school board meetings, imposing book bans, and passing classroom gag orders and so-called “transparency” laws. All of this has amounted to what PEN America calls the new “Ed Scare."
From July 2021 – March 2022, PEN America tracked 88 active bills imposing gag orders on teachers as well as 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts across 26 states. The organization reports that this onslaught of censorship has been “unparalleled in its intensity and frequency, and represents a serious threat to free expression and students’ First Amendment rights.”
Proponents of the measures try to maneuver around these and other concerns by citing potential student “discomfort” at having to confront shameful episodes throughout U.S. history.
But as Samantha Hull, a school librarian in Pennsylvania, told a congressional subcommittee in April about book bans, “Any discomfort that arises from what we read is outweighed by the possibility of learning. If the book makes you uncomfortable, it’s time to consider what it might be trying to teach you and what you are fighting so hard not to learn.”
‘Radical Forms of Surveillance’
Over the past 18 months, state legislatures and local school boards have taken action to ban “controversial” subjects, in effect imposing gag orders on classroom teachers. These restrictions often include book ban,s but are usually aimed at restricting actual instruction or discussion in the classroom.
According to an analysis by Education Week, from January 2021 – May 2022, 17 states had passed legislation banning the examination of systemic racism in the United States (packaged as “anti-CRT” bills). In 2022, similar bills silencing speech about LGBTQ+ issues began to emerge.
This is a disturbing trend, says NEA President Becky Pringle. “These dangerous attempts to stoke fears and rewrite history not only diminish the injustices experienced by generations of Americans, they prevent educators from challenging our students to achieve a more equitable future.”
Almost as an enforcement mechanism, the same states have been pushing “transparency” bills that require educators to post all of their teaching materials online—including books, articles, and videos—and allowing parents to opt out of certain lessons. Some bills have even called for cameras in the classroom to allow parents to monitor a livestream.
“They call it ‘transparency,’ but what is being proposed is quite different,” Friedman says. “We’re talking about radical forms of surveillance of teachers.”
One of the common traits of these proposals is that they are usually sloppily written—probably by design.
Case in point: Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March. The law, which went into effect on July 1, is named “Parental Rights in Education.” What it actually does, however, is forbid instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
Under the law, parents can sue the school district if they believe the school is in violation. Efforts to amend the bill to provide specific guidelines and clarify its scope failed.
“Any discomfort that arises from what we read is outweighed by the possibility of learning. If the book makes you uncomfortable, it’s time to consider what it might be trying to teach you and what you are fighting so hard not to learn.” - Samantha Hull, school librarian
“They wanted that bill to carry this unclear element,” Friedman explains. “How does it apply to libraries and curricula? No one knew how a teacher is supposed to answer a question from, say, a student who has two same-sex parents and wants to talk about it.”
The lack of specificity has created a large circle of uncertainty—“a no-go zone” in the classroom, Friedman says. “And that’s very alarming.” (For information about guidance for educators in Florida and other states, see NEA's Know Your Rights Guides)
The Difference Between Right and Wrong
Octavio Hernandez, a math teacher in Polk County, Florida, wonders if the politicians responsible for the “Don’t Say Gay” law really understand what they have done—and if they do understand, do they really care?
“It really angers me. This is a threat to students’ mental health. They are putting kids’ lives in danger,” Hernandez says. “LGBTQ students are looking on and are being told that what they are is so bad, so dangerous, that they can’t even talk about it in school.”
Hernandez says his classroom will always be a safe haven for students.
Because educators take that responsibility so seriously, Brian Kerekes, a high school teacher in Osceola County, Florida, hopes the law will ultimately be ineffective.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that educators know the difference between right and wrong,” Kerekes says. “What this law is telling us to do is to help them erase the LGBTQ community. We won’t let them. I think we’ll overcome our fear and concern and do what is right for our students. That’s what we’ve always done.”
Still, Kerekes cautions that the uncertainty and fear the law has instilled is real and could push more teachers out of the classroom and prevent others from entering the profession in the first place. He also worries the legislature will try to expand the law as elections grow closer.
“They’re just trying to distract and divide us at the expense of our students' and educators' safety,” he says.
The stakes are too high for students to be used as political pawns, Hernandez agrees. “These politicians should go stir the pot somewhere else.”
‘A Huge Motivator'
When Indiana lawmakers introduced their “divisive concepts” legislation, the state’s educators already knew the far-reaching impact these laws have on the classroom. The bill aimed to establish parent curriculum review committees, along with mechanisms for parents to opt out of lessons and activities. Proposals were also introduced to penalize teachers who were thought to be in violation.
“We would not have been allowed to teach other perspectives,” Allison Haley says.“We wouldn’t have open discussions and learn the truth about history and about people’s lived experiences. That’s not fair to students, and it’s stripping educators of our professional voice and judgement.”
The Indiana State Teachers Association’s (ISTA) campaign to defeat the bill was already underway. The union began by assembling a coalition of parents, local businesses, faith leaders, and other community groups that were united in opposition to the bill.
“We were very intentional in educating legislators, parents, and other active members of the community,” recalls Haley. “We were super-proactive in explaining what the bills actually did and what the impact on students would be.”
At the first committee hearing, the bill drew over six hours of testimony. Much of it came from teachers who said the bill would place an egregious burden on educators, would stifle student learning, and would worsen the already significant teacher shortage in the state.
Furthermore, educators explained to lawmakers (and to some parents) that systems were already in place that gave parents a good deal of oversight into what teachers do in the classroom. “We have that in Noblesville, where I teach,” Haley explained. “We have a process for curriculum review, and parents are on that committee.”
The campaign worked. Soon lawmakers began shrinking the list of “divisive concepts” and removing provisions that would have allowed parents to sue school districts and go after a teacher’s license. As the legislation got watered down, the original proposal’s more zealous supporters began to lose interest, and by late February, the bill was dead in the water.
Indiana’s educators celebrated the victory, but have remained on guard. Lawmakers will likely resuscitate a new version of the bill in the next session.
Despite the exhaustion and frustration of pushing back on an agenda that is so nakedly political and destructive, educators will be ready.
“I do worry about the toll on the profession. We’re used to fighting for things like salary and negotiating rights,” Haley says. “But when someone tells us ‘I’m now taking away your autonomy in the classroom, your status as a professional,’ that’s personal, and it’s a huge motivator.”