A bill that could put new rules on public school curriculum regarding race and history — such as prohibiting schools from teaching the U.S. was created to oppress people or that people are inherently racist or sexist — was passed 66-48 by the North Carolina House along completely partisan lines earlier this month.
The bill, House Bill 324, was approved amid growing debate over how history should be taught in schools, particularly when it comes to topics such as racism and slavery.
It was referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate on May 12. Having passed the House of Representatives ahead of the General Assembly’s crossover deadline, the bill is set to make its way to the Senate floor, where the chamber must vote to approve it for it to become law. If both groups of legislators approve the bill, Gov. Roy Cooper could veto the bill should he choose.
“This bill does not change what history can and cannot be taught,” said bill sponsor Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican. “It simply prevents schools from endorsing discriminatory concepts.”
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt also expressed support for the bill, posting on her candidate Twitter page that she helped craft the bill.
“I worked closely with NC House leadership to draft a common sense bill that provides reasonable expectations for what we want our children, teachers and public school staff to experience inside the classroom,” she tweeted on May 12. “HB324 does just that...”
House Democrats disagreed, with Rep. Kandie Smith, a Democrat from Pitt County, equating the bill to “book burning.” Other legislators, joined by some state educators, called the bill anti-history and anti-education.
“A small group of enraged individuals are looking to ban an entire concept of thought because it makes them uncomfortable,” Smith said.
Though not specifically included in the bill, some Republicans said the legislation is needed to combat “critical race theory,” an academic concept widely criticized and incorrectly or vaguely defined by some vocal conservatives, according to those who teach about critical race theory. The concept, more than 40 years old, is wide-spanning. But a core tenet is that racism, though a social construct, is embedded in legal systems and policies — including America’s. Another key principle is that backlash often follows gains toward racial equity that the country has made.
The introduction of this bill follows a statewide debate on how to teach history, including the passage of new social study standards, controversial among some conservatives, which include language to discuss racism, discrimination and the perspectives of marginalized groups.
The bill also follows Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s creation of a task force in March to collect complaints from parents, students and teachers in public schools across the state about “indoctrination” in the classroom, as reported by the News & Observer.
In a news release supporting the bill, Robinson criticized “pseudo-science social justice initiatives like the ‘1619 Project’ and ‘Critical Race Theory,’” which he said teach people that “the systems of our Republic and the history of our great American experiment are shameful.”
The 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones as on ongoing initiative from The New York Times, explores the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery and won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. The project marks the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. Some historians and politicians criticized the project; The New York Times issued a clarification to one passage of the opening essay but said it still stood “behind the basic point.” Since the project’s August 2020 publication, many historians and educators have crafted lessons and curriculum to teach about 1619 — a move many Republicans have opposed.
Last week, NC Policy Watch reported that the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees chose not to take action on approving Hannah-Jones' tenure due to political pressure from conservatives who object to her work on the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones is set to join the UNC faculty this summer as UNC’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media with a five-year, fixed-term contract that does not include tenure, even though previous Knight Chairs in the journalism school have been tenured.
Several other states have introduced legislation to limit the use of critical race theory in schools, including the passage of a bill in Tennessee that would withhold funding from schools when students are taught about systemic racism and white privilege.
In North Carolina, HB324 would prohibit schools from “promoting” certain concepts, including:
• An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
• Any individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.
• The belief that the United States “is a meritocracy is an inherently racist or sexist belief, or that the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”
The bill defines a school promoting such concepts as compelling school community members to affirm or profess belief in such concepts, including such concepts in curriculum, reading lists, workshops or trainings or “contracting with, hiring, or otherwise engaging speakers, consultants, diversity trainers, and other persons for the purpose of advocating” them.
Many education experts have said the implications of the bill are not clear, calling into question who will be the judge of whether teaching promotes the listed concepts and whether the bill would cause teachers to censor themselves from teaching certain historical facts or events out of fear or uncertainty.
If passed, Chatham County School’s Amanda Hartness said, the bill could potentially pose challenges in discussing school equity or “hard history.”
“On the surface, when anyone reads the title of the bill, ‘Ensuring Dignity & Nondiscrimination in Schools,’ I think we would all agree that is something we would all strive to do,” said Hartness, who is the district’s assistant superintendent of academic services and instructional support.
“The part that I think has some question marks behind it that we’ll continue to watch closely would be the components particularly about being able to teach certain parts of the social studies curriculum,” she said. “And depending upon how you interpret the way the bill is currently written, one could take from it that it would prohibit us from having certain equity-related conversations that many school districts are having across the country to help address achievement gaps.”
State Democrats also voiced concern that the bill could confuse teachers and make it difficult to accurately discuss American history.
Chatham Central history teacher Amy King previously told the News + Record teaching “hard history” is an important part of learning accurate history. Though not directly referencing HB324, King emphasized her lessons — on lynchings, segregation or exclusionary immigration laws — rely on facts and primary documents, not political opinions or agendas.
“We teach about politics, all throughout history. But we don’t teach students how to think, we teach them to think,” King said. “We teach them to think about these complex issues, and to see that many of these complex issues have long stories behind them. We want them to recognize those stories, to be informed and for that to help them make informed choices and decisions.”
While the bill could potentially create confusion and challenges for districts in teaching the newly passed social studies standards, Hartness said she thinks equity discussions can move forward regardless.
“We’ll certainly be watching this particular bill closely,” Hartness said. “...I don’t see that this bill would cause our district to not be able to move forward with our current equity work. There’s so many aspects of closing achievement gaps and building relationships with students and families that can be done with or without this bill in place.”
On Twitter Tuesday, Hartness directly addressed the criticism of critical race theory, sharing a recent NC Policy Watch article about the history of CRT and how attempts to ban teaching it are spreading across the country.
One year ago, the concept “was a niche academic term,” that report said. Now, Idaho, Oklahoma and Arkansas have passed measures prohibiting the teaching of the theory, with proposals in Iowa and Tennessee awaiting governor approval. Those who teach about the concept, according to the NC Policy Watch report, say conservative politicians are not accurately describing the approach or how it’s used in schools.
Hartness’ tweet seemed to agree.
“Teaching critical race theory doesn’t mean we hate our nation,” she wrote. “It means we share the hard history behind how our nation was formed. It means we love our country enough we want to make it better by ending historical racism.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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