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New bills target the teaching of history

Race restrictions drawing criticism by Rachel Herzog | January 24, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

Two bills filed in the Arkansas Legislature last week would allow for state funding to be restricted from going to schools with certain courses, events or activities dealing with race, gender and other social groups.

One of them targets curriculum materials based on a New York Times project on slavery.

The bills' lead sponsor said the proposed legislation doesn't aim to hamper the teaching of history, including about events such as the civil rights movement.

"I think it's appropriate and correct to present that information to students. What is not appropriate is being able to theorize, use, specifically, critical race theory," Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, said in an interview Friday.

Opponents say the legislation would prevent the teaching of accurate history, particularly the contributions of and abuses of Black people and others.

"I hope to never become too fragile to have my notions challenged, especially history written by the 'victors' with no voice for the others," Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, a longtime member of the Senate Education Committee and a retired educator, tweeted Thursday.

House Bill 1218 prohibits "offering of certain courses, events, and activities regarding race, gender, political affiliation, social class, or certain classes of people."

According to a draft version of the bill available Friday, public schools shall not include in their programs of instruction any courses, classes, events or activities that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government; promote division between, resentment of or social justice for a particular group; are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group; or advocate the solidarity of or isolation of students based on a particular characteristic.

If a school does not comply, the legislation would allow the state Board of Education to direct the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education to withhold a maximum of 10% of the monthly distribution of state foundation funding. The state attorney general would have the power to direct that money be withheld from higher education institutions that have those types of activities in their curriculum.

The bill makes exceptions for instruction on the Holocaust; instances of genocide; and the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race or class.

Lowery said he planned to amend the bill to make it clear that it would not prohibit teaching about events such as the civil rights movement and the 1919 Elaine massacre, and that it would not impact optional extracurricular groups such as Girls Who Code.

Instead, he said the legislation is aimed at "indoctrination that undergirds the teaching" and school activities he'd heard about that were "humiliating" for students of all backgrounds, such as one school's "privilege walk," in which students had to take a step forward for each privilege they had, such as being white and living in a two-parent home.

"I think it's embarrassing to white students that may not feel that they have the right to push back on accusations that they have privilege when really they had nothing to do with having two parents or living in a house that is owned, not rented, or any of the other various things. That is a problem," he said.

While he said he hadn't yet read the bills closely enough to say whether he'd support them, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said he sees HB1218 as "prohibiting legitimate discussions about Arkansas' history with race and civil rights issues."

"It's not a great precedent for us to start banning topics so long as those are true topics. I mean, the truth should be the standard. For us to decide what portions of the truth we're going to expose our kids to is not necessarily an appropriate discussion for the Legislature," he said.

Concerns about curricula might be best left to local school boards, Hendren added, though he hadn't heard any concerns from K-12 schools in Northwest Arkansas.

"I know there's concerns sometimes, that particularly in higher education, that kids get indoctrinated versus educated, and I think again there may be some truth to that, but I think the best people to control that are the parents who are paying for the higher education," he said.

House Bill 1231 would prohibit the use of public school funds to teach The 1619 Project curriculum, a set of materials based on a 2019 special issue of The New York Times Magazine. The project "challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation's foundational date," according to the Pulitzer Center website, where the materials are available.

The magazine articles and educational resources explore the impact of slavery on America and its institutions, including mass incarceration and medical racism.

"Saying everything hinges around white supremacy, I think that's extremely divisive," Lowery said, noting that some historians have objected to the project's thesis that slavery is what the United States was founded on.

Schools that use the curriculum shall have state funding reduced in an amount equal to the cost associated with teaching it, including planning and teaching time.

The bill states that the true date of the United States' founding is 1776. Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, a House Education Committee member, said that could be interpreted as aiming to eliminate the teaching of major events in American history before that date, including the first shipment of slaves and the treatment of American Indians.

"Just because history is hard, it's difficult and it's ugly doesn't mean that you can ignore it, that's my issue with this bill," Love said.

Love added that he had heard from multiple higher education and K-12 institutions that oppose both bills.

Lowery said the bill would allow factual perspectives to be taught, but "looking at a theoretical perspective like The 1619 Project, or even looking at using critical race theory as a prism for looking back at history, is not factual and it would be banned by these bills."

Critical race theory refers to a social science framework to analyze society and culture in terms of race and equity.

Though then-President Donald Trump's order that federal agencies stop using training programs that include references to the framework brought the phrase into the spotlight last year, Lowery said HB1218 was modeled after legislation passed in Arizona in 2010.

Early last year, a federal judge found parts of the Arizona law unconstitutionally vague but didn't issue an injunction, though a portion of it was found to violate students' constitutional rights and was struck down in 2017.

Ali Noland, a member of the Little Rock School Board and an attorney, said she as well as her constituents had concerns about the constitutionality of Lowery's bill.

"While federal, state, and local governments all have a role in shaping the educational standards applicable to our public schools, they are all still bound by the fundamental First Amendment principle that the government cannot pick and choose viewpoints to favor and viewpoints to censor," Noland said in an email.

She added that while many of the topics the bill targets can be difficult to discuss, teachers, counselors, administrators and school boards are equipped to approach those issues thoughtfully on a case-by-case basis.

Lowery said HB1231 is based on a bill by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Little Rock, which would prohibit the use of federal funds to teach The 1619 Project by K-12 schools.

Through a spokeswoman, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said his first read of the two bills "raised a number of concerns." He said he had asked the Department of Education to review the proposed legislation more closely.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the agency was reviewing the bills and didn't have a public comment as of Friday.

The bills have been assigned to the House Education Committee, which is made up of 17 Republicans and three Democrats.

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