Gov. Brian Kemp cemented much of his planned education policy Thursday, signing a raft of bills aimed at keeping controversial ideas out of the malleable minds of Georgia’s youngsters.
At a signing ceremony in Forsyth County, Kemp touted recent investments in public education.
“This session, we built on that momentum, fully funding the QBE school formula for three out of the four years I’ve been your Governor, even as we emerged from a global pandemic,” he said. “We finished out the final installment of the teacher pay raise I promised on the campaign trail in 2018 for a total of $5,000, and we put students and parents first by keeping woke politics out of the classroom and off our ballfields.”
That last bit is where Georgia liberals find fault.
Republicans in the Legislature say their smorgasbord of education policy changes will give parents more power in the classroom and protect kids from propaganda disguised as history lessons. Democrats and activists call it an election-year ploy to shore up support against the governor’s GOP primary challenger, former Sen. David Perdue, and presumed Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams at students’ expense.
Two of the new laws aim to enshrine the role of parents in their children’s education. One, which supporters call the Parents’ Bill of Rights, spells out a list of rights for public school parents, including the ability to examine and register complaints against all classroom materials. The other requires local boards of education to publish rules of conduct specifying what behavior constitutes removal from a meeting.
State legislatures around the country have been experimenting with changes to education policy after a year of culture war clashes over COVID-19 mask rules and classroom discussions on race and gender have some conservatives fed up.
It’s a worrying trend, said Jalaya Liles Dunn, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice project.
“With today’s signing of HB 1084 and other so-called parental rights bills, Georgia will join at least 17 other states that have passed laws or other policies to limit how teachers can discuss race and racism in classrooms,” she said. “This sets a dangerous precedent that allows our democratic government to dictate, conceal and censor accurate information they disagree with. These bills were designed to distort the truth and sanitize history at a time when awareness of systemic racism is growing as a result of the last few years’ historic uprisings.”
Another pair of newly signed laws are concerned with what ideas school children should have access to. One requires districts to create a process for parents to complain about objectionable materials in school libraries, and another, House Bill 1084, bars nine concepts from classroom lessons, including the idea that the United States is “fundamentally racist,” that anyone should feel guilt because of his or her race or that anyone bears guilt for actions done by members of their race in the past.
“It ensures all of our state and nation’s history is taught accurately – because here in Georgia, our classrooms will not be pawns of those who want to indoctrinate our kids with their partisan political agendas,” Kemp said.
Civil Rights organizations say it’s Kemp who is playing politics by inserting culture war issues into classrooms.
“This law turns our schools into battlegrounds, where our children need the care and support of trusted adults, parents and teachers working together more than ever,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Young spoke at a virtual press conference Thursday where the Georgia ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center announced an email address, TeachTruth@splcenter.org, where parents, students and educators can email information about how the new law impacts learning.
Critics point out that efforts to ban discussion of topics viewed as controversial often disproportionately impact authors belonging to or subjects related to racial or sexual minorities.
“My son should be able to go into his school library and find books that reflect what his family looks like, just like every other student in Georgia,” said Amanda Lee, president-elect of the Georgia Library Media Association and a Georgia educator at a Thursday press conference held by the Georgia Democrats. “Let me be clear, a parent has the right to determine what’s best for their child and only their child. Allowing some parents more of a voice than others, denies students of books they need to learn and grow, and it serves as a reminder to all whose stories are valued and whose stories are deemed ‘inappropriate.’”
“It’s shameful that Brian Kemp has decided his re-election campaign is more important than our schools and our kids’ education,” she added.
Despite the new law, some teachers like Atlanta Public School teacher Anthony Downer say they will keep pushing for ways to teach about how white supremacy is entrenched in U.S. society. But he said strong partnerships with organizations are necessary to protect educators, even at Frederick Douglass High School, where he teaches civics and Africana Studies.
“Without those services, teachers, even Black teachers at places like these will begin to self-censor,” he said. “They won’t have to come after a lot of teachers because a lot of teachers will be shut up. The second thing we need to do is think bigger and brighter about how we give our students culturally sustaining education. It can live beyond the brick and mortar, beyond the four walls.”
In a dramatic last-minute move, lawmakers amended HB 1084 to include language creating a committee to determine whether transgender girls should be allowed to play on girls’ public school sports teams.
Conservatives have been pushing for such a measure for several years, arguing that transgender girls have an unfair advantage, but LGBTQ advocates call the law an unnecessary attack on vulnerable children.
Bills targeting transgender youth have popped up across the country this year, including in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Iowa and South Dakota.
Kemp acknowledged the controversy surrounding his favored legislation, but said it is unwarranted.
“Standing up for the God-given potential of each and every child in our schools and protecting the teaching of freedom, liberty, opportunity and the American dream in the classroom should not be controversial,” he said. “Making sure parents have the ultimate say in their child’s education should not be controversial. And as the parents of three daughters, (First lady Marty Kemp) and I want every young girl in this state to have every opportunity to succeed in the sport they love. That should not be controversial.”