Unions, States and Parents Fight Over New Laws on History Lessons, Books | #students | #parents


  Jennifer Given



  sought out legal advice this fall before teaching world history to 10th-graders in New Hampshire to avoid running afoul of a new state law that restricts what she can teach. Violating the law could end her teaching career.

Ms. Given said she worries that materials for lessons about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, or Christopher Columbus and his role in Native American deaths, could violate the law if someone believes that she is saying one group is superior to another. This month, when a student said laws in ancient China reminded him of the U.S. today, she ended the discussion.

“I couldn’t risk having that conversation,” said Ms. Given, who has taught history for 19 years. “In the absence of clear legal boundaries, I’m not 100% sure when I am or am not on the verge of breaking that law.”

New Hampshire’s state law, passed in June, bans teaching that one group of people is inherently superior or inferior to another. A violation could lead a teacher to be stripped of his or her teaching license.

New Hampshire is among at least 12 states, including Texas, Idaho, Tennessee and Oklahoma, that have recently passed laws or issued rules that define how schools and colleges can teach subjects related to discrimination, race and gender.

At the same time, school districts from Texas to Vermont are pulling hundreds of books from library shelves, following directives from state elected officials or challenges from parents that the books, which often focus on race and gender themes, are inappropriate for students.

This week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, released a draft of a bill that would ban teaching that anyone is inferior or superior based on race, gender or other qualities, or that a person is “inherently responsible” for past actions committed by a member of the same group.

“Americans believe ‘all men are created equal,’ and we also believe the American dream is available to all regardless of race, color, or national origin,” Gov. Noem said. She added that children shouldn’t be taught “the false and divisive message that they are responsible for the shortcomings of past generations and other members of our respective races.”

School districts from Texas to Vermont are pulling hundreds of books from library shelves, following state directives or challenges from parents asserting the books are inappropriate for students.



Photo:

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

The measures are setting up fights among teachers, unions, parents and school districts.

This week, the National Education Association’s New Hampshire affiliate, which represents 17,000 teachers and school staff in the state, sued state officials, arguing that the vagueness of the law violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. The American Federation of Teachers had filed suit against the state the prior week.

Becky Pringle,

president of the NEA, said in an interview that the union is evaluating every similar state law and plans to challenge them.

“They are entirely politically motivated,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Department of Education declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Ahni Malachi,

executive director of the state commission on human rights, said she couldn’t provide information about any complaints that may have been filed ahead of public notice of a hearing.

In Oklahoma, a Black student group, an association of college professors and others sued the state in November to block a state law that they said has resulted in school districts taking books by Black and women authors from reading lists.

It couldn’t be determined if any teachers have lost their jobs as a result of the new laws. In Tennessee, a teacher was fired this year after administrators said lessons about white privilege didn’t include multiple points of view and violated the state’s teacher code of ethics.

And in Texas, a new state law says teachers can’t be compelled to teach “widely debated and currently controversial issues,” and if they do they must include differing perspectives. This month, a Texas school district pulled 400 books from library shelves to review them, after a Republican state lawmaker sent a letter inquiring about a list of more than 800 titles, many of which discuss race or gender. The move follows a record number of book challenges by parents and other groups this year, according to the American Library Association.

The laws that are coming under fire have been passed by Republican-led legislatures, with proponents saying they are needed to stop the encroachment of critical race theory in the nation’s classrooms. They say that some liberal teachers are teaching students that the color of their skin determines whether they are an oppressor or a victim, among other things. Only laws in Idaho and North Dakota mention critical race theory directly.

Critical race theory argues the legacy of white supremacy remains embedded in modern-day society through laws and institutions that were fundamental in shaping American society.

School administrators and teachers say that critical race theory isn’t taught in K-12 schools.

Leslie Madsen,

an associate professor of history at Boise State University, said last week that she will teach critical race theory, in defiance of a state law. She said it is important to use it this spring in her course, Women and Gender in the U.S. West, to give students a better understanding of how people with different identities have tackled challenges caused by racism and sexism.

Parents who support the New Hampshire law say it is necessary to curb what they describe as a movement in classrooms and in teacher training to encourage children to identify themselves primarily by their race or gender, as schools address discrimination through curriculums and diversity and inclusion policies.

“When I look at the law it’s hard to argue with the validity of it,” said

Rachel Goldsmith,

who founded a New Hampshire chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group, this fall. “Teachers shouldn’t be teaching that certain groups of kids are inherently racist or oppressive because of characteristics they’re born with.”

Teacher anxiety grew in the state when the local Moms for Liberty group issued a $500 reward last month via

Twitter

to anyone who successfully makes a complaint under the law.

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Ms. Goldsmith said she didn’t intend her post to be taken as a threat and that she isn’t against teachers. “The incentive is to help people find problematic curriculum,” she said.

Meghan Glynn,

a Manchester-based attorney, said she logged 10,000 miles zigzagging across New Hampshire in July and August as she taught sessions on the new law for about 30 of the state’s school districts. Teachers asked whether they can continue to talk about concepts such as implicit bias and white privilege under the law, or continue to teach books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Some asked whether offering original source material on subjects such as slavery could be viewed as advocating for a particular viewpoint, according to Ms. Glynn.

“Teachers and school districts are feeling like they’re on display and open for attack in a way that they never have been before,” she said.

Meanwhile, teachers unions in the state say they will oppose a recently introduced New Hampshire bill that would prohibit teachers from promoting a “negative account” of the founding and history of the United States or that it was founded on racism, among other things.

Write to Kris Maher at kris.maher@wsj.com

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