Free speech is under attack in public schools, US House panel says

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by Ariana Figueroa, recorder from Georgia [This article appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
May 19, 2022

Students and teachers told U.S. House members at a hearing on Thursday that their right to speak about race and LGBTQ+ issues in public schools was being silenced due to an onslaught of new laws of state as well as pressure exerted on school boards by right-wing advocates.

“To be perfectly clear, this is about disrupting and destroying public education,” James Whitfield, a former Texas principal and one of the witnesses, told lawmakers.

The House Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Oversight and Reform Subcommittee held the hearing to consider the impact of new state laws that prevent educators from discussing American history, race and LGBTQ+ issues in K-12 public classrooms.

Florida recently passed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that prohibits discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in public K-3 classrooms and only allows it when It is age appropriate for older children. One of the witnesses, Jennifer Cousins, a mother from Orlando, said the legislation would prevent her children from talking about their older brother, who is not binary, in class.

“Laws like Florida’s, officially named ‘Parental Rights in Education,’ seek to erase (LGBTQ+) existence for our youngest children, who by nature are already more open to learning about diversity and mutual acceptance despite their differences, and definitely deny parents like me a safe learning environment for my children,” Cousins ​​said.

Teens in Texas, Michigan and Ohio told House lawmakers that constant attacks from right-wing advocacy groups and lack of support from school administrative officials were hurting their mental health and affecting their education .

“Teachers are reviled,” said Elle Caldon of Dallas County, Texas.

She told how stickers supporting LGBTQ+ pride, showing rainbows or flags, were scratched on classroom doors at her school without explanation. When Caldon’s teacher pushed school officials for reasoning, his contract was not renewed, Caldon said.

States limit discussions about race

An analysis by Education Week found that since January 2021, 42 states have introduced legislation or other measures to restrict critical race theory teachings, or discussion of race and sexism in the classroom.

Georgian lawmakers this year passed a so-called Parents’ Rights Law that spells out a list of rights for parents in public schools, including the ability to review and register complaints against all school materials. The governor approved the legislation in late April.

Critical race theory isn’t taught at the K-12 level, but Republicans at the state, local, and federal levels have repeated the false narrative that kids are taught academic theory — which aims to study how race is intersects with the legal field – in the classroom.

Claire Mengel of Hamilton County, Ohio told House members how their school’s Diversity Day was canceled, an optional event where students, who must obtain parental permission to attend, could listen to speakers from different cultures and backgrounds.

Mengel said they and their classmates quickly discovered the new school board members were running on a platform opposed to critical race theory and canceled the event.

“Our event is not about CRT, our event is about diversity,” they said. “The school board brought the policy into our schools when they attacked our event. Their actions have harmed our education, our mental health and our community.

Krisha Ramani of Oakland County, Michigan, pointed to recent book bans across the country and argued that young people like her have the ability to speak, debate and hold difficult conversations.

“For parents of those who may disagree with these diverse perspectives, banning books for all students undermines their own right to have conversations about the social landscape,” she said.

Second congressional hearing

This is the second of the subcommittee’s hearings on violations of freedom of expression. In early April, the panel examined why thousands of books, mostly written by marginalized authors, were banned from public schools, and the impact of those actions on students and teachers.

“Classroom censorship laws being passed and proposed are the hallmark of authoritarian regimes – removing anything from the public sphere that doesn’t toe a strict party line and then demonizing it,” the rep said. Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and chair of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee, said Thursday in his opening remarks.

Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, said her organization has been tracking banned books in classrooms and libraries since 2021. PEN America is an organization that champions freedom of expression.

She said there was a “wave of censorship engulfing our classrooms”.

Nossel said a PEN America report found from July 2021 through the end of March this year, more than 1,500 books were banned in 86 school districts in 26 states.

The Republican bugged witness, Virginia Gentles of the Independent Women’s Forum, argued that parents should have a choice not to send their children to public school and should be given vouchers to send their children to private establishments that have a program with which they agree. .

Gentles is the director of the IWF’s Education Freedom Center, a right-wing public policy group backed by the Koch brothers.

Whitfield said this type of rhetoric is “a ploy to divert money from public schools to subsidize private education in the name of ‘choice.'”

“Educators who dedicate their hearts and souls to the growth and development of young people have been placed directly in the crosshairs of political groups bent on destroying public education,” he said.

Whitfield, who is black, had to resign from his job after being accused of promoting critical race theory over a letter he wrote to students about the summer 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd. He was the school’s first black principal.

Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, the top Republican on the panel, said she believes state and local governments should be able to make their own decisions about the school curriculum and that students should focus on the education and not on difficult subjects such as race.

“The innocence of our children must be protected and prioritized,” she said.

Georgia Recorder editor John McCosh contributed to this report.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact editor John McCosh with any questions: [email protected] Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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