After a far-flung debate that touched on everything from the Three-Fifths Compromise to the Holocaust, the House passed legislation Tuesday that would allow the state to punish school districts if a teacher delves into systemic racism in America.
But the bill is tied up in a disagreement between the House and Senate.
In the final days of the 2021 session, the 112th General Assembly is waging its version of a culture war that has gripped the nation for more than 400 years and escalated since George Floyd told a Minneapolis police officer, “I can’t breathe,” shortly before he took his last breath and died last year.
House members adopted SB623 and voted 69-23 for an amended version of the bill. But the Senate non-concurred Tuesday and sent the measure back to the House, which refused to recede from its action. The measure could go next to a conference committee Wednesday to hash out the differences.
Not content to settle on a $42.6 billion state budget that focuses on Republican leaders’ initiatives, the House continued its emphasis on social legislation, choosing to hammer teachers and school districts that dare to discuss the fundamental problem with America dating back to its founding: the concept of slavery in a nation built on the idea of equality.
State Rep. John Ragan tried to sell his amendment to House Bill 580 as a simple clarification to K-12 state education standards by requiring teachers to educate students using “impartial” curriculum.
Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, a retired Air Force pilot, said his “vision” for the amendment is “to ensure Tennessee standards are taught as published” on the state’s website. In response to most criticism, he simply thanked opponents for their input.
The amendment, which was slapped on an innocuous Senate bill in the Legislature’s last session days, would forbid a school district or charter school from teaching or promoting concepts that one race or sex is inherently superior to another; that an individual, by virtue of race or sex, is privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, “whether consciously or subconsciously”; an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex; that a person bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by members of the same race or sex; a person should feel guilt, discomfort or anguish because of race or sex; a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist; Tennessee or the United State are fundamentally or “irredeemably” racist or sexist; prohibit promoting violent overthrow of the U.S. government; and stop promoting division between people based on race, sex, religion, creed, political affiliation and social class.
The amendment would not forbid instruction on the history of an ethnic group, including the history of Black Americans on topics such as Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement and other major topics. But it clearly states instruction would be limited to “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” and “impartial instruction on the historical oppression” of groups based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion or geographic region.
The Department of Education commissioner would be able to withhold funds from a school district or charter school if the commissioner finds it violated the law.
Democrats, led by Black legislators, objected to the measure.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, argued that restricting the freedom of teachers to “present a full picture of history” would do a disservice to students, especially considering America’s “imperfect beginning” and its failure to meet the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.
He pointed toward the Three-Fifths Compromise, in which only three of five slaves were counted for population purposes, as part of the nation’s failure to live up to the promise of liberty. Without the 13th Amendment, Black Americans would still be treated as “chattel,” he added.
“We cannot achieve a more perfect union without discussing the imperfections,” Hardaway said.
Based on its wording, Ragan’s bill could be seen as a way to avoid controversial topics for requiring teachers to stick to facts. Opponents said it is designed to “whitewash” history and stop schools from teaching students the nation was built on the backs of slaves and that Black Americans suffer discrimination through the modern day.
Ragan claimed that a statement of the facts regarding historical events such as the World Trade Center bombing and Holocaust can be taught without controversy, simply by teachers avoiding advocacy of one side or the other.
However, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, raised questions about how a teacher could be “impartial” when talking about Hitler and his position in the Holocaust, the extermination of Jews in Europe before and during World War II.
Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Scott Cepicky of Culleoka and Justin Lafferty of Knoxville urged the House to support the amendment.
Cepicky quoted Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, reminding the chamber a “house divided against itself cannot stand.
“We must be a colorblind society, and we must be colorblind in our schools,” Cepicky said. He added that the state should “never grant preferential treatment” based on race, sex and other factors. Quoting Obama, he called for the chamber to “reject the cynicism” of politics.
Lafferty raised the most eyebrows when he appeared to say his colleagues didn’t understand the Three-Fifths Compromise in that it led to ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Laffery also said the Three-Fifths Compromise was designed to end slavery.
“We ended up biting a bitter pill that haunts us today,” Lafferty said.
Slave states wanted their slaves to count as one person for population and the resulting drawing of congressional seats but not for taxation purposes. Northern states ultimately agreed to allow five slaves to count as three people for the slaveholding state populations, an agreement that enabled the Constitution to pass.
Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell of Davidson County said he agreed with Lafferty’s points to a degree, but he noted that anyone who teaches that the Holocaust, slavery and segregation are not wrong are missing the point.
“That’s just wrong, you know it’s wrong. And it’s evil,” Mitchell said.
House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White, R-East Memphis, tried to steer the chamber back to the bill’s exact wording. He contended it does allow teachers to instruction about the “good, bad and ugly of history” without averse treatment of people based on race or sex.
“This is a bill that says do unto others as you want others to do unto you. Stop playing the blame game,” White said.
The bill fails to set up a process for handling potential violations, causing House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, to seek a delay until 2022. It failed on a 67-25 vote.
As debate continued, Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, pointed out state education standards don’t allow the teaching of modern events such as the killing of Floyd and other recent deaths of Black Americans by police. Ragan responded that she can petition the State Board of Education for change.
Lamar refused to relent, arguing that history for Black Americans is slavery, discrimination, low-quality schools, poor housing and a criminal justice system based on “criminalization” of African Americans.
“American history is not positive. American history was built on the blood, sweat and tears of African Americans and Indians,” she said.