Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)
A joint meeting of House Education committees isn’t likely to consider Rep. Yusuf Hakeem’s Black history education bill this week even though he was told it would be made “perfect” in summer study.
The Chattanooga Democrat sought to increase Black history curriculum in grades 5-8 earlier this year, but the House Education Instruction Committee voted to send it to a summer study panel for more work.
Hakeem contends he was assured it would receive consideration this summer, but it isn’t on the agenda for Wednesday and Thursday education meetings. He says he plans to force the issue, but he could easily lose the argument since his legislation isn’t slated to be discussed.
Instead of taking up increased Black history, the Legislature passed a measure prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory, even though no school system in the state teaches that line of thought. Critical race theory, usually taught in law school courses, examines the impact of practices such as “red lining” on Black people in America, in which African Americans were prohibited from receiving loans to buy homes in certain neighborhoods.
I think there's a narrative that's been out there as far as history is concerned and a lot of legislators are not inclined to want to broaden what we have as an inclusive narrative on American history.
– Rep. Yusef Hakeem, D-Chattanooga
Tennessee’s new law prohibits teaching that any group is superior to another as well as the idea that one group of people is to blame for the plight of another.
Before that measure arose, Hakeem tried, but failed, to pass his bill to increase Black history teaching in middle school.
Without an expansion of curriculum, Hakeem believes students will miss out on important people in history such as inventor and botanist George Washington Carver and the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Chattanooga Democrat said he reached out recently to House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White to ask him why his legislation, HB1460, isn’t on the agenda but got no response. He’s concerned this is his only opportunity to work on the bill in summer study, which can either be a place to kill bills or to improve and pass them.
“I think there’s a narrative that’s been out there as far as history is concerned and a lot of legislators are not inclined to want to broaden what we have as an inclusive narrative on American history,” Hakeem said. “… I assume the chairman is responding to that.”
Hakeem said he hopes it is “nothing nefarious” but added that to ignore his request is “inappropriate.”
White, an East Memphis Republican, said Monday that House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s office approved the agenda for the education summer study session and, even though several lawmakers had bills they wanted studied, the Speaker’s Office didn’t want to include any pieces of legislation for discussion.
White acknowledged he had not spoken with Hakeem.
“We only got permission from leadership to have a certain number of topics, and so we wanted to address things dealing with the learning loss,” White said.
The Speaker’s Office did not respond immediately Monday to questions about the education agenda.
The joint committees will study truancy and four weeks of summer school to determine the impact of programs designed to bolster learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. School district superintendents are slated to testify before committee members about the impact of tens of millions of dollars worth of learning programs set up early this year to help students rebound from lost classroom time caused by the pandemic.
Students missed the last part of the 2019-20 school year when the pandemic started, then many went to school virtually during 2020-21. The start of the 2021-22 school year was hampered by the spread of the Delta variant, which forced thousands of students and teachers to miss classes.
Fourteen public school employees have died this year from COVID-19, including teachers, staff and bus drivers.
The Tennessee Department of Health also reported Monday that the number of COVID-related deaths for those under age 20 increased to 20 from 10 since Aug. 1.
White said the committee would have to “find time” to discuss Hakeem’s bill if he brings it up, and with meetings already scheduled to consider those other matters, he couldn’t commit to it.
“I didn’t know that was something he was really wanting to push in summer study,” White said. “We may have talked about it right after session.”
Hakeem said White had not contacted by Monday evening.
The Legislature spent an inordinate amount of time in its final days, however, debating critical race theory, a measure Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, brought up in the last hours of the 2021 session.
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