GOP bill to limit topics of discussion in public schools wins state House approval
Parents, Democratic lawmakers decry censorship and “chilling effect on education”
A controversial bill that would restrict how the state’s public school teachers discuss race, gender and sexuality was approved by the state House by a 68-49 party line vote on Wednesday, and is now headed to the state Senate.
Several Democrats from the state’s urban centers vigorously opposed House Bill 187. The Republican-backed legislation would require school districts to give a 30-day notice to parents and the state Department of Public Instruction if teachers or invited guests plan to expose students to more than a dozen concepts GOP lawmakers deem unacceptable.
“One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and “an individual, solely by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, are among the concepts that would be banned under HB 187.
Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat, wondered if she could continue to be a substitute teacher if HB 187 becomes law because she has spoken in favor of equal rights for women.
“According to this bill [HB 187], my information would have to be posted on the school’s website like a blacklist,” von Haefen said. “House Bill 187 is destructive to our school learning environment.”
She said HB 187 distracts from the real issues that public schools face and the issues that families want addressed, such as “shortages of teachers and school funding and the impact of learning gaps after the pandemic.”
Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat, said a sound basic education requires that students are taught the good, bad and ugly about the nation’s past and “learning from it and going forward as better people.”
Morey noted that a Washington Post poll of teachers in 20 states where similar legislation was adopted found that 8,000 educators revised lessons to limit or to eliminate discussions of race and gender so they would not run afoul of the law.
“If that’s not a chilling effect on education, I do not know what is,” Morey said.
Republicans downplay bill’s potential impact, but critics raise troubling scenarios
Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and bill sponsor, was the only Republican to address the bill on Wednesday.
Torbett stuck to the script that he’s used for weeks to discuss the measure.
“To be clear, this bill does not change what history standards can and cannot be taught,” he said. “It simply prohibits schools from endorsing discriminatory concepts.”
A day earlier, a handful of parents and Democratic lawmakers criticized the bill during a House Rules Committee, which gave it a favorable report.
Durham attorney Erwin Byrd told lawmakers that she fears she wouldn’t be allowed to speak to students in public schools if HB 187 becomes law.
Byrd, who once practiced education law, wrote numerous reports about racial and gender disparities while working for Legal Aid during the first seven years of her career.
“I cannot tell from the language of this bill if the reports I wrote 15 years ago that were published throughout the state concerning racial disparities and gender disparities and disciplining of children in North Carolina would prohibit me from speaking at career day at my daughter’s school,” Byrd said.
“I honestly think it is possible that either my student’s teacher or principal could prohibit me from speaking on the base of this bill,” she said.
HB 187 would prohibit school leaders from inviting speakers to campus who have previously promoted the concepts GOP leaders find objectionable. Schools must notify parents when a prospective speaker has promoted the banned concepts in published material or on social media within the past three years.
HB 187 also stealthily targets Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped the nation’s legal and social systems. Educators say CRT is not taught in America’s K-12 schools.
Rep. Amos Quick, a Guilford County Democrat, argued Tuesday that HB 187 would create two classes of speakers, one allowed in schools and the other not due to speech Republican lawmakers deem unacceptable.
“[HB 187] requires a 30-day notice for a person or persons who express particular opinions,” Quick said. “Does that not create two classes of speakers in our schools, which is in my opinion very un-American.”
Torbett countered that the 30-day notice is intended to give schools a chance to notify parents about selected speakers who might be brought in to “indoctrinate or persuade” their children.
Preventing “indoctrination” or opening a can of worms?
At one point, the discussion turned to questions about speakers invited to schools to discuss baking cookies. Democratic lawmakers noted that some parents might be upset about a program that promotes sugary treats.
“Not every speaker that will be objectionable would come in talking about overthrowing the government and I don’t think we can create two classes of speakers,” Quick said. “If we’re going to have 30-day notification for speakers to come in, the guy who’s coming in to talk about baking sugar cookies … he should have to go through the 30-day waiting period as well as anyone else.”
Jimmy Patel-Nguyen, communications director for North Carolina Asian Americans Together, told the committee that Asians across the state are “firmly against” HB 187.
“It’s vital that our students learn about America’s full history and not an alternate history,” Patel-Nguyen said.
As a young student in North Carolina’s public schools, Patel-Nguyen said he felt angry that Asian American history was rarely taught.
“I remember feeling erased sitting in those classrooms,” Patel-Nguyen said. “I knew that my classmates weren’t learning that my community’s history was part of American history and I always wondered whose choice was it to limit our education. Today that choice is yours.”
Patel-Nguyen said his oldest child starts Kindergarten in August and is already boasting that he’s going to learn more than the father.
“I hope he is right,” he said. “As a parent, I urge you not to rob my kids and their classmates of a comprehensive education.”
Heather Redding, an Orange County parent, said it’s clear that the bill’s sponsors intend to “whitewash the public school curriculum and enforce a cisgender, heteronormative perspective” in schools.
Redding noted that the United Daughters of the Confederacy was able to whitewash literature related to the Civil War by rewriting textbooks and erecting monuments to the Confederacy.
“Even today, they deny the ongoing impact that generations of slavery and white supremacy have had on society,” she said. “As a parent, I want my children to learn about the true history of our country, even if it makes them uncomfortable.”
Renee Sekel, a Cary parent, told lawmakers that she didn’t need them to tell her what’s best for her children.
“I don’t need you to parent for me,” Sekel said. “I don’t need you to decide if my kids should be allowed to learn about certain concepts. That’s my job, not your job.”
Sekel said the ugly truths about America’s history shouldn’t be hidden from children.
“If a kids hears about the enslavement of black people and says, ‘Oh, my God,’ that’s a terrible thing that should never happen again, that’s not indoctrination, that’s compassion. It’s common sense.”
As Policy Watch previously reported, HB 187 has much of the same language as House Bill 324, which was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2021. This time around, Republicans have enough votes in the Senate to override a veto. They are a vote short of being able to do so in the House if all Democrats remain united.
Torbett has said that the state must have a school system that does not divide and indoctrinate students.
“At the end of the day, we should all be able to agree that no student, not teacher, no parent, no school employee, no one should ever be made to feel inferior solely because of the color of their skin, their gender, national origin, race, religion, disability, familial status, especially in our schools where learning for our young should be fun and exciting,” Torbett said.
The North Carolina Justice Center released a statement shortly after Wednesday’s vote opposing HB 187, which it contends is designed to discourage educators from teaching the truth about racism and sexism in America.
“North Carolina’s teachers are dedicated and highly trained professionals, charged with creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere in the classroom,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Justice Center. “Regardless of this bill’s intent, we trust them to teach and guide their students and continue to create space for honest conversations in the classroom that foster critical thinking skills and allow them to bring their lived experiences to these discussions.
Shuford added: “This bill is an attempt to distract from the central challenge facing our state’s public schools: decades of underfunding, which has only exacerbated inequality in educational opportunities.”