Tennessee educators file lawsuit challenging law limiting school lessons on race, sex and bias

Jul 26, 2023, 10:26 AM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A school field trip to the National Civil Rights Museum was replaced with a trip to a baseball game. A choir director was terrified of teaching the history behind spirituals sung by enslaved people. A teacher spent months in administrative proceedings over objections to state-approved curriculum.

Nearly two years after Tennessee’s GOP-dominated Statehouse passed wide-sweeping bans on teaching certain concepts of race, gender and bias in classrooms, educators have pushed back by sharing their experiences under the law in a new federal lawsuit challenging its legality.

The 52-page lawsuit filed Wednesday not only questions the ban’s constitutionality but also details the stress felt by educators across the state as they attempt to comply with the new restrictions without limiting or harming students’ learning.

“The ban poses an imminent threat to teachers in public K-12 classrooms in Tennessee,” the lawsuit states, adding that teachers face potential termination, license revocation and “reputational damage for teaching lessons they have taught for years.”

The Tennessee Education Association filed the lawsuit along with a group of five educators. The state’s Department of Education and State Board of Education are named as defendants. A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, which represents both state entities, said it had not yet received the challenge and could not comment.

In sparring that resembled similar discussions in other GOP-led statehouses, some of the most contentious debates during Tennessee’s 2021 legislative session revolved around what teachers should and should not say about race, gender and other concepts inside their classrooms.

Most of the majority-white GOP House and Senate caucuses supported the effort, with the sponsors arguing that the bill was needed to protect young minds from being indoctrinated with certain social concepts. Primarily, lawmakers objected to any potential teachings on critical race theory — a term that’s become a stand-in for concepts like systemic racism and implicit bias — but also made sure to ban other concepts on sex and bias.

Black Democratic lawmakers warned that it would make teachers fearful about telling students anything about how race and racism shaped United States history but ultimately were shut down.

After a flurry of last minute changes, the Republican supermajority settled on banning 14 concepts from being taught, including that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed it into law a few weeks later after previously saying students should learn “the exceptionalism of our nation,” not things that “inherently divide” people.

Under the law, “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” is still permitted, and limits on teacher speech don’t apply in response to a student’s question or referring to a historical figure or group.

However, the penalty for a transgression is steep: The state education commissioner can withhold funds from any school found to be in violation and teachers could be stripped of their licenses.

According to the lawsuit, a teacher in eastern Tennessee’s Blount County endured a monthslong investigation into whether she violated the law after a parent filed a complaint during the 2021-2022 school year over a lesson on the 1975 novel “Dragonwings.” The book tells the story from the perspective of a 9-year-old boy who immigrated from China to California and touches on the challenges, particularly racial prejudices, that immigrants face coming to the United States.

Although the book had been approved by the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, the complaint alleged that the teacher had violated the 2021 “prohibited concepts” law because the novel promoted “racism and an anti-American agenda.” When the school determined the teacher hadn’t broken the law, the parent appealed to the state Education Department. That process, the lawsuit says, required the teacher to spend more than 40 hours defending her work and being interviewed by state officials.

The department also cleared the teacher of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the Blount County school district removed the novel from its curriculum.

Over in Tipton County, just outside of Memphis, a teacher said that her school used to offer field trips to the National Civil Rights Museum but has stopped after the ban’s passage. Instead, students can go to a baseball game.

Other examples included in the lawsuit detail teachers nervous to hold classroom discussions on Chinese New Year, Frida Kahlo and the novel “1984” by George Orwell.

“Laws need to be clear. The prohibited concepts law conflicts with the state’s own academic standards and curriculum, which creates unfair risks to Tennessee teachers using state approved materials, following state standards, and providing fact-based instruction,” Tennessee Education Association President Tanya Coats said in a statement. “Educators have already spent countless hours trying to understand and navigate the law’s unclear requirements.”

The teachers are asking the court block the state from enforcing the law and declare it unconstitutional for violating the 14th Amendment.

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Tennessee educators file lawsuit challenging law limiting school lessons on race, sex and bias