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

Jul 26, 2023, 10:26 AM

FILE - A person holds a sign encouraging people to honk if they love teachers during a protest, Apr...

FILE - A person holds a sign encouraging people to honk if they love teachers during a protest, April 9, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee educators are pushing back against a ban on the teachings of certain concepts on race, gender and bias in classrooms by filing a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the law. The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

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.

United States News

Hudson, 7, left, Callahan, 13, middle, and Keegan Pruente, 10, right, stand outside their school on...

Associated Press

More schools are adopting 4-day weeks. For parents, the challenge is day 5

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) — It’s a Monday in September, but with schools closed, the three children in the Pruente household have nowhere to be. Callahan, 13, contorts herself into a backbend as 7-year-old Hudson fiddles with a balloon and 10-year-old Keegan plays the piano. Like a growing number of students around the U.S, the Pruente […]

44 minutes ago

FILE - Sydney Carney walks through her home, which was destroyed by a wildfire on Aug. 11, 2023, in...

Associated Press

Residents prepare to return to sites of homes demolished in Lahaina wildfire 7 weeks ago

HONOLULU (AP) — From just outside the burn zone in Lahaina, Jes Claydon can see the ruins of the rental home where she lived for 13 years and raised three children. Little remains recognizable beyond the jars of sea glass that stood outside the front door. On Monday, officials are expected to begin lifting restrictions […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Kidnapped teen rescued from Southern California motel room after 4 days of being held hostage

SANTA MARIA, Calif. (AP) — Authorities rescued a 17-year-old boy in Southern California after he was kidnapped and held hostage for four days by captors who threatened to harm him if his family did not pay a $500,000 ransom. The teen was rescued Friday after law enforcement tracked him and his three kidnappers to a […]

6 hours ago

This Aug. 17, 2021 photo shows Quagga mussels cover the engine of a Bell P-39 Airacobra military pl...

Associated Press

Historians race to find Great Lakes shipwrecks before quagga mussels destroy the sites

An invasive mussel is destroying shipwrecks deep in the depths of the lakes, forcing archeologists and amateur historians into a race against time to find as many sites as they can before the region touching eight U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario loses any physical trace of its centuries-long maritime history.

7 hours ago

A sign marks a roadside rest stop that has been made to look like the historic security gate that a...

Associated Press

Birthplace of the atomic bomb braces for its biggest mission since the top-secret Manhattan Project

Los Alamos was the perfect spot for the U.S. government’s top-secret Manhattan Project.

11 hours ago

Associated Press

Suspect arrested after shooting at the Oklahoma State Fair injures 1, police say

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — One person was injured when shots were fired during an argument between two groups of people at the Oklahoma State Fair on Saturday, sending a crowd of people running for safety, police said. One person was arrested on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon after the evening shooting, Oklahoma […]

13 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Ignite Digital

How to unlock the power of digital marketing for Phoenix businesses

All businesses around the Valley hopes to maximize their ROI with current customers and secure a greater market share in the digital sphere.



When most diets fail, re:vitalize makes a difference that shows

Staying healthy and losing weight are things many people in Arizona are conscious of, especially during the summer.


Mayo Clinic

Game on! Expert sports physicals focused on you

With tryouts quickly approaching, now is the time for parents to schedule physicals for their student-athlete. The Arizona Interscholastic Association requires that all student-athletes must have a physical exam completed before participating in team practices or competition.

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