Senate education panel advances ‘divisive concepts’ bill, stripped of college rules

By: - March 8, 2022 1:00 am

Georgia Republican legislators have advanced a bill that bans the teaching of “divisive concepts” at public schools after the sponsor on Monday removed Georgia State University and other public higher education schools from the measure. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A Georgia lawmaker’s proposal to prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” in public schools will no longer force colleges and universities to comply.

The Senate Education and Youth Committee voted Monday in favor of Senate Bill 377 after its author stripped away higher education so that it now only prohibits k-12 teachers and other school staff from causing students to feel guilty or ashamed by talking about race, ethnicity, or other sensitive topics in the classroom.

Cornelia Republican Sen. Bo Hatchett said he removed colleges from his bill after speaking with professors and educators’ groups. So-called divisive concepts legislation has been criticized for potentially chilling discussions about race in public schools.

Hatchett, however, said his bill still allows educators at k-12 schools to address difficult topics and America’s historic mistreatment of non-whites without being offensive. 

“I think we’ve come up with a good piece of legislation that’s going to be very impactful, especially with the current political climate and some of the messaging that’s been put out across the country,” he said.

Republican lawmakers in the House passed a similar version of the diverse concepts measure for k-12 schools last week, as well as legislation banning free-speech zones on college campuses and passing so-called Parents Bill of Rights legislation that outlines ways a child’s school curriculum can be reviewed. 

The measures advanced after lengthy debates and accusations that supporters are trying to whitewash America’s history. Proponents argued it’s an attempt to fend off parent’s concerns about material their child will be taught with no outside input. Critics of legislation setting new rules for parental input note that much of process for review of teaching material already exists.

Matthew Boedy, Georgia chapter president of the American Association of University Professors, said he sent an email to Hatchett saying the bill would undermine the academic freedom policy set by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. 

“The bill lists these concepts and says you could have class discussions on them as long as it’s objective and without endorsement,” Boedy said. “Well, that would get into a problem if you want professors to profess and these are people who have educated opinions.”

But the ban still stands as originally filed for k-12 public education with teachers prohibited from promoting or encouraging a host of divisive concepts, a plan that has Georgia teacher organizations up in arms.

Hatchett’s bill did remove a controversial provision that would’ve allowed the state to take funding from offending k-12 schools. It establishes a complaint process that allows anyone – including parents, district attorneys, and lawmakers on school committees – to file grievances.

Georgia Federation of Teachers President Verdaillia Turner said the divisive concepts bill is doing what its supporters claim they are trying to avoid: furthering racial divides and putting educators in the crosshairs. 

“I challenge any lawmaker to go back and thumb through lesson plans themselves to see if any of us teachers are intentionally dividing children and or teaching concepts trying to brainwash children,” she said. 

Sen. Sonya Halpern, an Atlanta Democrat, said although the proposed legislation doesn’t ban the teaching of slavery, the Holocaust, or the Trail of Tears, it does prevent in-depth discussions among students and teachers about systemic racism in the nation.

After lengthy debates last week, the Senate is now considering House legislation that would ban free-speech zones on college campuses and give parents the “right” to review course material, object to library books the deem inappropriate and opt their children out of sex education classes. 

Boedy said he’s hopeful that the Senate removes language in Dawsonville GOP Rep. Will Wade’s House Bill 1084 that lists advanced placement and dual enrollment courses since they’re both considered college level classes.

Although the professors’ association isn’t taking an official stance on the free-speech zones legislation since it’s outside of the classroom environment, Boedy said it’s a solution seeking to solve nonexistent problems.

“It basically says what we already have,” said Boedy, an English professor at the University of North Georgia. “There are time, manner, place restrictions, that’s a legal requirement. It may give some groups more ability to have a protest on campus, but campus is open to everybody.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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