K-12 culture wars: Republican-led states continue battle against critical race theory

Lawmakers continue to push a wave of legislation restricting what can be taught—or even said—in public schools.

Some call it parents’ rights but critics call Florida’s newest education-focused law the “Don’t Say Gay” gay bill.

Parental Rights in Education,” signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 28, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Parents must also be notified when there is a change in services schools are providing children in regards to their mental, emotional or physical health or well-being.

“Parents have every right to be informed about services offered to their child at school, and should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old,” DeSantis said in a statement.

Over the last year or so, GOP lawmakers and governors have enacted and proposed a wave of legislation restricting what can be taught—or even said—in public schools, often arguing that parents should decide what their children learn about in classrooms. These efforts, however, have been narrowly focused on anti-racism, LGBTQ+ topics, and sex education. In the most extreme of these so-called parents’ rights bills, teachers and other educators have even been threatened with criminal charges for teaching certain content.

“These are politically motivated efforts to hem in teachers, to meddle in public schools, to use a cultural moment to score political points where nobody’s thought through how any of this would be done in practice,” says Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education, an anti-censorship organization. “We want classrooms in the U.S. to have a degree of openness, to have open discourse—that has always been how American schools have projected themselves as different from schools in other countries.”

Outside the classroom, meanwhile, several Republican-controlled states have barred transgender athletes from girls’ sports. Here’s a state-by-state rundown of new laws that limit what schools teach, which books they can keep in libraries and who can play high school sports:

ALABAMA: Alabama schools were banned from teaching about LGTBQ topics in kindergarten through fifth grade under a new law signed by Gov. Kay Ivey on April 8. That K-5 provision, which raises Florida’s bill by two grades, was tacked onto a bill that now also requires that individuals can only use schools bathrooms “based on their biological sex.”

A ban on critical race theory was adopted into the state board of education’s administrative code in October 2021, WBHM reported.

ARIZONA: Only biologically female athletes can participate on girls teams at Arizona public schools under a law signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on March 30.

ARKANSAS: The “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” signed into law in March 2021, ” says female athletes should not have to compete in a sport against a student of the male sex when the sport is designed for women’s competition,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.

FLORIDA: Parental Rights in Education,” signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 28, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through 3rd.

Schools must publicize for parental review all library books and reading materials under a law passed in March 2022. The new regulation allows parents to object to instructional materials they feel are inappropriate for their children.

Florida’s “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” which became law on June 1, 2021, specifies that only a student whose biological sex is listed as female on their birth certificate is allowed to play on an athletic team or sport that is designated for women or girls.

IDAHO: A law passed in April 2021 made Idaho the first state to ban critical race theory. Idaho’s law says students cannot be taught that “individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.”

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INDIANA: A ban on transgender athletes in girls’ sports was vetoed on March 21 by Gov. Eric Holcomb. “Amidst the flurry of enthusiasm to protect the fairness and integrity of women’s sports n our state—a worthy cause for sure—this bill leaves too many unanswered questions, ” Holcomb said in his veto letter.

IOWA: Transgender athletes were banned from girls’ K-12 and collegiate sports on March 3. Students can only compete in sports based on the gender listed on their birth certificates. “No amount of talent, training or effort can make up for the natural physical advantages males have over females,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement. “Forcing females to compete against males is the opposite of inclusivity and it’s absolutely unfair.”

KENTUCKY: A bill that would’ve barred transgender athletes from playing on girls sports teams was vetoed by Gov. Andy Beshear on April 6. In a veto letter, he said he believes the proposal was unconstitutional. The state’s legislature, which is heavily Republican, may override the veto in the coming days, The New York Times reportedOn the same day, Beshear also vetoed a bill targeted at critical race theory that he said would have restricted how history was taught in classrooms.

Iowa’s CRT ban, signed into law last in June 2021, prohibits instruction that implies that “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”

MISSISSIPPI: A law prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory was signed on March 14 by Gov. Tate Reeves, who claimed in a video posted to social media that schools were turning students into “liberal operatives.” “Children are being dragged to the front of the classroom and are coerced to declare themselves as oppressors, taught that they should feel guilty about the color of their skin, or that they are inherently a victim because of their race,” Reeves said.

Under a law passed in March 2021, public schools must designate athletic teams and sports “according to biological sex.”

MONTANA: Interscholastic athletes must participate under the sex they were assigned at birth under a law passed in May 2021.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: A law passed in June 2021 prohibited schools from teaching that one identified group (a group based upon age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, mental or physical disability, religion or national origin) is inherently superior or inferior to people of another identified group or inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive. The law does not prohibit the teaching of  “historical concepts related to discrimination.”

NORTH DAKOTA: North Dakota banned critical race theory in November 2021, defining it as teaching that “racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.”

Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed a transgender athlete ban in April 2021, saying the state already had “fairness in girls’ and boys’ sports.” An attempt to overturn the veto failed.

OKLAHOMA: The Save Women’s Sports Act, which became law on March 30, requires parents to sign an affidavit acknowledging their child’s biological sex before students can play a sport. The state’s critical race theory ban, approved in May 2021, prohibits schools from teaching that one race or sex is inherently superior. Gov. Kevin Stitt said schools are not barred from having “honest and tough discussions about our past.”

SOUTH CAROLINA: The state’s 2021-22 budget prohibits schools from using funds to teach that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or “an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

SOUTH DAKOTA: Schools can “not compel employees, students, or teachers to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to inherently divisive concepts” under a law, signed by Gov. Kristi Noem on April 5, aimed at restricting critical race theory. Transgender athletes were banned from K-12 sports on Feb. 4.

TENNESSEE: Schools would be barred from using instructional materials “that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles,” under a bill proposed in February. Schools risk losing funding for violating the state’s CRT ban, which was enacted in May 2021. A student can only participate in a middle or high school sport that matches the gender on their original birth certificate, according to a law enacted in March 2021.

TEXAS: Pride Week activities held by Austin ISD in March 2022 were called “illegal” Attorney General Ken Paxton, who said in a March 22 letter to the district that lessons covering sexual orientation and gender identity fall under state law that requires schools to get written consent from parents before students are provided with “human sexuality instruction.” In response, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde tweeted that her district was proud of its LGBTBQIA+ students and would protect them from political attacks.

Texas has become a hotbed of efforts to ban books in various districts since last October when State Rep. Matt Krause released a list of 850 titles that he wanted to investigate to find out if they were in school libraries, The Texas Tribune reported. Many of the books cover race, gender identity, sexuality, and LGBTQ topics. Texas also requires public school students to compete in interscholastic athletic competitions based on biological sex, under a law passed in October 2021. The critical race theory ban, enacted in June 2021, bars educators from teaching that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Instruction also may not cause any students to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

UTAH: Transgender athletes are barred from girls’ high school sports after legislators on March 25 overturned Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of the ban, the Associated Press reported. “I must admit, I am not an expert on transgenderism. I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt, however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy, and compassion,” Cox had said in announcing the veto.

New rules recommended by the state legislature and approved by the state’s board of education ban critical race theory and prohibit teachers from saying “one race is ‘inherently superior or inferior’ or that people’s moral character is influenced by their race,'” The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

VIRGINIA: Beginning in 2023, Virginia will require school districts to notify parents of “any instructional material that includes sexually explicit content” and provide alternative learning materials to any students or families who object. The law, which goes into effect next year, says it should not be used to censor books in public elementary and secondary schools. Still, Democratic lawmakers in Virginia opposed the bill, saying educators should make decisions about whether learning materials are appropriate, KATV.com reported.

A ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” was the first executive order issued by Gov. Glenn Youngkin after he took office in January 2022. He directed the state’s superintendent of schools to immediately cancel any education policies and remove any learning materials that promote “inherently divisive concepts.” He also ordered that parents have ready access to their school’s curriculum and learning materials.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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