Jul 15, 2021 - Education

The N.C. GOP’s new rules for teaching about racism in schools

Illustration of a student's notebook. On one side pages are torn out and on the other they are extended.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

This story was updated at 11am Thursday, July 15.

The debate over race and history that’s spawned tense school board meetings across the state will likely continue into 2022.

Driving the news: The GOP-led state senate is advancing with a bill that defines how teachers can discuss topics around race in the classroom. Also, senate leader Phil Berger said Wednesday that the senate will move to put a related constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters.

  • Berger says the amendment “affirming our commitment to the Civil Rights Act” will be presented this week. If it makes it through readings and votes, it could be on the ballot for the March 2022 primary.

Why it matters: North Carolina’s state board of education recently passed new social studies standards to incorporate more diverse viewpoints on history and some painful parts of America’s past, including slavery and Jim Crow and their lingering effects on society today. The bill would put guardrails around how that’s done.

  • The bill prohibits schools from compelling teachers or students to “profess belief” in 13 listed topics, many related to “critical race theory.”
  • Among them, the revised HB 324 says it will ensure that students aren’t taught that they’re responsible “for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”
  • The separate constitutional amendment would prevent discrimination “on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” Some observers say it’s a step toward banning affirmative action.

The state of play: Berger’s announcement came one day after dozens of parents and activists lined up at a fiery Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board meeting to express their views on how to teach the racist parts of America’s history.

What he’s saying: Berger, who’s long said he’s concerned about restricting free speech, made a point to say that “children must learn about our state’s racial past and all of its ugliness, including the cruelty of slavery to the 1898 Wilmington massacre to Jim Crow. But students must not be forced to adopt an ideology that is separate and distinct from history.”

  • He said that the theory that “everything we see and do boils down to race and a racial hierarchy” is ascendant. “I oppose it, and I will combat it with everything that I have.”
  • A reporter asked Berger how teachers will know where the line is between promoting CRT and teaching history. He says the bill now defines “promoting” as compelling students to affirm or profess their beliefs in the concepts.

The bill doesn’t include penalties for teachers or school districts who don’t abide by it, but Berger believes “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” in that the bill would empower parents to speak out against lesson plans and teachers that don’t follow the guidelines.

  • Note: A separate Republican-sponsored bill would would require public school teachers to share lesson plans and other materials online.

Yes, but: In some places, parental oversight has gone awry.

In Tennessee, parents clamored for modern-era book bans, asking for several to be pulled from schools because they believe they fall under critical race theory. One of the books is “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” the story of the 6-year-old Black girl who desegregated New Orleans’ schools. The book was written by Bridges herself.

  • The back cover reads, “A long time ago, black children and white children could not go to the same school. I helped change that.”

If even the most basic books about desegregation are being challenged, teachers are certain to face parents with different perspectives on the line between “indoctrination” and teaching a well-rounded child.

Mixed messages: Locally, the county commissioners recently withheld money from CMS until the board created a plan to address systemic inequalities in the district. Meanwhile, the state legislation would likely make educators leery of highlighting similar systemic inequalities in their classrooms.

cms district

That dichotomy set the stage for Tuesday night’s CMS board meeting.

In one moment, Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP president Corinne Mack encouraged folks to free themselves by learning Black history. The very next speaker was Suter Conrad, a third grade teacher at Hornets Nest Elementary School who spoke out against CMS’ anti-racism training on Fox News.

  • “Teachers are agents of the government,” Conrad said. “And by allowing critical race theory to be taught in schools, that is a direct attack on children from our government.”

Other teachers from Hornets Nest, a school that’s 64% Black and 4% white, had a different take.

  • “Changes are needed within our curriculum in order to include history and events that have negatively impacted our Black and brown students,” Hornets Nest teacher Brittany Fogarty said. “Not teaching things that may make children uncomfortable prolongs the discomfort of our Black and brown students.”

The big picture: As the debate over how to teach the country’s racist past simmers nationwide, North Carolina’s Republican leaders have been careful about their wording, saying they want students to learn the good and bad of history, but they want to prevent “overt indoctrination.”

Arcadia University instructor Jeffrey Sachs surveyed the bills moving through legislatures around the country, many of which he says are “so broad and clumsily written that entire historical eras and swathes of contemporary events would be barred from discussion.”

  • Sachs called a early versions of North Carolina’s bill “the exception,” and that they “would probably do little harm.”

Details: Sachs’ comments were about the house version of the bill that passed in May. The senate has revised it to expand the list of things public schools “shall not promote” to 13, including:

  • An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.
  • An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
  • Any individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.
  • The United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.
  • The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.

The other side: State Democrats responded to Berger’s press conference condemning “censorship efforts to restrict what educators can teach.”

Senate minority leader Dan Blue tweeted: “If we want to learn from history, then we need to teach history — all of it, the good and the bad. When we exclude the hard parts, we are doing a disservice to our students and to our country. #nced #ncpol”

Berger commented, “I wholeheartedly agree. #ncpol”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show that the senate bill does not prohibit discussion of topics related to critical race theory. It does prohibit compelling students and teachers and others to “affirm or profess belief in” 13 concepts, many of which are related to CRT.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Charlotte.

More Charlotte stories