Just one year ago, fourth grade teacher Rickie Farah was honored as a teacher of the year in Southlake, an affluent community outside of Dallas, Tex. Now, she was on the cusp of being singled out for punishment by the school board. Her crime: A student in her class had taken home a copy of teacher Tiffany Jewell’s best-selling book, This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work, from Farah’s classroom library. When the child’s parents filed a complaint with the school district, alleging that the book was inappropriate, administrators declined to punish Farah. Then Southlake’s new conservative majority school board intervened. By a vote of three to two, members agreed to direct school administrators to place a letter of reprimand in Farah’s personnel file, permanently blemishing the record of one of the district’s star teachers.
“It’s really chilling,” says Jennifer Hough, a parent and member of the Southlake chapter of Dignity for All Texas Students. “The message that’s being sent to the teachers in this school district is that nobody’s safe.”
In May, parents angry over a proposed plan to address racism in Southlake’s schools propelled a slate of conservative candidates into office. Today, that parent anger, along with the state’s new limits on how teachers address controversial issues, increasingly informs district policy. The school district recently announced new rules restricting what books teachers can assign and instructing them to get rid of books that parents might perceive as biased. Even books on the Holocaust should be balanced with opposing perspectives, officials told teachers.
Culture of grievance
In recent months, debates over race and equity have roiled school districts across the country. More than 27 states have introduced legislation limiting how teachers can talk about race and racism in the classroom. But the enforcement of these measures will largely rest on parents, who’ve been newly deputized to ensure that teachers aren’t teaching “critical race theory” (CRT), a vague catchall that has rapidly expanded to include almost anything that conservatives don’t like. A growing roster of parent groups—Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn, Parents Defending Ed—encourages parents to blow the whistle on indoctrination in the schools by filing anonymous reports and litigation. Meanwhile, proposals to train a watchful eye on teachers by placing cameras in the classroom are gaining steam.
“It’s very Orwellian and scary,” says Chris Larson, a state senator in Wisconsin, where GOP lawmakers recently proposed installing a camera in every classroom. While cameras didn’t make it into the GOP’s bill banning the teaching of CRT in schools, lawsuits did. The bill includes a measure that would allow parents to sue K-12 schools that teach a lengthy list of prohibited concepts, including “equity,” “diversity,” and “systemic racism.” Districts found to be in violation could lose up to 10 percent of their funding. Similar measures have been enacted in Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and New Hampshire—all of which now encourage parents to report “woke” teachers and topics, and then punish entire schools and districts in response.
Larson, whose district straddles Milwaukee and its southern suburbs, says that while GOP legislators have been unable to point to any examples of schools teaching the now banned concepts, the bills help to advance a larger goal for the party: undermining support for public education. “This is being used as an excuse to have all school curriculum and finances published online so that parents and right-wing groups can file lawsuits.”
When Texas enacted the radical anti-abortion measure known as Senate Bill 6, it represented a dramatic expansion of who can bring lawsuits. Jon Michaels, a professor at UCLA’s School of Law, says that same logic underpins the GOP’s efforts to limit what schools can teach, as well as curtailing the rights of particular students and school staff. In New Hampshire, for example, a controversial “divisive concepts” law enacted this summer allows anyone claiming to be “aggrieved” by a suspected violation to file a lawsuit against a school or school district. And under Tennessee’s newly enacted bathroom measure, school officials can be sued for allowing a transgender person into a bathroom or locker room when others are present. Yet another law in Florida allows students to sue schools that allow transgender girls to play on girls’ sports teams.
In a recent paper, coauthored with David Noll, Michaels describes the GOP’s new penchant for “white-collar vigilantism” in which private individuals are empowered and even encouraged to go after teachers, neighbors, and colleagues, propping up the “grievance industrial complex” that drives right-wing media. And while the views of the aggrieved may reflect minority positions—polls have found, for example, that parents overwhelmingly believe that schools should teach about slavery and racism as part of American history—outrage carries the day, and increasingly dictates policy, says Michaels.
The anti-CRT laws, intimidating in their very vagueness, prime parents to surveil their kids’ instructors in a way that’s really unhealthy, says Michaels. “The assumption here is that teachers are acting in bad faith, that they’re trying to indoctrinate your kid.“
Codes of misconduct
In North Carolina, a bill that would have banned public schools from promoting 13 concepts, including that the US government should be violently overthrown, didn’t survive a veto by Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Now county school boards are rushing to adopt identical language in employee codes of conduct. Three North Carolina counties have newly amended their employment rules to explicitly ban teachers from discussing systemic racism or sexism. Union County, southwest of Charlotte, recently voted to require teachers to promote various concepts related to race and sex, such as the idea that “the United States was not created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”
In Johnston County, teachers can now be disciplined or fired if they teach that American historical figures weren’t heroes or “undermine foundational documents,” including the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. The Johnson County School Board enacted the harsh language after county commissioners threatened to withhold nearly $8 million in school funding unless CRT was banned from local schools.
April Jones Lee, a middle school math and history teacher and the president of Johnston County Association of Educators, says that parents are being encouraged to accuse teachers of indoctrinating their students. “Anybody can make claims without a whole lot to back it up. We have parents who see teaching truth as indoctrination. If they say ‘I’m not happy with what my child’s teacher is teaching. They’re indoctrinating,’ that’s grounds for an investigation.’ Teachers who find themselves the target of a parent complaint can be suspended without pay while an investigation is conducted.
Like many areas where education culture wars are raging, Johnston County has been growing—and growing steadily more diverse. A flood of new residents has brought diversity and Democrats to this once solidly red county southeast of Raleigh. Lee, whose own family roots here date back nine generations, says demographic change is spurring the backlash that now threatens to consume the county’s schools.
“This is about using anger politics to create issues that are not really issues,” says Lee, who was a registered Republican for 25 years. “The world is changing and the way we teach history and social studies is changing to reflect that world. I think some people are scared of that.”