Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said teachers deserve clarity about a controversial new Tennessee law limiting what they can teach about racism and inequality, and she promises to deliver guidance by Aug. 1.
The guidance also will outline the state education department’s process for evaluating complaints filed with her office and levying financial penalties against districts whose teachers cross the line, Schwinn said.
In an interview Wednesday with Chalkbeat, Schwinn spoke publicly for the first time about the law she is required to enforce when the 2021-22 school year begins.
“My job is to implement the bills as they are passed by the General Assembly,” she said. “I think what teachers deserve more than anything is to understand what is expected of them and certainly any parameters that are in place.”
The law says “the commissioner shall withhold state funds, in an amount determined by the commissioner” if a public school district or charter school “knowingly violates” the ban on teaching or promoting 14 concepts that the legislature viewed as divisive, cynical, or misguided. (See section 51 of the law.)
The concepts include elements of critical race theory, an academic framework that explores how race and racism influence American law, culture, business, and politics. Banning them would restrict classroom conversations about white privilege, institutional racism, and racial bias.
The GOP-controlled legislature passed the ban along partisan lines last month on the final day of its legislative session, and Gov. Bill Lee signed the measure into law on May 24.
Schwinn said her department’s legal team has been collaborating with the state attorney general’s office to prepare guidance for educators. She plans to seek feedback on the first draft from a group of superintendents, lawmakers, and members of the public before making revisions and publishing a document by Aug. 1.
The commissioner made clear that the state will provide guidance — not training — on how to comply. Any training and professional development must come at the district level.
Dale Lynch, who leads the state superintendents organization, said school leaders will have to work quickly to ensure teachers understand the new parameters.
Most Tennessee school systems start their academic year in August, preceded by teacher training on new state or federal policies affecting them. Adding to the challenge, district leaders will have just wrapped up expanded summer learning programs and then face deadlines in August to submit plans for spending their federal coronavirus relief funds.
“It is definitely a very tight timeline,” Lynch said of receiving the guidance as late as Aug. 1.
“Superintendents across the state have got to lean on the department to help us understand how to follow the letter of this law,” he said. “The earlier that we can get this type of information, the better training that we’ll be able to provide to our teachers.”
But Schwinn said she won’t rush guidance on “this incredibly sensitive topic.”
“We recognize that this is something that needs to be treated with care and sensitivity,” she said. “We are working closely with counsel to ensure we are fully compliant with the law and also taking into account a representative group of voices because this process needs to be transparent.”
She added: “What is very important to me is that I do not want this to be a subjective process. I don’t want this to be a process where it was not clear on the front end what the expectations are.”
Rep. John Ragan, the Oak Ridge Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said educators who object to the new law must still comply with it.
Some teachers have said on social media and in news reports that they planned to ignore the ban, but Ragan cites Tennessee’s teacher code of ethics, which says educators must abide by all applicable federal and state laws.
“Those teachers who have announced they will not follow this law have announced that they’re intending to violate their own code of ethics,” Ragan told Chalkbeat recently. “I personally find that unacceptable.”
“I certainly respect the opinion of teachers,” he added, “but I will not respect an avowed intention to disobey the law.”