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When Wyatt Bassow and Ava Buxton missed classes one morning this spring to see democracy in action in Tennessee, they witnessed history that they acknowledged probably wouldn’t be fully taught at their high school less than a mile away.
Justin Pearson, one of two young Democratic lawmakers who were dramatically expelled from office just a week earlier by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, was taking his oath of office again that day outside the state Capitol in Nashville after being voted back in by officials in Shelby County.
A few days earlier, Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville had been reinstated after a similar vote by his city’s council.
Both men had been ousted from the legislature for staging a protest on the House floor urging gun reforms after a mass school shooting in Nashville. The votes temporarily robbed some 140,000 Tennesseans in the state’s two largest cities of their representation.
“What I’ve learned these last few weeks is that democracy is incredibly fragile,” said Bassow, a senior at Nashville’s Hume-Fogg High School, as he cheered Pearson’s reinstatement in the shadow of the Capitol building.
“But because of the power of the people,” he added, “we were able to fix this.”
Less certain, the students said, is whether the controversial ouster of the two young Black Democrats by the House’s all-white GOP supermajority would be fully discussed at their school, or any public Tennessee school, as part of a course in U.S. government, civics, history, contemporary issues, or social studies.
While Republican leaders maintain the ouster was not racially motivated, the racial optics were undeniable, as was the supermajority’s suppression of legislative voices with whom they disagreed.
Meanwhile, Tennessee is at the front of a conservative-driven wave of censorship about what can and cannot be taught in K-12 schools.
A 2021 state law restricts classroom discussions about systemic racism, white privilege, and the ongoing legacy of slavery. Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who signed the law, has championed civics education that emphasizes American exceptionalism and plays down the origins of present-day U.S. injustices.
School libraries are under scrutiny too, especially for materials that have to do with race and gender. A 2022 law gives the state unprecedented authority to overrule local school boards and remove certain materials from libraries statewide. And a 2023 law puts book distributors and publishers at risk of criminal prosecution if materials they provide to Tennessee schools are deemed obscene.
“We definitely have noticed that a silencing is happening in our schools.” —Ava Buxton, student
“We definitely have noticed that a silencing is happening in our schools,” said Buxton, also a senior at Hume-Fogg, when asked whether the expulsions of Jones and Pearson had been discussed in her classes.
“Thankfully, our teachers are wonderful and intelligent educators who do their best to give students the space we need to have important conversations,” she continued. “But I think these conversations would go much deeper if our teachers didn’t have the fear of these new laws hanging over them.”
The rise, fall, and rise of the Tennessee Three
The expulsions of the two Black lawmakers came during the dramatic last weeks of a tumultuous legislative session gripped by large citizen protests over Tennessee’s lax gun laws, after an armed intruder killed three children and three adults at The Covenant School in Nashville on March 27.
Frustrated that House Speaker Cameron Sexton was not allowing them to voice the concerns of demonstrators during debates, Pearson, Jones, and Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville took their protest to the House floor, where Jones and Pearson alternately used a bullhorn to shout “Gun control now!” and “Power to the people!”
In the process, the trio broke the chamber’s rules of decorum. GOP-sponsored ouster resolutions accused the so-called Tennessee Three of “knowingly and intentionally bringing disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives.”
Ultimately, Republican representatives voted overwhelmingly to kick out the two young Black men, while Johnson, who is older and white and was less vocal during the protest, kept her seat by a single vote.
The last time the House had expelled multiple members was in 1866, when six representatives were thrown out for conspiring to deprive the chamber of a quorum during a special session to ratify the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Two others have been expelled in more recent times, one for soliciting a bribe, and the other for sexual misconduct.
By contrast, the ousters of Jones and Pearson over their peaceful protest of gun violence — now the No. 1 killer of children and teens in America — seemed heavy-handed to their supporters. The House could have chosen simply to censure them for breaking House rules of decorum instead of kicking them out altogether.
Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson are continuing their quest to represent voters in Nashville and Memphis when the legislature reconvenes in January. While they returned temporarily to their legislative seats through local appointment, both face contested special elections this summer that are costing taxpayers an estimated $500,000. Both won their primary races on Thursday. The general election is on Aug. 3.
In a subsequent four-page rebuke, the nation’s professional organization for social studies teachers denounced Tennessee’s House as attacking foundational principles of democratic and republican norms. Intentionally or not, the state was sending Tennessee students a message that the rights to free speech, peaceful protest, and holding their elected officials accountable are “reserved for those who have a specific view or perspective,” the National Council for the Social Studies wrote.
“Just as disturbing,” the group continued, “this action sends a message to the larger community that civil discourse and active citizenship will result in punishment rather than in finding consensus in ways that uphold the principles of democracy and the functioning of our republic … (which) will have a long-term impact on our students’ faith in the democratic process and our constitutional principles.”
Tennessee’s living history drama was filled with teachable moments
Political science and social studies experts say it’s hard to narrow down the events in Tennessee this spring to one teachable moment.
Tens of thousands of citizens descending on the Capitol to protest gun violence after a school shooting and the subsequent expulsions and reinstatements of Jones and Pearson are rich runways for academic inquiry. Among the issues: freedom of speech, legislative rules of decorum, the enduring influence of racism on public policy, and — as Bassow, the Nashville student, articulated — the fragility of democracy.
John Geer, a political science professor who helped to launch the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, heartily agrees with Bassow.
“The teachable moment is that democracy fundamentally rests on genuine competition among political parties,” said Geer. “But because of supermajorities in our state legislatures, the minority party has no real influence and is left to scream or complain. They’re not part of the governing process. There’s no give and take, no compromise. Meanwhile, the majority party has so much power that they don’t need to negotiate, and that leads to excesses.”
It didn’t take long for resources to become available to help teachers broach the controversies in Tennessee as well as in Montana, where that state’s House speaker silenced Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender lawmaker who refused to apologize for telling colleagues they would have “blood” on their hands if they supported a ban on gender-affirming care for youths.
Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit group that creates resources about current events to spawn thoughtful classroom discussions, zeroed in on two issues in its lessons: how to discuss politics in non-polarizing ways and the implications of using rules of decorum to censure legislators.
“What norms should guide our conversations about political issues?” asks the group’s lessons designed for middle and high school students.
“How could rules around speech be used to silence people?”
Parameters have narrowed on what teachers can teach
The availability of resources doesn’t mean such questions are being regularly asked in Tennessee classrooms, however.
The state’s public school teachers don’t have much wiggle room on what they’re allowed to teach. They’re also under increased scrutiny over the resources they can use.
“Tennessee civics is really nowhere in the standards. If something isn’t in the standards, it’s probably not going to be taught.” —Bill Carey, Tennessee History for Kids
Teachers are guided by hundreds of state-approved academic standards that set learning goals by subject and grade, and that dictate decisions around curriculum and testing. And social studies teachers already are hard-pressed to cover all of the standards for their subjects during a single school year. Even if they do, only a few courses offered in grades five, eight, and 12 include standards that might lend themselves to discussions about the Tennessee Three.
“Tennessee civics is really nowhere in the standards,” said Bill Carey, who sells resources for educators through his nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids. “And if something isn’t in the standards, it’s probably not going to be taught.”
Social studies lessons, in particular, are monitored closely by parents and activists.
In 2015, some complained that some Tennessee teachers were “indoctrinating” students into Islam in their seventh-grade world history classes, prompting state officials to order an early review of those standards.
More recently, amid a conservative backlash to anti-racism protests after a white policeman killed Black American George Floyd in Minneapolis (an incident that prompted a federal investigation into systemic racism on the police force), Tennessee was among the first states to enact a law intended to restrict K-12 classroom discussions about race, racism, and gender.
Specifically, the 2021 law prohibits teachers from discussing 14 concepts that the state has deemed divisive, including that the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably sexist or racist, or that an individual is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive because of their race or gender.
Educators have complained that the law and the state’s rules for enforcing the statute aren’t clear about exactly what teachings cross the line. But teachers found in violation could have their licenses suspended or revoked, while their school districts could face financial penalties.
“To be honest, I just didn’t mention this in class. I am just overly cautious with what I cover in class for now.” —Tennessee social studies teacher
The potential fallout has influenced small but pivotal decisions that educators make every day in Tennessee and in other states that have passed similar laws targeting so-called critical race theory: how to answer a student’s question, which articles to read as a class, how to prepare for a lesson, which examples to use.
That includes whether to discuss the Tennessee legislature’s vote to expel Jones and Pearson, which made national headlines.
“To be honest, I just didn’t mention this in class,” said one Tennessee social studies teacher who asked not to be identified, for fear of retribution. “I am just overly cautious with what I cover in class for now.”
Students ‘come up with all these great questions’
Mark Finchum, executive director of the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies, says the law — and a related climate of fear — has had a chilling effect on teachers who might normally contemplate lessons about the Tennessee Three, or perhaps about the insurrection at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. But it also depends on the teacher.
“If you’re a new teacher who is teaching in an area of the state where you feel insecure, you may not want to go there,” Finchum said. “But if you’re an experienced teacher and feel strongly about these events and how your students can learn from them, you may go ahead.”
Erika Sugarmon falls in the latter category.
One Friday at White Station High School in Memphis, students showed up to Sugarmon’s weekly current events discussion with lots of questions about the expulsion. The day before the legislative vote, many White Station students had walked out of school to show support for gun reforms called for by the Tennessee Three.
“The kids come up with all these great questions. Sometimes there’s not an answer,” said Sugarmon, a veteran educator who teaches courses in U.S. government.
But it’s important to give students a safe and constructive space to discuss hard things, added Sugarmon, who is also an elected official on the Shelby County Commission, where she cast a vote to reinstate Pearson to his seat.
One student in her class brought up racism, she said, prompting a conversation about why Tennessee lawmakers have sought to ban some books and squelch classroom discussions about racism.
“Students have been very vocal about not just what happened with Pearson, but with state laws in general,” said Sugarmon.
She encourages them to explore source documents to formulate their own options.
Evidence-based discussions are the way that teachers should take up politically charged topics with their students, Vanderbilt’s Geer said.
“The evidence should be your guidepost,” he said, “while avoiding injecting ideology into the classroom.”
“Yes, facts need to be interpreted,” Geer added. “But if we can agree on a basic set of evidence, we can have a conversation. And that’s an important part of democracy.”
Maya Logan, a rising senior in Memphis at Germantown High School, talked about the lawmakers’ expulsions with her friends, but didn’t discuss the event as part of her 11th-grade American history class. Just the same, the deadly shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School, which prompted the protest and led to the expulsions, was a big deal to her. And as a young Black person, she related to Pearson and Jones, who are among the youngest members of the House.
Logan hopes this year’s events at the state Capitol will resurface as discussion topics during her senior year when she takes a U.S. government class. She has important questions. And she’s looking for answers.
“These are people,” she explained, “that are setting things up for us for our futures.”
Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Testino is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Contact her at email@example.com.