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Teachers sue over Tennessee law restricting what they can teach about race, gender, and bias

Students raise their hands in a classroom with a bulletin board that says “American History.”

In Tennessee and other mostly conservative states across the nation, new laws targeting critical race theory are influencing the small but pivotal decisions educators make every day.

Jonathan Kirn / Getty Images

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Tennessee’s largest teacher organization has joined with five public school educators to legally challenge a 2-year-old state law restricting what they can teach about race, gender, and bias in their classrooms.

Their lawsuit, which was filed late Tuesday in a federal court in Nashville by lawyers for the Tennessee Education Association, maintains the language in the 2021 law is unconstitutionally vague and that the state’s enforcement plan is subjective. 

The complaint also charges that Tennessee’s so-called “prohibited concepts” law interferes with instruction on difficult but important topics included in the state’s academic standards. Those standards outline state-approved learning goals, which dictate other decisions around curriculum and testing.

The lawsuit is the first legal challenge to the controversial state law that was among the first of its kind in the nation. The law passed amid a conservative backlash to America’s reckoning over racism after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis and subsequent anti-racist protests.

TN Prohibited Concepts Lawsuit Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs in TEA lawsuit challenging Tennessee prohibited concepts law

Rebecca Dickenson, librarian, Eagleton Elementary School, Blount County Schools

Mary McIntosh, recently retired social studies teacher, Central High School, Memphis-Shelby County Schools

Michael Stein, English teacher, Coffee County Central High School, Coffee County Schools

Kathryn Vaughn, visual arts teacher, Brighton Elementary School, Tipton County Schools

Roland Wilson, music teacher and choir director, Central High School, Memphis-Shelby County Schools

Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge, one of the Republican sponsors of the legislation, argued the law was needed to protect K-12 students from being “indoctrinated” with social concepts that he and other lawmakers considered misguided and divisive such as critical race theory. That academic framework, which surveys of teachers suggest are not being taught in K-12 schools, is more commonly found in higher education to examine how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism.

Tennessee’s GOP-controlled legislature overwhelmingly passed the legislation in the final days of their 2021 session, just days after the bill’s introduction. Gov. Bill Lee quickly signed it into law, and later that year, the state education department set rules for enforcement. If found in violation, teachers can be stripped of their licenses and school districts can lose state funding.

Only a small number of complaints have been filed and no penalties levied during the law’s first two years on the books. But Ragan has introduced new legislation that would widen eligibility for who can file a complaint.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn the law and asks for a court order against its enforcement. 

The complaint claims the statute fails to give Tennessee educators a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct and teachings are prohibited.

“Teachers are in this gray area where we don’t know what we can and can’t do or say in our classrooms,” said Kathryn Vaughn, a veteran teacher in Tipton County, near Memphis, and one of five educators who are plaintiffs in the case.

“The rollout of the law — from guidance to training — has been almost nonexistent,” Vaughn added. “That’s put educators in an impossible position.”

The lawsuit also charges the law encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement and violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids any state from “depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

“Laws need to be clear,” said Tanya Coats, president of the teachers group known as TEA, which is leading the litigation.

She said educators have spent “countless hours” trying to understand the law and the 14 concepts banned from the classroom — including that the United States is “fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;” or that an individual, by virtue of their race or sex, “bears responsibility” for past actions committed by other members of the same race or sex.

TEA says the ambiguity of those concepts has had a chilling effect in schools — from how teachers answer a student’s question to what materials they read in class. To avoid the risk of time-consuming complaints and potential penalties from the state, school leaders have made changes to instruction and school activities. But ultimately, it’s students who suffer, Coats said.

“This law interferes with Tennessee teachers’ job to provide a fact-based, well-rounded education to their students,” Coats said in a news release.

The 52-page lawsuit gives specific examples of how the ban is affecting what nearly a million public school students are learning — and not learning — daily across Tennessee.

“In Tipton County, for example, one school has replaced an annual field trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis with a trip to a baseball game. In Shelby County, a choir director fears that his decades-long practice of teaching his students to sing and understand the history behind spirituals sung by enslaved people will be perceived as ‘divisive’ or otherwise violative of the Ban,” the suit says. Other districts have removed books from their curriculum as a result of the law.

The governor’s office typically does not comment on pending litigation, but Lee’s press secretary, Jade Byers, provided this statement on Wednesday in response to the lawsuit: “The governor signed the legislation because every parent deserves transparency into their child’s education, and Tennessee students should be taught history and civics with facts, not divisive political commentary.”

Tennessee targeted anti-CRT policies early

Tennessee was among the first states to pass a law limiting the depth of classroom discussions about inequality and concepts such as white privilege.

In March, Tennessee’s education department reported that few complaints had been filed with local school districts based on the law. And the department had received only a few appeals of local decisions.

One was from the parent of a student enrolled in a private school in Davidson County. Because the law does not apply to private schools, the department found that the parent did not have standing to file an appeal under the law.

Another complaint was filed by a Blount County parent over the book “Dragonwings,” a novel told from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant boy in the early 20th century. The state denied the appeal based on the results of its investigation. 

However, Blount County Schools still removed the book from its sixth grade curriculum. And the lawsuit described the emotional toll of the proceedings on a 45-year teaching veteran who was “entangled in months of administrative proceedings, with her job on the line, because of a single parent’s complaint about an award-winning work of young adult literature that the Tennessee Department of Education approved and the local elected school board adopted as part of the district’s curriculum.”

The department also declined to investigate a complaint from Williamson County, south of Nashville, filed soon after the law was enacted. Robin Steenman, chair of the local Moms for Liberty chapter, alleged the literacy curriculum “Wit and Wisdom,” used by Williamson County Schools in 2020-21, has a “heavily biased agenda” that makes children “hate their country, each other and/or themselves.”

A spokesman said the department was only authorized to investigate claims beginning with the 2021-22 school year and encouraged Steenman to work with Williamson County Schools to resolve her concerns.

Department officials did not immediately respond Wednesday when asked whether the state has received more appeals in recent months.

Meanwhile, critics of the law worry about new legislative efforts to broaden its application. 

Under the state’s current rules, only students, parents, or employees within a district or charter school can file complaints involving their school. Ragan’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, would allow any resident within a public school zone to file a complaint.

But critics argue such a change would open the door to conservative groups, like Moms for Liberty, to flood their local school boards with complaints about instruction, books, or materials they believe violate the law, even if they do not have direct contact with the teacher or school in question.

The prohibited concepts law is separate from 2022 Tennessee law that, based on appeals of local school board decisions, empowers a state panel to ban school library books statewide if deemed “inappropriate for the age or maturity levels” of students.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from the governor’s office and one of the plaintiffs.

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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