Freedom of speech is under attack in public schools, U.S. House panel told
Students and teachers told U.S. House members during a Thursday hearing that their right to talk about race and LGBTQ+ issues in public schools is being silenced due to an onslaught of new state laws as well as pressure on school boards from right-wing advocates.
"To be crystal clear, this is about disrupting and destroying public education," James Whitfield, a former principal in Texas and one of the witnesses, told lawmakers.
The House Oversight and Reform Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee held the hearing to examine the impact of new state laws that bar educators from discussing American history, race and LGBTQ+ issues in K-12 public classrooms.
Florida recently passed a "Don't Say Gay" bill that prohibits discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in public classrooms in kindergarten through third grade and allows it only when age-appropriate among older kids. One of the witnesses, Jennifer Cousins, a mother from Orlando, said the legislation would mean her children would be prevented from speaking about their older sibling, who is nonbinary, in the classroom.
"Laws like Florida's officially named 'Parental Rights in Education' seek to erase (LGBTQ+ people's) existence for our youngest of children, who by nature are already more open to learning about diversity and accepting one another despite their differences, and definitely deny parents like me a safe learning environment for my children," Cousins said.
Teenagers from Texas, Michigan and Ohio told House lawmakers that the constant attacks from right-wing advocacy groups and lack of support from school administrative officials are taking a toll on their mental health and affecting their education.
"Teachers are being vilified," Elle Caldon of Dallas County, Texas, said.
She told a story about how stickers supporting LGBTQ+ pride, showing rainbows or flags, were scraped off classroom doors in her school without an explanation. When Caldon's teacher pushed school officials to give a reasoning, her contract was not renewed, Caldon said.
States limit discussions of race
An analysis by Education Week found that, since January 2021, 42 states have introduced legislation or other measures to restrict the teachings of critical race theory, or discussion of race and sexism in the classroom.
Arizona lawmakers are considering two similar proposals: one that would change state law to ban critical race theory, the other that would ask voters to amend the state constitution to do so. Both have passed the state House of Representatives with only Republican support and are awaiting consideration by the full Senate.
Critical race theory is not taught at the K-12 level, but Republicans at the state, local and federal level have drummed up the false narrative that children are being taught an academic theory – that is meant to study how race intersects with the legal field — in the classroom. For conservatives, the term has become a catchall term for various race-related teachings, including instruction on "white privilege" and "anti-racism" curriculum. Critics argue that white students are being taught they're inherently racist or oppressive, or that they collectively bear responsibility for racist acts of other white people.
Claire Mengel of Hamilton County, Ohio, told House members about how their school's Diversity Day was canceled, an optional event where students, who need to get parental permission to attend, could listen to speakers from different cultures and backgrounds.
Mengel said they and their classmates soon discovered that the newest school board members ran on a platform opposed to critical race theory and canceled the event.
"Our event is not about CRT, our event is about diversity," they said. "The school board brought politics into our schools when they attacked our event. Their actions have harmed our education, our mental health, and our community."
Krisha Ramani of Oakland County, Michigan, pointed to the recent book bans across the country and argued that young people like herself have the capacity to talk, debate and hold tough conversations.
"For the parents of those who may disagree with these various perspectives, banning books for all students infringes on their own right to hold conversations about the social landscape," she said.
Second congressional hearing
This is the second of the subcommittee's hearings on attacks on freedom of speech. In early April, the panel examined why thousands of books, predominantly written by marginalized authors, have been banned from public schools, and the impact of those actions on students and teachers.
"The classroom censorship laws being passed and proposed are the hallmark of authoritarian regimes — removing anything from the public sphere that does not comport with a strict party-line and then demonizing it," Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and the chair of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee, said in his opening remarks on Thursday.
Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America, said her organization has tracked books that have been banned in classrooms and in libraries since 2021. PEN America is an organization that advocates for the freedom of speech.
She said there is a "wave of censorship that is engulfing our classrooms."
Nossel said a report by PEN America found from July 2021 to the end of March this year, more than 1,500 books were banned in 86 school districts in 26 states.
The witness tapped by Republicans, Virginia Gentles of the Independent Women's Forum, argued that parents should have the choice to not send their children to public school and should be provided with vouchers to send their children to private institutions that have a curriculum with which they agree.
Gentles is the director of the Education Freedom Center at IWF, a right-wing public policy group that is backed by the Koch brothers.
Whitfield said that type of rhetoric is "a ploy to divert public school dollars to subsidize private education in the name of 'choice.'"
"Educators who pour their heart and soul into the growth and development of young people have been placed squarely in the crosshairs of political groups who are determined to destroy public education," he said.
Whitfield, who is Black, had to resign from his job after he was accused of promoting critical race theory due to a letter he wrote to students about the summer protests of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. He was the school's first Black principal.
Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, the top Republican on the panel, said she felt state and local governments should be able to make their own decisions about classroom curriculum and that students should be focused on education and not difficult topics such as race. .
"Our children's innocence should be protected and prioritized," she said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.