The fight over critical race theory lands in Harrisburg; House GOP bill would punish districts that teach it | Thursday Morning Coffee

May 27, 2021 7:17 am

Image via WikiMedia Commons)

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

The nationwide fight over the teaching of ‘critical race theory,’ has landed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, throwing another log on a culture war fire that’s already seen the Republican-controlled chamber advance bills limiting abortion rights and expanding gun rights, even as some lawmakers seek to ban transgender youth athletes from participating in sports that correspond with their gender.

Reps. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, and Barbara Gleim, R-Cumberland (the prime sponsor of that transgender athlete bill), began seeking co-sponsors for their proposal to “[curtail] the divisive nature of concepts more commonly known as ‘critical race theory,'” on May 21, arguing that “teaching our children that they are inferior or inherently bad based on immutable characteristics such as race and sex can be extremely damaging to their emotional and mental well-being.”

Only a niche term a year ago, the fight over critical race theory, which scholars view as an overdue attempt to educate public school students on how racial disparities are embedded in U.S history and society, has become the latest bete noire of the right, with conservatives arguing that teachers are trying to inject race into what should be a colorblind system, the Washington Post reported on May 3.

Diamond’s and Gleim’s ‘Dear Colleague‘ memo echoes that contention, arguing that “our schools should be teaching that every individual is equal under the law and that no individual should ever be labeled superior or inferior simply due to their race or genetic makeup, nor be held responsible for actions taken by others with similar traits.

Such teachings, the lawmakers contended “interfere with our constitutional duty to support and maintain a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

Writing in the Washington Post on Wednesday, one expert said such bills are not only chilling, they also are unconstitutional at the college level, where debates over critical race theory traditionally and predominantly take place.

“These laws are both misguided and unconstitutional; they constitute bad educational policy, and in the higher education context, they violate the First Amendment,” Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr., a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, wrote. “At a time when we desperately need to have more frank and open conversations about race, class, social justice and the concept of ‘the other,’ they hamstring educators charged with preparing young people to live and work in an increasingly diverse society.”

But, “as applied to public K-12 schools, these laws might survive judicial review, because states enjoy broad constitutional authority over the curriculum,” Krotoszynski added.

(adobe.stock, via NCPolicyWatch)

As our National Correspondent Dan Vock recently reported, such efforts have proliferated nationwide as GOP lawmakers have succeeded in pushing it to the top of state legislative agendas.Governors in Idaho and Oklahoma have already signed measures to forbid the teaching of critical race theory in schools this year. Arkansas’ Republican governor let a similar measure become law without his signature, while proposals in Iowa and Tennessee are waiting for their governors’ approval, Vock reported for our sibling siteNorth Carolina Policy Watch.

Lawmakers in North Carolina, Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and other states have waded into the debate, as well, although some of those efforts have failed.

A group of Republican attorneys general from 20 states this week sent the Biden administration a 10-page letter chastising federal officials for using two grant programs as “a thinly veiled attempt at bringing into our states’ classrooms the deeply flawed and controversial teachings of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project.”

And as Vock reports, conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which provides right-wing lawmakers with what’s known as ‘model legislation’ that they can use in their own states, also have stepped up pressure on conservative state lawmakers to rein in the teaching of critical race theory.

Particularly at the state level, the focus has primarily been on schools. Pending legislation in North Carolina, for instance, would prohibit teachers from promoting concepts that suggest America is racist or that people are inherently racist or sexist.

It would also prohibit teaching that whites or anyone else is responsible for the sins of their forefathers. In Tennessee, for example, a bill passed by the legislature would prohibit local school districts or charter schools from teaching or including materials that “promote or include” 14 different concepts. If schools don’t comply, they could lose state funding. The exact amount would be up to the state’s education commissioner, Vock reported.

State Rep. Russ DIamond, R-Lebanon (Facebook)

A draft version of Diamond’s and Gleim’s bill, which is attached to their co-sponsorship memo, contains a similar provision, ordering the loss of funds not only for the current fiscal year, but for the next one as well for districts that run afoul of their proposal.

Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, a group that represents social studies teachers, told Vock that he worries about the amount of control lawmakers are trying to exert over teachers’ classrooms.

“This goes against what we know good instructional practice to be,” he told Vock. “We’re a little baffled at the idea that we’re going to legislate away certain types of freedoms and responsibilities that teachers have.”

“We’re concerned with this notion of … limiting discussion about things like racism, sexism and discrimination, that we can’t talk about those things. That’s both against what we do in social education but more importantly, it’s against the very definition of First Amendment freedoms and academic freedom for both teachers and students,” Paska added.

Paska said the goal of teaching the faults of the country is to help make students better citizens, not to shame them.

“I don’t know an educator who thinks, ‘My job at the end of the day is to shame a student, is to shame a child, into feeling anything less than their full potential,’” he told Vock.

State Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia (Image

That the bills are coming at a time of heightened awareness of racial and class disparities laid bare by the pandemic is hardly coincidental.

And one Black lawmaker says he believes it’s a “dereliction of duty” for the Legislature to waste time — and the taxpayers’ money — on distractions at a time when so many are in need.

“Critical Race Theory is not taught in k-12 schools. It’s an analytical approach to understanding inequality and how the law might address persistent inequalities,” Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, told the Capital-Star.

“It is taught in some law schools and graduate schools of education. All across the country peddlers of racial division are spreading misinformation to justify creating a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist,” Rabb continued. “What does exist is structural inequality and deep racial disparities. Analyzing their root causes is not controversial. Continuing to deny racial justice, however, is nothing less than cowardly and reckless.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
A proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed childhood survivors of sexual abuse to file expanded claims in civil court was held up due ‘systemic failures’ at Dept. of State, a report by the state Office of Inspector General concludes. Stephen Caruso and Marley Parish have the details.

Potentially upsetting decades of precedent that has aided rural, white Pennsylvanians at the expense of Black, urban residents, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, has called for state legislators to change how they count prisoners during redistricting, Stephen Caruso also reports.

Honoring calls for transparency, a state Senate committee held its first public hearing on the decennial redrawing of Pennsylvania’s congressional map, Marley Parish also reports.

Heading for a national park this summer? You’ll be headed into the busiest season in historyU.S. Park Service officials told a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday, National Correspondent Jacob Fischler reports.

Members of Philadelphia City Council are demanding more transparency from Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration over errors in the city’s payroll system, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a USC-Dornsife expert says sending science majors into elementary schools helps Latino and Black students realize scientists can look like them. And frequent contributor Jonathan C. Rothermel, of Mansfield University, suggests a common sense bit of election reform: Moving Election Day to the weekend so that more people can participate.

Row home facades on a residential street off Germantown Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Philadelphia Housing Authority has received an ‘unprecedented’ $10 million in federal vouchers specifically to help people experiencing homelessness in the city, the Inquirer reports.
More than 70 percent of Pennsylvania adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Tribune-Review reports.
A new state law updates the requirements for a CDL license, PennLive reports.
LancasterOnline caught up with Gov. Tom Wolf, who traveled to Lancaster County on Wednesday to push a minimum wage increase.
The state has dropped its lawsuit against restaurants accused of defying pandemic shutdown orders — including four in the Lehigh Valley, the Morning Call reports.
NEPA Dems pushed the Biden administration’s American Families Plan during an event on Wednesday, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day.


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WHYY-FM’s Layla A. Jones reflects on how reporting while Black during a summer of uprisings changed her and her colleagues.
WITF-FM looks at the debate over the Wolf administration’s plan to use a horse racing subsidy to fund higher education.
The 2022 Pa. governor’s race is a toss-up
, according to the Cook Political Report (via PoliticsPA). explains how the pandemic has highlighted the dangers of nursing home understaffing.
Conservatives are now complaining about … wait for it … ‘left-wing extremism’ in the U.S. military, Talking Points Memo reports.

What Goes On.
The House and Senate are off today. But here’s a look at the day’s committee action.
10:30 a.m., Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, Pittsburgh: Senate Community, Economic & Recreational Development Committee
11 a.m., 515 Irvis North: House Labor & Industry Committee, Subcomittee on Workers Compensation and Worker Protection
1:45 p.m., 515 Irvis North: House Labor & Industry Committee (continued from above)

Gov. Tom Wolf
 heads to Montgomery County for a 2 p.m. event with Attorney General Josh Shapiro and members of the Legislature’s Women’s Health Caucus, where they’ll discuss a series of crashingly awful anti-abortion rights bills that were reported out of the House Health Committee earlier this week.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to WRVV-FM Harrisburg radio host Glenn Hamilton, who completes another trip around the sun today. Congratulations, sir. Enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s some more new music from Liz Phair. From her upcoming LP ‘Sober-ish,’  it’s ‘In There.’

Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
The New York Islanders eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night, winning 5-3 in Game 6 of their first round playoff series.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.