ALL Students Deserve a "Positive Learning Environment"
A letter to the SC Senate Education Committee on the latest censorship bill
The following is written testimony I sent to the South Carolina Senate Education Committee concerning SC’s newest censorship/ “don’t say gay” bill, H. 3728. If you are a South Carolina citizen, please urge the committee members to vote NO on H. 3728 by attending in person (Wednesday, March 14, 9:00 AM in Gressette Room 308 on the State House grounds) or by emailing the committee members at email@example.com. You can also find a form letter or submit your testimony here, from ProTruth SC.
Updated to add: I haven't been able to follow the committee meeting today (3/15), but evidently there were so many speakers that the committee adjourned without a vote and will have another meeting on the bill in the near future. It sounds like a preponderance of speakers were representatives of groups like Moms for Liberty, so I hope opponents of the bill will be able to attend future sessions and contact committee members. Second update: 3/29. The committee is meeting again today at 9:30 to discuss the bill. Here is the agenda. South Carolina teachers and students need your help. If you live in the state, please consider signing this petition to protect students’ Freedom to Learn.
Members of the Senate Education Committee,
This is my sixteenth year as a South Carolina public school English teacher. One of the most important goals of my teaching career has been to create a classroom environment where all students can learn, where all students feel respected, and where all students feel they can learn about literature and about themselves. I take my obligation to present a variety of perspectives, and to avoid pressuring students to adopt my own perspective, very seriously.
And I am writing to urge you to vote NO on H. 3728, not in spite of that obligation, but because of it.
While I agree with the stated intent of the bill, and specifically with the intention that “all students learn in a positive learning environment where they are made to feel welcomed, supported, respected, and free from discrimination,” I do not believe that other language included in the bill is compatible with this stated intent.
For example, the list of “concepts” prohibited in the bill is the same as the list of concepts (also sometimes referenced as “tenets”) listed in Budget Proviso 1.93. Language from this Proviso, which is partly identical to a Heritage Foundation model bill, was originally intended to prevent the requirement that federal employees attend certain diversity trainings. It has nothing inherently to do with schools. And yet the South Carolina Freedom Caucus used this language as the basis for a frivolous lawsuit against Lexington School District One. Codifying the language in law will only make such frivolous lawsuits, which waste taxpayer money and interfere with the democratic process by which elected school boards make content and curricular decisions, more likely.
More importantly, this bill comes at a pivotal time for our state, when we are seeing historic difficulties in attracting and retaining teachers and other school staff, with a 39% increase in teacher vacancies reported this year, according to CERRA. While some of the sponsors of the bill have often bemoaned the “red tape and bureaucracy” inherent in the school system (and they certainly have a point there), H. 3728 creates a mountain of new red tape and paperwork that will likely lead to even more concentration of funding in district offices, and will stretch many stressed-out teachers and school administrators to the breaking point.
For example, the bill requires districts and schools to post “information regarding curriculum and instructional materials on the school district website at least seven days prior to the start of classes”. Because the phrase “curriculum and instructional materials” is not adequately defined in the bill, this creates the danger that all readings, assignments, lesson plans, unit plans, and other materials will have to be posted before a class begins. This will be difficult for many subject areas, but will in particular make any discussion of ongoing current events all but impossible. Indeed, this seems to be the goal of some of the original authors of the bill and the model legislation from which much of it is copied.
But South Carolina has an obligation to students to give them a 21st century education, and indeed the Supreme Court has frequently upheld students’ “right to receive information”. We can’t do that without being flexible enough to connect learning to real-world current events, and without being able to add or change readings and assignments to meet the needs of specific classes.
Perhaps most ominously, H. 3728 censors extremely broad topics like “gender roles” (“student, administrator, teacher, staff member, other school or district employee, or volunteer shall not be required to attend any instruction, training, or presentation that has the goal or purpose of studying, exploring, or informing attendees about gender roles or stereotypes, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or romantic or sexual relationships”) in a way that would seem to make it impossible to discuss almost any topic in which a historical figure, literary character, student, teacher, or family member identifies with any gender, has any type of romantic relationship, or plays any kind of gender role, traditional or otherwise. As an English teacher, I can’t even fathom how to teach, for example any Shakespearean play without addressing these concepts.
Perhaps the authors meant to single out LGBTQ+ relationships as being off limits, in which case, shame on them. But even if they meant to do so, that’s simply not what the language says, and if it did, it would likely be a violation of Title IX and would open the state up to the same kinds of time-wasting, taxpayer-funded federal lawsuits our state keeps losing.
Our students do deserve “a positive learning environment where they are made to feel welcomed, supported, respected, and free from discrimination”. All of our students deserve that. In my experience, our LGBTQ+ students, who quantifiably suffer discrimination and adverse childhood experiences far more often than their peers, and our students of color, who live with systemic discrimination every day, are least likely to have that kind of environment. In order to create it, we have to be able to read texts and discuss concepts that make them feel welcome, too. No student should be told at school, as one of my students was, that their gender identity makes them an “abomination”. No student should see books representing their own lives taken off the shelves simply because those lives don’t conform to whatever the bill authors might choose for themselves. No student should be made to feel that the state values the comfort of their peers more than their own safety and freedom from discrimination.
Last year, I invited legislators to my classroom, and Senator Greg Hembree and Representative Adam Morgan were brave enough to take the offer, and spend about an hour each discussing some of these issues with my students. I believe that wherever we might disagree, the three of us would all acknowledge that the job of creating a positive learning environment for all students is a tough one. I have not always succeeded in that job, and neither Senator Hembree nor Representative Morgan would likely claim to have succeeded completely during their visits. We need to give teachers the support and the space to figure out, on a class-to-class and student-to-student basis, how to create that kind of environment. It won’t always work, but it will work much more often when we trust classroom experts than if we try to use intimidation and government overreach to achieve it, instead.