Bad Faith and Cruelty
The revival of the SC House Anti-"CRT" bill.
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that… So any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible — and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people — must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.
-James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (1963)
As reported by The State’s Zak Koeske, new SC House Education and Public Works Chair Shannon Erickson has announced that she is interested in again taking up the bill voted through by the committee last session— or, at least, by the white, Republican members of the committee; as Democrat Annie McDaniel pointed out, all members of color, who were also Democrats, voted against the bill. “That sounds like we have taken ourselves so far back in history to it is totally unbelievable,” McDaniel said after the bill’s passage out of committee, according to WIS News. Of course, McDaniel was right, and we have taken ourselves even further back in the ensuing months. Erickson has also made neo-vouchers (“education savings accounts,” in the euphemistic language of privatizers) a major priority for the session. These priorities— pushing back on racial progress and using state funding for private schools that can reject students at will— have always been intertwined.
As Koeske reported,
[Erickson] plans to pick up where [former EPW Chair Rita] Allison left off and said she expects to move forward with bills the House passed last year, such as a critical race theory ban, that floundered in the Senate.
“A lot of the stuff that the House Education Committee passed and that passed through the body, we’re going to start with,” she said. “It was a good product. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel on some of those things that didn’t make it through the Senate.”
The censorship bill, as I and many others have pointed out in the past, is not “a good product”; it is essentially a hasty piece of plagiarism (as is the voucher bill which nearly passed the Senate last session, which shares a lot of DNA with various ALEC bills). South Carolina didn’t ask for this anymore than the other states across the country which saw bills with the same language (see EdWeek’s coverage here). This is national culture-war Red Scare BS, and the fact that we’re still talking about it should be frightening to anyone who wants our society to be an open and accepting place for all people, or a place to be able to discuss the pressing issues of the day without censorship.
Even without the bill passing, we’ve seen a whole lot of book censorship and dog whistle racism and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, enough to demonstrate that in signaling that she plans to take this up again, Erickson isn’t even trying to pretend to solve any real problems or respond to any real constituent concerns. If being opposed to whatever the far right thinks “CRT” is constitutes a real concern, I don’t think our leaders could be much more successful at attacking that particular bogeyman than they currently are.
In lieu of another whole essay on this dumb, dangerous bill, here is (more or less) what I said to the House Education and Public Works Committee on March 8, 2022, before they narrowed five awful bills into one really bad bill, H. 5183. I think my answers to their questions were more useful than my prepared testimony, and if you’re interested in seeing those answers, someone was nice enough to share a video of my testimony that included the Q&A here. Just forgive my posture; I was firm in my convictions, but I was tired after a long day of teaching, it was late, and I was nervous.
First, one question that I wanted to put the committee before I say what I’m going to say:
We’ve had a lot of talk this evening about “bad apples” in schools and we have over 11 hundred classrooms open right now. And when I hear Representative Brittain ask the great question, What is the documented evidence that these kinds of concerns about “CRT” in schools are serious concerns?, we don’t have it. But we do have a documented 11-hundred-teacher shortage, and it’s only going to get worse. I think if we were going to spend weeks and weeks discussing anything about education, that should have been it.
But I have taught English and college-level rhetoric and research in South Carolina for fifteen years, and I think the reason there is so much passionate interest in these hearings is that the bills being considered are designed to invite controversy, confusion, and debate. The goal of trying to prevent racism in classes, or sexism, is great; no one is going to debate that. But these bills unnecessarily insert hot-button buzzwords like “CRT” while muddying the waters by throwing essentially anything the authors don’t like into definitions of that term. Their goal is not to address legitimate problems or improve South Carolina schools.
Most of the bills include some language about the value of intellectual freedom and diversity of opinions, which are fundamental to effective education. However, all of the bills then go on to define what “intellectual freedom” will look like, not by protecting the rights of teachers and students to openly discuss issues and to look at multiple perspectives, but by banning specific concepts in a nakedly partisan way, eliminating certain perspectives and legislating that we prioritize others. And as the confusion over basic educational issues and technologies throughout the hearings-- Sora, text adoption policies, even the definitions of “standards” and “curriculum”-- indicate, few if any experts on K-12 public education had any hand in the creation of any of these bills. (Thanks, by the way, Representative Morgan, for taking hours out of your day to come visit my class two weeks ago and that’s what I would advise all of you to do if you want to see what’s happening in classrooms— I know some of you have. I renew my invitation to every member of the committee to do the same. Visiting schools and speaking with educators and students will probably clarify many of these issues and dispel this frankly bizarre image of schools as indoctrination cults, as suggested in the language of the bills.)
As a rhetoric and research teacher, I can’t accept that confusion and controversy were not the intent of the original sources of these bills. Most of the language comes from three sources: Presidential Executive Order 13950 (now repealed), which was likely written by the Heritage Foundation and originally intended to limit the kinds of diversity training available to federal employees— it has nothing to do with K-12 public schools— National Association of Scholars’ “Partisanship Out of Civics Act,” and Heritage’s model bill “Protecting K-12 Students From Discrimination”.
So this was not written by anyone in South Carolina. In some cases, this language was not even intended to describe “CRT,” or to describe any practices happening in K-12. All of the yellow-highlighted print in the image above is written to describe federal anti-discrimination training.
It is also difficult to believe, given the amount of bill language Frankenstein-ed together from these out-of-state sources (none of which explicitly define or address “CRT”) that anyone in our state was trying to solve a problem happening in our schools. The “tenets of Critical Race Theory” which have been discussed so much come from different model bills with different and incompatible aims. There’s a reason no one can seem to agree on what “CRT” is: there is internal disagreement in the bills themselves.
It is also difficult to believe that the goal of the bills isn’t to limit discussion of current events or complex issues. For example, H. 4343 copies several paragraphs of text directly from the Heritage bill but then leaves out a clause from Heritage that reads, “Nothing in this statute prohibits teachers from discussing public policy issues of the day, or ideas that individuals may find unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive”. That seems like language that could have easily been left in, if that were the goal.
Finally, SC has the largest teacher shortage in two decades. 1,121 classrooms lack a certified teacher. These bills only exacerbate this by making teaching harder and scarier. That seems, again, to be the intent. How can anyone read H. 4799, which would “preclude” any district “utilizing” any of the contradictory and unclear “tenets” as outlined in the bill “from receiving additional funds for that fiscal year and the following ten fiscal years”? How can a bill which would potentially destroy a public school system for a decade over a perceived and possibly unintentional breach of this list of “tenets” be designed to do anything except harm public schools?
And I’ll just leave by saying that I assume that anyone who is a proponent of any of these bills is going to oppose the “Education Savings Account” bills making their way through the House and Senate because that legislation would lead state funding to go to private schools, and I assume you don’t want to micromanage the content taught in those schools.
My time for testimony that night was short, but I had planned to also add the following (and luckily my brilliant friend and former colleague Taryn was able to address much of this in her testimony that night):
H. 4605 defines as “controversial” “nonbinary pronouns, honorifics, or related speech” (as well as “unconscious or implicit bias,” or “that race and sex are social constructs”). How is “controversial” being defined here? Who gets to decide, and how does that decision not introduce additional partisan bias into education? With particular reference to honoring student pronouns, many diversity trainings encourage this practice because it literally saves children’s lives. According to a nationwide survey by the Trevor Project, “Even just one accepting adult in an LGBTQ kid’s life can lower their likelihood of attempting suicide by 40%. Trans and nonbinary youth who reported having their pronouns respected by the people they lived with attempted suicide at half the rate”.
If in fact something needs to be passed to deal with a handful of suspiciously similar allegations about teachers crossing a partisan line or teaching a problematic lesson, and if this in fact takes priority over addressing the unprecedented teacher retention and recruitment crisis we are facing, then let me suggest that the bill, in its entirety, be this one beautiful section from H.4605:
“It is the intent of the General Assembly that educators, administrators, students, childcare providers, employers, and employees:
respect the dignity of individuals
refrain from judging, stereotyping, or scapegoating others based on personal or group characteristics or political and religious beliefs
( c) acknowledge the rights of others to express differing opinions; and
(d) foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry, and instruction.
as well as the later language protecting the rights to “be presented with instruction that is intellectually honest, placed in historical context, and grounded in verifiable facts,” “have freedom to express differing opinions, especially on controversial topics [which requires discussing them to being with] without penalty and marginalization; and” “have freedom of inquiry, freedom of speech, freedom from compelled speech, and freedom of association”.
This post has been updated to clarify some language and add context about the bills, and to correct a typo in the online version of Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers”.
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The CERRA Supply and Demand supplementary report had dropped the month before, in February. It showed 1,121 teacher vacancies.
I think I left this reference to the library app Sora out of my remarks— probably to save time— but it was discussed a lot during the hearings. One striking aspect to the discussion was that many of those testifying, as well as the committee members, seemed to have virtually no clue how the app works, or what it is for. Even a school superintendent objecting to the censorship measures couldn’t pronounce the name of the app and didn’t know how it worked. Needless to say, if anyone had talked to a school librarian, they would have known not only how the app works (it’s great!) but that most of the legitimate concerns expressed in the hearings are already addressed by existing school district and state policies.
As reported by Alanna Vagianos for Huffington Post.
This is a great read, thank you so much for compiling all of this information. I read James Baldwins “A Talk to Teachers” and I got a bit emotional. I hadn’t read this in years.
I’m trying to hold onto hope that change will come to SC.