Terrence Wilson, J.D. • Knowledge is Power • September 16, 2021 •

On August 2, 2021, the Tennessee Department of Education released guidelines on how schools should implement the state’s new classroom censorship law that prohibits certain concepts about race, racism and other forms of discrimination from being discussed in schools. This law and the corresponding regulations serve as a warning to other states of the damaging impact that these censorship efforts can have on students, teachers and schools.

IDRA submitted a public comment to this regulation highlighting that the law and regulations limit students’ critical thinking skills, their ability to understand how racism, sexism and socioeconomic discrimination marginalize people in today’s society. Our public comment focused on the following deficiencies in the regulation.

  • The guidance given to schools is vague and subjective, which will undoubtedly lead to governmental overreach and confusion among educators. Specifically, the regulation does not specify what kind of conduct will lead to a determination that a “prohibited concept” was included or promoted in a school district’s course of instruction, curriculum, instructional program or through a supplemental instructional material.
  • The guidance limits students’ ability to understand how power, race, oppression and resistance played out in the past and impact their current experience. The exceptions outlined in the guidance do not exempt courses aimed at understanding these topics – particularly ethnic studies courses – or current instances and experiences of racial, socioeconomic and gender-based oppression that continue to influence society. Without these additions to the enumerated exceptions, students’ ability to draw connections between historical and current events and issues will continue to be compromised, further diminishing their critical thinking and analytical skills.
  • Finally, the rule outlines that the state will withhold funds scheduled to be disbursed to school districts or public charters for violations of the rule. Students should not suffer financial consequences because of curricular complaints. This type of punishment would disproportionately impact historically-underfunded schools, leaving them with even fewer resources for instructional materials, staff and programming. No financial penalty should be included in curricular rules.

Tennessee’s rule presents a stark example of the negative impacts that classroom censorship laws will have on students, educators and local school districts. Students will be left with sub-par curricula and fewer economic resources, and they will be under constant surveillance from the state.

Instead of these harmful approaches, states should promote guidance for culturally-sustaining curricula and pedagogical approaches that help all students develop the critical thinking and analytical skills they need to be thoughtful and engaged people who are able to meet modern-day challenges.

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 16, 2021, edition of Knowledge is Power by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]