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The Way Teachers Cover Race And Privilege Could Have Big Consequences In Tennessee

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a new 11-page document that every teacher in Tennessee must now study. It's titled Prohibited Concepts in Instruction. It's how the Tennessee Department of Education proposes to enact a new state law that limits how teachers address race, sex and privilege at school. And under these new rules, teachers who have been deemed to have taught these banned concepts could face disciplinary action, including losing their licenses. And school districts could face up to $5 million in fines. Joining us now to talk about all this is Beth Brown, the president of the Tennessee Education Association.

Welcome.

BETH BROWN: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. So what counts as teaching any of these concepts? Like, is the mere mention of, say, structural racism prohibited or the mere mention of a concept like white privilege? Are those totally banned now?

BROWN: Well, that's part of the problem with the law in that it is very vague. It's very subjective. It's very unclear because there are so many questions about what can I say, what can I do in my delivery of the Tennessee state standards, which is what guides instruction in Tennessee's public school classrooms. And so I can't answer that. Tennessee's educators can't answer that because it's not clear either in the law or in the guidance issued by the Department of Education.

CHANG: And how have other teachers been reacting to these new rules? Like, what are you hearing so far?

BROWN: As I travel the state and have conversations with educators, particularly educators who teach social studies or who teach language arts, like I did in the classroom - and when I taught the Declaration of Independence and who wasn't included at the time. And, you know, at what point would I be in danger of violating this new law? And so there are a lot of educators who want to do their job, want to do it well, but are very concerned about just the vague, subjective language of this new law inhibiting their ability to perform their job with fidelity.

CHANG: Can I just pick up from the Declaration of Independence? Like, if you were to teach that under these new rules, how do you see that playing out in your classroom?

BROWN: Well, I'm thinking about the very last time that I taught it in the classroom. And, you know, as a class of high school juniors, you know, these are young adults who are - you know, they're critical thinkers, and they can explore who wasn't included and how is it changed. And, you know, I also, as - you know, part of the standards is when you teach those, you have to teach them to analyze the structure of the document itself. And so someone might have been offended or angry that that conversation was taking place in my classroom.

CHANG: Well, what recourse or protection might a teacher have if they have been accused of teaching something that's banned under this new law?

BROWN: A parent has up to 30 days to file a complaint. The district conducts an investigation. If the complainant does not like the outcome of the investigation, they have the ability to appeal it to the Department of Education. And then the Department of Education will conduct its own investigation and make a final determination.

CHANG: What would you like the public to know, to understand about these new rules? Like, what is your message to the community?

BROWN: There is no group of individuals more passionate and committed to ensuring that Tennessee students continue to receive a high-quality and well-rounded education. We're committed to teaching the facts. We take great pride in our professional integrity. This law is a disservice to our students because as part of that well-rounded education, we have to have conversations about difficult but important topics. We will continue to do what we have always done, which is to teach the Tennessee state standards with fidelity.

CHANG: Beth Brown is president of the Tennessee Education Association.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

BROWN: Thank you.

CHANG: And we should note that we did reach out to Penny Schwinn, Tennessee's education commissioner, and she declined our interview request. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.