By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance
Republican members of the Michigan Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee voted on Tuesday to advance legislation that education officials said is dividing parents and teachers and would silence teachers attempting to discuss race and racism.
“We have kids being literally slaughtered in their classrooms across the country, and yet these right-wing extremists are focused instead on censoring educators from using their expertise to teach students,” Michigan Education Association (MEA) spokesperson Thomas Morgan said of GOP lawmakers supporting House Bill 5097.
The MEA is a labor union that represents about 120,000 teachers and other education workers in Michigan.
Introduced by state Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Ft. Gratiot) and passed by the House in November, House Bill 5097 would prohibit schools from including “any form of race or gender stereotyping” in their curricula. It follows a nationwide right-wing trend to ban “critical race theory,” though Beeler’s bill does not explicitly name CRT — a decades-old college-level academic theory that explores systemic racism and is not taught in the vast majority of K-12 schools in Michigan.
The committee’s support on Tuesday paves the way for a possible vote from the full Senate. A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not respond to a request for comment, but education officials said they expect the governor would veto the bill if it comes to her desk.
Beeler said during Tuesday’s hearing that his bill is an attempt to ban racial and gender stereotyping in schools.
“From emancipation to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement, events throughout American history exemplify the ideas that all men are created equal; that content of character — not skin color — defines a person; and that racism and sexism in any form have no place in our society,” Beeler said in a November statement. “My plan will ensure we are training our children to embrace the ideas that have carried our country away from racial and gender-based stereotypes, and toward a more unified and better future.”
But educators and Democratic lawmakers said the bill would do the opposite and instead would make teachers fearful of having honest conversations around the country’s history of slavery and the ongoing impact that has on Black Americans, among other discussions around systemic racism.
The two Democratic members of the Senate committee, Sens. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) and Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), walked out on Tuesday’s hearing and criticized it as another attempt by the GOP to whitewash history and force educators to omit facts about the history of institutionalized racism in the United States.
“I’m tired of white legislators like Rep. Beeler and [Education and Career Readiness] Chair Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) lecturing Black people that the United States is post-racial and that things like ‘privilege’ or ‘oppression’ based on race no longer exist,” Polehanki said in a press release. “Rep. Beeler’s bill is yet another in a long line of ‘happy history’ bills introduced by Republicans, which are designed to terrify teachers into avoiding any meaningful discussion about racial discrimination on pain of losing their jobs or causing school funding to be withheld.”
Theis sponsored legislation, Senate Bill 460, that would withhold 5% of a district’s funds if it was determined a district educator was teaching critical race theory or concepts related to it. The Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee voted to advance the bill in late October; it has not been voted on by the full Senate.
“House Bill 5097 is not a serious bill from a serious person, and to entertain it devalues our work here as legislators and as former educators,” Geiss said in a press release. “This bill does nothing to address the pressing issues we have in education policy while wasting time and stirring up the hysterical conspiracy theorists of their base.”
Numerous educators and educational organizations have raised concerns about House Bill 5097. In January, the state Board of Education adopted a resolution opposing both House Bill 5097 and Senate Bill 460, saying they would have a “chilling effect on local teachers.”
Lincoln Stocks — a history teacher at Eastpointe Community Schools, an AFT Michigan vice president, and the president of the Eastpointe Federation of Educators — said “bills like this are incredibly dangerous” and that “as a white history teacher who believes that honest education is critical I am afraid for what this could mean for educators and students.”
“Under this law, educators would be unable to teach kids the truth about racial disparities in America without risking their own livelihoods,” Stocks said in a press release from AFT Michigan, a union representing about 35,000 educators and health care providers. “Michiganders know the truth: Systemic racism is real and shapes our communities, and ignoring that ugly truth won’t make it go away. I firmly oppose HB-5097, and I hope our lawmakers will listen to educators and school communities and make the right decision to protect honesty in education.”
Morgan said Tuesday that the GOP bill is “clearly an election year stunt designed to divide parents and educators.
“It’s all a coordinated strategy designed to drive a wedge between parents and their kids’ teachers,” he said. “…They are more concerned with manufacturing controversy designed to fire up a political base, and it’s hurting our kids. It’s exacerbating our educator shortage, and all these attacks might work for electoral purposes but it’s disgusting because it’s hurting our kids and hurting our schools.”
Morgan said such attacks on educators have both driven teachers from the field and deter others from pursuing teaching. Because of the GOP’s focus on pushing legislation around CRT, Morgan said teachers are left scared to address issues of race.
“We have plenty of history teachers who could be afraid to teach about slavery or Jim Crow because it might upset somebody,” he said. “All our members want is to be able to teach facts. They want to teach the facts about history and give kids the skills they need to make their own conclusions and form their own opinions.”