Black teacher in front of chalkboard with mask on teaching young students
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Conservative efforts to regulate what Georgia schools can teach about race are focusing on a now-repealed executive order by former President Donald Trump that bans the teaching of “divisive comments.”

The debate continues as state Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, targets the racial ideology of the school board chair in Gwinnett County as unacceptable.

Republicans aim to ban critical race theory, a term stretched from its original meaning as an examination of how societal structures perpetuate white dominance to a broader indictment of diversity initiatives and teaching about race.

“There’s a tremendous amount of support,” said Cole Muzio, president of the Frontline Policy Institute, a conservative group supporting bans.

Many Democrats and teacher groups say mandating what gets taught insults teachers and risks a whitewashed version of history.

“We believe the bills are trying to hinder educators from doing their jobs,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “We feel it is an attack on the integrity and professionalism of educators to insinuate these things.”

At least four bills seek to ban some instruction on racial issues. The two most prominent right now, Senate Bill 377 and House Bill 1084, say school district employees and their contractors can’t “act upon, promote, or encourage divisive concepts” in class or any employee training. Banned concepts would include claims that the United States is “fundamentally or systematically racist,” that any people, are “inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” and that no one “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race.”

The language is taken from a 2020 executive order President Donald Trump issued banning “divisive concepts” in training federal employees. President Joe Biden later repealed that order, but bills using identical language have been proposed in dozens of states, backed by the Center for Renewing America, a think tank led by former Trump administration officials.

The bills say they won’t violate free expression and still allow teaching on slavery, discrimination and segregation.

A complaint process would let parents and others to complain to a school’s principal. That principal would be required to respond within five school days, with the decision reviewed and finalized by the local superintendent. The local decision could be appealed to the state Board of Education.

Senate Bill 377 covers technical colleges, public universities and state agencies, while House Bill 1084 only covers public schools. Senate Bill 375, with similar language, would cover public schools, cities, counties and state agencies.

The bills also differ on penalties. Senate Bill 377 would let the state Board of Education withhold up to 10% of state aid to public schools if it finds a violation. The House bill would punish schools by requiring the board to revoke at least some of waivers from state law and rules. All but one of Georgia’s K-12 school systems operates under waivers allowing them to ignore many rules.

House Bill 888, another anti-critical-race theory bill, would require the state to withhold 20% of its aid to a local school system found in violation. Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller of Gainesville, another Republican lieutenant governor candidate, has proposed measures letting people take a $100,000 exemption on school property taxes in any district where the state board declares schools have “substantially deviated” from state-approved courses.

“There’s got to be disincentives,” Muzio said. “We’ve got to make sure schools are not teaching this.”

Educators say critical race theory isn’t taught in Georgia schools, but the conservative group Heritage Action for America points to a document it found for an Advanced Placement Research and Language course in Gwinnett County that mentioned critical race theory as one way students might evaluate arguments.

Jones wrote a letter last week asking the state Board of Education to investigate Gwinnett County school board chair Tarece Johnson, whom Republicans attack for her views on systemic racism and racial equity.

Jones wrote that Johnson’s actions “further divide our students and schools at a time when we need to unite and come together.”

The Gwinnett County system said the 2017 document was written not for the students but to demonstrate the teacher was qualified to teach an AP class. Gwinnett County schools spokesperson Sloan Roach said Johnson wasn’t elected until 2020. Roach said the syllabus given to students didn’t mention critical race theory, providing a 2019 document.

“Dr. Tarece Johnson works as a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice professional and her goal as a board member and current board chairperson, is to make sure that every single child has what he or she needs to be successful,” Roach said.

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