Classroom censorship laws further burden exhausted teachers

Last year, Florida’s banning of critical race theory — a legal framework that argues racism is embedded in our nation’s most important structures — in classrooms gained significant media buzz. However, despite tremendous backlash from educators, parents and the general public, several states are riding the wave of the CRT fervor, moving ahead with legislation attacking classroom conversations on LGBTQ+ history, systemic racism and other so-called “divisive topics.” 

The Tennessee state legislature imposed several bans on books discussing race, sexuality and gender, and even threatened to cut state funding to schools that continued discussing systemic racism with their students. Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, which details the horrors of the Holocaust, was notably banned by a Tennessee school board earlier this year. 

In Texas, the state legislature passed a bill strongly dictating how educators may discuss current events and America’s history of racism to their students last summer. Currently, Texas administrators are working to recontextualize the public school social studies curriculum in an attempt to “make sure that no student comes away from class feeling guilty about the roles of their ancestors.”

A recent UCLA study found that at least 35% of all K-12 students in the United States have been impacted by anti-CRT efforts. These restrictions deter students from honest conversations about history and prevent them from learning about the backgrounds and perspectives of all communities represented in a classroom. 

These educational gag orders not only deny students access to a complete, accurate and inclusive teaching of history, but also stifle teachers’ autonomy in classrooms.

Even in states that have not or are unlikely to pass classroom censorship laws, teachers feel pressured by parents to water down curricula to avoid penalty. Sarah Mulhern Gross, a teacher from New Jersey, was bullied by parents online and accused of trying to “cancel” Shakespeare after discussing the role of toxic masculinity in “Romeo and Juliet.” According to the National Education Association, “The perception that hordes of angry parents are constantly monitoring educators’ every step has a chilling effect in the classroom,” describing the “soft censoring” of classroom discussions.

Much of the fight to sustain the integrity of their curriculum falls squarely on teachers’ shoulders. However, with an ongoing national teachers’ shortage and poor classroom conditions, the added burden of combating censorship laws has teachers spread far too thin. Considering the stress of teaching in exploitative work conditions with few breaks, teachers are left to protect the integrity of their curricula with little to no resources or support.

California has one of the highest teacher shortages in the nation, along with Nevada, Washington, Indiana, Arizona, Hawaii and the District of Columbia. According to the Economic Policy Institute, by 2024, the U.S. can expect a national teacher shortage of up to 200,000 educators.

Desperate, Florida recently authorized military members and their spouses to teach in order to fill teaching vacancies and fulfill select duty requirements. New Mexico has encouraged National Guard members to become licensed substitute teachers, and Arizona recently approved a new law that allows college students to become full-time teachers before completing their bachelor’s degrees.

Aside from the obvious impact of putting less qualified educators in classrooms on students, these desperate measures also devalue teachers’ credentials. Bringing in military personnel and college students to fill teaching vacancies is a temporary solution to an increasingly dire problem. If teaching conditions don’t improve, vacancies will only multiply. Even more so, less qualified teachers are less prepared to withstand the barrage of legislators and parents pushing to teach students a watered down version of history.

However, there is hope. In Indiana, parents and teachers moblized to strike SB-167, a bill that would have banned “the use of supplemental learning materials to promote certain concepts regarding sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.” Despite Indiana’s GOP supermajority, their efforts worked and the bill was pulled from consideration. And, while the victory in Indiana may be an outlier in what seems like a torrent of opposition, it is also a reminder of how impactful it can be to “put pressure on moderate lawmakers, help them come to their senses and see how dangerous these bills are,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at PEN America.

We must support teachers in any way we can if we expect them to fight for our students’ right to a complete, accurate history. About 50% of educators are crippled by student loan debt by the time they sign their first teaching contract. Even 25% of veteran educators over age 61 still owe balances. One idea would be to implement an updated and robust Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program so teachers aren’t drowning in debt. The current program is hopelessly broken, as 98% of those who apply for debt relief are denied.

When it comes to the classroom, our teachers are our greatest warriors, fighting for students’ best interests and defending integrity, truth and curiosity. Our teachers deserve freedom to not only tailor their lessons to meet their students’ needs, but to move forward with providing complete, inclusive and unadulterated education to our students. They deserve autonomy in how they write and implement lesson plans, as well as encouragement to do so to better suit their students’ needs. What we’re seeing now is the tossling of educators in a larger cultural battle, but it is teachers that prepare us to fight them in the first place.

The downright abuse of educators across the country is a huge disservice to young people who are set to inherit a conflicted, polarized and ailing world. Students deserve access to our nation’s full history, and students of various backgrounds have the right to learn about their own cultures and stories, not just ones deemed uncontroversial enough for parents and lawmakers. The manipulation of curricula promotes historical erasure, is racist and shows our kids that it’s okay to ignore a problem if you feel too guilty to face it.