Republicans launched an “attack on education” in 2022, according to a report, as lawmakers filed a huge number of bills to limit class discussion on race and LGBTQ+ issues.
According to PEN America, a nonprofit that works to protect free speech in the US, the number of “educational gag orders” entered has increased 250% compared to 2021 as Republican lawmakers have tried to stem the discussion. about race and LGBTQ+ issues from the classroom.
According to PEN, 137 of the gag orders, which it defines as “state legislative efforts to restrict education on topics such as race, gender, American history and LGBTQ+ identities in elementary and higher education,” have been enacted in 36 states. so far this year. In 2021, the organization registered 54 gag order accounts in 22 states.
“There’s no question that things have gotten worse,” said Jeremy Young, senior manager of free speech and education at PEN.
“Attacks on education, on educators, have become more coordinated and more dangerous. Escalation is the word that defines what we see. This is a series of increasingly aggressive and dangerous attacks on teachers, educators and the education system.”
PEN found that gender identity is an increasing focus of conservative lawmakers. From early January this year to mid-August, 23 bills were introduced that would restrict the way teachers can discuss gender identity.
There is also a greater focus on penalties for discussing prohibited topics, with hefty fines being proposed for schools, universities and teachers themselves.
Young said one of the main reasons for the increase in legislation is a “bandwagon effect.”
A minority of the 137 education laws for propagandists have been enacted. But the backdrop of conservatives battling for classroom censorship, and the threat of potential punishment at some point in the future, can still pose a looming threat to teachers and school administrators.
“There is some evidence that attacks on public education resonate especially with conservative voters,” Young said.
“So now, instead of attacking public education simply being the province of people who have always fought against public education for social reasons, cultural reasons, or because they support private schools or home education, there is now this bandwagon effect where just about every conservative legislator feels some pressure to support, propose or vote for these bills.”
The bills, introduced by conservative lawmakers, barely represent public demand. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, more than 70% of parents are satisfied with the education their children receive. Earlier this year, an NPR survey found that less than 20% of parents are dissatisfied with the way their children are taught about gender, sexuality and race.
Missouri has had the most gagging bills in 2022, but Florida has had more success in passing legislation, Young said.
In March, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill called “don’t say gay” into law. The heavily criticized legislation restricts education about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, while the state has also passed a law restricting discussion of race and racism. Separately, in May, DeSantis signed a law requiring students to receive at least 45 minutes of instruction about the “victims of communism” in November each year.
Young said the legislation is often characterized by banning vague concepts, rather than detailing what teachers can and cannot say and teach.
Floridas do not say that the gay law, for example, reads in part: “Instruction in the classroom by school personnel or third parties about sexual orientation or gender identity should not occur in kindergarten through 3rd grade or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Classroom education is undefined, and as the New York Times noted, it could mean “eliminating books in the classroom with LGBTQ+ characters or historical figures.” Likewise, no advice is given on what “classroom discussion” actually means, and could be interpreted by teachers as, as the Times put it, “A student with gay parents shouldn’t be talking about those families with the whole class.”
“The vagueness is the point,” Young said.
“Because the more vague the bills are, the more self-censorship there will be, the more scared teachers will be, and the more scared administrators will be.
“So it’s definitely by design — it’s the plan to get teachers and administrators on the defensive, to get them sharp, to make it so they don’t come close to potentially banned concepts.”