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Curricula in Crisis: The Slippery Slope of School Censorship

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In the past year, a wave of intense debate surrounding the censorship of public school curricula has swept the nation, impacting students and educators in its wake. The manipulation of curricula reflects how democratic processes are being abused to shape education in a way that promotes historical erasure and racism and constrains educators. 

The censorship bills proposed in state legislatures across the country reflect how politicians possess too much power in the curriculum debate. In part, this trend shows that elected officials lack constraints from national guidelines or local accountability. These laws enable politicians to subjectively declare certain ideas as “divisive” or “controversial” without any standardized metric for defining this and, therefore, defining what is fit for students to learn in public schools. 

In New Hampshire, proposed legislation makes “promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history” of the United States in public schools illegal. Restrictions in other states characterize as divisive—and thus prohibit—the ideas that the United States is a racist country, that certain economic or political systems are racist, and that multiple gender identities exist. Elected officials are attempting to use their political leverage in defining ideas as controversial to push an “ideologically slanted” curriculum. In some cases, politicians argue for content to be censored on the basis of vulgarity or age-appropriateness, but these definitions are also somewhat vague. Without some sort of standardization, questions about what students should learn in schools will remain at the whims of politicians that may have a pointed ideological agenda. Also, since politicians are able to withhold funding from school districts, they can ensure compliance to their proposed regulations.

There is a certain lack of accountability or follow through with proposed censorship bills. In McMinn County, Tennessee, the school board banned Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, on the basis of profanity and nudity without specifying a replacement text. When asked about what other books the school board would have to remove on the basis of profanity, given that classics like To Kill a Mockingbird also include inappropriate language, the chairman merely responded, “That falls under another topic for another day.” The effects of the lack of national or local standarization on how to approach profanity in school texts pervades McMinn County. Unguided by set standards, the school board is able to cherry-pick materials to censor.

The way politicians manipulate terms and public opinion in the censorship debate points to their abuse of power. Censorship calls have largely focused on critical race theory, a legal framework “that posits racial discrimination is embedded within US laws and policies,” despite the fact that educators insist CRT is not taught in K-12 schools. This term has been co-opted to include diversity and equity programs and other ideas that do not fall under CRT, all with the goal of instilling fear in parents and voters. Conservatives have deployed a similar tactic in promoting so-called educational transparency rules, which in fact represent an intrusion into the classroom. These include a proposal by a conservative group in Nevada that teachers wear body cameras to ensure that they are not teaching CRT.

Some politicians want to intrude even down to the minutiae of public school curricula. In some school districts, attention has shifted towards school initiatives centered on students’ mental health and emotional well-being, known as “social emotional learning” (SEL). Activist groups are now arguing that surveys designed to measure whether students are struggling with their emotions are “data mining” and that SEL is a vehicle for indoctrinating students with controversial ideas about race and sexuality. The backlash against SEL is in part an outgrowth of efforts to censor critical race theory, which opponents argue is embedded into SEL programs. In this way, earlier censorship debates have laid the foundation for politicians and activist groups to intrude even further into public school curricula. Other more extreme examples of censorship include an a Missouri bill that requires teachers to post all of their training materials online, and even more egregious, an Ohio district that forbids rainbows in classrooms.

Politicians’ manipulation of terms and public opinion is seen further in backlash against SEL programs in schools. A survey of 2,000 parents by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that while people generally supported the actual ideas behind social emotional learning, support weaned when politically charged terms like “social emotional learning,” “soft skills” and “whole child development” were used.

A common effect of the censorship calls has been the suppression of the experiences of people from marginalized identities from being represented in the classroom. One frequent target of proposed legislation is the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that examines the legacy of slavery in American history, which has been explicitly mentioned in at least 11 bills. In York County, Pennsylvania, a battle over censorship has a community calling to ban a selection of books told from the perspective of gay, Black, and Latino children. Moms for Liberty, an activist group that advocates for “parental rights at all levels of government,” is staging an effort in Tennessee to remove a book written from the perspective of Mexican Americans. Texas State Representative Matt Krause (R-TX) compiled a list of 850 books to challenge, one of which was a study of quinceañera, the Latina coming-of-age ritual. Politicians’ abuse of the democratic process serves to limit representation of diverse identities in the classroom.

The recent wave of censorship highlights how politicians have dangerous power over public education, power which is being abused. This wave will continue and become even more intrusive unless there is some sort of standardization about what qualifies for censorship.