RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina House Republicans approved new rules on Wednesday limiting how racism and sexism can be taught but fell short of gaining any Democratic support to guarantee a veto override.
The 68-49 vote went along party lines with all Republicans in support and all Democrats in opposition. Republicans would need at least one Democrat should Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper veto the bill again as he did in 2021.
GOP lawmakers say the bill is designed to prevent schools from promoting “critical race theory.” House Bill 187 has provisions such as one saying teachers shall not promote that anyone “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” based on their race or sex.
“This bill does not change what history standards can and cannot be taught,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and the bill’s primary sponsor. “It simply prohibits schools from endorsing discriminatory concepts.”
But Democratic lawmakers argued that the bill is so vaguely worded that teachers will censor what they say to stay out of potential trouble.
“The bill on its face is the obvious attempt to micromanage from the General Assembly into the classrooms,” said Rep. Laura Budd, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “It’s overreach. It will have a chilling effect on teachers and educators in curtailing what they think they’re allowed to teach, as well as how they teach.”
The legislation now goes to the GOP-controlled Senate, where it’s expected to easily pass.
A bill with nearly identical language passed the House and Senate in 2021. When Cooper vetoed that bill, he said it “pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education.”
What’s in the bill
House Bill 187, titled “Equality in Education” says public schools can’t “promote” concepts such as the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.”
The bill also would stop teachers from promoting the concept of “white privilege,” or that white people have unfair advantages over others solely due to their race. The bill says teachers can’t promote that privileges should be ascribed to a race or sex.
Other items that the bill says teachers can’t promote include:
— “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
— A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist;
— The United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”
“At the end of the day we should all be able to agree that no student, no teacher, no parent, no school employee, no one should ever be made to feel inferior solely because of the color of their skin, their gender, national origin, race, religion, disability and familial status, especially in our schools when learning for our young should be fun and exciting,” said Torbett, the lone Republican to speak for the bill Wednesday.
The legislation, which does not include the phrase “critical race theory,” would also require schools to post online ahead of time whenever schools provide instruction related to the prohibited concepts. They’d also have to list when they hire speakers, consultants or diversity trainers who discuss those concepts or have previously advocated those concepts.
Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat, questioned whether the bill would prevent her from speaking in schools or serving as a substitute teacher due to her political beliefs.
Critical race theory fight
Republican lawmakers have introduced bills at the national and state level targeting what they call critical race theory, which holds that racism has been a systemic part of the nation’s history that still influences society today.
Conservative groups have accused schools of promoting critical race theory. School leaders have denied the charge, saying that anything involving the discussion of diversity, equity and race has been conflated to be about critical race theory.
Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Eighteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.
“You have to be made uncomfortable in order to expand your mind and to learn,” said Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “That’s what education is all about.”
The push to target critical race theory comes as North Carolina Republicans are also promoting legislation known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights targeting instruction in elementary grades on explicit material and LGBTQ issues. The state Senate approved that bill this year, but it has not been taken up by the House.
How would bill be enforced?
Torbett said the legislation will help promote unity in this country and state.
“North Carolina, this great education state, must have an educational system that unites and teaches our children, not divides and indoctrinates them,” Torbett said.
Democrats said the bill doesn’t provide guidance on what would be acceptable.
“At a time when teachers are already feeling pressure from staff shortages, book bans, inadequate resources, this bill continues to undermine the autonomy of the teaching profession and fails to support teachers,” von Haefen said during the floor debate.
Von Haefen said the bill raises questions from teachers about whether they could continue to have discussions about equal rights, the right to vote and why women are under-represented in politics and other fields.
Democrats also said the bill will cause teachers to shy away from discussing controversial topics.
“This bill frightens me because I think people will start trying to limit exposure to history by all of us,” added Rep. Abe Jones, a Wake County Democrat. “We all can learn from history.”