COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A bill that would limit certain teachings on race in public schools and allow parents to challenge educational materials is moving through the Republican-controlled South Carolina House of Representatives.
The proposal is the latest iteration of a GOP-led nationwide effort to crack down on what some conservative politicians have dubbed “critical race theory." The South Carolina measure — cosponsored by several members of the Legislature's newly formed Freedom Caucus — would bar curricula from including or promoting certain concepts around race and other demographics.
Prohibited ideas include the notions that “an individual, by virtue of the race, sex, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin of the individual, inherently is privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously” and that a person “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members” sharing their identity.
Similar measures have been proposed in other Republican-dominated statehouses. The language in the South Carolina bill mirrors sections of a law signed last year by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential hopeful who has made “critical race theory” a frequent target. A federal judge in Florida has issued a temporary injunction preventing the law from taking effect in colleges after previously blocking its implementation in businesses. This week, DeSantis' administration rejected the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course.
Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism, which subscribing legal scholars say is systemic in the nation’s institutions. But it also has become a catchall phrase to describe concepts some conservatives find objectionable, such as white privilege, systemic inequality and inherent bias.
The South Carolina bill — which would take effect for the 2024-2025 school year — requires that school district websites include a list of approved textbooks. It would also require that schools create a process for parents to challenge materials potentially violating the guidelines.
A House subcommittee focused on K-12 education in South Carolina gave the bill a favorable report on Tuesday by a 4-2 vote. Lawmakers heard testimony at a public hearing where individuals were each given one minute to speak.
Republican Rep. Raye Felder emphasized that the bill does not prevent classroom lessons on “controversial aspects of history” or “the history of ethnic groups.” Rather, Felder said the bill seeks to ensure that teachings on both the “inspirational” and “shameful” history of the United States are non-biased.
“Public education should be a fair and open system where teachers, educators, and the community are valued and included,” Felder said.
Palmetto State Teachers Association Director of Government Affairs Patrick Kelly encouraged lawmakers to adopt an amendment he said would “foster critical dialogue” by encouraging parents to bring their concerns to the teacher in question before filing a formal complaint.
Other lawmakers sought clarification on the bill’s requirement that library materials be age and grade appropriate.
“Anyone could file a complaint against a teacher because they have a different definition about what is age appropriate,” Democratic Rep. Deon Tedder said. “For example, it’s fact-based that African Americans were enslaved and beaten and chained. For some parents, that may not be age appropriate.”
Advocacy groups rallied opponents to testify against the measure. The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina criticized what the group called vague language in the bill that would chill teachers’ speech and misrepresent American history. Critics feared the measure would create a hostile environment in a state struggling to retain educators amid a teacher shortage.
Democratic Rep. Kambrell Garvin said the bill would have driven him out of the classroom if it had been law when he was teaching.
“I would have felt intimidated,” Garvin said. "I would have felt worried or concerned had I had to worry about somebody going to report me for teaching a historically significant fact."
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.