‘Divisive concepts’ and school ‘bathroom bill’ advance to the Alabama Senate

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Alabama lawmakers during the 2021 legislative session.

Miranda Fulmore, WBHM

The Alabama Senate Governmental Affairs Committee approved two controversial bills affecting schools Tuesday, which puts them in line for consideration by the full Senate. One bill, HB312, would ban teaching students “divisive concepts” in the classroom. It’s similar to bills targeting critical race theory that have been introduced this session.

While this Republican-backed bill does not specifically mention critical race theory, it lists nine ideas that can’t be taught in K-12 schools or higher education in the state. For example, that one race, sex or religion is inherently superior to another or that the United States is an inherently racist or sexist country.

During Tuesday’s public hearing, Republican Sen. Clyde Chambliss said this bill is important because he’s seen his own children affected by uncomfortable conversations in the classroom.

“Adults should not push students in a direction. There should be this open discussion. There should be factual discussion,” Chambliss said. “But when they get to the point they’re pushing them so hard, that they come home just distraught, that’s too far. That is happening in our schools.”

But opponents said despite the list of concepts included in the bill, it could still have a chilling effect on teachers. Rev. Rayford Mack, an executive member of the Alabama NAACP and NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Education Fund, urged lawmakers to reject the legislation.

“Educators should not be expected to teach under unclear rules that may require them to sacrifice accurate teaching,” Mack said. “Educators who fear that important but difficult concepts could result in guilt or anguish and may completely abandon these topics.”

Lisa McNair shared this concern as well. She’s the sister of Denise McNair, one of the four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963.

“I too want to oppose that bill because I feel that that bill will inhibit the teaching of the life of my sister, Denise McNair,” Lisa McNair said. “Her story is not CRT or whatever that is, because I really don’t know and I really don’t care. But it’s true history.”

Sponsors of the “divisive concepts” bill said the bill does not prohibit teaching history. However, State Superintendent Eric Mackey has said he received calls from parents reporting their kids were being taught critical race theory during Black History Month when that wasn’t the case.

Democratic Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, one of two senators on the committee who voted against the bill, said she fears that situations like this will continue to happen if this bill is passed.

“It’s the underlying fear. And what could come out of misinterpretation and taking what was intended to probably be a good thing out of context and people being afraid to express themselves,” Coleman-Madison said. “We will be back to burning books because we don’t want to teach that.”

Democratic Sen. Malika Sanders-Fortier, who voted against the bill, argued the issue of critical race theory was a distraction.

“None of us are talking about critical race theory. We’re not,” Sanders-Fortier said. “What we’re really doing is kind of mixing our fears. We’re grappling with our fears. Some folks on one side or are scared that their history will be completely ignored and taken out of schools. Folks on the other side are feeling like they’re going to be forced to digest some hateful, hate-based history.”

Fortier asked that legislators take up the issue at another time.

Lawmakers also held a public hearing Tuesday on HB322, known as the “bathroom bill,” that would mandate students use bathrooms or locker rooms that align with their biological sex, not their gender identity. The bill’s backers have argued it’s to protect the safety and privacy of girls.

But opponents believe it specifically targets transgender students, like Vanessa Tate-Finney’s son. The mother spoke against the proposal.

“This bill is an embarrassment to the state of Alabama and endangers our gender-expansive youth,” Tate-Finney said. “Transgender children do not simply decide to identify as transgender for a day to gain access to opposite sex restrooms or locker rooms. Transgender children struggle for years to understand their identity and using the restroom is the most basic of human rights, regardless of a child’s gender identity. My son has a basic human right to use the restroom.”

Tish Faulks, the legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said the bill also violates the Constitution and Title IX.

“If passed, this bill would send a message to vulnerable youth that they are not welcome or accepted in their communities,” Faulks said. “It also would expose all of Alabama’s school districts and the state to the potential loss of federal funding for education.”

The Alabama House has already passed both bills. Lawmakers expect to wrap up the session by Friday.

Kyra Miles is a Report for America corps member reporting on education for WBHM.

 

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