Where Things Stand: Advocacy Group Finds GOP’s Slew Of Education-Gagging Laws Intentionally Vague

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A parent of a Lake County student holds up a sign during the school board meeting in Tavares, Florida on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Board members were debating a new policy that would mandate face masks, with a parent ... A parent of a Lake County student holds up a sign during the school board meeting in Tavares, Florida on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Board members were debating a new policy that would mandate face masks, with a parent opt out, at all Lake public schools where 5% or more of students test positive for COVID-19. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images) MORE LESS

Political observers have been theorizing for some time that the Republican Party’s current war on education and school-related issues is all part of a broader effort to create a political illusion. The right-wing media and right-wing politicians are seemingly using each other to make enough noise about faux cultural grievances that it’s impossible to tell where the noise originated in the first place.

Are kindergarteners in Florida being exposed to LGBTQ or gender identity issues in an age inappropriate way? Are math textbooks in Texas indoctrinating kids to become liberal cyborgs? No, but asking the question gives the question a life of its own.

And education advocates have been sounding the alarm on the issue for some time — that education-gagging laws sweeping red states across the nation are also being written in a way that makes them difficult to implement on any sort of practical level.

The advocacy group Pen America published some findings from its ongoing research this week, tracking the various K-12 education-targeting laws being passed around the U.S. This month, the group looked at the “guidance documents” that have been put forth in states that have passed new laws restricting what’s taught in public schools — whether it’s amorphous bans on the teaching of “Critical Race Theory,” i.e. talking about systemic racism in the classroom, outlawing specific library books or, as has become increasingly popular in red states in recent weeks, introducing copy-cat versions of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

As Pen America describes it, guidance documents are put together by state officials after a law has been passed to give schools practical steps to ensure they’re following the new laws. But, as the advocacy group writes, “instead of clarifying the laws, guidance documents have muddied the waters, further eroding academic freedom and students’ right to learn.”

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The group found that, since January 2021, almost 200 of these “education gag” bills have been proposed in 40 states, with 19 becoming law. Several other states have passed similar bans on various versions of the GOP’s fake education-related boogeymen via executive action.

But the majority of the bills that have become law either have not come with “guidance documents” to help schools implement the laws or the state’s tips for incorporating the new bans into school policy were just as vaguely written as the language of the bills themselves. Per Pen America:

Twelve educational gag orders passed in 2021, of which ten are still law. Of these ten, only five have been accompanied by an official guidance: Iowa HF 802, New Hampshire HB 2, Oklahoma HB 1775, Tennessee SB 623, and Texas SB 3. The other five states that passed laws last year (Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, North Dakota, and South Carolina) have published nothing. Teachers, administrators, and parents in these states are no more informed today about the application of these laws than on the day they were passed. 

Without solid practical guidance on how to implement the laws, Pen America found that many school administrators are over-correcting, which is having a chilling effect on what crucial topics teachers will opt to raise in the classroom. That’s not good for students.

The study also adds to theories that all of this is just for political show.

Pen America stated it well here:

And finally, it is worth considering whether all of this – the confusion, the caution, the chilling effect – is intentional. Certainly if they wished, legislators could craft narrower and more precise language. States are more than capable of developing clear and well-defined guidances, when the spirit moves them. Yet in this case, they have not.

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