On October 12 the Austell Community Task Force (ACT) and the Mableton Improvement Coalition (MIC) held an education town hall to discuss two recent bills passed by the Georgia legislature: Senate Bill 48, which addressed dyslexia, and House Bill 1084—often called the “divisive concepts” bill.
The discussion was led by Joel Cope of MIC, and Elliott Hennington of ACT. The two of them kept the conversation moving by reading questions that had been submitted by residents in advance of the forum.
In the first installment of the Courier’s coverage of the town hall we reported on the state’s new dyslexia law put into effect with the passage of Senate Bill 48. Metro RESA Dyslexia Endorsement Coordinator Kimberly Gregory led the discussion of the dyslexia bill.
This article will focus on the divisive concepts law.
The panel for that discussion included Cobb school board members Leroy “Tre” Hutchins and Becky Sayler, and former Georgia state representative Alisha Thomas Searcy.
The discussion of the bill began with an introduction from Searcy.
“Senate Bill 1084, called the “Protect Students First Act” is misleading at best,” Searcy said.
She said the bill states that Georgia students cannot be taught that one race is inherently better than another, or that the United States is fundamentally racist.
“But the language in the law is still vague and unclear,” she said.
“And what it has done is instill fear in teachers and other educators because they’re not really clear on what they can teach,” she said. “There’s not a script. There’s not a guided book where it says when you talk about slavery, here are the things you should and should not say. When you talk about the Jim Crow era, here are the things that you can and cannot say.”
“And so what is frustrating as an educator … who has been trained in social studies, in history, who knows history … who’s been doing this for five years or 10 years or 20 years, they don’t have the ability to freely teach, have discussions, allow for critical thinking to happen in classrooms,” Searcy said. “And that’s what we want for students to do.”
She said the divisive concept law is a separate discussion from the recent book banning carried out by school districts.
Searcy said that parents already had a means of making a complaint about course materials.
“But … I think in Cobb County (we have) gone 10 steps beyond even what the law requires. (It has) just made people fearful of their jobs, fearful of what they’re able to teach,” she said. “And I think at the end of the day, what we really want is our students to be thinkers, and understand race, understand our history, understand who we are as a country, how far we’ve come, and still how far we have to go.”
“But I think this law takes us way back in the opposite direction,” she said.
Leroy Tre’ Hutchins, school board member for Post 3, spoke next.
“What I want to kind of talk about first is, how did we get to HB 1084? How did we get to the divisive concepts law?” he asked.
“Many of you may remember this fabricated hysteria around Critical Race Theory or CRT and what it is and what it is not,” he said. “And I think that’s where the challenge began.”
He said that even though the state school superintendent stated that CRT was not being taught in Georgia’s K-12 schools, bills were created that were a result of that fear.
“And so that was a challenge even for me while sitting on the board … my first year on the board,” he said. “We were faced with the Cobb County School District Board of Education resolution that CRT and the 1619 project were banned in Cobb County Schools.”
“And it was a challenge for me simply because there was no clear definition as to what CRT is or is not,” he said.
He said the district and the board have still not developed a definition of what CRT is.
“The good thing is, this state law does now describe and outline the concepts and so it does give some guardrails,” he said. “It does tell us what is not acceptable.”
“And so I can appreciate at least having some clarity around it at this point,” he said. “And again, I want to make sure that we’re clear … this is not to be conflated with controversial topics, which has become, I guess, the next hot button here in the state of Georgia.”
Becky Sayler, Cobb school board member for Post 2 said, “This law in particular was only about different racial topics.”
“It’s a nonexistent problem that didn’t need solving and there’s a lot of problems we need solving in education,” she said.
“It’s great to see the energy going into dyslexia,” she said.
Sayler said there is a whole list of things that she could give to the legislature if it wants to solve problems in education.
“For example, our QBE formula, the formula by which we get money, has not been updated since the 80s,” she said. “And they’ve only fully funded it like three or four times in the past 20 years.”
“Kids get no extra help from the state if they’re in poverty,” Sayler said. “There’s lots of things we can be doing to make a difference for our kids.”
“I would love to see our school board repeal our ban on CRT because it’s so nonspecific,” she said.
“And so we can kind of see the chilling effect on teachers who might think well, ‘what does (HB 1084) mean?'” she said. “Can I not say that the Founding Fathers own slaves or can I not say that redlining happens?”
She pointed to the provisions in the bill that state that nothing in the bill shall prohibit teaching about the history of slavery or racism.
“But it can be a scary thing when you feel like your job is on the line,” she said. “So it’s definitely something that I’m worried that we’re going to see an impact on in our teachers, and we’re watching very closely.”
MIC’s Joel Cope read a question submitted by a community resident: Can Cobb County schools just opt out of the law?
“That is not an option,” Sayler said. “But again, we can look at what the exact language of the law is, and we don’t necessarily have to go beyond what the law says.”
“If you look at our Cobb County school district policies, we do have a policy that’s basically mandated by the state that’s about divisive concepts, but our controversial issues policy is pretty much all our own.”
Searcy weighed in on the question.
“It’s a great question you ask because there are thousands of state laws on the books,” she said. “And certainly school districts have the responsibility and the obligation to follow state law.”
“But I have noticed that districts across the state, sort of pick and choose sometimes the things that they want to implement fully,” she said. “And the Department of Education, again, in my experience, doesn’t really pay that much attention to all of those.”
“But in this particular case, there are two or three districts that at first refused to implement this policy,” she said. “But they received letters from the the Superintendent of Education Richard Wood’s office, letting them know that if they did not pass the policy, that they would risk consequences, including losing state funding.”
“I can’t say that in the 20 years that I’ve been around the legislative process that I’ve ever heard of any department head, or within the Department of Education, sending a letter to a district threatening losing funding for not implementing a policy related to a law,” Searcy said.
Elliot Hennigton of ACT read another question from the audience, “Are we preparing our students for advanced education in our communities and … how we are our kids are advancing to the next level by limiting about what we teach …?”
Hutchins weighed in on the question.
“I think bills like this, what it does is it dumbs down education,” he said. “The kids don’t critically think like they should when they don’t get high quality, rigorous education where they can take the facts and apply the facts and then come out with great outcomes.”
“This right here says let’s whitewash this history. Let’s whitewash it. Let’s sanitize it in a way to where students don’t really understand what transpired in history,” Hutchins said. “There’s a saying that … if we don’t learn from history, we’re going to repeat it.”
“And that is the dilemma, the danger of laws like this, where we can’t be authentic in teaching what did transpire in our American history,” he said.
“Great point and a great question,” Sayler said. “And, you know, we say we want our students to be critical thinkers, to have intellectual freedom.”
“But then we’re telling them these higher order thinking skills involve connections and connecting the past to the present seeing patterns,” she said.
“And if we’re telling our students, you can’t come to the conclusion of XYZ,” she said. “That’s cutting off their intellectual freedom.”
Searcy said “When I think about the students that Becky and Trey serve as school board members, a lot of those students look like me.”
She said there is a lot of talk about physical safety, but when students walk into the school she wants them to feel emotionally safe, where their history and culture is celebrated and recognized.
She said an effect of the bill is “to have children go to school, from kindergarten to 12th grade in the state of Georgia, and not really learn the full facts of our history, not be afforded the opportunity to have discourse in a classroom and share their thoughts and perspectives because a teacher is afraid that allowing for certain discussion will cause them to lose their job…”
“We are we’re not educating minds,” Searcy said. “We are moving out of that direction with these kinds of laws.”
“So I’m concerned in a county like ours as diverse as it is that Black, Brown and White students ought to be learning the history of of this country and all of the people in it so that we can understand who we are.”
“And what we’re doing is the opposite of that and not to be unacceptable to us,” she said.