Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed several controversial education bills into law Thursday that, among other things, restrict discussions about race in classrooms and allow for transgender athletes to be excluded from sports, reflecting a national push from Republicans to redefine American schools.
Kemp said the bills increase transparency and give parents more say in their children’s education. Critics, however, said the new laws will weaken public schools and leave them open to the whims of politicians.
Among the measures signed into law is one that assigns broad restrictions on how teachers address so-called “divisive concepts” such as race and racism in the classroom, including that the U.S. is “fundamentally racist.”
The same measure, called the “Protect Students First Act,” also gives an athletic oversight committee the authority to exclude transgender children from playing high school sports.
Speaking at the Forsyth County Arts and Learning Center, Kemp said Thursday that the bill protects “academic freedom” and ensures the “Georgia High School Association has the authority to protect fairness in school sports.”
“It ensures all of our state and nation’s history is taught accurately, because here in Georgia our classrooms will not be pawns to those who indoctrinate our kids with their partisan political agendas,” he said.
Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said at a video news conference Thursday morning that the organization’s legal teams were “prepared to defend the constitutional rights of students and educators if this law impedes their ability to learn and teach.”
“We want to hear from educators, students and families about the impact of these laws,” she said.
Also among the measures signed into law is a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” that codifies the “fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education” of their children and says information about a child’s education should not be withheld from parents.
It also allows for the removal of “harmful” books from school libraries and forces local school boards to adopt a “complaint resolution process” for parents challenging library materials.
Republican legislatures and activists across the country have targeted curriculums and called for the removal of books dealing with racism or sexuality, the majority of them featuring LGBTQ characters and issues.
School districts in 26 states have banned or opened investigations into more than 1,100 books, according to a report this month from PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy organization, which compiled data about such bans from July to March.
Kemp said the state government has “put students and parents first by keeping woke politics out of the classroom and off the ball fields.”
“Standing up for the God-given potential of each and every child in our schools, and protecting the teaching of freedom, liberty, opportunity and the American dream in the classroom should not be controversial,” Kemp said Thursday of the bills that drew ire and criticism from Democrats, advocates and teachers groups.
“Making sure parents have the ultimate say in their child’s education should not be controversial,” Kemp said.
Other bills signed by Kemp allow retired teachers to return in high-need areas, ensure financial literacy is taught in schools and increase tax credits for scholarships in private schools.
The ACLU of Georgia as well as other advocacy groups and members of the school community spoke out against the bills during a video news conference Thursday morning.
Jalaya Liles Dunn, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice project, said the bills set “a dangerous precedent that allows our democratic government to dictate, conceal and censor accurate information they disagree with.”
“These bills were designed to distort the truth and sanitize history at a time when awareness of systemic racism is growing,” she said.
Mitzi McAdam, a parent in Forsyth County, said “many parents right now currently feel helpless regarding this onslaught of legislation that is restricting the effectiveness of our public schools and is harnessing our children’s learning to the whims of partisan extremism.”
“The idea that certain parents with a certain belief system have the ability to police what students across the entire state are taught is absurd,” she said.
Aryani Duppada, a high school senior in the county, asked, “Why is teaching actual history that real people have experienced so controversial? Why are politicians so afraid of students learning about real events that happened in our country?”
“These are critical times and Black and brown students need to be supported and uplifted,” she said.