One of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions on Tuesday pledged to stand up for members who are being punished for teaching an “honest history” of the United States, a move meant to counter the tide of states seeking to limit class discussions on race and discrimination.
In a virtual address to members of the American Federation of Teachers, President Randi Weingarten said the union was preparing litigation and had a “ready to go” legal defense fund. She has pledged to fight “culture warriors” who try to limit lessons on racism and discrimination by calling them critical race theory.
At least six states have passed new laws limiting how breed can be taught in the classroom, and similar proposals are being considered in more than a dozen more. Many bills seek to ban the teaching of critical race theory – an academic framework that examines history through the prism of racism. It focuses on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they work to maintain white dominance in society.
Last month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law prohibiting schools from teaching that people “should experience discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” in because of their race or gender. He adds that slavery and racism can only be taught as a deviation from the âgenuine founding principlesâ of freedom and equality.
Bills in some other states threaten to impose fines on teachers who break the rules or cut public funding for their schools.
âNote my words: our union will stand up for any member who gets into trouble for teaching an honest story,â Weingarten said in his speech. âTeaching the truth is neither radical nor false. Distorting history and threatening educators to teach the truth is what is really radical and wrong. “
In an interview, Weingarten said the union was adding $ 2.5 million to an existing legal defense fund in anticipation of local struggles over race education. The funding will be used to defend teachers who are disciplined for teaching slavery and racism. The union is also considering taking legal action to seek clarification of the state’s new laws limiting how racism can be discussed in schools, she said.
“We are reviewing these laws to see if the courts will provide clarification up front,” Weingarten said. “Seems like it’s an attempt to erase a lot of the history of the United States.”
Once an obscure academic idea, Critical Race Theory has become a political rallying cry for Republicans who argue that it sows division and makes children feel guilty for being white. But Weingarten said the concept was mostly taught at the college level and is not taught in elementary, middle and high schools across the country.
Instead, she says the Conservatives are using theory to intimidate teachers and prevent any critical discussion of the nation’s history. Some of the state’s laws are so extensive, she said, that they seem to preclude any specific lesson on civil war, slavery or its abolition.
âTeaching American history requires taking into account all the facts available to us – including those that are uncomfortable – like the history of slavery and discrimination against people of color and those perceived to be different, âshe said. âYears ago the country united against deniers. We must unite again to fight racism and its long-term effects. “
The country’s other major teachers’ union, the National Education Association, recently launched its own call for honest teaching of the country’s racial histories. At the union’s national meeting last week, President Becky Pringle urged teachers to prepare students for a society that “has struggled with the sins of its past” and has learned from them.
“If this great experiment in democracy is to succeed, if the people of our nation are to prosper, we must continually challenge ourselves and others to dismantle the interconnected racist systems and economic injustices that have perpetuated systemic inequalities,” said Pringle.
Weingarten’s commitment was included in a larger call to improve civic education. She called for better lessons on how to identify disinformation and current events, such as the Jan.6 uprising on the U.S. Capitol. To help, the union is recruiting 20 teachers in three school districts to produce new teaching materials and share them with other teachers across the country.
Much of Weingarten’s speech focused on the school year ahead and beyond, as the country begins to recover from the pandemic. But she also shared her concerns about the rapidly spreading delta variant of the coronavirus and what that means for the reopening of schools. Weingarten said schools “may reopen this fall” for full in-person learning, but she warned “there are always risks.”
The union calls for updated school boards from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, asking if students under 12 should wear masks and if 3 feet of physical distance – the length recommended by the CDC in March – is still sufficient .
Weingarten warned that the next school year will be the most difficult in the professional lives of most teachers. Students will have “enormous” needs, she said, and many schools will be understaffed. This will be made more difficult by critics “who denigrated educators, made our unions scapegoats and blamed us for things beyond our control” during the pandemic, she said.
âWe have to find ways to support each other,â she said sadly. âTeachers support teachers, unions and school leaders support school staff, and all of us, students and families.