Press Release

The Honorable Cameron Sexton, Speaker of the House
The Honorable William Lamberth, House Republican Leader
The Honorable Jeremy Faison, Republican Caucus Chair
The Honorable Karen Camper, House Democratic Leader
The Honorable Vincent Dixie, Democratic Caucus Chair
The Honorable Mark White, Chair, House Education Administration Committee
The Honorable John Ragan

RE: 112th Tennessee General Assembly ‒ House Bill 580, As Amended

Dear Honorable Members of the Tennessee General Assembly,

The Education Trust in Tennessee is a non-profit, non-partisan research and advocacy organization that works alongside communities to improve educational outcomes for all students in our state from pre-K through post-secondary learning, with an explicit focus on closing the historical opportunity gaps that persist for students of color and those from low-income families. We, along with our undersigned organizational partners in the Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education, write to you today to express our concern with and opposition to the hastily introduced amendment to HB580 as passed in the House Education Administration Committee on Monday, May 3, 2021. The proposed amendment to HB580 represents an egregious and contradictory overreach aiming to prohibit complex but necessary classroom discussion topics and will cause an undue burden, confusion, and instill the fear of repercussion in Tennessee’s public school educators as they teach significant social and historical events.

The broadly written amendment presents several difficult topical scenarios and provides little clarity regarding implementation and instructional practice. Subsection (a) states that districts and schools shall not permit the usage of curriculum or supplemental instructional materials that include or promote a host of important social and historical concepts, including racism, sexism, the violent overthrow of the United States government, and other forms of oppression or division based on a number of identities. Yet, subsection (b) permits instruction that discusses “history of an ethnic group,” “the impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history,” and “the impartial discussion on the historical oppression of a particular group of people.” From the arrival of European settlers on Native American lands, the cruel institution of slavery, and the bloody casualties of the Civil War to the bold work of suffragettes, the Civil Rights Movement, and all significant events in between, the complexities of our shared history do not allow for the neat, convenient, or exclusive presentation of these important concepts in the manner this bill aims to purvey. The history of all people in Tennessee and across America is undeniably shaped by controversial and painful social ills, structures, and events, the irrevocable facts that inform both individual and collective lived experiences, perspectives, and realities including the educational disparities that our organizations work diligently to address and overcome. To seek to censor, sidestep, or altogether erase important discussions of current and historical events dangerously robs students of the opportunity to explore complex social questions, develop critical thinking skills, form nuanced opinions, and participate in academic dialogue.

The legislation ties the hands of our educators, particularly those who teach history and the social sciences, by offering minimal clarity regarding acceptable instructional practices on these complex topics ‒ leaning on unclear and difficult-to-monitor terms such as ”impartial” discussion and instruction ‒ while outlining the punitive withholding of an unspecified amount of state education funds from a district or school if found to be in violation. Tennessee’s Academic Standards already detail and examine a number of the social and historical questions this legislation seeks to affect, topics that our teachers are charged to present in compelling and thoughtful ways that prepare our students to become the well-informed heirs of our society. This contradictory amendment would complicate and likely prevent teachers from engaging in these important discussions and prohibit students from grappling with difficult but necessary topics while creating unnecessary additional burdens on Tennessee’s teachers, schools, districts, and the Department of Education. It also removes the ability of teachers and instructional leaders to frame the academic standards in light of relevant current events and social contexts, an affront on the reverence for local control that the General Assembly frequently heralds.

If passed, HB580, as currently amended, would be a grave disservice to Tennessee’s public education system, its educators who deliver high-quality instruction, and the nearly one million students entrusted to learn within its care each day. Students must be encouraged and empowered to explore, discuss, and engage with a diverse array of academic topics, including the uncomfortable conversations related to race, gender, class, and the oppressive and unjust systems and events that have occurred in our state and national history. In order to prepare future leaders who are thoughtful, well-rounded, and able to grapple with difficult discussions and challenges, we must not mute or dilute history or its study in ways that fail to be inclusive, authentic, or omits truth. Rather, we must engage with our history in ways that inspire a more equitable future that does not repeat the mistakes and missteps of our past. However, we do not believe the recent amendment seeks to achieve this, and the undersigned stakeholders oppose the passage of HB580 in its current form. For more information, please contact Gini Pupo-Walker, State Director for Tennessee, [email protected].

Respectfully,

Ruby Aguilar
High School English Teacher

Duretti Ahmad
Student
Vanderbilt University

Brooke Allen
Executive Director
Diverse Learners Cooperative

Lauren Baker
Board Chair
Tennessee School Counselor Association

Christopher Banos
Student
Cumberland University

Hailee Bryant-Roye
Student
Tennessee State University

Maya Bugg
Chief Executive Officer
Tennessee Charter School Center

Claudia Caballero
President & CEO
Centro Hispano de East Tennessee

Sarah Carpenter
Executive Director
The Memphis Lift

Katie Cour
Executive Director
Nashville Public Education Foundation

Trey S. Cunningham
Student
Haywood County Schools

Indira Dammu
Education Advocate

Ommay Farah
Student
Metro Nashville Public School

Diarese George
Executive Director
Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance

Lindsey Hamilton
Director of Equity & Programming
Nashville Teacher Residency

Clifton Harris
President & CEO
Urban League of Middle Tennessee

Betsy Hurst
Executive Director
Hola Lakeway

Dr. Krista Johnson
Executive Director
ALLMemphis

Vivian Lozano
Social Impact Director
La Paz Chattanooga

Lonnell Matthews
Co-Chairperson
My Brother’s Keeper, Nashville

Natalie McKinney
Executive Director/ Co-Founder
Whole Child Strategies, Inc.

Phyllis Nichols
President and Chief Executive Officer
Knoxville Area Urban League

Jennifer Novo
Executive Director
FUTURO, Inc.

Cardell Orrin
Memphis Executive Director
Stand for Children

Terrence Patterson
Chief Executive Officer
Memphis Education Fund

Gini Pupo-Walker
State Director
The Education Trust in Tennessee

Walton Robinson
Interim Executive Director
UnifiEd

Samantha Singer
Executive Director
Volunteer State Seal of Biliteracy

Jeff Strand
Government and External Affairs
Tennessee Disability Coalition

Mark Sturgis
CEO
Seeding Success

Gloria Sweet-Love
State President
TN State Conference NAACP

Holly Tilden
Managing Director
Nashville Teacher Residency

Kinika Young
Senior Director of Health Policy and Advocacy
Tennessee Justice Center

Rev. Ayanna Watkins
Executive Director
MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action)

Hedy Weinberg
Executive Director
ACLU-TN