By Toren Ballard I Director of K-12 Policy
On March 14, Senate Bill 2113 became the first education bill to be signed into law for the 2022 legislative session. Titled simply “Critical Race Theory; prohibit,” SB 2113 became the bill at the center of the critical race theory conversation early on in the session and was the subject of a lot of heated rhetoric on its journey to the Governor’s desk. But what does SB 2113 actually say and what will its practical implications be?
SB 2113 is remarkably short. Here are its provisions:
- No K-12 public school or public institution of higher learning (IHL) may compel (or teach a course that compels) students to “affirm, adopt or adhere to” the idea that any “sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin” is inherently superior or inferior, or that any of these groups should be treated adversely on the basis of that identity.
- No K-12 public school or public IHL may classify students by race (with an exception for the required collection of demographic information).
- No public funds may be expended for any purpose that would violate these provisions.
- If any individual provision of the law is declared invalid, the other provisions remain.
The plain text of the law shows that the bill is, well, a nothing-burger. The concepts outlined in SB 2113—namely, discrimination against individuals based on their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin—are already illegal under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and they are generally considered abhorrent across the political spectrum. Importantly, the bill neither defines nor specifically prohibits anything by the name of “critical race theory.”
Regardless, both proponents and detractors of SB 2113 continue to insist upon much more consequential implications of the new law. In signing the bill, Governor Tate Reeves claimed that “CRT is running amok,” but that the legislation will “keep CRT where it belongs–out of MS [sic] classrooms.” Meanwhile, the most vocal opposition can be summed up with House Minority Leader Robert Johnson’s statement that the new law “censors our teachers and our students and their ability to teach history and ability to learn actual factual history.”
None of these “benefits” or fears have any reasonable basis in the law–if one actually reads the text. After all, there is only one documented case of CRT being studied in a Mississippi classroom—a law school course whose curriculum does not conflict with SB 2113—and a ban on discrimination in no way infringes upon any honest or reasonable teaching of any historical subject.
But given the tenor of the debate over SB 2113 and CRT in general, we are less worried about reasonable people reading the law and acting reasonably and more worried about the climate of overreaction surrounding the law. Despite the actual text of SB 2113, teachers may nonetheless choose to self-censor how and what they teach or scared administrators may use the law as an excuse to avoid teaching perfectly sound historical content, which, in effect, would turn disproportionately triumphalist or alarmist statements on SB 2113 into self-fulfilling prophecies.
The nationwide debate over how to talk about race in the classroom has put a magnifying glass to teachers’ daily lesson plans in a way that perhaps no issue has done since debates about teaching evolution in science class in the late 20th century. Teachers are feeling pressure from all angles—from parents, administrators, politicians, and the media—and it is easy to imagine how this climate may contribute to individual educators second-guessing lesson plans they have been teaching for years.
In short, while the language of SB 2113 in no way precludes the teaching of, say, the role of the Fugitive Slave Act or the Dred Scott Decision in the lead-up to the Civil War, if a teacher feels that discussing such a topic may be perceived by administrators or parents as violating the law, they may nonetheless avoid it. If teachers choose to self-censor in this manner, the mere passage of SB 2113, rather than its provisions, may detract from Mississippi students’ understanding of key events in history.
What can we do to prevent fear of teaching reasonable content and support teachers in good history instruction?
The most important thing we can do is make sure the state has great history standards and that teachers have access to aligned, high-quality history curriculum. With so many questions over the impacts of SB 2113, teachers should be able to rely on Mississippi history standards as a backstop to guide curricular decisions. As dry as standards may be to read and understand, decision-makers and the public should not underestimate their role when the topic of curriculum has become so politically charged. Unfortunately, this is where we think the true problem lies.
The Mississippi College- and Career-Readiness Standards for the Social Studies have some serious organizational and depth problems that a 2021 proposed revision could actually exacerbate. To use our example of the Fugitive Slave Act and Dred Scott Decision, the proposed changes to the 2021 standards actually removed specific mention of these historical events—signaling to a hypothetical teacher afraid of violating SB 2113 the entirely unintended message that subjects such as these should be avoided. We wrote an in-depth examination of standards related to American history in January as part of the State Board of Education’s public comment process. In that examination, we document what we think is problematic about the current standards and the proposed revision, but we also provide clear recommendations for how to fix these problems. You can read our submission here.
Shortly after SB 2113 became law, the State Board of Education voted at its March meeting to take a longer look at the proposed standards. We think this is an important opportunity to improve and clarify our standards and give teachers more confidence about what they can and should teach. Ultimately, the impact of SB 2113 on how Mississippi students learn about history and talk about race in the classroom will depend not only on individual teachers’ interpretations of the law but also how they perceive others to interpret it, namely parents and administrators. What state policymakers can do is craft thoughtful, clear, and comprehensive social studies standards to guide and give confidence to teachers who want to instill a high-level understanding of history among their students. We will be working hard to advocate for revised Mississippi College- and Career-Readiness Standards for the Social Studies that do exactly this.