Republicans have mounted an “attack on education” in 2022, according to a report, as lawmakers have introduced a soaring number of bills aimed at limiting classroom discussion of race and LGBTQ+ issues.
The number of “educational gag orders” introduced has increased by 250% compared with 2021, according to PEN America, a non-profit organization that works to protect freedom of expression in the US, as Republican legislators have sought to censor discussion of race and LGBTQ+ issues from the classroom.
According to PEN, 137 of the gag orders, which it defines as “state legislative efforts to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities in K–12 and higher education”, have been introduced in 36 states so far this year. In 2021 the organization recorded 54 gag order bills in 22 states.
“It’s unquestionable that things have got worse,” said Jeremy Young, PEN’s senior manager, free expression and education.
“Attacks on education, on educators, have got more coordinated and more dangerous. Escalation is the word that defines what we’re seeing. This is a series of increasingly vitriolic and dangerous attacks on teachers, educators and the educational system.”
PEN found that gender identity has been an increasing focus of conservative lawmakers. From the beginning of January this year through to mid-August, 23 bills have been introduced which would limit how teachers can discuss gender identity.
There is also an increased focus on punishments for discussing banned topics, with severe fines proposed for schools, universities and teachers themselves.
Young said a main reason for the rise in legislation is a “bandwagon effect”.
A minority of the 137 educational gag order bills have been passed into law. But the backdrop of conservatives jostling for classroom censorship, and the threat of potential punishment at some point in the future can still serve as a looming threat for teachers and school administrators.
“There is some evidence that attacks on public education have resonated particularly with conservative voters,” Young said.
“So now, instead of attacks on public education simply being the province of people who have always fought public education for social reasons, cultural reasons, or because they support private schools or homeschooling, now there is this bandwagon effect where just about every conservative legislator feels some pressure to support or propose or vote for these bills.”
The bills, introduced by conservative lawmakers, hardly represent public demand. More than 70% of parents are satisfied with the education their children receive, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. Earlier this year a NPR survey found that fewer than 20% of parents are dissatisfied with the way their children are taught about gender and sexuality, and race.
Missouri has had the most gagging bills in 2022, but Florida has had more success in passing legislation, Young said.
In March, Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, signed a bill dubbed “don’t say gay” into law. The heavily criticized legislation restricts instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, while the state also passed a law which places restrictions on discussion of race and racism. Separately, DeSantis signed a law in May which orders that students must receive at least 45 minutes’ instruction every November about the “victims of communism”.
Young said the legislation is often characterized by the banning of vague concepts, rather than providing specifics about what teachers can and cannot say and teach.
Florida’s don’t say gay bill, for example, reads in part: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Classroom instruction is not defined, and as the New York Times noted, it could mean “eliminating books in the classroom with LGBTQ+ characters or historical figures”. Similarly, no guidance is given on what “classroom discussion” actually means, and could be interpreted by teachers to mean, as the Times put it: “A student with gay parents should not talk about those families with the entire class.”
“The vagueness is the point,” Young said.
“Because the vaguer the bills are, the more self-censorship is going to go on, the more afraid teachers will be, and the more afraid administrators will be.
“So it is absolutely by design – it is the plan to get teachers and administrators on the defensive, to get them on their toes, to make it so that they don’t go anywhere near potentially prohibited concepts.”