Opinion: CJ Opinion

Debate about school ‘indoctrination’ bill ignores its text

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (Image from YouTube)
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (Image from YouTube)

It’s likely that most people who have criticized the recently approved House Bill 324 have yet to read the legislation. If they had read it, they would have found a proposal that’s far different from the one trashed by opponents.

Lost in the debate about Critical Race Theory, “Fox News-driven … fearmongering,” and teacher “witch hunts” is careful evaluation of the bill’s contents.

Read it yourself. The bill takes up a little over two pages. You can decide whether the rest of this column offers an accurate summary.

Given the focus of most news coverage about H.B. 324, you might be surprised to learn that the phrase “Critical Race Theory” never appears in the text. Nor does the bill allude to that controversial academic approach. The bill never mentions “indoctrination,” though it has been described — often by supporters — as a measure designed to fight ideological indoctrination in public schools.

Read the bill, and you’ll learn that it focuses on the words “dignity” and “nondiscrimination.” The shorthand bill title talks about ensuring both of those laudable concepts. The full title highlights supporters’ intent that everyone involved in public schools “recognize the equality and rights of all persons and to prohibit public school units from promoting certain concepts” that diverge from that intent.

H.B. 324 turns to the N.C. Constitution for support. It notes that Article I, Section 1 — also known as the Declaration of Rights — “recognizes the equality and rights of all persons.” With that fact in mind, the bill calls for people in schools to “respect the dignity of others, acknowledge the right of others to express differing opinions, and foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry and instruction, and freedom of speech and association.”

Now for the meat of the bill.

Public schools are banned from promoting a list of 13 different concepts. Promoting means “compelling students, teachers, or administrators, or other school employees to affirm or profess belief in” those concepts. In other words, schools cannot force either a student or an employee to agree with the concepts.

I won’t list all 13, but here is a representative sample. “One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.” “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.” “A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.” “The United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”

Many of us consider these ideas abhorrent. But the bill would not block anyone from holding or even expressing those views. It would ban schools from forcing students and employees to endorse the controversial views.

The bill’s next section doesn’t mention the word “transparency,” but that’s the goal. Public schools planning to address any of the 13 controversial concepts would be required to give 30 days’ advance notice to the state Department of Public Instruction. School officials also would be required to post general information on the school’s website, “with detailed information available upon request.”

The reporting requirement would apply to curricula, reading lists, seminars, workshops, and training. It would apply to outside speakers and contractors.

Critics have warned of a potential chilling effect from H.B. 324. But the bill goes on to spell out exceptions to new restrictions.

First, nothing in the bill would stifle “speech protected by the First Amendment.” Nor would the bill ban “impartial discussion” of “controversial aspects of history,” including the “historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.”

In other words, nothing in H.B. 324 would block discussion in schools about slavery, the Jim Crow era, or other topics worthy of serious, thoughtful classroom dialogue. The bill even expressly allows for the 13 concepts to be stated and discussed “in contexts that make clear the public school unit does not sponsor, approve, or endorse” them.

Critics could try to defend the 13 controversial concepts as worthy of promotion within public schools. Or they could complain about the bureaucratic hassle tied to new transparency measures. They could argue that lawmakers should take a different approach to “ensuring dignity and nondiscrimination” in schools.

But they do themselves no favors when they misstate what H.B. 324 would do. Those who read the text will find the true story. It’s one that promotes thoughtful discussion of tough topics, not promotion of beliefs contrary to our nation’s core principles.

Now that the bill has reached his desk, let’s hope Gov. Roy Cooper actually reads it.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.