Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest veto tosses the debate about N.C. public school indoctrination back into the hands of state lawmakers.
If Republican legislative leaders move to override Cooper’s veto of House Bill 324, it will be interesting to listen to Democrats’ responses. They might employ two contradictory attacks against the bill, which would ban public schools from promoting a list of 13 controversial concepts. The proscribed statements defy America’s core liberal principles.
It’s not possible for the contradictory points of criticism to be true at the same time.
Every voting N.C. House Democrat said “no” to the final version of H.B. 324 on Sept. 1. Back-to-back speeches on the House floor that day highlighted the contrasting arguments that pushed Democrats toward “no.”
One Democrat criticized Republican colleagues for trying to ban 13 concepts that never appear in public schools. The other criticized Republicans for trying to ban at least one concept that should be taught in school.
The two critiques should not coexist. They stand diametrically opposed to one another.
“Why is this here?” freshman Rep. Abe Jones, D-Wake, asked his colleagues during the House debate. “Who’s out doing any of the 13 things that are prohibited? Who in the world but a Nazi or a Klansman would even teach this stuff?”
“If you read through the list, I mean, it’s crazy stuff,” Jones added. “I can’t imagine a single teacher standing up and teaching somebody that one race or sex is inherently superior to another.”
That last statement is one of the 13 concepts that H.B. 324 would ban public schools from promoting. Jones mentioned others: that a person’s race could make him inherently racist or that a person’s race or sex should subject him to discrimination.
“Who is doing this?” Jones asked. “Where are you getting this information? It’s a bogeyman.”
“I’d like to see a film or a picture of somebody actually standing in front of a group of students in North Carolina — in a classroom — and teaching what’s in those 13 parts,” he said. “That is abhorrent, if it is happening.”
Jones doesn’t believe anyone is promoting the “abhorrent” concepts. Instead he thinks H.B. 324 is designed to allow “Big Raleigh” to dictate statewide teaching policies. Jones believes those decisions should be left to local school boards.
Moments after Jones completed his remarks and sat down, Rep. Kandie Smith, D-Pitt, offered her own objections to H.B. 324.
While her Wake County colleague labeled the 13 proscribed concepts “abhorrent” and “crazy,” Smith signaled that at least one of them represented an accurate portrayal of American history.
Smith reminded colleagues that the U.S. Constitution was signed by “39 white, land-owning men” and that it “explicitly excluded women, minorities, indigenous Americans, and individuals who did not own land.”
“There’s a problem here,” Smith said. “If I were a teacher, and if I taught these two facts in my classroom, I could be in violation of part 8 of subsection c of this bill, which states that teachers cannot teach that ‘The United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.’”
Smith did not say directly that she believes the U.S. Constitution offers proof that the nation was formed “for the purpose” of whites oppressing blacks. But her comments suggested that the proscribed concept is close enough to the truth to give her serious concerns about H.B. 324.
It’s not clear whether Jones listened to Smith’s remarks. If he did, he should have realized that his colleague had just shattered his argument about the legislation being a “bogeyman.”
Neither Jones nor Smith referenced the bill’s final substantive section. That’s telling. The ignored language addresses both of their concerns directly.
H.B. 324 states clearly that none of its new restrictions applies to “speech protected by the First Amendment.” Plus the bill specifically exempts “impartial discussion” in schools of “controversial aspects of history.”
For those worried about attempts to whitewash negative aspects of America’s story, including slavery and Jim Crow, the bill offers clear guidance. It specifically permits discussion of the “historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.”
Smith’s hypothetical teacher should have no problem teaching that every signer of the U.S. Constitution was a white male property owner. That same teacher could explain that constitutional protections initially extended only to selected members of the American nation.
It’s even possible for the teacher to broach the 13 controversial concepts, even those Jones labeled “abhorrent.” The teacher could discuss those concepts “in contexts that make clear the public school unit does not sponsor, approve, or endorse” them, according to the text of H.B. 324.
Whether you think the 13 proscribed concepts are “crazy stuff,” like Jones, or fair game for teachers, like Smith, there’s no good reason to think H.B. 324 would block thoughtful, fact-based discussion of America’s complicated past.
We could learn soon whether Democratic lawmakers will stick to their “no” votes — and their contradictory complaints.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.