Since the beginning of 2022, at least eight laws were passed restricting what teachers can say about gender, race, sexuality, American history, or inequality in K-12 schools and in some colleges/universities.

One of the most prominent examples was in Florida, which in March of this year passed a bill prohibiting teaching issues of gender or sexuality to children where it’s “developmentally inappropriate."

According to the Education Department, establishing a curriculum is primarily a state and local responsibility. The department leaves it up to states and communities, and public and private organizations to establish schools, colleges, develop curricula and determine enrollment and graduation requirements.

Other states passed laws that ban teachers from discussing a range of topics. However, some states expanded education on identity, race, bias, and related topics in K-12 schools.

What is “critical race theory”?

Critical race theory is organized around the idea that race is socially constructed, and that racism is built into US laws and institutions. While not all legislation restricting curriculum about race and bias references critical race theory, many bills passed in the last two years target the teaching of this concept in schools. There isn’t any evidence of K-12 schools teaching critical race theory as part of its curriculum, though critics argue the theory informs lessons on race and equity.

Which states are restricting curriculum about race or racism?

Georgia passed HB 1084, prohibiting K-12 schools from implementing curriculum from a list of “divisive concepts” related to race. The law considers the following to be divisive concepts: "one race is inherently superior to another race; the US is fundamentally racist; and an individual, by virtue of his or her race, is inherently or consciously racist or oppressive toward individuals of other races."

School districts in the state may be subject to more oversight and superintendents may be suspended if found to violate the law.

Florida passed HB 7, but the law was recently blocked by a judge from taking effect in public colleges and universities. The law would prohibit public university employees from requiring trainings that promote ideas from a list of "divisive concepts" related to race and bias.

In March, Mississippi passed Senate Bill 2113, "Critical Race Theory; Prohibit." The law states that public schools, including K-12 schools, colleges and universities, cannot teach "that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior; or that individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin."

Mississippi’s law does not specify consequences if violated.

Kentucky passed SB 1, stating that all K-12 instruction and instructional materials must be consistent with ideas related to race, gender identity, sexual orientation and US history. The bill was initially vetoed by the governor but was later overridden by the legislature.

Tennessee passed a law prohibiting higher education institutions from conducting any mandatory training that includes a list of “divisive concepts” related to identity that “promotes resentment” for any group. Training courses may include seminars, workshops or orientations. The bill also prohibits employees or students from being disciplined for refusing to support one or more divisive concepts, allowing them to sue public colleges if they have been unfairly punished.

Some of the “divisive concepts” in the bill state, “one race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex” as well as the idea that, “an individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously” and “an individual's moral character is determined by the individual's race or sex.”

Tennessee passed a similar law the previous year that prohibits teaching “divisive concepts” related to race and bias in K-12 public schools. If a school district violates the law, state funds can be withheld.

At least eight other laws[1] were passed in 2021 that put some level of restriction on what can be taught in public schools related to race, racism, bias, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Which states are restricting curriculum about gender or sexual orientation?

Alabama, Florida, and South Dakota each passed laws prohibiting teachers and schools from instructing some students about issues of gender or sexuality.

Florida was the first state of the three to pass such legislation. The law prohibits teaching issues of gender or sexuality to children where it’s “developmentally inappropriate.” The Florida Department of Education sets state standards that define what teachings are developmentally appropriate.

Schools violating the law are subject to lawsuits from parents and can be subject to financial penalties, including attorney fees.

The laws in Alabama and South Dakota are similar to the Florida law but have some key differences. For example, the South Dakota legislation applies to colleges, universities, and professional training. While Florida’s law focuses on kindergarten through third grade, Alabama’s law also applies to fourth and fifth graders. Both Florida and Alabama’s laws also include language saying instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity must be age- and developmentally appropriate.

South Dakota's law restricts curriculum about race and racism along with gender and sexual orientation.

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Which states had governors sign executive orders restricting curriculum?

Governors in South Dakota and Virginia signed executive orders prohibiting public K-12 schools from promoting ideas “in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” These executive orders include a prohibited list of “divisive concepts” related to race, sex, religion, and other identities. South Dakota’s order does not specify a punishment if the order is violated. Virgnia Gov. Glenn Youngkin created an email tip line for the public to report violations of the order. The tip line was shut down in September of this year due to a low volume of responses.

Which states recently expanded teaching about race and identity in schools?

The Colorado State Board of Education recently approved a new requirement in social studies lessons. History classes must include curriculum that highlights the experiences and contributions of diverse groups including LGBTQ people, Indigenous people, Hispanic people, Black people, Asian people, and religious minorities. The new standards follow a Colorado state law passed in 2019 that requires US history and civil government classes to include teachings of different American minority group's historical, cultural, and social contributions in public school curriculum.

In 2021, Nevada passed a law mandating that K-12 public schools have curriculum that highlights the history and contributions from LGBTQ people, Native and Indigenous people, people of minority racial groups, and people with disabilities in the fields of science, arts and the humanities.

New Jersey passed a law in 2021 requiring schools to incorporate diversity and inclusion in K-12 curricula where it is appropriate. The legislation mandates the following topics are incorporated into the curriculum; “economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance.” The law also requires schools include age-appropriate lessons on “the impact that unconscious bias and economic disparities have at both an individual and societal level.”

Last year, the New Mexico Public Education Department updated its social studies standards so that curriculum is more culturally responsive.

At least five other states[2] passed laws in 2021 that develop cultural competency standards in curriculum, require ethnic studies classes in high schools, expand or require teaching of African American history, or require Asian American history be taught in elementary and high schools.

For more information on state-by-state changes in laws see, abortion laws in 2022 and LGBTQ laws in 2022.

[1]

Laws were passed in Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.

[2]

The five states include: Washington, California, Illinois, Maine and Delaware.