To Form a More Perfect Union

Public education in the state of Arkansas is a fragile institution. According to education rankings done by U.S. News, this state is ranked 42nd in the nation for education. Rather than working to improve our schools, the House of Representatives Education Committee is considering legislation that would send us backward.

Representative Mark Lowery, of District 39, recently sponsored two bills, HB 1218 and HB 1231, both potentially devastating to free expression in public schools. The stated purpose of the former, “to prohibit offering of certain courses, classes, events, and activities regarding race, gender, political, social class, or certain classes of people, and to adjust funding for schools that offer certain courses, events, and activities.” The latter, to prohibit public schools from teaching the New York Times 1619 Project.

These proposed bills are a threat to every public school in the state, including public charters and higher education. Beginning with HB 1218, the most alarming lines prohibit schools from offering courses, classes, events or activities which promote social justice for a certain race, gender, political affiliation, social class, or ethnic group.  The bill also would forbid schools from including any program which advocates for the solidarity of a certain group based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and social class.  It is unclear what exactly events or activities may include. The terms events and activities could encompass anything, which means that under this bill, essentially every school sponsored activity would be threatened. Faith groups, NAACP, GSA, political clubs across the spectrum, any could be targeted. Student organized protests, Black History Month celebrations, and controversial student newspaper editorials all may be censored. The vague language places schools at the mercy of the State Board of Education, which would be given the liberty to decide whether schools are in violation of the bill. Should they find fault with a course or activity that they deem too divisive or controversial, they would have the power to withhold up to ten percent of the school district’s monthly funding until the school adjusts.

Some parts of HB 1218 are disguised to sound like a positive thing. For example, it states that no school shall offer a course that encourages or promotes the overthrow of the United States government, but what school is doing that? If Representative Lowery truly believes there is cause for this legislation, he should produce sufficient evidence that proves this is a widespread problem in Arkansas schools. It is not good policy to “fix” a problem that does not exist, and it’s even worse policy to pass legislation with so much vagueness. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has confirmed that a law can be void for vagueness. This can happen if the average person cannot discern what the legislation refers to; for example, if teachers are unclear on what school-related events and activities the law prohibits, then the law may be ruled unconstitutional. There are almost certainly loopholes that could be found within this bill that would have unintended, damaging consequences.

HB 1231 is more specific than the first bill, but it should be considered just as threatening if not more so. It asserts that the 1619 Project is “a racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union.” The project is imperfect, I concede that. But that’s certainly not grounds for completely excluding it from discussion. To do so would be to ignore the facts just because they make us uncomfortable. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the real threat to the Union is ignorance. No one can deny that the nation was founded with the Declaration of Independence, as noted in the bill, but our history does go further back. It is essential to acknowledge the oppression and violence that built the nation, and the ways in which that oppression is still woven into our country today. That’s not revisionist history, it’s just the truth. Perhaps the reason the legislators feel as if it threatens the Union is because it threatens their own security. 

The bill also says that the State of Arkansas has a strong interest in forming the youth into “knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.” There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, but I get the sense that my version of patriotism and the legislators’ are different. To me, loving one’s country means wanting to improve it, recognizing that it’s broken and striving to create something better. The patriotism advocated by this bill seems to encourage mindless devotion, turning a blind eye to injustice and tiptoeing the line of nationalism. Schools shouldn’t be factories to churn out cookie cutter citizens, they’re places to encourage innovators, creatives, and leaders who will bring our country closer to its foundational ideals. Teachers know this. Teachers should be the ones deciding the lessons they teach, not the State legislature. 

This legislation is despicable because it would exclude conversations about some controversial but important topics so that students may never learn how to think critically about the world around them. In the beginning, I was willing to give Representative Lowery the benefit of doubt that he really did believe he was doing something good by introducing a bill to prevent division, and simply chose to ignore the damaging consequences. Of course, preventing division is a noble claim, but not when it comes at the price of free expression. With the introduction of HB 1231, the sponsors of these bills made it abundantly clear that their intentions are primarily to censor discussions of race. This is unacceptable, and every student and voter needs to fight against this legislation to make sure it never gets passed. The Education Committee will be meeting soon to determine whether to introduce it in the House; continue to check their agenda to see when the bills will be discussed. In the meantime, everyone should call the representatives on the Committee and demand that both HB 1218 and HB 1231 be killed. The Committee members and their contact information can be found here, and if you want to read the full proposed bills, you can access HB 1218 here, and HB 1231 here.