Updates from the Shelby County Commission

Education and race

Update: The county’s resolution was returned to the floor for reconsideration on June 7. Commissioner Mills and I voted no.

My no vote was for the sake of simplicity, because I don’t think most citizens are aware of the board’s public discussions, the amendment I made, or my summary and explanation of both (as follows in its original form below).

I remain opposed to the 14 concepts condemned by both the state and the county. And I am still hopeful that the state will wisely consider the implementation of this law.

The state should equip teachers with whatever is needed to confidently present a full and complete account of history, and it should provide students with access to a wide array of instructional materials containing both positive and negative concepts, and positive and negative historical events, that are essential to a robust education.

Recently the Tennessee General Assembly passed, and Governor Bill Lee signed, a new law that discourages schools from promoting 14 concepts commonly referred to in media as belonging to “critical race theory.”

On Monday, the Shelby County Commission joined the state in condemning those concepts.

The area of disagreement between the county and the state is to what extent those concepts should nevertheless be included in instruction, and in determining how much latitude teachers have in incorporating those negative concepts in their curriculums and supplemental instructional materials. The Commission felt that the allowances made by the state were unclear and did not go far enough.

Here’s a brief summary of what happened.

The state’s bill

In April and May, the Tennessee House and Senate passed different versions of the legislation, House Bill 580 / Senate Bill 623. That required the two chambers to reconcile the bill in a conference committee.

The final version was adopted on May 5.

The bill ran 16 pages and covered a number of subjects, but the relevant section is found on pages 13-15.

There are two major parts of this section of the bill.

Part (a) lists 14 concepts that school systems “shall not include or promote” in a course of instruction.

Part (b) provides four exceptions to those prohibitions allowing for the inclusion of these concepts in certain circumstances.

The legislation’s enforcement mechanism empowers the education commissioner to withhold state funds from a school system that violates the law, “in an amount determined by the commissioner.”

A narrative forms

The media picked up on the debate in Nashville and adopted the storyline claiming that the state was banning the discussion of race in schools. Reporters largely avoided mentioning or listing either aspect of the bill, its prohibitions and allowances. Media claimed the state was gagging educators and threatening their funding.

Local government reacts

In response to the narrative formed by Democrats and the news media, local councilmen and commissioners drafted resolutions to oppose the state’s bill.

The Memphis City Council unanimously passed their resolution last week, calling on Governor Lee to veto the legislation. The Shelby County Commission followed, with all eight Democrats signing on as sponsors of the resolution.

When the county’s resolution was discussed in committee, its sponsors reacted very strongly against efforts to discuss and deliberate the issue, led by the two Republican commissioners in attendance.

One key point of contention was that the final version of the bill was not yet available for reference. Democrats moved to cut off debate before allowing Republicans to review the legislation.

The sponsors also objected to having their interpretation of the bill challenged with references to the actual content of the legislation.

Amending the resolution

With eight commissioners sponsoring the resolution, successful passage was a foregone conclusion, considering it only takes seven voting yes.

What was yet undetermined was what level of debate and discussion would commence and what exactly the board would express as the ultimate driver of its opposition.

That left me and the other Republicans with the choice of how to respond. We were already being painted as “oppressors” merely for questioning the narrative. But there was no way the five of us could stomach signing on to anything that would “promote” the 14 concepts listed by the state.

I resolved to do four things:

1. Shine a light on the actual contents of the bill and expose what it actually says.

2. Put commissioners on record as explicitly accepting or rejecting the 14 concepts.

3. Test whether the stated objection to the legislation was the true motivation behind the resolution.

4. If possible, find some area of agreement.

To do that, I drafted an amendment that redefined the county’s objection to the legislation and specified where we agreed and disagreed with the state.

I expected the sponsors to either object entirely to any amendment or to engage in discussion that would at least illuminate the divide.

Instead, one sponsor seconded my motion, and it was adopted without objection. The amended version of the resolution passed unanimously.

The amendment

The following two paragraphs contain the full text of my amendment:

WHEREAS, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners does not seek to promote the 14 concepts itemized by House Bill 580/Senate Bill 623 but maintains that such concepts have driven terrible events in our nation’s history and continue to play a negative role in our nation’s affairs, making these concepts important elements to include in a U.S. history and civics education; and

WHEREAS, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners considers the exceptions allowed in subdivisions (b)(1) – (4) of House Bill 580/Senate Bill 623 to be incomplete and unclear, which could hinder instruction on U.S. history and civics; and

What we’re saying here is pretty simple. We view the 14 concepts as “terrible” and “negative,” and do not seek to “promote” them. We do, however, believe the allowances made by the state to “include” them in instruction are unclear and stop short of what might be required for a full, robust education.

The state’s use of both “promote” and “include” are key to my position. I do not believe the 14 concepts should be promoted. I do think we need to “include” them in instruction, and that the state should clarify to what degree educators are allowed to do so.

I personally believe this could have been resolved with a simple signing statement or the drafting of an implementation policy by the Department of Education.

There are plenty of negative things I would not want educators to “promote” that they nevertheless should “include” in instruction.

For instance, no history would be complete without including a discussion of Nazi Germany and what they believed, or what drove the Holocaust. No part of Nazi ideology should be promoted, but students need to understand it. (Recently legislators in Poland passed some ill-advised legislation to limit what could be taught concerning their country’s role.)

Similarly, no science education could be complete now without exposure to the Big Bang Theory, or to the Theory of Evolution. Regardless of your position on either theory, both have historic implications, and students would be poorly served if they were not made aware of those concepts.

The 14 concepts

I will conclude here by sharing what those 14 concepts are that have now been condemned by both the State of Tennessee and Shelby County.

(1) One (1) race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;

(2) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;

(3) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex;

(4) An individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex;

(5) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;

(6) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex;

(7) A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;

(8) This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;

(9) Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government;

(10) Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people;

(11) Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex;

(12) The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups;

(13) All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or

(14) Governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.