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Tennessee educators sue the state over law banning certain teachings on race, gender and privilege

The lawsuit from the Tennessee Education Association and five public school educators argues Tennessee's ban puts teachers in an "impossible" position.
Will Deshazer
The lawsuit from the Tennessee Education Association and five public school educators argues Tennessee's ban puts teachers in an "impossible" position.

A group representing teachers from across Tennessee has filed a lawsuit against state officials over a ban on certain “prohibited concepts” in the classroom. The law bans certain lessons about racism, gender and privilege. Plaintiffs in the suit say the policy interferes with teachers’ ability to do their jobs and “deprives students of a quality education.”

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the policy in 2021, when critical race theory became a cultural flashpoint among conservatives. The law doesn’t explicitly use the term “critical race theory,” which states that racism is planted in the country’s health, economic, education, criminal justice and housing systems. But it does ban certain concepts, such as individuals may be inherently privileged based on their race or sex.

Teachers in the suit say long-standing lessons and activities have stopped in reaction to the law. For example, they say a school in West Tennessee swapped its annual field trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis for a baseball game. One plaintiff in the suit, a Shelby County choir director, has taught students for decades to sing and learn the history behind spirituals sung by enslaved people. He worries that practice could be perceived as “divisive” or otherwise violate the ban.

Tanya Coats is president of the Tennessee Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of education workers. Her organization filed the suit, along with five individual educators.

“It doesn’t have to be a culture war,” she said.

Coats said the law prevents the teaching of some Tennessee academic standards.

“We will do what is in front of us. But we can’t put ourselves at risk when we are uncertain about how this law is going to affect us and our classrooms.”

Kathryn Vaughn is among the named plaintiffs in the suit. She told ABC’s Good Morning America that schools have received little guidance on how to comply with the policy.

“This has been a huge detriment,” Vaughn said. “Our school board locally, our teachers locally are struggling under this law trying to figure out what we can and can’t say in our classrooms.”

Students, parents and public school employees can file complaints if they think the law has been violated. Teachers can be punished, and even lose their teaching license for breaking the rules. School districts can lose state funding if they’re found in violation.

Educator Rebecca Dickenson is also suing the state. She told Good Morning America about her concerns with teacher recruitment and retention.

“It worries me that this will discourage teachers from going into teaching or from staying in the classroom when they feel like people do not trust them to teach what they’re supposed to teach.”

The lawsuit argues the policy is unconstitutionally vague, violating the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

A spokesperson from Gov. Bill Lee’s office said in a written statement that “Tennessee students should be taught history and civics with facts, not divisive political commentary.”

The spokesperson said they could not comment further on the pending litigation, and that the state Attorney General’s office would be “handling next steps.”

The Tennessee Education Association filed a separate lawsuit against the state earlier this summer over a law that prohibits members from paying dues through payroll deductions.

Alexis Marshall is WPLN News’s education reporter. She is a Middle Tennessee native and started listening to WPLN as a high schooler in Murfreesboro. She got her start in public radio freelance producing for NPR and reporting at WMOT, the on-campus station at MTSU. She was the reporting intern at WPLN News in the fall of 2018 and afterward an intern on NPR’s Education Desk. Alexis returned to WPLN in 2020 as a newscast producer and took over the education beat in 2022. Marshall contributes regularly to WPLN's partnership with Nashville Noticias, a Spanish language news program, and studies Arabic. When she's not reporting, you can find her cooking, crocheting or foraging for mushrooms.
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