Black Georgia state senators and their allies made a last-ditch effort on Friday to stop passage of a bill that would limit discussion about systemic racism in the state’s K-12 classrooms.

The Senate ultimately voted 32-20 in favor of Senate Bill 377 early Friday afternoon.

Senators including Sonya Halpern (D-39th), Harold Jones II (D-22nd), and Nikki Merritt (D-9th) challenged Republicans’ contention that the bill is needed to prevent Georgia teachers from scapegoating and stereotyping students based on their skin color while teaching lessons about the past and present role race plays in America.

“What we really need to talk about is the intent of this bill,” Merritt said while addressing her fellow state senators on Friday. “The intent is to silence certain conversations that may make others [feel] embarrassed. … The fact we even have this bill shows that we haven’t healed from our past because we’re trying to hide it.”

Others, including Sen. Freddie Powell Sims (D-12th), a former middle-school principal, expressed concerns that the bill would discourage teachers from talking about race in their classrooms.

“We should not be sending a message that we don’t trust teachers when we are already facing massive shortages and high levels of burnout and teacher turnovers,” Sims said.

The bill will now head to the state House of Representatives, as the Senate reviews House Bill 1084, a similar measure that the House passed last week.

Both chambers are expected to reconcile the bills and send the combined legislation to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.

Kemp expressed support in January for legislation that would keep so-called critical race theory out of the state’s schools.

SB 377 makes no mention of critical race theory, but the measure would bar Georgia’s grade-school educators from teaching race-related “divisive concepts” to their students, according to the legislation’s text.

Those concepts include the idea that “one race or ethnicity is inherently superior to another,” or that certain people are “inherently racist” due to their skin color or ethnicity alone.

State Sen. Bo Hatchett (R-50th), who authored the legislation, notes that it does not prohibit curriculum addressing slavery, racial or ethnic oppression, segregation and discrimination. The bill also says it doesn’t bar discussing “the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in such oppression, segregation, and discrimination.”

“We’re not trying to erase history,” Hatchett told Capital B earlier this week. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that while teaching those lessons that [teachers] not then tell a child that because of something that happened in the past, they should feel guilty because of their skin color or that they are responsible because of their skin color.”

SB 377’s more controversial sections include provisions that would make it illegal to teach students that the United States and the state of Georgia are “fundamentally or systemically racist.”

The proposed law also would ban teachers from telling students that people of a certain skin color bear some responsibility for past or present actions committed by other individuals of the same race, or that individuals “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race.

Multiple members of the chamber, including Sims, linked SB 377 with former President Donald Trump’s 2020 executive order limiting how diversity training is conducted for federal agencies and contractors. Conservatives have argued some diversity training unfairly singles out white Americans for the sins of their ancestors.

“The language has migrated to a series of state level bills that are pushed by conservative organizations, bills that use language from this list aimed to discourage our teachers from making race or gender salient in conversations about power and oppression,” Sims told her fellow lawmakers as they debated SB 377 in the Senate Friday.

Hatchett says SB 377 was drafted in response to Georgia constituents who’ve expressed concerns that lessons about systemic racism unduly stereotype certain students based on skin color, making them feel guilty for acts they themselves didn’t commit.

Those concerns have peaked primarily among conservative Americans across the country amid the national debate over critical race theory, which erupted during the summer of 2020 in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.

Critical race theory is an academic concept taught primarily in college classrooms, but the term has been used by conservatives to refer broadly to classroom discussions about racism in America. Hatchett stressed that his bill targets “divisive concepts” about race more generally.

“The senators in my caucus have heard from their constituents and I have heard from my constituents that this is a real issue,” Hatchett told Capital B earlier this week. “In response to that, we needed to address it and that’s why we chose to address these divisive concepts.”

Unintended consequences?

Critics of SB 377 and HB 1084 say they fear the proposed laws will create confusion about what is legal to teach in Georgia classrooms and discourage teachers and administrators from addressing race at all in their curriculum.

“The constituents that are telling you it’s a problem are going to be the constituents who will believe this bill allows them to file a complaint about any discussion of race in the classroom,” Georgia Association of Educators President Lisa Morgan told Capital B on Thursday.

Both the Georgia Association of Educators and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators — which lobbies on behalf of the state’s teachers, administrators and school personnel — say they oppose the latest version of SB 377 and other bills like it.

PAGE Executive Director Craig Harper said the bill’s supporters haven’t sufficiently shown that the “divisive concepts” referenced in the bill are being taught widely, or at all, in Georgia schools.

“Most educators who’ve contacted us are concerned about whether this or similar legislation will limit their instruction, and they’re wondering who will provide guidance on how to teach important lessons about our full history while remaining within the limits of the law,” Harper told Capital B in an emailed statement.

The complaint system

SB 377 also would require local boards of education in Georgia to create a “complaint resolution policy” that allows a select group of people — including parents of enrolled students, teachers, school personnel and administrators — to file complaints against educators who may have violated the proposed law.

District attorneys and the state attorney general aren’t allowed to file complaints, the result of an approved amendment from Halpern.

The complaints must be submitted in writing to the school’s principal, who will have three days to review them and take “reasonable steps to investigate the allegations,” according to the bill’s latest version. Complainants who are not satisfied with a principal’s ruling can progressively file an appeal with the local school superintendent, the local board of education and ultimately the state board of education.

The state board would be able to order local boards to “develop a corrective action plan” for substantive violations within 10 days of its findings.

Punishing teachers/schools that violate SB 377

A previous version of SB 377 would have allowed the state superintendent to reduce a school’s per-student funding – used for teacher salaries and other operating core expenses – by 10% for failing to properly respond to violations, according to Hatchett. That punitive system was scrapped in favor of one that would limit a school’s ability to use specific surplus funding for other school purposes.  

“Based on multiple conversations with legislators, superintendents, [and] educators across the state, we determined that this was a more appropriate way to punish and deter school systems where [race-related divisive concepts] could potentially be being taught,” Hatchett said.

Morgan, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said the proposed punitive system could deter Georgia school administrators from allowing teachers to talk about race in their classrooms at a time when teacher morale is extremely low, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Administrators are very risk averse,” Morgan said. “I’ve heard more than one administrator say to a teacher, ‘We don’t want to be on the news. Don’t do anything that will get us on the news.'”

Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.