Archives for category: Education Reform

I’ll be sending you occasional notices to remind you that the end of the pandemic means the return of the annual conference of the Network for Public Education. This will be your opportunity to make connections with friends and allies fighting for public schools across the nation. Join us!

Our Network for Public Education Action conference will be an in-person conference on October 23 and 24 in Philadelphia.It will be terrific. So much has happened in the world since the 2020 conference was canceled due to Covid-19.

We will have wonderful keynote speakers including Little Steven, Jitu Brown, and Noliwe Rooks.

We will have panels that include stopping school privatization, lifting up community schools, creating inclusive schools free of systemic racism and valuing democracy in schools. That is just a sample. The full schedule will emerge soon.

Best of all, we will be together in a beautiful hotel in the City of Brotherly Love.

The conference theme is Neighborhood Schools: The Heart of our Community. As we emerge from a year of isolation, that theme is more important than ever.

If you registered for the 2020 conference and did not request a refund, you are registered for the conference but be sure to register for the hotel.

The discounted rooms are going fast.https://book.passkey.com/gt/218126437?gtid=3b2e4f0403f2a2b9544e40207d650ccb
If you did not register for the 2020 conference, don’t wait. We have only about 50 spots left.
https://npeaction.org/2021-conference/
We need each other and NPE needs all of us to adovocate for public education.

See you in October!

Now that so many Republican-controlled states are planning or hoping to ban the use of curriculum materials based on the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning “The 1619 Project,” it is refreshing to hear a contrary view.

Indiana blogger Steve Hinnefeld believes that “The 1619 Project” strongly affirms American values and hopes it will be taught in schools across the country.

Here is an excerpt from his post, which I found inspiring. I reacted to the work as he did.

I read the 1619 Project when it was published in 2019, and I thought it was one of the most powerful collections of writings about America that I had ever encountered. I reread parts of it this week, including Nikole-Hannah Jones’ lead essay, and I still feel the same way.

I’ve been mystified to see the project turned into a political lightning rod. Following the lead of Donald Trump, critics argue it is racially divisive, anti-white and anti-American, and that it seeks to make us ashamed of our country. (None of that is true). Some legislators want to outlaw teaching it in schools.

The 1619 Project: New York Times Sunday Magazine cover.

I can only assume that these people are making their arguments in profoundly bad faith, manufacturing outrage for the 2022 elections. As Notre Dame professor John Duffy writes, many of the critiques seem “cynically opportunistic – gasoline poured into the trash can fires of the culture wars.

An ambitious initiative by the New York Times, the 1619 Project aimed to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” It examines 400 years of history through the prism of race and racism, starting with the arrival in 1619 of the first Africans brought as slaves to what would become the United States.

The project is big and complex. It includes scholarly articles, short vignettes, verse, visual art and a detailed timeline of significant, often overlooked events. Historians, journalists, critics and poets contribute content. There’s a 1619 Project curriculum for schools, developed by the Pulitzer Center.

Holding the piece together is the provocative lead essay by Hannah-Jones, who organized the project and won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her work. “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written,” she writes. “Black Americans fought to make them true.”

Hannah-Jones frames her essay with her struggle to make sense of her father’s unashamed patriotism. Her father was “born into a family of sharecroppers on a white plantation in Greenwood, Mississippi.” The family moved north to Iowa, where they struggled to make a living and faced discrimination in housing, jobs and other areas. Yet her Army veteran father flew an American flag outside his house every day, something his daughter could not understand.

“Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little,” she writes. “My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.”

Hannah-Jones guides readers through American history seen, for once, from the perspective of African Americans. Many of the themes are familiar, but in combination they are devastating. Ten of the first 12 presidents owned slaves. For centuries, the law defined enslaved Black people as property, not human beings. Abraham Lincoln came reluctantly to freeing the slaves and did not champion equality. The brief flowering of freedom under Reconstruction was crushed by the Compromise of 1877, followed by 80 years of brutality and Jim Crow segregation. Most white Americans rejected the civil rights movement.

Black people not only endured but fought to make real the promise of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal,” Hannah-Jones writes. They marched and protested for equal rights. They fought the nation’s wars, serving in disproportionate numbers in the military. In an individualistic country, they embraced the idea of the common good. Their battles made possible freedom struggles by women, other people of color, Native Americans, immigrants and LGBTQ people.

Robin Lithgow was in charge of arts in the public schools of Los Angeles. She writes frequently about the arts in schools.

She writes:

Pleased to announce!

Now that the pandemic is subsiding and schools are reopening, I’m moving forward with the publication of my book. The working title now is Learning the Way Shakespeare Learned: Classroom Dramatics, Physical Rhetoric, and a Generation of Genius. I’m working with Susan Shankin, the publisher of Precocity Press, and the book will be illustrated by my brother. We hope to have it out by the fall.

In the meantime, I’d like to feature some of the truly amazing drama teachers I’ve worked with over the course of my career. I have a deep and abiding love for them all. They teach so much more than drama. Just as drama is an art form that incorporates all other art forms, teachers of drama incorporate everything that every student brings to the class.

To get us going, here is “Jenny, Drama Teacher” from Zadie Smith’s IntimationsThe book is her profound and insightful reflection on the pandemic, definitely worth the read in its entirety, but what I want to share here is from her appendix: “Debts and Lessons.” There she credits 26 individuals with escorting her on her voyage into wisdom, with a brief and lovely homage to each one.

(I’ve loved reading Zadie Smith ever since my mom handed me a copy of White Teeth some twenty-five years ago and I read a book that exploded in my mind. I couldn’t fathom that an author so young could produce such an epic! Presumably her experience with Jenny was a spark for her genius.)

13. Jenny, Drama Teacher

A task is in front of you. It is not as glorious as you had imagined or hoped. (In this case, it is not the West End, it is not Broadway, it is a small black box stapled to an ugly comprehensive school.) But it is a task in front of you. Delight in it. The more absurd and tiny it is, the more care and dedication it deserves. Large, sensible projects require far less belief. People who dedicate themselves to unimportant things will sometimes be blind to the formal borders that are placed around the important world. They might see teenagers as people. They will make themselves absurd to the important world. Mistakes will be made. Appropriate measures will be pursued. The border between the important and the unimportant will be painfully reestablished. But the magic to be found in the black box will never be forgotten by any who entered it.

Denis Smith went to graduate school in West Virginia and served as an elementary and middle school principal, director of curriculum, and director of federal programs in the suburban school system adjacent to the state capital. He subsequently moved to Ohio, where he was in charge of overseeing the state’s burgeoning and scandal-ridden charter sector. He wrote a warning to West Virginia, published in the state’s major newspaper, about its new charter law and what is likely to happen. It won’t be pretty.

He said that charters will not be accountable. They will divert money from the state’s public schools, while doing whatever it takes (campaign contributions?) to avoid academic and financial accountability.

He pointed out that the people of West Virginia will lose local control of their schools, as national charter chains move in.

Consider the irony that the leader of the founding coalition of the proposed West Virginia Academy is a professor of accounting. But then we should also know that, when it comes to all things related to charter school accounting and accountability, nothing adds up. Add to that the fact that these schools are free from many sections of state law, including school boards that are directly elected by the public. For example, in Ohio, where I live, charter schools are exempt from 140 sections of the state code.

Keep in mind that charter boards are hand-picked, selected by the companies that manage the school, where school governance by design is not accountable to the voters…

As a former resident of West Virginia and a school administrator in West Virginia and Ohio, it is my hope that the citizens of the Mountain State might learn from the mistakes of Ohio, which bears the distinction of having a refuse pile containing the wreckage of nearly 300 closed charter schools, some of which received funding but never opened, emitting a rancid, overpowering odor, a byproduct of bad public policy.

And speaking about waste, Ohio has spent more than $4 billion on the charter school experiment so far, an exercise that is hell-bent on using public funds for private purposes while skirting transparency and accountability requirements.

Smith asks the people of the state:

Are West Virginians, exploited for generations by energy companies, in favor of selling off their public schools?

One of the hotly debated questions surrounding “The 1619 Project,” the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of essays is whether race and slavery played a role in the American Revolution. Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote that Southern slave owners supported the Revolution to protect their property (slaves) and to ward off the influence of British abolitionism. Some of her critics argued that this claim was untrue and that it slandered our Founding Fathers.

Now comes an essay in TIME magazine by historian Robert G. Parkinson of Binghamton University, who argues that it is impossible to understand what happened in 1776 without recognizing the importance of race and slavery.

He begins:

Slavery and arguments about race were not only at the heart of the American founding; it was what united the states in the first place. We have been reluctant to admit just how thoroughly the Founding Fathers thought about, talked about, and wrote about race at the moment of American independence...

Recently, a controversy over “critical race theory” has ignited public debate about the centrality of race to American history. As a part of that debate, which has been ongoing since the publication of the 1619 Project, the nation’s founding has come under the most scrutiny. How much did 1776 have to do with race and slavery? The answer is: you can’t tell the story without it. We have given the founding fathers passes when it comes to race. Although we have sometimes condemned an individual founder like Jefferson as a hypocrite, we have explained it away, either by citing the language in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration, or the emancipation efforts of some northern states, or by saying, well, it was the eighteenth century, what can you expect? Yet you only have to look at the very moment of Revolution to see how deeply race was embedded in the patriot cause.

Please read the entire essay. It is enlightening.

Valerie Strauss wrote the following on her blog “The Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post:

Here’s a very short quiz:

The Hillsborough County School Board in Florida met this month to consider a dozen proposals to open new charter schools or extend the operating agreements on others. The board considered data, recommendations of its staff and testimony from community members about the charters, which are funded by public tax dollars but privately operated.

Then it voted to approve four and deny eight (not always accepting the staff’s counsel). Four of those denied were requests from existing schools to keep. The decisions were made by the board made after members learned about poor academic outcomes, violations of federal law and other issues at some of the schools. Those four schools are supposed to now close and their students must find other schools.

What did the charter-school-loving administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) do? Did it let the local school board do its work without state interference? Did it point out what it considered errors in the process and offer to help the board resolve them? Or did it threaten to withhold funding from the district over the four existing charters that were told to close?

It’s Florida, where Republican officials have long since abandoned the pretense that they believe communities should run their own public schools without micromanaging from Tallahassee or that they want to maintain the integrity of traditional public school districts.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran took the last option, sending a letter to the board which said it had violated a state statute by closing down four schools and gave the board a deadline to explain itself and change course or else face the loss of millions of state dollars.

Board lawyers are planning to challenge Corcoran’s interpretation of the statute, but district officials say that isn’t expected to stop Corcoran from trying, somehow, to keep the schools open. School board Chair Lynn Gray said in an interview that the panel was going to fight him, though, she added, “It could cost us.”

The Florida Department of Education did not respond to queries about Corcoran’s threat to Hillsborough.

The Hillsborough episode is the latest in repeated attacks on public education and local control — long a tenet of the Republican Party — by Florida GOP leaders. DeSantis made clear his disdain for traditional public schools in 2019 when he espoused a new definition of “public education,” which was heartily approved by then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeSantis said in a tweet, “Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education.” That would mean that public education includes private and religious schools that discriminate against LGBTQ and other people that offend them but still receive taxpayer funds through vouchers and similar programs.

Betsy DeVos and her allies are trying to redefine ‘public education.’ Critics call it ‘absurd.’

That is what critics of DeSantis and his “school choice” agenda say is the ultimate goal of the governor and his allies: to privatize public education.

“They are systemically trying to eliminate public education,” Gray said, noting that charter school supporters were trying to open charters in areas where Hillsborough’s very best public schools are located — and in areas where there are not enough traditional public schools to handle the growing population of Hispanic immigrants.

“They are very, very strategic about where they are putting them,” she said. “It’s very well planned.”

DeSantis and other state officials say that parents know best what their children need and that school choice programs are designed to give them options. They say, correctly, that some traditional public schools have failed students, but don’t mention the charter schools that have done the same.

In fact, the charter school sector in Florida has long been troubled. Though Republicans in the state have prevented strict oversight of the sector — even while micromanaging public school districts — Florida has long had one of the highest annual charter school closure rates in the country, involving schools that were closed after financial and other scandals. The state has also poured billions of taxpayer dollars into voucherlike programs despite no concrete evidence that the private and religious schools receiving the money have boosted students’ academic trajectories.

And so attacks on traditional public school districts just keep on coming from the DeSantis administration.

It is worth recalling what the St. Augustine Record newspaper said about Corcoran in an editorial in 2018, which was headlined, “Rest in peace, public education.”Let’s not beat around the political bush: Putting former House Speaker Richard Corcoran in charge of Florida education is like hiring Genghis Khan to head the state Department of Corrections.The charter school fox is heading for the Department of Education hen house and, for public schooling, that’s finger-lickin’ bad.Corcoran is a coercer, a brawler and politician who rewards fealty while marking opponents for payback. Those who know him would say he’d be flattered by the description.

Florida newspaper: ‘Rest in peace, public education’

DeSantis, a close ally of former president Donald Trump, had ordered all school districts to open last fall while most of the country’s districts stayed close despite high coronavirus rates, giving only a few permission to stay shut a little longer than the others.

You might think that Hillsborough is No. 1 on the administration’s list of school districts in which to meddle — but that is only if you didn’t know that DeSantis had his sights set on removing Robert Runcie, the recently departed superintendent of Broward County from the first day he took office as governor in January 2019.

DeSantis pushed for Runcie to be removed by the local school board that hired him, blaming the superintendent in part for poor security at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High School in Parkland, where a mass shooting occurred in February 2018. DeSantis knew he didn’t have the authority to unilaterally remove Runcie and his school board kept supporting him. So the governor called for the creation of a grand jury that indicted Runcie earlier this year on a single count of perjury — the details of which have still not been revealed.

Runcie’s attorneys say that the perjury charge — which stems from an investigation into Parkland shootings and was expanded to include other issues — was politically motivated. So do some of the members of the board, which accepted Runcie’s resignation in the wake of his arrest on the charge in late April.Story continues below advertisement

There was also the incident late last year in which Corcoran — who said publicly in September 2020 he would encourage everyone “never to read” The Washington Post or the New York Times — announced that he had “made sure” that a veteran teacher in Duval County Public Schools had been “terminated” from her position. Education commissioners in Florida don’t actually have the power to fire a teacher.

Amy Conofrio was moved to a nonteaching position by the district after she refused to remove a Black Lives Matter flag above her classroom at Robert E. Lee High School, where 70 percent of the students are Black. District spokesperson Laureen Ricks said at the time in an email that the employee in question (who was not named in county statements) was being investigated for several incidents, none of which were named.

Results of the probe into Donofrio, who had co-founded a student-driven organization called the EVAC Movement which worked to empower Black students to work for positive change, have not yet been released.

Florida’s Republican leaders have been in the national news lately for other education moves, which include:


* A new law that bans critical race theory from being taught in Florida classrooms, though it isn’t clear that any classrooms actually teach it. CRT is an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. Republican-led legislatures in numerous state are or have already passed legislation to restrict how teachers can address systemic racism — a reaction to the social justice movement that arose out of protests against the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Teachers across the country protest laws restricting lessons on racism

  • A new law that, among other things, requires public universities to assess “viewpoint diversity” on campus each year through a survey developed by the State Board of Education. DeSantis and other conservatives had frequently lamented that conservatives and their views are given short shrift in higher education.

It is worth recalling what the St. Augustine Record newspaper said about Corcoran in an editorial in 2018, which was headlined, “Rest in peace, public education.”Let’s not beat around the political bush: Putting former House Speaker Richard Corcoran in charge of Florida education is like hiring Genghis Khan to head the state Department of Corrections.The charter school fox is heading for the Department of Education hen house and, for public schooling, that’s finger-lickin’ bad.Corcoran is a coercer, a brawler and politician who rewards fealty while marking opponents for payback. Those who know him would say he’d be flattered by the description.

Florida newspaper: ‘Rest in peace, public education’]

Jan Resseger writes here about the tussle in the legislature over the Ohio education budget. Funding was increased for public schools, but funding for charters and vouchers was also increased. And taxes were cut. Republican supporters of public schools saved the day from the voracious privatizers, led by Andrew Brenner, who is hostile to public schools.

Resseger writes:

The Ohio Constitution defines public schools as an institution embodying our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens and to Ohio’s children.  The budget conference committee’s restoration of the Fair School Funding Plan, even if limited only to the upcoming biennium, will restore adequate funding to the schools that serve our state’s 1.7 million public school students and will significantly equalize children’s educational opportunity across our state’s 610 school districts.

However, the expansion of vouchers and charter schools opens the door for future growth of school privatization.  Ohio’s parents and citizens who believe in a strong system of public education will have work to do to preserve the Fair School Funding Plan beyond the current two-year limit and to prevent the rapid expansion of vouchers and charters at the expense of public schools in future state budgets.

John Thompson reports that the crusade against teaching racism critically is in full swing in Oklahoma. Rightwing legislators can’t seem to understand why it’s okay to encourage students to think critically about the terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City but to forbid them to think critically about racism.

Who would have thunk it?

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, at the site of the Murrah Building where 168 people were murdered by Timothy McVeigh, has an exhibit that asks questions like:

“Do you see a relationship from the violence that occurred on this site and the events happening in our world today?” It offers conversation prompts such as “What are the pros and cons of having a domestic terrorism law?” and “Does social media play a part?”

Isn’t that what leftist teachers ask when using critical race theory (CRT) in order to shame white people?

The following statement was released by leading professional associations.

The statement says:

Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History


We, the undersigned associations and organizations, state our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities. These efforts have taken varied shape in at least 20 states; but often the legislation aims to prohibit or impede the teaching and education of students concerning what are termed “divisive concepts.” These divisive concepts as defined in numerous bills are a litany of vague and indefinite buzzwords and phrases including, for example, “that any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort Ed, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.” These legislative efforts are deeply troubling for numerous reasons.


First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students “discomfort” because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of “divisive concepts” in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase “concepts” or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history, so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.


Second, these legislative efforts seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements. These regulations constitute an inappropriate attempt to transfer responsibility for the evaluation of a curriculum and subject matter from educators to elected officials. The purpose of education is to serve the common good by promoting open inquiry and advancing human knowledge. Politicians in a democratic society should not manipulate public school curricula to advance partisan or ideological aims. In higher education, under principles of academic freedom that have been widely endorsed, professors are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject. Educators, not politicians, should make decisions about teaching and learning.


Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context, this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today, an exchange that should take place inside the classroom as well as in the public realm generally. To ban the tools that enable those discussions is to deprive us all of the tools necessary for citizenship in the twenty-first century. A white-washed view of history cannot change what happened in the past. A free and open society depends on the unrestricted pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.


Signed,


American Association of University Professors

American Historical Association

Association of American Colleges & Universities

PEN America

The statement has been signed by more than 130 additional associations, including the Network for Public Education.

Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
ACPA-College Student Educators International
African American Intellectual History Society
African Studies Association
Agricultural History Society
Alcohol and Drugs History Society
American Academy of Religion
American Anthropological Association
American Association for State and Local History
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
American Association of Community Colleges
American Association of Geographers
American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education
American Catholic Historical Association
American Classical League
American Council of Learned Societies
American Counseling Association
American Educational Research Association
American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
American Folklore Society
American Library Association
American Philosophical Association
American Political Science Association
American Society for Environmental History
American Society for Theatre Research
American Society of Criminology Executive Board
American Sociological Association
American Studies Association
Anti-Defamation League
Association for Ancient Historians
Association for Asian American Studies
Association for Asian Studies
Association for Counselor Education and Supervision
Association for Documentary Editing
Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies
Association for the Study of Higher Education
Association for the Study of Literature and Environment
Association for Theatre in Higher Education
Association of African American Museums
Association of College and Research Libraries
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges
Association of Research Libraries
Association of University Presses
Association of Writers & Writing Programs
Berkshire Conference of Women Historians
Business History Conference
Center for Research Libraries
Central European History Society
Chinese Historians in the United States
Coalition of Urban & Metropolitan Universities (CUMU)
College Art Association
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender History
Comparative and International Education Society
Conference on Asian History
Conference on Faith and History
Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes
Council on Social Work Education
Czechoslovak Studies Association
Dance Studies Association
Executive Committee of the American Comparative Literature Association
Forum on Early-Modern Empires and Global Interactions
Freedom to Read Foundation
French Colonial Historical Society
German Studies Association
Higher Learning Commission
Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities
Historical Society of Twentieth Century China
Immigration Ethnic History Society
Italian American Studies Association
John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education
Keats-Shelley Association of America
Labor and Working-Class History Association
Middle East Studies Association
Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Midwestern History Association
Modern Language Association
NAFSA: Association of International Educators
NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education
National Association for College Admission Counseling
National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education
National Association of Dean and Directors Schools of Social Work
National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education
National Association of Graduate-Professional Students
National Association of Social Workers
National Coalition for History
National Council for the Social Studies
National Council of Teachers of English
National Council on Public History
National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives
National Women’s Studies Association

Network for Public Education
New England Commission of Higher Education
North American Conference on British Studies
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Ohio Academy of History
Organization of American Historians
Pacific Coast Branch-American Historical Association
Peace History Society
Phi Beta Kappa Society
Radical History Review
Rhetoric Society of America
Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media
Scholars at Risk
Shakespeare Association of America
Society for Austrian and Habsburg History
Society for Classical Studies
Society for Community Research and Action
Society for French Historical Studies
Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender
Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Society for the Study of Social Problems
Society for US Intellectual History
Society of American Historians
Society of Architectural Historians
Society of Civil War Historians
Society of Transnational Academic Researchers (STAR Scholars Network)
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Southern Historical Association
United Faculty of Florida – University of Florida, NEA/AFT/FEA, AFL-CIO
Urban History Association
WASC Senior College and University Commission
Western History Association
Western Society for French History
World History Association

Timothy Snyder, an authority on totalitarianism, draws a straight line in this article that appeared in the New York Times from Stalin’s efforts to purge history of negative facts about the Soviet Union to the current mania among Republicans to control the teaching of American history and censor shameful facts in our history.

Professor Snyder reminds us of Stalin’s brutal campaign to crush Ukraine, where nearly 4 million people died, most from starvation, after their crops were seized.

He writes:

Ukraine was the most important Soviet republic beyond Russia, and Stalin understood it as wayward and disloyal. When the collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine failed to produce the yields that Stalin expected, his response was to blame local party authorities, the Ukrainian people and foreign spies. As foodstuffs were extracted amid famine, it was chiefly Ukrainians who suffered and died — some 3.9 million people in the republic, by the best reckoning, well over 10 percent of the total population. In communications with trusted comrades, Stalin did not conceal that he was directing specific policies against Ukraine. Inhabitants of the republic were banned from leaving it; peasants were prevented from going to the cities to beg; communities that failed to make grain targets were cut off from the rest of the economy; families were deprived of their livestock. Above all, grain from Ukraine was ruthlessly seized, well beyond anything reason could command. Even the seed corn was confiscated.

The Soviet Union took drastic action to ensure that these events went unnoticed. Foreign journalists were banned from Ukraine. The one person who did report on the famine in English under his own byline, the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, was later murdered. The Moscow correspondent of The New York Times, Walter Duranty, explained away the famine as the price of progress. Tens of thousands of hunger refugees made it across the border to Poland, but Polish authorities chose not to publicize their plight: A treaty with the U.S.S.R. was under negotiation. In Moscow, the disaster was presented, at the 1934 party congress, as a triumphant second revolution. Deaths were recategorized from “starvation” to “exhaustion.” When the next census counted millions fewer people than expected, the statisticians were executed. Inhabitants of other republics, meanwhile, mostly Russians, moved into Ukrainians’ abandoned houses. As beneficiaries of the calamity, they were not interested in its sources.

The Soviet Union and Russia now have gone to great lengths to deny the Ukrainian genocide. Russia has passed laws to make it illegal to speak or write honestly about the crimes of the Soviet Union. Snyder calls such action “memory laws.”

These Russian policies belong to a growing international body of what are called “memory laws”: government actions designed to guide public interpretation of the past. Such measures work by asserting a mandatory view of historical events, by forbidding the discussion of historical facts or interpretations or by providing vague guidelines that lead to self-censorship. Early memory laws were generally designed to protect the truth about victim groups. The most important example, passed in West Germany in 1985, criminalized Holocaust denial. Perhaps unsurprisingly, other countries followed that precedent, and banned the denial of other historical atrocities. The West German law was controversial to some advocates of freedom of speech; succeeding measures were disputed on the grounds that the Holocaust was in a special category. Yet these early laws could be defended as attempts to protect the weaker against the stronger, and an endangered history against propaganda.

The new memory laws are meant to protect the powerful, not the victims of past atrocities, by denying that such atrocities ever occurred.

Then Snyder turns to the current movement in GOP-controlled states to limit or ban teaching the history of racism because it might reduce patriotic pride or it might make some students uncomfortable.

This spring, memory laws arrived in America. Republican state legislators proposed dozens of bills designed to guide and control American understanding of the past. As of this writing, five states (Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma) have passed laws that direct and restrict discussions of history in classrooms. The Department of Education of a sixth (Florida) has passed guidelines with the same effect. Another 12 state legislatures are still considering memory laws. [Editor’s note: Add New Hampshire to the list of states that have passed laws limiting what may be taught about the past.]

The particulars of these laws vary. The Idaho law is the most Kafkaesque in its censorship: It affirms freedom of speech and then bans divisive speech. The Iowa law executes the same totalitarian pirouette. The Tennessee and Texas laws go furthest in specifying what teachers may and may not say. In Tennessee teachers must not teach that the rule of law is “a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.” Nor may they deny the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, words that Thomas Jefferson presumably never intended to be part of an American censorship law. The Idaho law mentions Critical Race Theory; the directive from the Florida school board bans it in classrooms. The Texas law forbids teachers from requiring students to understand the 1619 Project. It is a perverse goal: Teachers succeed if students do not understand something.

But the most common feature among the laws, and the one most familiar to a student of repressive memory laws elsewhere in the world, is their attention to feelings. Four of five of them, in almost identical language, proscribe any curricular activities that would give rise to “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

History is not therapy, and discomfort is part of growing up. As a teacher, I cannot exclude the possibility, for example, that my non-Jewish students will feel psychological distress in learning how little the United States did for Jewish refugees in the 1930s. I know from my experience teaching the Holocaust that it often causes psychological discomfort for students to learn that Hitler admired Jim Crow and the myth of the Wild West. Teachers in high schools cannot exclude the possibility that the history of slavery, lynchings and voter suppression will make some non-Black students uncomfortable. The new memory laws invite teachers to self-censor, on the basis of what students might feel — or say they feel. The memory laws place censorial power in the hands of students and their parents. It is not exactly unusual for white people in America to express the view that they are being treated unfairly; now such an opinion could bring history classes to a halt…

The American memory laws do not usually even refer to specific historical events over which they enforce orthodoxies; in this sense they are one step more advanced than the Russian memory laws. But the moments when the new laws do venture into specificity are illuminating. “Examples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards,” the Florida Department of Education’s new policy states, “include the denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”

This is a striking repetition of the rhetorical tactic of the Russian memory law of 2014: In both, the crimes of the Nazis are deployed to silence a history of suffering — in Russia to deter criticism of the Stalin era, in Florida to forbid education about racism. And in both cases, the measures in question actually make the Holocaust impossible to understand. If it is illegal in Russia to discuss the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of nonaggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, then it is impossible to discuss how, where and when the Second World War began. If it is illegal in Florida to teach about systemic racism, then aspects of the Holocaust relevant for young Americans go untaught. German race laws drew from the precedent set by Jim Crow in the United States. But since Jim Crow is systemic racism, having to do with American society and law, the subject would seem to be banned in Florida schools.

We are living through a dangerous and absurd period in which Republican-controlled states are passing laws to criminalize the teaching of factual history. But schools are not hermetically sealed boxes. Students see television, and they know they are being taught a literally whitewashed version of our history.

How many history teachers will comply and teach lies?