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Tennessee could withhold millions from schools found to violate guidelines on teaching critical race theory

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) has presented himself as a critic of critical race theory. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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Tennessee has laid out plans to withhold millions of dollars in state funding from schools found to violate a recently passed state law that regulates the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework examining how policies and laws may perpetuate systemic racism.

The potential penalties were listed in guidance recently released by state education officials, which are open for public comment through Aug. 11. If the rules are imposed as stated, the state education department could withhold the lesser of $1 million or 2 percent of state funds allocated to schools deemed to have knowingly violated the state law, while failing to take “corrective action.”

Repeat offenders could forfeit $5 million, or forgo 10 percent of annual state funds, whichever is less. Authorities may also revoke, suspend or deny the licenses of individual teachers.

The average expenditure for a K-12 student in Tennessee public schools was roughly $10,000 for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to the state comptroller’s office, so a penalty of $1 million could translate to a year’s worth of education spending on 100 students.

In May, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill that curtailed teachers’ abilities to discuss racial topics with students. Educators are restrained from teaching, among other things, that the United States is fundamentally sexist or racist. While the bill was being debated, proponents did not point out instances in which educators taught critical race theory or provided similar instruction, according to the Tennessean.

Tennessee is among a growing list of states that moved to cap discussion of critical race theory in schools. In Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas, lawmakers have pushed for legislation that limits the discussion of topics that can be considered linked to critical race theory.

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Critics of the restrictions say the rules stifle much-needed classroom and social discussions about racial division and inequity in America. Backers of laws like the one in Tennessee argue that discussion of such topics fan avoidable racial tensions, while downplaying the racial progress the United States has made since its founding.

“Critical race theory is un-American. It fundamentally puts groups of people above the sanctity of the individual, which is a founding principle of this nation,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) earlier this month.

Critical race theory, which can be traced to discussions in U.S. law schools in the 1970s, has become a hot-button issue amid a racial reckoning in America following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year.

The pushback against critical race theory could stem from a fear that it paints all White Americans as oppressors while presenting all Black Americans as “hopelessly oppressed victims,” wrote Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons in a recent Brookings Institution article.

But American social institutions are embedded with rules that may produce different results for different races, they write, without a specific group or individual intentionally seeking to be racist. “Racism can exist without racists.”