Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed into law on Monday a measure that attracted some of the most impassioned debates inside the GOP-controlled General Assembly this year. He signaled his support after it cleared the Legislature, arguing that students should learn "the exceptionalism of our nation," not things that "inherently divide" people.
"We need to make sure that our kids recognize that this country is moving toward a more perfect union, that we should teach the exceptionalism of our nation and how people can live together and work together to make a greater nation, and to not teach things that inherently divide or pit either Americans against Americans or people groups against people groups," Lee told reporters at the time.
The legislation, which was amended several times in the final days of the legislative session, of an education bill, takes effect July 1. Among other things, Tennessee’s teachers can’t instruct that "an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously."
"Impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history" is still permitted under the law, and limits on teacher speech won’t apply when a teacher is responding to a student’s question or referring to a historic figure or group.
However, the penalty for a transgression is steep: The state education commissioner could withhold funds from any school found to be in violation.
While most of the majority-white GOP House and Senate caucuses supported the effort, Black Democratic lawmakers warned that it will make teachers fearful about telling students anything about how race and racism have shaped the nation’s history.
Tennessee’s new law is similar to laws enacted in Idaho and Oklahoma. In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed a version that primarily focused on employee training to become law without his signature.
Republican lawmakers also passed bills about sexual education. Lee signed a requirement that school districts to alert parents 30 days in advance of any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity, and let them opt their student out. Lee also approved legislation allowing parents to view information about contraception included within a family life curriculum, and opt their children out of those lessons as well.