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State superintendent cautions lawmakers as they consider controversial education bills

Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 9:05 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 17, 2022 at 4:09 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The state superintendent of education warned lawmakers Wednesday that they could be navigating “a dangerous path” by passing bills under their consideration.

Those pieces of legislation would restrict what can and cannot be taught and discussed in South Carolina schools.

Lawmakers heard public testimony for five hours Wednesday during a meeting of the House Education and Public Works Committee on five bills — H.4325, H.4343, H.4392, H.4605, and H.4799 — which span from banning critical race theory from being taught in schools, to prohibiting discussion about gender-related topics, to forbidding teachers from giving lessons that could make students feel uncomfortable.

The last prohibition, on uncomfortable lessons, “is not the American way,” South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman testified. Spearman recalled her own experience in communist China, where she said she found the government had scrubbed all information on the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre from the internet.

“Some events in our state’s, nation’s, and world’s history make students and educators alike feel uncomfortable. But that does not mean that they shouldn’t be taught and students shouldn’t have the opportunity to discuss it, to share their thoughts and feelings with their peers. This is a dangerous path we may be going down. We’ve got to be very, very careful,” Spearman said, naming the slave trade, Holocaust, and Orangeburg massacre as necessary history lessons for South Carolina students that must be taught despite the discomfort they might bring to classrooms and which could be banned under these bills.

The superintendent reiterated her stance that she believes critical race theory has no place in South Carolina classrooms but that, after a thorough review of the state’s academic standards, the Department of Education has found it is not part of them.

Spearman distinguished between these standards, which schools are required to teach, and the curriculum, over which she said teachers and schools need to have the latitude to create and decide what is discussed in their classrooms, as well-trained professionals.

“In a dynamic classroom, there’s so much learning going on that the students facilitate a lot of this learning,” she said, adding that some teachers have grumbled the expansive nature of the state’s required standards leave them too little room for other lessons.

Spearman said parents should know what is being taught in their children’s schools — some of the bills would require schools provide an online mechanism by which people can send feedback on curriculum and instructional materials — and teachers should receive carefully worded clarity on these subjects.

But Spearman said this direction should not come from politicians trying to appease voters in an election year, which it is for all House members.

“Right now, teachers are scared to death,” she said. “They’re worried they’re going to say something wrong and get in trouble.”

About 30 other people had signed up to testify Wednesday, speaking to lawmakers for hours after the superintendent’s comments wrapped up.

Members of the group Moms for Liberty spoke in favor of the bills, saying they would like to see legislators go further and require there be cameras in every classroom, as they said they believe more and more teachers are injecting their personal opinions into lessons instead of only teaching facts.

Another speaker with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund testified against the bills, saying lawmakers need to be more focused on addressing issues like the state’s worsening teacher shortage.

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