John Woods always knew there would be gaps in his daughter’s public school education.
“A lot of stuff is being left out,” Woods told WFPL News.
So, Woods took it on himself to make sure his 17-year-old daughter, Brianna Woods, got the facts when it came to the experiences and contributions of Black people in this country.
Landmark television series and films like “Roots” and “12 Years A Slave” were mandatory viewing in the Woods household. Brianna Woods grew up flipping through “The Black Book” by Toni Morrison, a collection of hundreds of photographs, art, poems, texts and songs that document the Black experience in America.
Sometimes Woods still gives his daughter small research assignments — most recently to look up Benjamin Banneker, the Black architect who helped design Woods’ hometown of Washington, D.C.
“I’m really grateful that you did do those things,” Brianna Woods told her father. “It definitely rounded out the part of the education that I was missing.”
Historically, school curricula has excluded a large swath of Black experiences and those of other people of color. That’s beginning to change, especially in the wake of 2020’s calls for racial equity and justice.
But those calls have also prompted a backlash.
In state legislatures across the U.S., conservative Republican lawmakers have filed dozens of bills that seek to limit classroom discussions about systemic racism and curb anti-racist initiatives.
Republicans in Kentucky have filed four. One, Senate Bill 138, has passed the Senate and is being considered in the GOP-controlled state House of Representatives.
Supporters of the legislation say anti-racist initiatives in schools make white students feel guilty, and promote a “victimhood” mindset among students of color. Some say it even amounts to leftist indoctrination.
But some Black students, and their parents, are worried these bills threaten to roll back progress.
Students speak out at the state Capitol
In a committee room at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort in mid-February, Brianna Woods sat at a small table with her hands clasped in front of her. She read the statement she had written and printed out, glancing up between sentences to meet the eyes of the lawmakers who filled the raised dais above her.
“I am against Senate Bill 138,” Woods said. “I believe this bill will negatively impact my education, as well as my fellow students. … It discourages students and teachers from having truthful conversations about current and past events.”
Woods, who is Black and Filipino-American, decided to testify against the measure at the invitation of the ACLU of Kentucky, which also opposes it. Her classmate at duPont Manual High School, Brennan Eberwine, who is white, also spoke.
“Providing an insufficient history that washes away anything unsavory or attempts to explain it away as having no bearing on the present to make students comfortable is a substandard education,” Eberwine said.
What’s in the bill
Senate Bill 138, would require instruction to be consistent with a number of ideas. One of them: “that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of [slavery and Jim Crow] is destructive to the unification of our nation.”
The language in the bill is similar to other legislation Republicans have offered, both in Kentucky and across the United States, that they say is aimed at rooting out “critical race theory” in schools.
Critical race theory, or CRT, is a decades-old, graduate-level academic framework that examines systemic racism, especially in the law. But recently, conservatives have co-opted the term to label a broad range of anti-racism efforts they oppose. Activists, pundits and politicians have used the term to refer to everything from implicit bias training, to children’s books that center Black or LGBTQ characters, to trauma-informed learning in schools.
Senate Bill 138 includes many elements common in other “anti-CRT” bills. There’s a prohibition against instruction that makes students feel they “bear responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race or sex.” The bill requires teachers to promote an understanding that “hard work” and “personal agency … regardless of one’s circumstances” will lead students to succeed.
In addition to these “anti-CRT” standbys, the measure also contains a list of historical documents, text and speeches schools would be required to teach.
Some are what one would expect to see in many social studies classes, like “The Declaration of Independence,” and documents from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Other texts have raised eyebrows, such as a partisan speech Ronald Reagan gave campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville, said the list of documents came in part from 1776 Unites, an organization formed by conservative Black civil rights activist Bob Woodson. Woodson formed 1776 Unites as a rebuttal to the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Like many conservatives, Woodson balked at the 1619 Project’s central premise: that the institution of slavery is foundational to shaping American society.
“It seems that there’s growing concerns about ‘critical theories’ and about education that have yielded national dialogue,” Wise said on the senate floor in late February.
He called his measure “a guide for teaching and learning for young people with a more positive set of American principles for their future civic engagement.”
Others call the measure “propaganda.”
‘It definitely benefits white people and their feelings’
The bill has drawn support from some students.
Fifteen-year-old Timothy King testified in the same committee meeting as Woods.
“As a result of many events since 2020, I’ve become aware of some issues in my education,” King told the Senate Education Committee in February.
King came to the committee meeting with No Left Turn Kentucky, a local chapter of the national conservative group No Left Turn in Education, which popped up in 2020 to oppose anti-racist initiatives in schools, as well as curriculum about sex, gender identity and LGTBQ perspectives.
King, who is Black, said he transferred from a Jefferson County Public school to a private, Christian academy.
“I came to realize that there was a certain mentality taught and encouraged in public schools,” King said. “In my experience, victimhood was allowed and often praised.”
Beanie Geoghegan, the leader of No Left Turn Kentucky, sat beside King. She said two other students provided written statements in support of the legislation, but didn’t want to testify in person.
“The type of culture that’s been created, they were afraid to speak because of retaliation they would get from school,” Geoghegan said.
The bill doesn’t explicitly mention white people. But, Brianna Woods, the Manual student, told WFPL News that’s what it’s about.
“It definitely benefits white people and their feelings,” Woods said. “Obviously, it hurts to sort of be told, you know, ‘Oh your ancestors are the reason why some of society’s broken.’ But it’s a fact. It’s not like it’s meant to hurt your feelings. It’s just something you have to grapple with.”
Lawmakers and supporters of legislation like SB 138 say they don’t want students to feel guilt or discomfort during discussions about race. But a recent poll suggests students of all backgrounds in Kentucky want to grapple with questions about race and racism.
The survey of more than 10,000 Kentucky students by the Kentucky Student Voice Team found that nearly half think their school needs to do more to confront racism. And among students of color, nearly half said they felt under-represented in classroom materials, and about a third said their schools don’t give them the opportunity to talk about their own experience with race.
Heaven Patterson, a Black student at Male High School in Jefferson County Public Schools, told WFPL she and many of her Black friends want to talk about race and racism in the classroom, but often don’t feel comfortable sharing their experiences.
“They should feel comfortable to talk about this, along with white people being open to hearing who Black people are,” Patterson said.
Like Woods, Patterson is disturbed by the legislation targeting classroom discussions on race. She thinks it would make it harder to bridge the gap in understanding among students, or make it difficult for educators to teach Black history at all, which she said every student should learn.
“It provides a deeper context of who we are, how we got to where we are today, and it’s also a deeper understanding of the issues that we still face in this country, ” Patterson said. “Because many of our present cultural and political issues — they’re not new, but they’re rather unsolved issues from the past.”
‘History is not neutral’
Lawmakers who support Senate Bill 138, and legislation like it, often say educators should teach history “objectively.” Republican Rep. Matt Lockett of Nicholasville is co-sponsoring two bills in the state House that purport to target critical race theory.
“How about we teach history — exactly what was in American history?” Lockett told WFPL News in July 2021.
But Patrick Lewis, the director of collections and research at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, said there’s no such thing as an objective history.
“History isn’t neutral,” Lewis said. “History is the product of imperfect humans bringing all of their own perspective and bias to an incomplete documentary record, and coming up with the best interpretation that they can.”
Lewis points to the histories of the Civil War that dominated classrooms in the South for much of the 20th century. For generations after the war ended, students in the South learned a pro-Confederate view of the era because they read from textbooks written and researched by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or UDC.
The UDC started out as a group of mostly elite, white women with close relations to Confederate veterans. In the 1910s and 1920s, Lewis said the UDC focused most of their energy on creating classroom curriculum.
“Writing histories of the South and of the United States that that are very favorable to the Confederate cause, that downplay the severity of slavery, that paint race relations before the Civil War as harmonious and patriarchal, under an ordained system of white supremacy.”
These textbooks formed “the backbone of history curriculum” in the South up until at least the 1960s. Lewis said those UDC textbooks remained in classrooms in parts of the South as late as the 1970s, and possibly into the 1980s in some rural areas.
Even as new textbooks were introduced, Lewis said they were sometimes more progressive than teachers, who continued to frame Civil War history the way they learned it when they were students.
So, when lawmakers have said they’re concerned that conversations about racism are making kids uncomfortable, Lewis offered this: “Lots of students have been feeling uncomfortable in history classrooms for a long time, and we have not recognized that.”
Specifically Black students, and other kids of color, Lewis said.
That’s one reason the Filson Historical Society leadership wrote a letter to its members in early February, opposing Senate Bill 138 and similar measures introduced in the state House, saying they would “limit the intellectual freedom of Kentucky students and educators.”
Lewis believes it was the first time in the Filson’s nearly 140-year history it had ever weighed in on legislation, based on records he and his colleagues combed through.
Putting “guardrails” on teachers’ speech
Brianna Woods’ father, John Woods, is supportive of his daughter’s decision to speak up on this issue, but he’s not as optimistic.
As a 65-year-old Black man, he said he’s lived through previous backlashes against progress toward racial equality. He called this push to limit classroom discussion on race a “travesty.” But he’s not surprised it’s happening.
“A segment of this country feels like they’re losing their country,” John Woods said. “They have no problem whitewashing it. They have no problem sweeping it under the carpet because they want to keep their perspectives where it makes them feel good.”
The bill’s sponsor, Max Wise, sees it differently. He said the bill is about ensuring schools are “doing what’s best to prepare our next generation of learners.”
When asked about concerns over the impact on students of color and their teachers, Wise told WFPL News the bill doesn’t censor teachers from speaking on race, or presenting history accurately.
“We want teachers to talk about controversial topics,” he said following a Senate Education Committee meeting at the State Capitol earlier this month. “We want to teach about non-controversial topics. The only way we learn and learn in a learning environment is to have those topics discussed. There is nothing in 138 that will tell a teacher what they can or cannot teach in the classroom.
But that’s not what many supporters of the bill have said.
In a speech on the Senate floor in late February, Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith of Leitchfield praised the measure for “putting some guardrails around what’s said in the classroom.”
“You just can’t say whatever you want to in the classroom,” Meredith said. “And the fact that you have a college degree in education and in history does not give you an unfiltered license to say and do whatever you want to do.”
The bill has passed the Senate and is now being considered by the House.
Wise said he’s sponsoring the legislation because of concerns from parents, who view anti-racist initiatives as leftist indoctrination.
But Brianna Woods said that’s the problem: it prioritizes the perspectives of white and wealthy parents.
“They sort of have shut out listening to students who are actually in the classrooms every day, actually understanding the full context of the lessons that they’re being taught,” she said.
Woods has faith in her fellow students — that they can handle these hard conversations and the discomfort that comes with them.
And though many don’t have a vote at the ballot box, they’re using their voices. That makes Woods’ dad proud.
“It gives me hope that the future is not lost. And that there are some young people that’s willing to take the banner, and, and carry it forward,” he said.
For more reporting on the fight over race and classroom curriculum, check out WFPL News’ documentary, “A Critical Moment,” which explores the rise of the “anti-critical race theory” movement in the U.S. and takes listeners to Germany to understand how schools teach their countries’ difficult history, and why.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.