Tennessee has one of the more punitive gag laws of the recent spate. It comes with the prospect of financial penalties for the school district and punishment for teachers all the way up to firing and loss of license. The state's law lists fourteen forbidden concepts. It was arguably an easy win for education conservatives who need to distract the public from all manner of education shenanigans, from a persistent failure to fund schools (even though the money is just sitting there) to a tendency to give away the store to privatizers and sweetheart deals with chums.
But once the law was passed, Tennessee's edition of the Moms For Liberty jumped in to provide the first court test by filing an 11-page complaint against the Wit and Wisdom book series.
The complaint centers on four particular anchor texts, including "Martin Luther King Jr and the March on Washington, " "Ruby Bridges Goes To School : My True Story," "The Story of Ruby Bridges," and "Separate is Never Equal." It objects to the use of certain images and argues that certain themes, like "white people are4 bad" are prevalent.
Lots of folks have picked out specific examples from the list of complaints, like the use of an actual photograph of children being firehosed, or Bridge's description of the white mob screaming at her and the signs they held. And looking at the various examples, I'm struck that mostly they are simply depictions of things that happened. If your desire is to have history taught strictly as facts, then these details they object to are doing just that. White folks held up those signs. That's a thing that happened.
I'm willing to buy an argument that elementary school is not a place for sophisticated explanations of systemic racism and discussions of the same texts that are brought up in college CRT courses. Despite the insistent dichotomization of this issue, there's a full continuum of possible positions from, on one end, requiring little white kids to admitted they are privileged oppressors and, on the other end, insisting that racism ended in 1865 and the only way to deal with the issue is pretend it doesn't exist. The M4L complaint seems to hew closer to the latter end. I don't often cite Eduwonk (Bellwether), but Andy Rotherham has been reading the books. The Bridges text includes this quote:
“Some people did not want a black child to go to the white school”
I guess you could argue that if you’re one of those people this might make you feel bad except it, you know, happened. It’s literally a recitation of the history of what happened to Ruby Bridges (and by extension to other kids in other communities). If you want to argue that you shouldn’t be telling little kids they’re complicit in white supremacy you will get a lot of support across racial lines. If you want to argue that you shouldn’t tell kids that not long ago schools were segregated, here’s why, here’s what changed, then you’re living in the past.
He also notes a quote that M4L doesn't mention. Bridges finishes her account “Now black children and white children can go to the same schools. I like to visit schools. I tell my story to children. I tell children that black people and white people can be friends. And most important I tell children to be kind to each other."
Bridges story and her journey always seem extra powerful to me because she is only a couple of years older than I am, and she always elicits that jolt you get when you look sideways across your own generation and think, "Holy shit, what a gulf there is between our experiences of the same country at the same time."
Picking out some of the complaint's worst details does skip part of M4L's point, which is that these units are spread out over a great deal of time. If I understand their complaint, it's not just the quality of the materials, but the relentlessness of them. I don't sympathize. I can ask myself the question, "Would it bother me to have my four-year-olds experience this material?" It would not. I would be far more interested in how this or any material is actually used by the actual teacher in the actual classroom.
At any rate, the M4L complaint failed--but not on the merits. Instead, the state found that their complaint didn't land within the right time frame. Expect to see it refiled.