Protecting the Right to Learn: Understanding and Responding to 2020–2022 Efforts to Restrict K12 Learning about Race, Gender, Diversity, and History

Mica Pollock, 2004–2005 Radcliffe Institute Fellow

After a summer 2020 surge of antiracist energy across the nation and increase in K12 education efforts to explore issues of race and racism in US society (often at students’ request), pushback against a caricatured catchall vision of “Critical Race Theory” (“CRT”) in K12 public schools rose over the 2020–2021 school year. Propelled by common talking points, media attention, state legislation, and school board protests, restriction efforts increased and intensified over the year and into summer 2021 as critics sought to limit or “ban” curriculum, lessons, professional development, and district equity and diversity efforts addressing a broad but often loosely defined set of ideas about race, racism, gender, diversity, and inclusion. Rapid response studies found nearly 900 school districts affected by local restriction effort through summer 2021 and a ballooning of restrictive state bills, leaving many educators afraid to do race- and diversity-related work by fall 2021. Into 2022, efforts to restrict and censor K12 teaching and learning about race, racism, gender, LGBTQ+ and other minoritized experiences, and accurate history have increased, including more state legislation; local book bans; and ongoing local and state attempts to surveil and intimidate learning on key issues in our society. Our seminar will convene scholars, education leaders, free expression experts, and civil rights lawyers to share rapid-response research and community-based efforts underway by many, and to explore collective research agendas and response strategies to protect the right to learn about race, diversity, and history in US schools.