‘Political Antics’: Democrats take aim at Kemp’s education bill signing blitz

Georgia Democrats criticized Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to sign a spate of education bills in Forsyth County about 30 miles north of Atlanta. The county has a troubled racial past and forced its Black population out in 1912.

Ric Feld / Associated Press

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a batch of controversial education bills Thursday flanked by parents, teachers and children in Forsyth County. The stack of legislation included a bill banning the teaching of “divisive concepts,” a bill Kemp referred to as a “parents bill of rights,” and a measure that would bar transgender girls from playing school sports.

“We weren’t elected by the people of this state to shy away from what some would call controversial because the bills we’re signing into law today are about doing the right thing,” Kemp said.

Democrats, who held a press conference after the event, said the scene sent a message to right-wing voters.

“It’s not lost on any of us that the governor did choose Forsyth County as the backdrop for signing these bills,” said Forsyth schools parent Mitzi McAdam. “That in itself, to me is a dog whistle to a white nationalist voter base. Forsyth County does have a very troubling racial past.”

White mobs set fire to Black churches and Black-owned businesses in Forsyth County in 1912 after two white women were raped, one of them murdered. The entire Black population was terrorized and forced out of the county. Forsyth continued to be known as a county that was hostile to Black people. In 1987, Oprah Winfrey traveled to the county to highlight the hatred that still existed there. Now, 4% of Forsyth’s population is Black, compared to 33% of the state.

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said the state has a complex history with race.

“I had ancestors who were enslaved in Gov. Kemp’s hometown. Forsyth has few black residents because of racially motivated violence that made them leave, losing virtually everything that they had,” she said. “Students and teachers should be free to examine the history and its legacy in Georgia’s public school classrooms without interference from politicians.”

Aryani Duppada, a student at Forsyth’s Denmark High School, expressed bewilderment at the bill signing.

“Gov. Kemp is signing bills that harm students of color, especially black students, who are already underrepresented,” she said. “Why is teaching actual history that real people have experienced so controversial? And why are politicians so afraid of students learning about real events that happened in our country?”

Republican supporters of the bills have said they don’t keep teachers from teaching about historical events, including slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

But Democrats said concern over what they can and can’t teach could have a “chill effect” on teachers, who may shy away from discussing any controversial subjects for fear of losing their jobs. They attacked the “divisive concepts” law, which prohibits schools from teaching nine specific concepts, including the idea that the U.S. is a fundamentally racist country.

Anthony Downer, who teaches American Government at Douglass High School in Atlanta, said he’s not going to stop teaching that concept.

“How are you going to teach the three-fifths compromise if you cannot teach white supremacy and that the United States is racist?” he said. “How can you not teach intersectionality when you have to teach about the lived experience of people throughout history who have different identities and different experiences?”

The legislation doesn’t mention critical race theory, which is typically taught in graduate-level coursework but has become a catchall term for conservative opponents of diversity and inclusion training and education. Downer said while he doesn’t teach CRT, he does teach tenets of it.

Jennifer Susko is a school psychologist who resigned from her job with the Cobb County School District after the school board passed a resolution banning CRT and the 1619 Project from being taught. She says she also used principles associated with CRT when speaking with students.

“I do discuss with them how racism can be embedded in policy, and we learn about what policy is how they should be engaged civically, and that it doesn’t necessarily just come from one person, but that it is, it can be a part of an institution or system,” she said.

Downer said he won’t change the way he teaches, despite the new law.

Some also took issue with the “parents bill of rights,” which lets parents request a range of school records and requires administrators to respond in a certain amount of time.

“It’s interesting to me that they’re calling this the parents bill of rights because what about a parent’s right to have their child receive a complete and well-rounded education that’s free of political antics?” McAdam said.

Denmark High School student Aryani Duppada said the debate over the bills has exposed hypocrisy in some.

“Students who have been speaking at board meetings and fighting for truthful history have faced backlash from adults, the same adults who say racism does not exist,” she said.