Tennessee Department of Education Updates Critical Race Theory Guidelines

Gov. Bill Lee at Neely’s Bend Middle School, May 2021

On Nov. 8, the Tennessee Department of Education quietly released its latest set of updates and guidelines related to a law that determines what can and cannot be taught in classrooms.

The law — passed by state lawmakers at the close of the spring legislative session — addresses what some call critical race theory, though critical race theory is a legal framework that is rarely, if ever, taught in public schools and is never mentioned by name in the legislation itself. These changes follow a public comment period that ended in August and are set to be effective through May 7.

“Most revisions were made in response to feedback received during the public comment period,” TDOE spokesperson Brina Blackley tells the Scene via email, “but some revisions were made to clarify misunderstandings or confusion of wording in the original draft.”

The law lists 14 concepts that cannot be taught in school, including: “One (1) race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex [or] An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

While the guidelines remain similar to those that education commissioner Penny Schwinn released in August, there are some changes regarding the length of time that a party can file a complaint about criteria, the amount of money the state can withhold from districts or charter schools who violate the law, and disciplinary actions. 

The timeframe in which a parent, student or teacher can complain about teaching materials has been extended from 30 to 45 days. Chalkbeat Tennessee reports that the state chose to continue limiting who can complain about instructional materials after some people asked the department to include Tennesseeans who do not have children currently in schools. 

The update also increases the amount of money that the state can take away from districts that knowingly violate the law and its processes. The state can now withhold anywhere from 2 to 10 percent of state funds after the first offense, increasing by 2 percent after every violation. The August guideline would have withheld similar percentages but would have capped the recouped funds at $1 million for the first violation and up to $5 million dollars (“whichever was less,” as the department put it) for five or more offenses. 

The state also removed language regarding licensure action in its updated guidelines to clarify that districts are responsible for "employment action" while the state board of education can take "licensure action." “There was confusion about the original wording regarding that issue and what entity had the legal authority to take certain actions,” says Blackley.