The Oklahoma solicitor general is pushing back on a legal challenge that claims the recent accreditation penalties against two school districts are proof that a law meant to limit classroom instruction on race and gender is unconstitutional.
In a filing submitted late Wednesday night to U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Solicitor General Zach West argued that the State Board of Education’s July decision to downgrade the accreditation status of Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools due to alleged violations of House Bill 1775 is insufficient proof that the law is unconstitutionally vague or limits protected speech in the classroom.
West wrote that “individual enforcement actions, no matter how hotly disputed, cannot show that the law is incapable of proper application more broadly.”
Filed in October by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law on behalf of multiple organizations plus individual teachers and students from Edmond and Oklahoma City Millwood public schools, the federal lawsuit claims that HB 1775 violates both the First and 14th amendments, is unconstitutionally vague, overbroad and racially discriminatory, and has had a chilling effect on lesson plans.
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Along with an injunction to block the law’s enforcement, the suit seeks to have HB 1775 declared unconstitutional. However, as of the close of business Friday, no hearings had been scheduled.
Passed in 2021, HB 1775 bans teaching that one race or gender is inherently superior. It also prohibits causing a student to feel guilty or uncomfortable because of their race or gender, as well as teaching that anyone is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or otherwise.
The text of the measure does not include the phrase “critical race theory.” However, many have construed its provisions as a ban on the concept, which argues that many key pillars of American society, including the judicial system and the economy, have been shaped in ways to benefit whites at the expense of minorities.
In the original suit, the attorneys noted that several school districts have removed multiple books by women and minority authors from their curriculum for fear of running afoul of HB 1775. Those books include Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
The lawsuit also claims that school districts have told teachers to avoid certain discussion topics and phrases, including “white privilege” and “diversity,” in their classes in order to comply with the new law.
ACLU attorneys filed a supplemental submission in August, primarily focusing on the disciplinary actions taken against Tulsa Public Schools by the Oklahoma State Board of Education over a professional development session on implicit bias.
Along with asking teachers to be cognizant of their own backgrounds and how that could shape their perceptions, the course also touched on nationwide suspension statistics and noted that racial bias is implicated as a contributing factor for disproportionately higher suspension rates among Black, Hispanic and Alaska Native students.
The slides from that August 2021 training session offered by TPS were entered into the record under seal as an exhibit Wednesday by West on behalf of the named defendants, which include state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, the members of the State Board of Education, Gov. Kevin Stitt, Attorney General John O’Connor, the members of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and the members of the Board of Regents for the University of Oklahoma.
“There is no constitutional right to teach or learn about implicit bias or subconscious racism in public schools,” West wrote. “Plaintiffs point out that the Department (of Education) ‘does not contend that any of the statements in the training materials are untrue,’ … but it is not the Department’s role to determine truth or untruth but rather to determine whether the statements are in conflict with the law.”