A sculpture of enslaved men, women and children seen in Alabama Bicentennial Park in Montgomery, Alabama on January 24, 2023. Alabama was a slave state from 1819 to 1865, and Montgomery was a major slave trading destination. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
An Alabama senator filed a bill Wednesday that would require history and social studies to be fact-based and inclusive.
The bill, SB 180, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, requires that “social studies and history instruction shall be fact-based, historically accurate, and inclusive of the history and contributions of minority groups.”
The legislation comes as Republicans are expected to revive an attempt to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” that critics say is meant to limit the teaching of Black history in Alabama schools.
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Messages seeking comment were left with Smitherman at his Birmingham law office and with Kirsten Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Senate Minority Caucus.
Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, said that he thinks the bill reflects the state’s courses of study for social studies.
“In Alabama like in other states, that more substantive document is the state course of study standards, which date back more than a decade at this point,” he said. “But I think that whenever those are updated, that will certainly be an important exercise for the state to be sure that the standards set for Alabama classrooms and the expectations of teachers are stated clearly and in a way that makes sure that our students have a good inclusive understanding of Alabama history, and one that helps to prepare them as they progress to their K-12 career.”
Kate Shuster, an education consultant who conducts Hard History, a project that examines and provides resources for teaching about slavery, said that Alabama history teachers already know how to teach history.
“I think that it would seem obvious that good fact-based history education would be inclusive of the actions and experiences of all kinds of people,” she said in a phone interview Monday.
She said that good history teaching requires incorporating the experiences of all kinds of people who have lived through time. She’s not sure why this bill is necessary, she said.
“If the legislature feels the need for clarification, I don’t see the harm in it,” Shuster said. “I just hope that they’ll follow up with resources to shore up history education.”
Murray said that the course of study currently requires everything that’s in the bill, but he’s not sure if the legislation is necessary. Like Shuster, he said history teachers need more resources, especially classroom time.
“Like most parts of the country, over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen a trend away from dedicated time in the classroom, especially in the elementary grades, and we’re seeing this in Alabama, in our work with K-12 educators is that there’s less and less time available in a school week for history and civics to be in the classroom,” he said.
In recent years, the Alabama legislature has passed several laws that put in place further requirements for teachers, such as the Alabama Literacy and Numeracy Acts.
“What they’re worried about, the teachers are worried about, is the specter of meddling politicians and people who don’t have any particular experience in, let alone history teaching,” Shuster said. “What they’re worried about is having those people looking over their shoulder where they’re trying to do their job.”
Murray said that teachers are also unsure of what is “safe” or “unsafe” to teach.
“They might have some legitimate concerns about whether they might veer into subject matter that is politically fraught, or that is covered by some of these legislative prohibitions that have emerged in other states about divisive concepts and other subject matters that teachers are encouraged not to approach,” he said.
This bill comes after bills limiting “divisive concepts” in teaching have been filed. Last year, bills banning divisive concepts were filed in the House by Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, and in the Senate, by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road.
Oliver has refiled his bill. Barfoot told the Reflector a few weeks ago that he is working on another one.
Oliver’s current bill prevents kindergarten through college public school teachers from teaching that some groups of people are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously” and prevents teaching that some people should feel guilty over their identity. The bill allows institutions to “discipline or terminate” those who knowingly violate the bill.
Oliver has previously told the Reflector that he does not believe that that bill limits freedom of speech or teaching of Black history.
While not explicitly mentioned in the bills, Democrats this year and last have said that attacks on critical race theory are behind the bills. Critical race theory, an academic framework used to understand the persistence of racism in American society, has become a target of conservative activists in recent years. The Alabama State Board of Education banned it in Alabama schools in 2021, despite school officials repeatedly saying it was not taught in Alabama schools.
Messages seeking comment were left on Monday for Oliver and Barfoot.
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