Gov. Brian Kemp, first lady Marty Kemp and their daughters Jarrett, Lucy and Amy Porter exit the House chamber after the governor’s 2022 State of the State address.

Gov. Brian Kemp, first lady Marty Kemp and their daughters Jarrett, Lucy and Amy Porter exit the House chamber after the governor’s 2022 State of the State address.

Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The next few months could see critical race theory banned and transgender student athletes sidelined if Gov. Brian Kemp gets his way.

Kemp’s 2022 State of the State speech delivered Thursday could be his last if he does not fend off his Republican and Democratic challengers, and in addition to pay raises for teachers and more state funds for schools, his list of educational promises included plenty of red meat for his supporters to chew on ahead of a June GOP primary against former Sen. David Perdue.

“From the classroom to the ball field, there are those who want to divide our kids along political lines, push partisan agendas, and indoctrinate students from all walks of life,” Kemp said.

“I look forward to working with members of the General Assembly this legislative session to protect our students from divisive ideologies – like critical race theory – that pit kids against each other,” he added. “I also look forward to working with the House and Senate to pass, and sign, a parental bill of rights in our education system and other pieces of legislation that I strongly support to ensure fairness in school sports and address obscene materials online and in our school libraries.”

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory was once an obscure academic term that describes racism as a social construct rather than an individual vice, but it has become a stand-in for lessons which discuss race in a way that makes some white people feel they are being called racist.

Conservative parents have flooded local school board meetings around the state to rally against the theory.

The all-Republican board of Cherokee County Schools north of Atlanta banned teaching critical race theory in May in response to community outcry at a packed meeting, even though teachers, administrators and board members themselves say it was never taught or planned to be taught.

At that meeting, Holly Springs Republican Rep. Brad Thomas pledged to file a bill to ban the theory.

He made good on his promise Wednesday with a bill that bans state agencies from compelling certain speech, such as that one race is superior to another, that people bear collective guilt because of their race or that the United States is a systemically racist country.

“Critical race theory is anti-American,” Thomas said in a statement. “It parades around as a method to identify social injustice as its true intent is to undermine the realization of the ‘American Dream.’ Our great state and country are built on the ideals that through hard work and ingenuity, citizens can achieve anything in our society, regardless of skin color or any other distinguishing characteristic. I look forward to working to pass this bill in the House this legislative session.”

In their response to Kemp’s speech, Democrats characterized the debate as a distraction.

“CRT is not a real issue, not in Georgia schools,” said Minority Leader James Beverly of Macon. “And the so-called push against it is a manufactured cultural war meant to distract people from the real issues students and teachers face, such as budget shortfalls, COVID challenges and teacher burnout.”

Parental rights

Hand-in-hand with the discussion of critical race theory has been the question of parental control, how much say parents should have about what their children are taught.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods, who is facing his own primary challenge from former Superintendent John Barge, indicated his support for Gov. Kemp’s parental bill of rights Thursday and reiterated a pledge to institute his own reforms dedicated to making classrooms more transparent to parents.

Each school district would annually report to the Georgia Department of Education all formal curriculum programs used in classrooms, formative assessments, and surveys administered to students at the school or district level, and the education department would post the information online for parents to check over.

“Public schools are a public good,” Woods said in a statement. “Not only does this package of measures strengthen the partnership between schools and their communities, it also forms the foundation of a parental bill of rights – legislation I look forward to working with Governor Kemp to get passed this legislative session.”

Woods’ new rule will be open to public comment for 30 days, and it is scheduled to be voted by the board on Feb. 17.

In June, the Georgia Board of Education approved a resolution that says the United States is not racist and that public school students should only be taught that slavery and racism are betrayals of the country’s founding principles.

Transgender athletes

The governor’s reference to fairness in school sports sounds like  a reference to banning transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports teams in public schools.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for clarification, but other conservatives are interpreting the statement as such, including Sharpsburg Republican Rep. Philip Singleton, who wrote a bill with the same intent last year.

“I think we’re going to see some movement on that legislation this year,” he said.

Singleton’s bill stalled out last year, and a similar Senate bill sponsored by Tyrone Republican Sen. Marty Harbin passed out of the Education and Youth Committee but did not receive a full Senate vote.

“When the governor makes an agenda item, it’s most likely he’s going to have his own touch to it,” Singleton said. “So I expect either a fresh piece of legislation or maybe an amendment to the current legislation, but there will be more to it. It’ll be slightly different than what we had originally.”

Supporters say transgender students have an unfair advantage over their teammates.

Democrats say the measure prevents children from playing sports with their friends to solve a problem that does not exist.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr is one of 20 attorneys general around the country suing the Biden administration over anti-discrimination policies for transgender students, arguing that the federal government overstepped its role in creating the protections.

Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Brookhaven Democrat who is running for insurance commissioner, chalked the attempt to kick transgender girls from their teams up to politics.

“Georgia school kids are his newest political football,” Wilson said. “The only reason why he’s leaning into far right-conspiracy theories about CRT and trans students is because he lost President Trump’s support.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.