The Tennessee House of Representatives has approved a measure that would require Black history to be taught in the state’s K-12 public schools.
The legislation was approved 80-2 on April 7 and must still be approved by the state Senate and the governor.
The bill’s main sponsor, Democratic Rep. Yusuf Hakeem of Chattanooga, said the measure would mandate that Black history, which is not currently required, be taught in the state’s schools. He said his intentions with the bill “is to be narrow, focused and specific.” Hakeem has reportedly been pushing for the change for two years.
“It is crucial that they learn about and explore Black history at an age where they can digest the information,” Hakeem said during House debate over the bill.
If the bill becomes law, the state board of education would be required to review current social studies books next year and decide which Black history lessons to add for fifth to eighth graders.
Hakeem wants the board to consider including Tennessee Black history. The bill also requires multicultural diversity in curricula for all K-12 students. The board would not implement the improved Black history standards until the 2025-2026 school year under the bill.
Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer questioned why the legislation was required and what would be taught. He also wanted to know if the state would incur additional costs.
“I know that my daughter learns a lot about Black history,” said Farmer, who voted in favor of the bill. “She’s come home is telling me all kinds of things that she’s learned in school. So, I know at least she’s being taught that. So I was just curious.”
Hakeem said Tennessee’s fifth and eighth graders should learn about Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Luke J. Weathers Jr., who attended high school and college in the state and was the first African-American air traffic controller.
He also wants state schools to teach students about the first Black legislator in Tennessee, Samson Keeble, the first Black female judge, Bernice Donnell, who was also the first Black woman to be a bankruptcy judge in the nation.
State law requires the Tennessee State Board of Education to review the education standards once every six years. The social studies standards are currently scheduled to be reviewed in July 2022.
The board receives $106,500 every year for academic standards evaluation, and it carries over excess funds. As of Feb. 8, it had $202,321 in its reserve for the academic standards. Under the bill, the board will tap into the reserve funds to buy the books or tools for the new curricula.
The bill comes when there are national and state efforts by the GOP to censor how stories about racism are taught in schools. Tennessee school districts could face financial penalties for violating the state’s law, which passed in May and restricts certain concepts about race and discrimination from being taught in schools.
Two white Tennessee House Reps., Republicans Kelly Keisling of Byrdstown and Paul Sherrell of Sparta, voted against the bill. Republican Reps. Bud Hulsey and Iris Rudder did not vote.