Arkansas House Bill 1218 raises concerns of social justice education

Arkansas Representative Mark Lowery wrote and proposed the House Bill 1218 on January 19, 2021. This bill would prohibit public schools, school districts, and two year universities from holding courses, activities, and events that isolate students based on race, gender, political affiliation, social class or other distinctions. 

“The bill seems to read to me that any school based, whether that’s in public schools or in universities that are two or four year public universities that focus on the solidarity of a group based on any specific group characteristics, such as race, gender, class, or others would all be prohibited,” Representative Megan Godfrey said. “So things like Islanders Club, that is for the solidarity and celebration of marshallese and Islander culture.”

Godfrey believes in social justice and solidarity for marginalized groups and in the right to express identity, so she worries this bill will eliminate the teaching of these principles. 

“I think it’s so important that we celebrate our individual identity, but also our collective identity,” Godfrey said. “The things that I was involved in, in high school and college made my experience really meaningful and really special.”

Godfrey thinks these experiences should not only be protected, but promoted as well. “I haven’t seen much momentum in support of the bill,” Godfrey said. “I’ve seen instead, a lot of energy around discussing some of the negative implications and concerns that individuals have about the bill.”

Godfrey is on the Education Committee which will hear the bill. 

“I’m not sure when it will come up in committee, but it should be a lively discussion,” Godfrey said.

English teacher, Rachel Cockrell, expressed her concerns that the bill’s unclear wording leaves too much room for interpretation. 

“The vagueness of the language is what concerns me the most because it gives so much room for the State Department to decide,” Cockrell said. 

Cockerell’s English 11 class is currently working on a semester-long project that she fears this bill puts in jeopardy. 

“They’re basically choosing a social justice issue that’s current, and they’re proposing some sort of change that deals with that social justice issue, some kind of positive change to society,” Cockrell said, “That whole curriculum would be gone.”

Cockrell worries that the bill would teach students that these social justice issues simply don’t exist. 

“The language is just so vague, that you could create a school experience that basically just indoctrinates kids to believe that America has always been perfect,” Cockrell said. “There’s never been anything wrong, we have nothing to learn. Which is dangerous because that’s how we make the same mistakes.” 

According to Cockrell, it’s important to educate students about how to have conversations with people who are different from them. 

“I think it’s important to facilitate those conversations, especially in an area like a school because this is a safe place to do that,” Cockrell said, “A good teacher isn’t going to let a conversation like that happen, and let people just be disrespectful and say rude things and do it in a way  that’s not appropriate”

Cockrell believes in teaching students how to learn from and work with others who have different backgrounds, beliefs, or political stances appropriately. 

“If we can teach students all the way from K-12th grade how to have those conversations respectfully,” Cockrell said. “That’s something that carries on into when they’re older, and when they become voting citizens”

Cockrell believes that many people live in their own world with their own beliefs, without listening and learning from others. 

“I feel like we’re seeing, right now, the result of what happens when we don’t have an open and honest discourse with people who are different from us,” Cockrell said. “I just think that this bill is a terrible idea.” 

Lowery, the author of House Bill 1218, has recently made amendments to the original bill after many cases of misinterpretation. After receiving concerns from and meeting with the presidents of the Little Rock and North Little Rock School Boards, Lowery has first clarified in the bill that the teaching of black history will not be affected. 

“There has been some misunderstandings, and some of it I will take on myself, but some of it I would just attribute to people that want to think the worst,” Lowery said. 

The second clarification from these misinterpretations is the ban of student organizations and clubs. According to Lowery, there are many people saying the bill also does not allow student organizations that might be tied to class for membership.

“One outlandish example has been that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes couldn’t meet, because those are Christians, the bill does not prohibit that,” Lowery said. “I have gone and I have amended the bill to clarify that the bill never banned that, but just for clarity, we’ve put in that student organizations where there is optional membership or participation by students are not banned.”

While the bill will not affect clubs and organizations, it will affect the activities held in classroom instruction. 

“There are certain activities within that type of course of instruction that have been deemed to be very detrimental, the privilege walk is one of those,” Lowery said. “It deals with some of these really demeaning activities, where students are singled out and sometimes demeaned because of the class, or ethnicity or membership group that they are part of.”

Lowery feels that activities such as the privilege walk can be demeaning to students. According to Lowery, this consists of the instructor lining up students and reading a series of statements. If the statement applies to the student, they must take a step forward, and if the statement doesn’t apply to them they must step backward.  

“Some of the statements would be, if you come from a household where you have two parents that are still married, step forward,” Lowery said. “If your family owns a home rather than rents, step forward. If you live in a neighborhood where periodically you hear gunshots, step backward. If you have ever had to skip a meal, because there was no food in the house, step backwards.”

Lowery believes that these types of activities can create division between students and can be demeaning for both groups. 

“The instructor may not necessarily say, you’re white privileged, but it’ll be very clear, by looking at the students, if all of them are white, then it’s white privilege and the other students are marginalized students,” Lowery said. “The harm of that is, it creates division within that class. Those students may be best friends, those students may have never had anything where they saw each other in terms of color, or their ethnicity, but this particular exercise does that, and it’s harmful.”

Lowery wrote the bill in order to prohibit these demeaning activities. He hopes this will unite students of different groups and shift the focus in schools to overcoming their differences. 

“I think what would change in the schools is that there would be more focus on, and I think necessary focus on, though there might be elements that have held all of us back,” Lowery said, “even despite that, individuals are able to overcome those adversities. That’s what we should be focusing on, that’s what we should be heralding, is the ability for the individual to overcome anything.”

According to Lowery, the purpose of the bill is to focus on individual achievement and helping students overcome their personal shortcomings and marginalization. 

“What it does do, is it does not allow this divisive rhetoric and identity politics, or even the argument that can be made that historically our America has always been a white oppressor nation,” Lowery said, “and that only whites can succeed, and that those people of color, can’t succeed.”

According to Lowery, the bill will not prohibit the teaching of social justice, but will regulate the manner in which it is taught. 

“It is not an outright ban of social justice,” Lowery said. “However, if you are teaching social justice in a way that is divisive, that says, ‘here are the good guys, here are the bad guys, here are the oppressors, here are the marginalized populations. That teaching of social justice is harmful to the individual, and I think it doesn’t have any place in the classroom.”