Prohibited Concepts in Public Instruction

Dear Commissioner Schwinn, 

 Thank you for the opportunity to offer public comment regarding the current draft rule proposed by the Tennessee Department of Education as it relates to the implementation of Section 51 of Chapter 493 of the Tennessee Public Acts of 2021. 

We write to you as a collective of educators, parents, scholars, and community members who are deeply committed to schools that value the array of diverse students, teachers, and communities in the state of Tennessee. We believe that current inequitable systems that routinely disadvantage individuals based on race, gender, class, and other salient identities must be confronted and challenged in our schools. 

We are concerned about the harmful effects of this current legislation, particularly practices and policies that will overwhelmingly erase the experiences of communities of color that have a unique and relevant history to the United States. 

As it stands, the current draft rule proposes significant financial penalties for school districts. Additionally, the draft rule has unclear investigative and enforcement processes that have alarming potential to displace teachers of color and hinder teacher abilities to introduce students to important academic concepts (reflected in state standards) in meaningful ways that encourage critical thinking skills. 

Presently, students are emerging from a year of online learning and recovering from the social and emotional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the apparent realities of Black lives lost to state-sanctioned violence this past year. This current climate requires us to support our students in ways that affirm their lives, histories, and experiences. 

We ask you to consider the following recommendations as alternatives to the current proposal so that our Tennessee schools are not subjected to penalties that will further impact the funding and resources available to our most vulnerable schools. Below, we have included recommendations that could achieve a more equitable and fair process for teachers. 

We have also drafted these recommendations with historical knowledge in mind as we consider how laws and policies like that of Section 51 of Chapter 493 have had lasting harmful effects when implemented without community oversight and perspectives.


1. 0520-xx-xx-.02 DEFINITIONS

Original text (3) “Curriculum and instructional program” means a set of core instructional materials including activities and textbooks designed to help students reach the learning outcomes established in state academic standards. 

  • Recommendation: We ask that “curriculum and instructional program” materials include learning materials approved and/or recommended by content professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). 

Original text (5) “Department review team” means a committee of Department employees appointed by the Commissioner to review and investigate, as necessary, appeals filed with the Department pursuant to these Rules with knowledge and expertise regarding curriculum, instructional standards, and school and LEA operations and administration. 

  • Recommendation: We ask that the “Department review team” appointed by the Commissioner to review and investigate all appeals filed includes at least (2) parents from the classroom of the teacher whom the complaint is filed against, educational stakeholders who have expertise regarding curriculum, instructional standards and experience/background in areas of belonging and inclusion for all students. In addition, we ask that the “Department review team” committee reflect diverse educational stakeholders (not limited to parents, community, leaders, and students) from across each of the three Grand Divisions of Tennessee (West, Middle, and East Tennessee). 

Original text (6) “Impartial” means free from favor or bias toward one (1) viewpoint over another. 

  • Recommendation: We ask that the “Department review team” appointed by the Commissioner consider that “impartiality” suggests dishonest and untruthful teaching of history. With this in mind, we suggest that the department review team use research-informed definitions for terms like “impartiality,” “bias”  and “oppression” when developing review materials for potential complaints, in order to ensure a factual understanding. 

Original text (13) “State funds” means Basic Education Program funds. 

  • Recommendation: Given the section on early resolution of complaints, as well as appeals to the department, it seems that LEAs and public charters should be able to resolve issues without having to face infractions such as having funding withheld. Historically, withholding funding (as was the case with the No Child Left Behind Act) has not served as an impetus for schools to follow certain policies. 

We ask the Commissioner to consider an alternative first response to withholding state funds from schools which will ultimately have a negative impact on student learning and access to high quality instruction, teachers, and resources. 

Original text (14) “Supplemental instructional materials” means materials used in conjunction with the core instructional materials of a course. Supplemental instructional materials extend and support instruction and include, but are not limited to, books, periodicals, visual aids, video, sound recordings, computer software, or other digital content.

  • Recommendation: We recommend that “supplemental instructional materials” are allowed to extend and support teacher instruction and student learning. Further, we recommend that “supplemental instructional materials” are reviewed and approved by respective school leadership teams to minimize the amount of potential teachers in violation of the prohibited concepts.  

2. 0520-xx-xx-.03 PROHIBITED CONCEPTS

Original text: (1) The following concepts are prohibited concepts that shall not be included or promoted in a course of instruction, curriculum, instructional program, or in supplemental instructional materials: 

f. An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex; 

  • Recommendation: We recommend that the “Department review team” consider the realities that all teaching has the potential for affective impact — one cannot control nor influence student response to any curricular content, whether perceived as controversial or not.  Learning theory and student development research supports this. We recommend that this language and concept is reconsidered to include all groups that might experience discomfort in the classroom and/or psychological distress due to instruction. If not, it should be omitted altogether. 


From our review, this section lacks a great deal of clarity and guidance for educational leaders, instructional coaches, and teachers. 

Recommendation: Section .04 (b) references a complaint form, a form for which an exemplar has not been provided herein for public comment. The contents of this form will represent a significant portion of the reporting and investigative process, and would provide districts with additional guardrails with which to guide staff and district leaders. Its omission here will lead to continued confusion at the district level. We urge the Department to 1) ensure a complete list of the prohibited concepts and relevant definitions be included on the form and 2) incorporate feedback from LEAs, public charter schools, and other stakeholders on the contents of the complaint form prior to implementation of the finalized rule.

Original text: (1) Each LEA or public charter school shall:

c. Prohibit retaliation for filing a complaint or participating in an investigation;

Recommendation: We recommend that the Department outline protections from retaliation for appellants in this section. 

d. Obtain written consent from a parent prior to the participation of a minor student in the investigative process, including consent to be interviewed; 

Recommendation: We ask that the Department consider dismissal of a filed complaint if more than two student testimonies/interviews are unable to be obtained and cannot serve as evidence in the filed complaint. 


Original text: LEAs are best positioned to choose which textbooks and instructional materials meet the needs of their students, educators, and community. Pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-2207, LEAs are required to utilize local textbook and instructional materials adoption committees to review textbooks proposed for district wide adoption by the school district from the list of textbooks and instructional materials adopted by the Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission and approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. Local review committees must be set up by grade and subject matter fields and composed of teachers, or supervisors and teachers, and parents with children enrolled in the LEA at the time of appointment to a committee. The local board of education may also appoint experts in the grade level or subject matter field for which textbooks and instructional materials are to be reviewed. General complaints about the subject matter or age appropriateness of textbooks and instructional materials that do not allege that prohibited concepts are being or have been included or promoted in a course of instruction, curriculum, instructional program, or in supplemental instructional materials of an LEA or public charter school, must be filed with the LEA or public charter school pursuant to the LEA or public charter school’s locally adopted policy for addressing such complaints. 

Recommendation: We urge the Department to provide a universal review guide and rubric to LEAs, public charter schools, and the local review committees they are granted authority to appoint in order to drive consistency, uniformity, and promote fairness in this process across the state. In the absence of additional direction and clarity from the Department, these local determinations will be left open to unclear interpretation and deemed arbitrary.


Original text: (1) LEAs and public charter schools are encouraged to work collaboratively with parents, teachers, and other employees to resolve concerns and complaints as quickly as possible. At any point after a complaint has been filed, but before a final written determination has been issued by the LEA or public charter school, the LEA or public charter school, the complainant, or the individual alleged to have included or promoted the prohibited concept may propose early resolution of the allegations through a resolution agreement. 

Recommendation: We urge the Department to allow autonomy of school leaders/principals, and teachers to determine a collaborative approach in their respective schools to reach early resolution before a complaint is filed and submitted. We request that this is acceptable without a required written resolution agreement as outlined in (2) of Early Resolution of Complaints. 

As a collective, we are ultimately invested in Tennessee schools meeting the needs of diverse students and families without the erasure of entire histories of communities and historical truths that may be deemed uncomfortable. The measures advanced by Section 51 of Public Chapter 493 and this accompanying rule have the potential to foster negative academic outcomes, especially for those students whose histories and realities are made invisible by these proposed concepts.  Further, these measures eradicate a welcoming and affirming environment for students of color while also limiting access, civic participation and successful academic outcomes for all students. 

We believe that our students and families deserve the opportunity to receive a full exploratory educational experience and exposure to a complete history that allows them to discover their own perspectives and prepares them to engage in a diverse and global society. 

However, with the recommendations shared above, we hope that the Department will not only consider but incorporate our suggestions in order to make this process fair, transparent and equitable for all. 

The following parents, educational advocates, education scholars and community members listed have endorsed these recommendations (affiliations are listed for identification purposes only) and have professional and personal ties to education in the state of Tennessee: 

Dr. Courtney Mauldin, Assistant Professor of Teaching and Leadership, Syracuse University 

Cardell Orrin, Executive Director, Stand for Children Tennessee

Dr. Erika Bullock, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Tamera Malone, Tennessee Educator

Christian Jones, Shelby County High School Student  

Lamar Foster, Graduate Student, Tennessee Resident

Tiffany N. Day, Equity Advocate, Parent of Shelby County High School Parent 

Dr. Cierra Presberry, Curriculum Development Specialist, Michigan State University 

Dr. Marcelle Haddix, Professor, Syracuse University 

Natalie J. McKinney, Whole Child Strategies

Dr. ReAnna S. Roby, Postdoctoral Scholar, Vanderbilt University

Rev. Cheryl J. Beard, Non-Profit Executive & Youth Advocate

Felicia N. Gunter, Parent of Shelby County K-12 Students

Michael Russom, Chief of Staff, Communities In Schools of Memphis

Rev. Althea Greene, Shelby County Schools Board Member

Cherisse Scott, CEO, SisterReach

Reginald Davis, Director of Beyond the Classroom, Seeding Success

Susanne Jackson, Education Advocate

Tomeka Hart, Former Shelby County Schools Board Member

Amber Hamilton, Executive Director, Memphis Music Initiative

Tim Green, The Dividend

Dr. Beverly Tsacoyianis, Education Advocate

Chelsea Glass, Co-Chair, Collierville Community Justice

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