House Bill 1397 requires the Oklahoma State Department of Education to offer an optional curriculum to schools to educate about the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — A new law that took effect last week mandates that state education officials develop a curriculum on the Civil Rights Movement, a requirement that has raised doubts among Black leaders in Oklahoma.
House Bill 1397 instructs the Oklahoma State Department of Education to develop and make available an optional curriculum on Martin Luther King Jr. and the events of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968.
The lesson plans must include the “tactics and strategies of nonviolent resistance” that King championed.
The author of the bill, Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore, said the curriculum is meant to be supplemental, and it could help schools teach students history without violating House Bill 1775, a state law that regulates classroom discussions on race and gender.
But some Black leaders in Oklahoma say they deeply distrust the bill because it places the curriculum in the hands of state Department of Education officials who have openly opposed diversity, equity and inclusion.
Schools haven’t been doing a good enough job teaching about America’s history of race and civil rights, but the Oklahoma City NAACP has “zero, zero, zero trust” that the current state superintendent is the one to get it right, said Garland Pruitt, the group’s president.
Pruitt said diversity, inclusion and open dialogue are central to the Civil Rights Movement.
“That’s what civil rights is about, creating an atmosphere where we can work through and around problems that we see every day,” Pruitt said. “When we’re not willing to sit down at the table and have those discussions, we know what it’s going to end up being. It’s going to be a whitewashing.”
Education Department spokesperson, Dan Isett, said the agency is issuing a request for information to gather details from suppliers on their ability to provide instructional resources. The agency aims to create a list of approved, qualified suppliers that school districts can negotiate contracts with, Isett said.
Although the law tasks the agency with approving the lesson plans, the bill’s author said he has a specific educational resource in mind. Lepak encouraged the state to use a semester-long curriculum from the organization Good of All.
While promoting civil discourse, Good of All’s curriculum focuses on King’s nonviolent methods of protest, something Lepak said was on his mind after certain demonstrations turned violent in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
Oklahoma Academic Standards already require public schools to teach about the Civil Rights Movement and King, along with other key events and leaders of that period. The state has offered a framework of instructional resources for social studies since 2019.
Lepak said he had no concerns about schools failing to cover these topics. Rather, he said the bill was meant to “essentially put another textbook or course on the shelf” that districts could choose.
A state-approved course would demonstrate schools still can teach history with HB 1775 on the books, Lepak said.
Lawmakers passed HB 1775 in 2021 to prohibit schools from teaching that students should feel guilt or discomfort over actions committed in the past by people of their same race or sex, among other banned concepts.
The law is among the most controversial bills from the Oklahoma Legislature in recent years. Some educators said it caused them to worry whether they could accurately and openly discuss difficult chapters of American history with students, especially with heavy penalties at risk for violations.
Several Republican lawmakers who supported HB 1775 also approved the civil rights curriculum bill. Nothing about that seems right, said Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa.
No House Democrats voted in favor of either bill.
“It absolutely is concerning that they would think that this particular Legislature is best equipped to teach anybody about Martin Luther King, civil rights (or) diversity, equity and inclusion,” Goodwin said. “This is a group of folks that tend to rail against diversity, equity and inclusion and yet they want to develop a curriculum about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
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