Earlier this month, Idaho Governor Brad Little became the first Republican governor to sign into law a bill that restricts educators from teaching a concept called critical race theory. And more could follow: Nearly a dozen states have introduced similar Republican-backed bills that would direct what students can and cannot be taught about the role of slavery in American history and the ongoing effects of racism in the U.S. today. But critics say the legislation isn't aimed at what children are learning in the classroom.
Idaho's law prohibits educators from teaching "individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin."
A proposal in Rhode Island would prevent schools from teaching that Rhode Island or the United States "is fundamentally racist or sexist."
However, proponents of critical race theory say it does not teach that any race is inherently racist or is superior, but how race is ingrained in our history.
Critical race theory is not typically "taught in elementary and secondary schools because it is based in legal theory," Jazmyne Owens, of public policy think tank New America, told CBS News. She said the wave of legislation "is really aimed at erasing and whitewashing American history."
Owens pointed to a Texas bill that just passed in the state's House that opponents say bans any discussion of privilege and white supremacy. "In the long term, bills of this nature, and those that intend to censor the way that race and systemic racism is discussed in the classroom are way more harmful to students," she said.
"Protecting education means being honest about the parts of our history that hurt, particularly chattel slavery, and being proactive in ensuring that we end current reproductions of racism and inequity in classrooms and beyond," Owens said.
Many of the state bills have similar goals as two executive orders former President Donald Trump introduced in 2020, one that called for patriotic education and a one that sought to ban diversity training and training on critical race theory for federal workers. President Joe Biden has revoked both.
In introducing his executive order on the 1776 Commission, which was created to reinstate "patriotism" in American schools, Mr. Trump blasted critical race theory and the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine project that details the history of America through a collection of essays and resources that look at how slavery shaped the country since the first slaves arrived. It is available to schools as a teaching resource.
"Critical race theory, the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country," Mr. Trump said.
Journalists on the project consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history, conducted research, and fact-checked, with researchers carefully reviewing with subject-area experts, the Times has said.
Mr. Biden has proposed a grant program that would fund curriculum about bias, discriminatory policies in America and the value of diverse student perspectives and would invoke lessons from the 1619 Project, a proposal Republican Senator Mitch McConnell pushed back on.
"Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense. Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil," McConnell said in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona asking him to stop the program.
Republican Representative Ken Buck, who called the project "un-American," and Senator Tom Cotton each introduced bills last year that sought to prevent teachers from using the 1619 Project. Neither advanced.
The National Council for the Social Studies denounced legislation to prevent educators from teaching critical race theory and "resoundingly reject any effort by the federal government to silence social studies curriculum that explicitly addresses the centrality of slavery in the historical narrative of the United States."
"In the National Council for Social Studies, we support social studies education and any legislation that is attempting to curtail our students' equitable access to the real truth, to all of history is problematic to us," Wesley Hedgepeth, a member of the council's board of directors, told CBS News.
The council has also defended the 1619 Project, saying teachers who use it "accurately depict the history of slavery in the United States, broaden the horizons of their students, and prepare citizens for a just democratic society."
Owens said while critical race theory "has been around, and debated for many years," Mr. Trump "seems to have made it a part of a political agenda, and now the subject of potential legislation."
Still, state lawmakers have joined the effort to block the 1619 Project specifically and critical race theory from curricula.
"Policy happens at the state level and bills at the state level have a much larger chance of passing and remaining in place based on the makeup and power of their legislatures," Owens said. "The federal government can try and set the tone, but it's going to be up to voters and advocates at the state and local levels to ensure those bills do not pass."
In Missouri, Republican State Representative Brian Seitz introduced an amendment that would specifically ban educators from teaching about the 1619 Project to a bill that would prevent critical race theory lessons.
He called the project "revisionist history, seeking to determine our national origins to be based on a negative act (slavery), therefore, everything that follows, including The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, Capitalism, our healthcare system, road systems, even the foods that we eat are fatally flawed and inherently 'racist.'"
In an email to CBS News, Republican state Representative Patricia Morgan, who sponsored the Rhode Island bill, said that critical race theory "seeks to find racism in every part of American society. It is poisonous. It should have no place in our schools."
Morgan said Martin Luther King Jr. "looked to the day when all of us would be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin" in his 1963 'I Have a Dream' speech."
"America embraced that goal and we have made great progress," Morgan said. "Alarmingly, critical race theory does the opposite."
Critics pushed back against quoting Martin Luther King Jr. to argue against critical race theory.
"Utilizing civil rights-era figures to talk about equality" is "really insidious," said Ameila Moore, an associate professor at University of Rhode Island who submitted written testimony opposing Morgan's bill.
"I think there is an intentional misunderstanding," she said. "And perhaps the people like Patricia Morgan are not aware that they are being manipulated by other powers who are trying to reframe what we're capable of discussing as Americans."