State lawmakers are weighing a bill that would mandate how Tennessee students are taught U.S. history, with an emphasis on interpretations favored by conservatives.
House Bill 1129 would require school districts to adopt curriculums that stress the "positive difference" the United States has made in the world and "the political and cultural elements that distinguished America." The measure also deletes a current guideline that encourages teaching about diversity and contributions from minorities in history classes.
The state Department of Education opposes the measure, saying curriculum decisions should be left to the State Board of Education and local school boards.
Backers of the legislation, a version of which has passed the Senate, say it remains a work in progress. But its main sponsor in the House, state Rep. Timothy Hill, conceded Wednesday that the measure is meant to leave students with certain beliefs, such as the view that the wording of the U.S. Constitution leaves no room for interpretation.
That legal theory, known as strict constitutionalism, generally has been used by conservatives to argue their side on a number of issues, including abortion, government regulation and gun rights.
The bill was filed last February, months before the current fights over textbooks and education standards erupted. It had moved through the legislature largely unnoticed until this week, quietly passing the Senate unanimously just seven days ago.
But it has been embraced by some lawmakers who have voiced concerns about bias in Tennessee textbooks. State Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, backs the measure, which he said is similar to a bill he had planned to file himself.
Supporters say the bill ensures that Tennessee students learn about the country's origins. The bill spells out that students would be taught about the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, as well as the nation's achievements in a variety of fields and the "political and cultural" characteristics that contributed to its greatness.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with talking in terms of we live in the greatest state in the greatest nation," said Hill, R-Blountville.
But Remziya Suleyman, director of policy for the American Center for Outreach, a group that advocates on behalf of Muslims in Tennessee, said the bill might encourage districts to adopt history books that downplay or distort information about recent immigrants and religious minorities.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, said the bill seems to discourage discussion of the contributions of African-Americans, particularly those who were slaves.
"This part of our history I don't think needs to be glossed over," Love said.
Love and other lawmakers have asked Hill to agree to amend the measure before it moves further through the legislature. Both sides expect those changes to be worked out over the next few weeks.