BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum on Friday, Nov. 12, signed into law a bill that bans the teaching of critical race theory in North Dakota's public K-12 schools.
State senators sent the bill to Burgum's desk with a 38-9 vote Friday after a House vote of 76-16 on Thursday.
Critical race theory is not taught in North Dakota schools, but Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott, said the bill was a preventative measure.
"The bill is more preemptive to try to make sure that it doesn't come to our schools," Schaible said Friday.
The bill defines critical race theory as "the theory that racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality."
The restriction will take effect once Secretary of State Al Jaeger signs off on the bill, which had not occurred as of Friday afternoon.
"This bill addresses the concerns of parents while preserving the decision-making authority of local school boards to approve curriculum that is factual, objective and aligned with state content standards," Burgum said in a statement.
Multiple senators on Friday acknowledged that the controversy over critical race theory, which is a hot button issue for many conservatives today, is something that was created with political motivation to try to control how race is talked about in schools.
Bismarck Republican Sen. Nicole Poolman, who's a high school English teacher, said the fear surrounding critical race theory in schools was indeed manufactured, but North Dakota should still take action to assuage parents' concerns.
"If we can do something to reassure parents that in public schools we are not having a political agenda, then I think that we should do that," Poolman said. "The fear and the outrage are very real, even if I may believe that fear and outrage was manufactured."
Floor votes on the bill fell largely along party lines. No Democratic lawmakers backed the legislation, and all Republican lawmakers voted for it except for Sens. Judy Lee of West Fargo and Mark Weber of Casselton and Reps. Shannon Roers Jones of Fargo and George Keiser of Bismarck.
The term "critical race theory" is more than 40 years old, though the scholars who coined the term say the way the theory is being discussed today in no way resembles their original definition. The theory taught in college-level classes supposes that racism is still ingrained in America’s institutions and that the repercussions of slavery and Jim Crow still disproportionately affect Black people and other people of color.
Not counting North Dakota, at least 12 states, including Montana and South Dakota, have taken state-level action or passed legislation to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, according to an analysis by Education Week. The efforts either name critical race theory explicitly or restrict how teachers discuss racism and sexism.
"I'm very excited that the governor signed this bill. It was absolutely the right thing to do," said Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, who sponsored the bill. "We are stopping critical race theory in its tracks."
On Friday, Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, gave a spirited speech on the Senate floor denouncing the bill.
"(Critical race theory) is a red herring. It's the definition of culture wars, which most of us claim to hate, and it makes a mockery of our Century Code when we're willing to just let stuff in there because it's easier than having difficult conversations," Oban said.
She said the bill was reactionary to the way popular culture is discussing critical race theory.
"If that's the trend we're going to do is to start coming into this body and banning things that people tell us, all because of what maybe they're hearing on cable news or talk radio or social media, then we're going to be really busy," Oban said. "And from everything I've learned until now, that has not been the place of the Legislature."
Oban said the bill has taken attention away from "real issues that our schools are dealing with," such as high teenage suicide rates and food insecurity.
Several organizations have spoken out against the critical race theory ban, including the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, which said the bill is so broad that it will have a chilling effect on teachers discussing race in any context.
The bill contains no penalty for teachers who may violate the law, but lawmakers have said historical events can be taught as long as teachers stick to the facts.
"It should have no effect on anything that is true and proven," Schaible said Friday. "We want to teach what we know to be true and to go through all this stuff without bringing theories and, you know, suggestions of other things."
Kasper said he is happy the bill was passed by both Legislative bodies and signed by Burgum because it will ensure teachers instruct their students objectively.
"When you have young kids starting in grade one and moving on throughout their grade school and high school, they're impressionable," Kasper said. "We want objective teaching. We want open discussion. We want history taught as history is, but keep your personal political persuasions out of the classroom."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.