‘Dangerous to our democracy’: UW–Madison assistant professor authors report on education censorship

By Laurel White

A new report from a UW–Madison assistant professor provides a comprehensive look at political efforts to censor teachers and students in higher education, K-12 schools, and teacher training programs. 

According to the report, which was commissioned and released last month by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), approximately 19 pieces of such censorship legislation have been approved in the United States as of this fall. 

Ashley L. White, an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, authored the report. White is also the inaugural Education Fellow for Equity Access and Opportunity with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

White notes many policymakers who are not professionals in the field of teacher education or education at large are pushing the legislation.

Ashley White
Ashley L. White

“I haven’t seen that done as flagrantly for other professions,” she says. “It’s  perpetuating the idea that anybody can put their hands into teaching and actually change and shift education in such a monumental way without the appropriate training or knowledge.”

White’s report focused on four primary themes in censorship legislation:

  • the erasure of ethno-racial diversity in schools through restrictive teaching
  • the erasure of sex, gender, and LGBTQ+ diversity in schools through restrictive teaching
  • distorted narratives through whistle-blown language
  • funding

White notes many attempts by politicians to censor educators’ work are wrongly identified by the public as related to “critical race theory.”

“People refer to this legislation as ‘critical race theory’ legislation, but it is so much more than that,” White says. “Much of this legislation does not provide specific language around CRT — but rather uses vague terminology such as  ‘divisive concepts’ to thwart the accurate teaching of history regarding a multitude of student groups and inclusive educational practices as a whole.”

White argues the proposals make it impossible for educators to foster inclusive classroom environments. 

“It prevents us from valuing the diversity of children, parents, and communities,” she says. “It promotes fear in teachers, and it is quite likely to make a huge impact on the desirability of our profession.”

Ivory Toldson, national director of education innovation and research for the NAACP, lauded the report, saying it will help inform the association’s advocacy work.  

“Censorship legislation is dangerous to our democracy,” Toldson said in a statement released by AACTE. “In order for our students to be successful, they must have access to a quality education that is free from censorship and distortion.”

In the same statement, Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, a national nonprofit that focuses on free expression in the United States, called White’s work “vitally important.”

Young argued the report “underscores the serious and unprecedented threat higher education faces from educational censorship legislation.”

White includes several recommendations and calls to action in her analysis, including encouraging educators to maximize teaching standards that are already written into law. She also calls on administrators to support teachers by advocating on their behalf and keeping them apprised of local legislative efforts as they emerge.

“What we are pushing is the ability to provide students with the information they need to understand content, to understand their history in a holistic manner,” White says. “Education is not about keeping knowledge from students. It’s about democratizing knowledge and empowering all students to use that knowledge and challenge it within the context of critical thinking and worldview analysis.”

White’s full report for AACTE is available here

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