Business has long had a stake in K-12 and post-secondary education. From the school models of the industrial revolution to small businesses supporting local schools with banners on fences, companies have wanted to ensure there’s an educated workforce. Where once these organizations focused on skill sets and knowledge to benefit their particular field, more now embrace how education affects their operations and profitability on a larger societal level.
The stakes are higher now.
The floodgates of educational gag orders proposed by state legislatures and gubernatorial executive orders opened wide over the last year. Allegedly designed to prevent in-school lessons or discussions of “divisive” concepts, the initiatives gained traction as opposition to critical race theory (CRT) in schools, a much-misapplied label.
More accurately, these legislative and executive efforts — some of which are now in effect — limit how to handle race and gender issues in schools, most notably in social studies and literature classes. However, due to the broad and vague wording of the bills and orders, teachers and school administrators feel confused and afraid as to what is permitted and what criminal penalties and fines may be imposed.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s imposed a tip line for parents to report teachers and schools they deem to be teaching “divisive subjects” and “behaving objectionably.” Youngkin launched the tip line by executive order on his first day in office, citing CRT as an example of a reportable offense. The Virginia governor then attempted to attach similar language to the state budget bill, but he failed. Other anti-CRT bills currently struggle in the Virginia General Assembly, but not necessarily for long.
PEN America is logging such initiatives — a whopping 128 rows of laws throughout 36 states. It shows the targets are not just K-12 public schools, but also private schools, colleges, state contractors and employers. The proposed laws include legislation that targets LGBTQ students, teachers and professors, and corporate trainers. For example, Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which effectively bans classroom conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation, passed on Tuesday, and Gov. Ron DeSantis is likely to sign it.
In a variety of ways, companies are taking a stand against measures like these. On Feb. 15, the beauty brand Lush launched a campaign called Teach Truth to provide educators with resources to include the narratives of those often left out of standard social studies offerings: Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), women, LGBTQ people and workers, among others.
The company also partnered with the education nonprofit I Dream Library, which provides books and other resources that support teachers, caregivers and students, and with educator Jesse Hagopian of the Zinn Education Project.
Lush’s website features an explanation of the reasoning behind the campaign. Further, Lush crafted a bath bomb (shaped like an open book) to be sold for a limited time with 100 percent of the purchase price (excluding tax) being donated to support educators.
In another business action, over 150 major corporations took a stand against government assaults on diversity and inclusion — especially toward LGBTQ youth and adults — in not only public K-12 schools, but also post-secondary institutions and even the training programs of companies themselves. Marriott, Hilton and American Airlines were among the flood of top-flight companies opposing anti-LGBTQ state legislation.
In their nationwide business statement, the corporations made their case to legislators that such laws conflict with not only their values statements, but also with their bottom lines. Moreover, in the statement, these entities let it be known where their clout lies in asserting their opposition to these discriminatory laws: “As we make complex decisions about where to invest and grow, these issues can influence our decisions.”
Legislative and executive attacks on the LGBTQ community, educators, schools, corporate trainers and DEI efforts are now, literally, all over the map.
As proposals become reality, companies will need to act on those strong words if they want to protect the gains they’ve realized from their inclusion programs.
And that right soon.
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