Republican lawmakers are backing dozens of bills targeting inclusivity efforts on campus and elsewhere

The Associated Press - February 10, 2024 8:13 am

Image: unconditionaleducation.org

By MICHAEL GOLDBERG Associated Press/Report for America

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Diversity initiatives would be defunded or banned from universities and other public institutions under a slate of bills pending in Republican-led legislatures, with some lawmakers counting on the issue resonating with voters in this election year.

Already this year, Republican lawmakers have proposed about 50 bills in 20 states that would restrict initiatives on diversity, equity, and inclusion — known as DEI — or require their public disclosure, according to an Associated Press analysis using the bill-tracking software Plural.

This is the second year Republican-led state governments have targeted DEI. This year’s bills, as well as executive orders and internal agency directives, again focus heavily on higher education. However, the legislation also would limit DEI in K-12 schools, state government, contracting, and pension investments. Some bills would bar financial institutions from what they characterize as “discriminating” against those who refuse to participate in DEI programs.

Meanwhile, Democrats have filed about two dozen bills in 11 states that would require or promote DEI initiatives. Supporters say that DEI initiatives are necessary because we live in a diverse world, in a melting pot country, and we need to make efforts to understand and limit the ways many people are excluded. The bills cover a broad spectrum, including measures to reverse Florida’s recent ban on DEI in higher education and measures to require DEI considerations in K-12 school curricula in Washington state.

The Supreme Court’s June decision ending affirmative action at universities has created a new legal landscape around diversity programs in the workplace and civil society. The Supreme Court has a majority of its justices, five of the nine, placed there by presidents who did not win the popular vote.

DEI’s emergence as a political rallying cry has its roots on campus, with Republican opponents saying the programs are “discriminatory” and “promote left-wing ideology.” Democratic supporters say the programs are necessary for ensuring institutions meet the needs of increasingly diverse student populations.

Republican Oklahoma Sen. Rob Standridge, who has authored four bills aiming to hollow out DEI programs in the state, said it has become a salient campaign theme.

“I think it’s become more of a political thing,” Standridge said. “In other words, people are using it in their campaigns in a positive way. So now all of a sudden, maybe the people that didn’t care before are like, well, wait a minute, I can use this on a flier next year.”

The organizations that help power the conservative agenda say DEI’s emergence at the center of political debate makes their crusade against it ripe for expansion.

“This has opened a window of opportunity, and we don’t want the window to close,” Mike Gonzalez, a fellow at powerful conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, said in an interview. “We want to meet this window with a robust policy agenda.”

In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order in December barring state agencies and universities from spending money on the programs. Standridge said it’s not clear what authority the order would have because Oklahoma’s universities are regulated by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, not the Governor’s office.

“I appreciate the executive order but, arguably, it doesn’t really have the authority to force the schools to do anything,” Standridge said. “I ran several bills thinking maybe the moderates that are in control of the Senate would allow us to do something against DEI.”

For Washington state Sen. Marko Liias, DEI is crucial to serving a diverse society. Liias introduced a bill in the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2023 to weave DEI concepts into the state’s K-12 learning standards. The bill, which is up for consideration again in 2024, is designed to meet the needs of a diversifying student population, he said.

“I think the opposition is organized around a political agenda, whereas I’m trying to respond to a diverse community that I represent and the experiences that they’re bringing to me,” Liias said. “So it’s sort of reality versus theory, what’s happening in our families and schools versus an agenda driven by national foundations. That’s the divide.”

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, Florida’s Democratic House minority leader, thinks the ideological motive behind restricting DEI is intertwined with an economic agenda that downplays the role of identity in exacerbating inequality.

“It’s a flashpoint because the conservatives like to talk about meritocracy as their vision for a society where everybody can advance,” Driskell said. “Real life is actually more complicated than that. And that is what DEI programs are there to solve.”

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

 

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