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Debates over diversity in the classroom push teachers out of schools

Willie Carver

(NEW YORK) -- At the end of the 2021 school year, sixth-grade teacher Anita Carson decided to resign.

Carson, of Polk County, Florida, told ABC News that she didn't want to leave her students behind. But when new laws began to restrict what teachers could teach about diversity, she said it would make "an already hard job -- even if you love it -- really unmanageable."

Across the country, legislation has forced strict limitations on classroom curriculum and discussions concerning race and LGBTQ issues.

Schools and libraries have reported a massive increase in book-banning efforts from legislators and parents on topics like racism, race, sexual orientation, gender and more.

The U.S. has 300,000 teacher and school staff vacancies according to the National Education Association. And the culture wars over censorship and diversity in the classroom have pushed out teachers like Carson from schools.

"We are seeing that teachers are personally targeted. They're targeted in social media, they're targeted in everyday life," said Emily Kirkpatrick, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. "It is leading towards an extinguishing of the passion of why teachers got into the profession in the first place."

The fight over education

Several bills across the nation have broadly targeted race, gender and sexual orientation in classroom education.

Supporters of these bills say that students should not feel shame, guilt or discomfort based on school lessons. Many teachers have reported heavy vetting when it comes to books and curriculum; several math textbooks in Florida were rejected for allegedly having racial "indoctrination."

"We can and should teach this history without labeling a young child as an oppressor or requiring he or she feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex," said Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt when he signed an anti-race education bill in May 2021. "I refuse to tolerate otherwise during a time when we are already so polarized."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shared similar sentiments when signing the now-blocked Stop WOKE Act, which limited education on race and was deemed unconstitutional by a judge.

"No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race," DeSantis said in June. "In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces. There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida."

Some teachers say these efforts will block them from discussing the nation's past and present accurately.

They also say these efforts are eroding the quality of public education and making it harder for students and teachers from marginalized groups to succeed.

"We have a nationwide challenge with getting students to read and to want to read," Kirkpatrick said. "Teachers work so hard to find books that will appeal to students and that students can identify with and relate to. And so what legislators are doing is making that extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible."

Stories from teachers who left

Michael James, a former special education teacher in Escambia County, Florida, resigned after he alleged that pictures of historic Black figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriett Tubman were taken down from his classroom walls because they were inappropriate.

The district has refuted the claims, saying officials were "astounded by Mr. James' allegations, as his demeanor in the classroom that day was very friendly and accommodating."

The district claims officials told James he would have to change his board to accommodate state standards and that he obliged, though James said he did not agree to this.

James told ABC News that he taught in a diverse school district where 34.6% of students are Black and felt it was important that his students see themselves represented in the classroom.

"Bottom line -- this is all about small precious children that need to be protected, loved and rigorously educated and not treated less than others in a higher income area or poorly because of race or income," James said in a statement.

Similarly, 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Willie Carver resigned from his position at Montgomery County High School after he says he faced harassment from parents and residents over his sexuality, as well as restrictions on what educators could teach about race.

"The last year began with me hearing administrators telling us not to teach racial things and us having to push back pretty hard," Carver told ABC News. "I have very few students of color. It is all the more important for us to make sure they feel seen or that they feel represented. It's also all the more important that my students who are white have experiences with perspectives outside of their own, especially when they're faced with such racism at home, often, or in their communities."

Carver, a gay man, also said his school district did little to defend him from attacks on his identity from a local woman who claimed he was "grooming" children in a student-run LGBTQ group.

Carver is now working as an academic adviser at the University of Kentucky.

Montgomery superintendent Matt Thompson told ABC News in an email, "Mr. Carver is a wonderful English and French teacher. We wish him well in his new endeavor."

Carson, the former Florida teacher, now works as a community organizer for the local political advocacy group Equality Florida. The activist group fights against the very bills that pushed Carson to leave her work as an educator. She said if parents can come to understand what's being taught in the classroom, kids would benefit.

"This idea that teachers are trying to hide things from parents when we've been spending decades, begging for parents' involvement and having curriculum nights and parent conferences and constantly having events that parents can come to … it's incredibly false and toxic," Carson said.

She said these bills pit parents against teachers and severely limit conversations about how to best serve the students.

"I left teaching but I could not leave advocating for my kids and advocating for students," Carson said.

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