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In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order in December barring state agencies and universities from spending money diversity initiatives. Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman via AP

JACKSON, Miss. 鈥 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 鈥 known as DEI 鈥 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鈥檚 bills, as well as executive orders and internal agency directives, again focus heavily on higher education. But the legislation also would limit DEI in K-12 schools, state government, contracting, and pension investments. Some bills would bar financial institutions from 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. The bills cover a broad spectrum, including measures to reverse Florida鈥檚 recent ban on DEI in higher education and measures to require DEI considerations in K-12 school curricula in Washington state.

The Supreme Court鈥檚 June decision ending affirmative action at universities has created a new legal landscape around diversity programs in the workplace and civil society.

But DEI鈥檚 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.

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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.

鈥淚 think it鈥檚 become more of a political thing,鈥 Standridge said. 鈥淚n other words, people are using it in their campaigns in a positive way. So now all of a sudden, maybe the people that didn鈥檛 care before are like, well, wait a minute, I can use this on a flier next year. And Trump brings light to it, too.鈥

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

鈥淭his has opened a window of opportunity, and we don鈥檛 want the window to close,鈥 Mike Gonzalez, a fellow at powerful conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, said in an interview. 鈥淲e want to meet this window with a robust policy agenda.鈥

In South Carolina, Rep. Josiah Magnuson, who introduced legislation to restrict DEI, said the issue reflects a growing sentiment among Republican lawmakers that ideologies disfavored by conservatives grow with the help of campus bureaucracies.

鈥淲e鈥檙e finding that our colleges and universities were kind of off the rails, and we need to rein them back in,鈥 Magnuson said. 鈥淎nd so I think that鈥檚 another thing that鈥檚 providing a growing impetus to get our state universities under control.鈥

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Not all Republicans are unified about which government approach is best suited to eliminate DEI.

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鈥檚 not clear what authority the order would have because Oklahoma鈥檚 universities are regulated by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, not the governor鈥檚 office.

鈥淚 appreciate the executive order but, arguably, it doesn鈥檛 really have the authority to force the schools to do anything,鈥 Standridge said. 鈥淚 ran several bills thinking maybe the moderates that are in control of the Senate would allow us to do something against DEI.鈥

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鈥檚 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.

鈥淚 think the opposition is organized around a political agenda, whereas I鈥檓 trying to respond to a diverse community that I represent and the experiences that they鈥檙e bringing to me,鈥 Liias said. 鈥淪o it鈥檚 sort of reality versus theory, what鈥檚 happening in our families and schools versus an agenda driven by national foundations. That鈥檚 the divide.鈥

Republican-led Florida and Texas were the first states to adopt broad-based laws banning DEI efforts in higher education. Since then, other state leaders have followed.

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鈥淭he idea to study how much we were spending on DEI came from me seeing what other states were doing. Specifically, Ron DeSantis in Florida,鈥 said Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, a Republican.

In a 2023 report, White said Mississippi鈥檚 public universities are spending millions on DEI programs instead of student scholarships.

In the opening weeks of Mississippi鈥檚 2024 session, Rep. Becky Currie introduced a bill that would implement sweeping bans on not only DEI offices but also on funding campus activities deemed 鈥渟ocial activism.鈥 The bill has been referred to a House committee. Currie declined to be interviewed.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill into law on Jan. 30 that makes the state the latest to prohibit diversity training, hiring and inclusion programs at universities and in state government. Cox has called using diversity statements in hiring 鈥渂ordering on evil.鈥

Republican legislators in Wisconsin brokered a narrowly approved deal with regents in December for the state鈥檚 public university system to limit diversity positions at its two dozen campuses. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, later said he had only just begun to remove 鈥渃ancerous DEI practices鈥 and requested a review of diversity initiatives across state government.

The crackdown on DEI is part of the same legislative project as the earlier movement to restrict the academic and legal ideas termed critical race theory, said Jonathan Butcher, a research fellow in education policy for The Heritage Foundation.

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Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America鈥檚 history based on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation鈥檚 institutions.

鈥淭here is no separation. DEI is the application of critical race theory. DEI officers are the administrative control panels that are putting critical race theory into place,鈥 Butcher said.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, Florida鈥檚 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.

鈥淚t鈥檚 a flashpoint because the conservatives like to talk about meritocracy as their vision for a society where everybody can advance,鈥 Driskell said. 鈥淩eal life is actually more complicated than that. And that is what DEI programs are there to solve.鈥

Associated Press writers Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis, David Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, Hannah Schoenbaum in Salt Lake City and Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this story.

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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