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Indiana bill to limit conversations on race, politics in schools receives mixed opposition

Lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee endured nearly eight hours of testimony and debate on Wednesday over a controversial bill focused on curriculum and content. Many people opposed some or all of the bill, but for very different reasons.

Senate Bill 167 places great emphasis on parental input into the curriculum and how schools offer lessons on topics such as race, religion, and politics.

As written, it will require schools to set up parent-led curriculum review committees, and post-learning materials – including lesson plans or syllabuses – online. The bill would also require that schools receive parental consent before providing ongoing support for students’ mental, psychosocial and emotional health.

A key feature of the bill is that it prohibits eight different concepts that focus on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation — from discrimination based on those traits to students’ feelings about their identity and past. Actions performed by people who may share some aspect of it.

In general, most of the people who testified expressed opposition to some or all parts of the legislation, although some Hoosiers said they supported the bill’s focus.

Intent vs Effect

The bill’s author, Senator Scott Baldwin (R-Noblesville), said part of his intention is for teachers to present issues in an impartial manner and prevent divisiveness, not to limit how schools teach about historical grievances. He pressured many who testified to point out which of the eight principles they felt had a place in the classroom.

Matt Buckenfield, a history teacher from Fishers, opposes the bill. He said teachers should not be impartial when teaching anti-democratic subjects.

“But we are not neutral towards Nazism – we take a stand against it in the classroom and it is important that we do that,” he said.

History is full of divisive notions, said Jill Zhirales of the Indiana State Teachers’ Association, and preventing them from integrating into the classroom makes teachers’ jobs more difficult. She added that not allowing teachers to share their own views may sow distrust between teachers and students.

Some have questioned whether there is a need for legislation affecting absolutely every Hoosier public school, because only some schools in the state have dealt with problems arising from parental or community complaints about things like social emotional learning, equity efforts or lessons about racism.

Senator Eddie Melton (D-Gary) and other Democrats on the committee asked what data or reports there were about the problems the bill intended to address. But Baldwin and a representative from the Indiana state attorney’s office, Todd Rocketta, said they did not keep track of the number of incidents and examples reported to them.

Excessive or not extreme enough

Some parents who support the bill said it will address concerns that their local schools are failing to respond adequately. Proponents of the bill shared examples of teachers who said they had conducted conversations about anti-racism and socio-emotional learning “too far” — making white children feel guilt or hurt for things like slavery or their privilege.

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Others who appreciate the focus of the bill would like to see significant changes in the legislation if it is moved forward. Some said they did not want potential curriculum committees overseen by school boards and suggested that the bill did not go far enough to hold teachers accountable for violating the legislation.

But teachers, students, and parents who have opposed the legislation worry that it actually goes too far, too vague in some places, and could stifle organic discussions on important topics. Many of the teachers who testified said this comes with more costs and administrative work for schools focused on responding to the fallout from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

One Pike Town parent expressed concerns about a lack of input from organizations representing Hoosiers of color.

As noted by Senator J.D. Ford (D-Indianapolis) notes that the bill does not include language related to sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I just think letting these people out sends a message, loud and clear to these LGBTQ students, that their presence isn’t worth the bill,” Ford said.

Baldwin said he doesn’t think he would win the support of his partisan or House Republicans to include gender identity or sexual orientation in the bill.

Protecting children and their data

A large portion of the testimonials focused on protecting children from harmful content. Part of the bill would remove the exemption for K-12 schools and some libraries due to potential lawsuits against them if a child accessed harmful or obscene material.

Some parents, including Purple for Parents Indiana, Indiana President Rhonda Miller, said they want a bill that focuses solely on penalties for substances harmful to minors, citing SB 17.

But Chris Mechem, who testified on behalf of the Indiana Library Association, said the group opposes the bill. He said he believes there is already sufficient protection against harmful substances for minors in state and current federal law.

Part of the bill also restricts the collection and preservation of student data generated from surveys or assessments for schools and third-party sellers. Some who opposed part of the bill said schools should do more to protect student data and strengthen cybersecurity protocols for servers that house any student data.

Social emotional learning and mental health support were also discussed at length. The dissidents said they were concerned that requiring parental consent for ongoing school support might restrict students’ access to these services – especially if they were victims of child abuse – while parents supporting the legislation said it was an important step to provide transparency.

good education

Several of the people who testified said they want to protect children’s right to a quality education, and worry that the bill puts that at risk.

Tillie Robinson is a high school student in Bloomington. She said that a small group of people should not dictate their access to educational topics that might make their parents uncomfortable.

“I fear that the commission’s process will enable a minority to impose their political agenda on the primary and secondary curricula — parents should have a voice, not a veto,” Robinson said.

Another student, Rahul Doray of West Lafayette, said his school system has not faced the same controversy that other communities have experienced in recent months, and that passing state law to address issues specific to these communities does not make sense.

Senator Fadi Kaddoura (D-Indianapolis) has raised questions about whether parent-led curriculum committees could result in students across Indiana receiving a different education based on ideological beliefs held in different communities.

Teacher workload and workforce

Part of the bill would require schools to publish curriculum materials — including lesson plans or classroom syllabuses — online. Several teachers and school lobbyists have suggested that this part of the bill be rescinded or important changes be made.

Requiring teachers to follow published planning materials may prevent them from allowing organic learning moments to emerge in the classroom, said Bob Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Administrators.

Several teachers said they were concerned that the bill and its reporting components could negatively impact an already stressed education workforce, and push teachers away from Indiana.

Next steps

The Senate Education Committee has yet to schedule a vote and possibly make changes to the proposed bill. Meanwhile, lawmakers on the House Education Committee are scheduled to hear their chamber’s version of the bill Monday morning.

Contact reporter Jenny at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at Tweet embed.

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