TERRE HAUTE - Terre Haute North Vigo High School social studies teacher Marie Theisz is among those with serious concerns about Indiana House Bill 1134, a controversial “parent transparency” bill that opponents say will limit how teachers approach race in the classroom.
If 1134 were to pass, banning instruction of certain concepts, "I don't know how I'm supposed to teach history," Theisz said. Among the areas she covers is post-Civil War reconstruction, Native Americans, the Latino movement and civil rights throughout history.
The bill states in part that schools shall not promote the following concepts in instruction:
• "That any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation is inherently superior or inferior to another sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation," or
• "That any any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” on account of race or the other factors;
• Or, that an individual, by virtue of those characteristics, (sex, race, ethnicity, etc.), bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by others members of the same sex, race, etc.
Such legislation would affect not only how history is taught, but also English literature and potentially some of the books used, Theisz said.
"Life isn't about agreeing with everything I teach, it's about thinking about the experiences and processing it. I think a lot of that is really important to learn from," Theisz said.
While the similar Senate Bill 167 is dead, she'll be closely watching HB 1134. She also knows that parts of legislation can resurface as the legislative process continues.
The bill also would require all school curricula to be vetted by parent review committees and posted publicly online; a committee amendment states that teachers would not have to upload daily lesson plans.
It also would allow parents to opt out of certain educational activities and curricular materials under certain conditions.
The bill has generated a firestorm of protest, including strong opposition from the Indiana State Teachers Association and civil rights groups, which conducted a news conference at the Statehouse on Wednesday.
Ivan Hicks, a vice president with the Indianapolis NAACP, described the bill as "racist" and said it "seeks to pretend that the atrocities of the past have not taken place."
“We need to ensure that our children are in an environment where they have an opportunity to understand the atrocities of the past and the horrors of slavery — not simply the greatness of America," Hicks stated at that news conference.
Republicans prioritize curriculum transparency
State Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, said earlier this month that among his priorities this session is to increase curriculum transparency for parents.
"Over the past year, lawmakers have heard from many parents concerned about divisive topics being discussed and taught in classrooms. It's important they know what their children are learning. I will look at legislation making it easier for parents to access curriculum materials for their children's schools so they can make informed decisions about where to enroll them, as well as give them the option to opt out of certain educational activities and lesson plans," he stated in a Jan. 7 news release.
In an interview Wednesday, Behning disagreed with some of the characterization of the bill at Wednesday's ISTA news conference.
"I don't know what language they are referencing ... because it actually says in the bill you should teach appropriate historical events, such as slavery and things like that. I don't know how they could read into it there is a prohibition of that," Behning said.
"The intent is to make sure history is taught accurately," including African American history, he said. "We need to understand the history of our country and world history ... Clearly if we don't know about the past, we're much more likely to repeat" mistakes from the past.
But at the same time, "To say slavery occurred because of white racism and you are responsible for slavery ... when people tell me that personally, I wasn't here 300 years ago," Behning said.
In addition, state law requires teaching about the Holocaust.
"Clearly you want to condemn Nazi fascism, but you wouldn't necessarily say because you are of German descent I'm condemning you for something someone else philosophically had adopted," he said.
The bill, with amendments, passed out of the House Education Committee by an 8-5 vote Jan. 12 and is eligible for second reading before the full House next week.
Behning believes the bill, authored by Rep. Tony Cook, will continue to see changes.
State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, who serves on the House Education committee, believes the legislation "is simply not needed."
"We should treat teachers as the professionals they are. We try to teach students how to think, not what to think. This is done by years of lesson plans, discussions and the curriculum that aligns with the state standards," Pfaff said. "This bill would stifle classroom conversations, ban books in school libraries, and places even more burdens on teachers."
There are already systems and procedures in place to handle complaints against teachers, controversial topic discussions and books in the library, Pfaff said. Parents can already be as involved as much as they want to be.
As far as greater parent involvement, "I feel this bill was written without truly understanding how our curriculum is developed," said Theisz, who is part of a local ISTA legislative action team. "There are steps and opportunities along the way for people to have feedback."
In her 18 years of classroom teaching, she's rarely had parents ask about books or extra resources used in her classroom. "It concerns me that we're talking about revamping so much for a problem I don't really see existing," she said.
Since January 2021, several states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to Education Week.
Many of the bills may have had their origin in a September 2020 executive order signed by then-President Donald Trump, which banned certain types of diversity training in federal agencies.
Partisanship in school board races
HB 1134 isn't the only legislation drawing strong opposition.
Another bill generating much debate is House Bill 1182, which would require school board candidates to declare a political party, or if a candidate does not affiliate with a party, an independent candidate designation.
More than 20 educators, administrators and current school board members spoke against the bill at a Jan. 11 House Elections committee hearing. No one spoke in favor.
The bill aims to create more transparency and give voters a better idea of what the candidate they are voting for supports, according to author J.D. Prescott, R-Union City.
The Indiana School Boards Association opposes the bill, said Terry Spradlin, ISBA executive director, who testified at the Jan. 11 hearing.
"We don't want to further politicize public education," Spradlin said recently. "What we witnessed in the board rooms across the state this past summer and fall ... is unusual and unprecedented and we don't want this to become the norm ... fueled by partisan politics."
The concern is that board rooms would become battlegrounds on social issues that are really not board business, Spradlin said.
Board members are asked to abide by a code of ethics that puts students first. "This legislation would move board members to be mindful of and perhaps conflicted ... if a party chair is asking them to take positions based on partisan politics that may not always be in the best interest of children," Spradlin said.
Other concerns are that it would narrow the pool of candidates interested in running for school board and it would invite political patronage with hiring decisions for school administrators.
The bill was discussed in the House elections committee Jan. 11, but no vote was taken. The bill was not scheduled for another hearing or vote the week of Jan. 17.
Pfaff, a member of the House Elections Committee, said of the bill, "School boards focus on policies and what is best for their students. We don't have Republican and Democrat schools, nor should we ... The more we can keep politics out of schools, the better off we all are."
Spradlin praised Senate Bill 2, which addresses school funding issues in fall 2021 related to students on quarantine and learning remotely due to COVID.
Indiana law says schools get less funding — 85% — for students who receive instruction online more than 50% of the time. A student's status is usually determined between the start of the school year and what's called the ADM count date – which this year was Sept. 17.
SB 2 addresses the problem by allowing the DOE "to look at attendance for the whole semester," Spradlin said. It ensures schools are funded at 100% per pupil for those students who received in-person instruction for a majority of the semester.
It passed out of the Senate appropriations committee 11-0 on Jan. 13 and continues to advance.
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Other education legislation:
• HB 1072 would require a school corporation to distribute a portion of revenue received from an operating referendum to charter schools, based on charter students who live within the school's attendance zone. It passed out of House Ways and Means on Thursday.
• HB 1252 creates "education enrichment accounts," or vouchers, for remediation. State Rep. Bob Behning, who authored the bill, said it would be for students whose ILEARN scores have dropped below proficiency standards because of learning loss caused by the pandemic.
Families could use the grants to help pay for tutoring or learning materials to help their children get back on track academically.
The Indiana Coalition for Public Education raises concerns about the bill because of "money going into private hands that could go to public schools."
The bill provides that an enrichment student may receive $1,000 to be used for certain qualified expenses.