Legislators support controversial curriculum bill

Two local representatives voted for a Republican-backed bill approved by the Indiana House which says that academic subjects deemed to constitute a “divisive concept” should be avoided in all public classrooms.

House Bill 1134, authored by State Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, would limit what teachers can say in class on sensitive subjects, prohibiting them from using materials that “present any form of racial or sex-stereotyping or blame on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation.”

The bill received the support of Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, and State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, and was approved Wednesday by a vote of 60-37. While the proposal could be taken up as early as next week in the Indiana Senate, a twin measure – Senate Bill 167 – died in the Senate earlier this month.

The proposed legislation would also require classroom materials to be posted online and vetted by parent review committees, as well as restrict teaching about racism and politics.

However, dozens of educators have spoken against the bill, arguing that it would silence classroom discussions of racism and history because teachers would be afraid of losing their teaching licenses.

The Senate bill was dropped after Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, said his bill would require teachers to be impartial and refrain from taking a position when discussing Nazism and other extreme political ideologies, which resulted in national news coverage criticizing the Indiana legislator and the bill.

Baldwin later walked back his comments, saying he meant to say he “unequivocally” condemns Nazism, fascism and Marxism, and that he agrees that teachers “should condemn those dangerous ideologies.”

But Lauer maintains that HB 1134 increases transparency of K-12 school curricula and restricts students from accessing “harmful materials” at libraries.

“For almost a half-century until 2011, we had local curriculum and textbook advisory boards that included a majority of parents,” Lauer said. “We want to bring some of that control back and give parents the opportunity to have a central role in our education. People don’t want to see politics and divisiveness being taught to our children.”

Lauer said it makes sense to “everyday Hoosiers” that schools should not be teaching perspectives that divide people based on their characteristics, race, religion or creed.

When asked how a subject like the “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of approximately 100,000 indigenous people resulting in approximately 15,000 deaths, can be taught if the bill becomes law, Lauer said the tragic 19th Century event had nuances worth exploring.

“There’s nothing that precludes a teacher from taking an opinion on those evils, but that evil came from the policies and the government at the time,” Lauer said. “You can take that back all through history, based on the circumstances of the day and place. But if you are teaching that one sex or one ethnicity is better than another, that’s wrong morally and factually. We should never allow that.”

While Lauer said Bartholomew County schools do an excellent job keeping their focus on educating our kids, “there are schools that have crossed the lines on divisiveness, ideologies and indoctrination when you look across the street.”

Calls seeking comment from Lucas about his vote on the bill were not returned.

House lawmakers on Tuesday rolled back the bill’s language a second time to address ongoing concerns raised by teachers and education advocates who are concerned about being overburdened by the additional work.

While the amended bill stipulates that schools must still post class materials online, educators are only required to post “bibliographic materials,” rather than daily lesson plans. Any “pre-planned” curriculum for the academic year would need to be made available on the school’s website or online learning management system by Aug. 1 each year.

A provision allowing lawsuits if a school doesn’t respond to complaints about teachers was also amended to cap civil damages for violations at $1,000. Allegations would still be subject to a statute of limitation of 30 business days and must show “willful or wanton” violations of the law, according to the amended bill.

Another controversial bill advanced to the full Senate on Wednesday. State Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, said that his his legislation, Senate Bill 17, would remove educational purposes as a reason that public schools and libraries could claim legal protection for sharing “harmful material” with minors. That includes books and other materials deemed to be obscene, pornographic or violent.

Legislators additionally pushed forward a bill on Wednesday that would ban transgender women and girls from participating in school sports that match their gender identity.

The proposal, which could be considered by the full House on Thursday, would prohibit students who were born male but identify as female from participating in a sport or on an athletic team that is designated for women or girls. But it wouldn’t prevent students who identify as female or transgender men from playing on men’s sports teams.