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House bill limiting classroom topics, materials amended and passed in committee

House passes bill limiting classroom topics, requiring parental review of school curriculum

A controversial Indiana House bill limiting topics discussed in the classroom, requiring teachers to post curriculum materials and adding parental input, was amended and passed in committee, mostly along party lines.

House Bill 1134, authored by Rep. Anthony Cook, R-Cicero, is a sister bill to Senate Bill 167, which recently made national news for a comment  by Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, about teachers remaining impartial on Nazism. Despite lingering concerns from educators and legislators regarding the bill’s broad wording and it including colleges and universities, it was amended and moved on from the House Education Committee Wednesday.

Seemingly responding to the controversy, Cook presented an amendment Wednesday that included specifically allowing educators to teach about Nazism and assert that it is bad.

The bill passed 8-5 along party lines with the exception of Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany. Clere did not state why he voted against the bill.

The bill passed with several amendments, which passed 9-4 along party lines. These included a list of “good citizenship instructions,” according to Cook.

“Teachers must emphasize ideals and values of the U.S. Constitution and Western political thought compared to other forms of government that conflict with founding principles of the United States, individual rights, freedom and political suffrage, the economic and political institutions that have been best contributing to society,” Cook said.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, asked if an amendment would allow educators to teach students that racism is wrong because the Constitution says “all men are created equal.”

Cook said it would not, but teaching about historical events and facts can allow students to form their own opinions.

Smith was also concerned that if a student used a racial slur in a classroom setting, the bill would prohibit a teacher from explaining to the student why they should not do that.

“It says that any individual should [not] feel discomfort, guilt, anger, anguish, responsibility or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, and it goes on,” Smith said. “All of those areas will probably be part of that disciplinary situation. You don’t get change until there’s either internal agitation or dissatisfaction, and you will have to deal with that situation.”

Effect on colleges and universities

As drafted, the bill would not only affect Indiana K-12 schools and college-level teacher preparatory programs but any entities considered state agencies, including colleges and universities.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, took issue with this part of the bill. Cook said he has concerns too and would address the issue at another time, but he does not plan on removing colleges and universities from the bill.

DeLaney also continued to advocate for the removal of the word “include” in the phrase “include or promote” regarding the eight ideas based on sex, race, ethinicity, origin and other unchangeable characteristics.

Joel Hand, general counsel for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, spoke in opposition of the bill partially for this reason.

“My understanding, having read the bill and talked with representatives here on this committee, would seem that if it includes any of these concepts, that it would prohibit a teacher from talking about it whatsoever within their curriculum, which we think is detrimental,” Hand said.

Hand used the example of speech classes or debate teams, where students may be asked to debate the concepts discussed in the bill. He said he hopes for an amendment that would exempt these types of activities.

Smith also said the legislation, given that it affects Indiana colleges and universities, is hypocritical because it contradicts legislation passed last session meant to protect free speech on college campuses.

Amendments address some concerns

Prior to amending the bill, the committee heard more testimony continuing from the five-hour round of testimony Monday.

An amendment would remove the requirement for teachers to post specific lesson plans and address some specifics of the curriculum advisory committee. It would require members of the committee to serve four-year terms and be made up of 60% parents but with no more than 50% of the committee being school employees.

Addressing concerns that there was no statute of limitations for filing a complaint against a teacher for violating the bill, an amendment requires complaints to be reported within 30 business days. It would also require the violation to be considered willful or wanton.

After testimony from a representative of the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, an amendment included a reference to the Indiana law that only allows for licensed or credentialed individuals to give mental health services to students. This was added to the section requiring parents to opt students in for recurring mental health services at schools.

School boards would also have to approve which classes and lessons students can opt out of, in an attempt to address concerns by educators that students and parents may choose to opt out of important, required material.

DeLaney said the amendments made to the bill did improve it, but he still cannot support it.

“I think it’s a definite improvement, but it just adds more weight and complexity to a bill that should be consigned to oblivion,” DeLaney said.

The bill will now move on to the full House, with a Senate committee vote still to come on sister bill Senate Bill 167.

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EARLIER: In an ongoing debate about parental control and discussions about race in schools, the House heard five hours of testimony Monday on House Bill 1134, which is nearly identical to Senate Bill 167, discussed last week.

The House Education Committee (above) heard testimony on HB 1134 Jan. 10. Like the Senate version of the bill, it would create a curricular materials advisory committee, options for parents to opt children in or out of classes and activities, require posting of classroom materials online, and prohibit teaching of certain concepts that are considered by the bill to be divisive.

Both versions of the bill include eight concepts that deal with the sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or political affiliation of students and how they are dealt with and referenced in the classroom.

The House version of the bill was authored by Rep. Anthony Cook, R-Cicero, who was a teacher and administrator for 42 years.

“It provides a duty of the school and its employees to remain impartial in teaching curriculum or conducting educational activities, ensures that students are free to express their own beliefs and viewpoints concerning curriculum materials and educational activities without discrimination, and allows for in a reasonable time, place and manner,” Cook said. “And very importantly, ensures against any confusion by explicitly stating that this may not be construed to discourage the teaching of historical injustices.”

Unlike the Senate version of the bill, the House version establishes a complaint process for teachers that can lead to license revocation. The Senate version encourages civil suits against school districts rather than individual teachers.

Concerned parents

Parents arrived at the Statehouse Monday morning expressing concerns about materials shared in classrooms encouraging teachers to teach students about anti-racism.

Kyle Taylor, a Westfield parent previously included in a WRTV story about books on gender identity, testified in favor of the legislation. Taylor said the Indiana Department of Education is training educators to teach students how to be anti-racist.

“So you do not support the idea of teaching members of what appears to be a majority how they might need to be sensitive?” said Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis.

Taylor said he did not think there was a need to train students on how to treat others.

Dawn Lang, a Fishers parent, said she was concerned with teachers giving social and emotional instruction.

“I want to specify that I’m very concerned with putting teachers in the role of therapists. So we’ll be talking about social-emotional learning,” Lang said. “There’s a lot of touchy, feely great fundamental things about it, but at the end of the day, we are now shifting teachers into the role of a therapist.”

Social-emotional learning

According to CASEL.org, social-emotional learning involves self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills and social awareness.

Sandy Washburn, a research scholar at Indiana University, said HB 1134, “would unnecessarily hamper access to instruction in social-emotional skill building when students need it most.”

“It does not address any of those concepts,” Cook said. “[Critical race theory], [social-emotional learning], any of that in the bill as it says. It talks about … promoting behaviors or slanted things from the teacher’s pulpit.”

Washburn also thought many become teachers to help students with “developing personal awareness” and becoming citizens, and the bill may deter people from pursuing the profession. Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, agreed that the bill could worsen the teacher shortage in the state.

Rep. Chuck Goodrich, R-Noblesville, said teachers have testified in other education committees that they don’t have time to teach academics because they have to focus on other concepts such as SEL, suggesting the bill could actually help the shortage.

An additional burden on teachers

Teachers opposing the bill came forward with many of the same concerns that were shared during the hours-long hearing on SB 167. The bill would add new burdens for educators and create fear when teaching certain topics, and the broad language could limit materials, they said.

Christianne Bebe, an elementary school teacher from Brownsburg, said HB 1134, by allowing parents to opt children out of materials or activities, would encourage parents to opt out without talking with the teacher. She said sitting down and discussing the issue usually alleviates parents’ concerns.

Bebe believes the bill would lead to parents opting their children out of classes and lessons without a good understanding and force teachers to come up with alternate ways of learning for students. Students that opt out will still need an education, which is an issue for her because she can’t be in two places at once, she said.

“Asking me to be able to facilitate a lesson with these kids while at the same time providing an equivalent level of instruction with one or two students who have opted out, I’m not sure logistically what that looks like,” Bebe said.

She also expressed concern that teachers would not be able to share all materials with the curricular materials advisory committee or curricular portal on top of the duties teachers already have. As an elementary school teacher, she teaches multiple subjects and uses over 70 materials a week.

Cook said as a former teacher, he understands some of her concerns and added that the bill was still going through modification.

The bill language currently prohibits materials that include or promote any of the eight concepts labeled as divisive. Bebe said the use of the word “include” in the bill language could prevent teachers from using materials that discuss difficult topics. Bebe said the words of Osama Bin Laden would be an important part of teaching about the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, but under the bill she would not be able to cite them.

​​”I would personally not promote those things in my classroom, but I include them in various resources that I use all the time because otherwise, that’s how we do teach,” Bebe said.

Ohlemiller agreed on behalf of Stand for Children, saying these materials and ideas are necessary for teaching history.

The committee will amend and vote on the bill Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.

Taylor Wooten and Jack Sells are reporters for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.