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

An Indiana House bill adding transparency for parents and restricting classroom topics in public schools is moving to the Senate, where its future is more uncertain.

House Bill 1134, the controversial education bill attempting to limit “divisive” topics in the classroom while also increasing parent knowledge and input on materials used by teachers, was passed nearly along party lines Wednesday.

The bill is a sister bill to Senate Bill 167, which died two weeks ago after it made national news for a comment  by Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, about teachers remaining impartial on Nazism. President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said there was “no path forward” for the bill. During committee hearings, concerns lingered from educators and legislators regarding the bill’s broad wording and it including colleges and universities.

At the time, the Indiana State Teachers Association thanked Bray for nixing the bill and asked the House to do the same with HB 1134.

The House Education Committee heard five hours of heated testimony about the bill earlier in the session. Legislators likewise gave lengthy closing statements on the House floor Wednesday prior to the 60-37 vote. The bill is now moving forward to the Senate, where it is sponsored by Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger.

Bray and Rogers did not provide a comment in time for publication.

House legislators give final thoughts

Prior to the vote Wednesday, some legislators gave final input on the bill before it left the House.

Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, taught for 28 years and discussed the limitations the bill puts on teachers.

“This bill will fundamentally change the way I, as a teacher, interact with my students,” Pfaff said. “Students are not fragile. They want to learn, and they want their teacher to be honest about the uncomfortable truths of the past and the present.”

One element of the bill requires teachers to post their teaching materials for parents to view.

Rep. Robert Behning (above), R-Indianapolis, said studies have shown having engaged parents improves academic performance.

“Good educators are not going to have problems implementing this bill,” Behning said. “It is those that walk across the line and go take that step. And I clearly believe that parents have a right to know what’s going on in that classroom.”

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, spoke in opposition of HB 1134 Wednesday while recalling her history in education.

Photo by Ashlyn Myers, TheStatehouseFile.com.

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, mentioned what she found to be a technological problem with the bill, stating that many homes don’t have broadband accessible to view online materials in the first place.

Austin also said that having to load lesson plans and materials would increase the workload for educators significantly.

“Anybody who’s been a teacher knows that teaching is not a straight line,” she said. “You’re going to assess right away, you’re going to figure out that all those lessons you’ve got posted are not going to work for many of your kids.”

Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, was one of nine Republicans to vote against the bill. McNamara has worked as a teacher and administrator and said that she was 99% supportive of HB 1134 but the 1% bothered her enough to vote against.

McNamara’s worry reflected Austin’s, stating that while she understood some educators could be negatively using their profession to influence children, the need isn’t great enough to expect every teacher to upload all materials used in the classroom.

The bill allows parents to file a complaint or sue schools but was amended Wednesday to limit awards to court costs, attorney’s fees and damages up to $1,000. It would also allow the state secretary of education to revoke licenses of educators if they “willfully or wantonly” violate the bill.

Similar bills across the nation

Several bills introduced in the Indiana Statehouse this session aren’t unique to the state.

The language in SB 167 and HB 1134 mirror the “divisive concepts” former President Donald Trump listed in an executive order. The executive order was intended to restrict diversity training for federal government employees and contractors. According to Education Week, 36 states have introduced similar legislation, which is often called “anti-CRT.”

The Indiana Department of Education has denied that any Indiana schools teach critical race theory, or CRT.

Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, said during a committee hearing on SB 167 that his caucus asked the IDOE about CRT when Attorney General Todd Rokita released the Parents’ Bill of Rights mentioning CRT. IDOE said no Indiana schools were teaching CRT, according to Melton.

During testimony for House Bill 1182, which would make Indiana school boards partisan, some educators denied CRT being an issue in Indiana schools.

Brandon Croft, who said he was a Republican, is a school board president at Chesterton. Croft said school boards have already been facing political pressure.

“In the last 16 months, we faced partisan political issues from both sides beginning with masks, protests over an LGBT issue, and then continuing with CRT,” Croft said. “Which we don’t have, which sometimes you can tell people we don’t have and they still don’t believe we don’t have it, but we don’t.”

For his school system, the issues have led to threats and extra police patrols.

Similarly to the “anti-CRT” bills, bills to make candidates identify with a political party have been popping up all over the U.S. Indiana is currently one of 42 states with nonpartisan school board elections, according to The Associated Press. Arizona and Florida are currently making headlines for similar bills.

Indiana’s partisan school board election bill was not heard again after the initial committee hearing, where over 20 educators, school board members and education advocates testified against it. Because of this, the bill is dead.

While the Senate version of the bill is gone, HB 1134 will persist on to the Senate. There it’s fate is more uncertain since the Senate chose to kill its version of the “divisive concepts” bill.

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