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Indiana Senate bill sparks debate over school curriculum

January 5, 2022 GMT
Rep. Vernon Smith, left, D-Gary, looks at his notes during the first day of the legislative session at the the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Rep. Vernon Smith, left, D-Gary, looks at his notes during the first day of the legislative session at the the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Rep. Vernon Smith, left, D-Gary, looks at his notes during the first day of the legislative session at the the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers on Wednesday began debate on a Republican-backed bill that would require all school curricula to be posted online for parental review and ban schools’ ability to implement concepts like critical race theory.

The proposal, which Republican bill author Sen. Scott Baldwin maintained is intended to prevent certain “discriminatory concepts” from being taught in classrooms, prompted a full day of back-and-forth testimony before the Senate education committee from school advocates, teachers and parents.

The first draft of the Senate bill prohibits K-12 schools from requiring a student or employee to “engage in training, orientation, or therapy that presents any form of racial or sex stereotyping or blame on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation.” Teachers would also not be allowed to “include or promote” such concepts as part of their curriculum.

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The bill does not explicitly reference critical race theory, which has become a catch-all term for the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

Instead, it instructs that schools can’t teach “that any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, responsibility, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of what Baldwin called “the eight specific divisive concepts” outlined in the bill text.

Baldwin said a core aspect of the bill requires transparency for parents by requiring that all curriculum be published online, and by creating curriculum committees with parents on them to approve classroom materials. He questioned whether posting curriculum online was too burdensome for teachers, however, and said he was open to amending that language.

Bob Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, echoed testimony from numerous educators Wednesday that requiring syllabi or course outlines to be published, rather than entire lesson plans, would be less punitive and cumbersome for individual teachers.

According to the legislation, parental consent would also be needed for ongoing mental, social and emotional services to students, except in cases of crisis or emergency.

If schools violate the law, the bill empowers parents to bring a lawsuit against the school corporation.

Baldwin maintained Wednesday that the bill was drafted in a different format before the 2021 legislative session, and emphasized that he heard “many complaints” from constituents about “divisive” concepts being taught in Indiana schools.

He further insisted that nothing in the bill intended to prevent the teaching of “historical facts.”

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“Teaching factual topics, past of present, good or bad, is not a subject of this bill,” he said. “We’re creating new language in Indiana code to make it crystal clear these are discriminatory concepts that don’t believe in Indiana schools.”

Gail Zeheralis, the Indiana State Teachers Association’s Director of Government Relations, said the bill will have a negative effect on teachers, though, making them will feel “constrained” by what they’ll be allowed to teach, and adding to already “frustrating” workloads.

“The bill is coming at a time of tremendous stress in our schools, coming at a time when teachers and staff have moved heaven and earth to put an educational program together to meet kids where they are, both in-person and remotely,” Zeheralis said. “It will hurt kids’ abilities to learn and grow, both in terms of their understanding of the world, and in their own critical thinking skills development.”

Two similar bills filed in the House would additionally require schools to post learning materials and educational activities publicly online.

One piece of proposed legislation requires students to be taught that concepts like “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems” are “incompatible with the concepts of freedom upon which the United States was founded,” in grades six through 12.

The legislation also allows parents to opt their students out of face mask or vaccine requirements, and mandates that schools can not require vaccination against COVID-19 or another communicable disease “as a condition for employment, enrollment, attendance, or participation in a school corporation or qualified school or in a school extracurricular activity.”

Another bill, which similarly requires schools to post curricular materials online and stipulates what can and cannot be taught in classrooms, will be heard by the House education committee on Monday.

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Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.