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Indiana lawmakers debate how to teach race in schools

Lawmakers socially distance using the floor and balcony in the Indiana Senate chamber on Organization Day at the Indiana Statehouse in 2020.

Proponents and opponents squared off Wednesday over a sweeping bill to regulate how Indiana schools teach about race and racism.

Michelle Pemberton / The Indianapolis Star via AP Pool

Proponents and opponents squared off Wednesday over a sweeping bill to regulate how Indiana schools teach about race and racism.

The hearing, the first of likely many about Senate Bill 167, covered the basics of the bill and included several hours of testimony. It would ban educators from teaching eight specific ideas, would give parents a say in regulating curriculum, and would require schools to post lessons and materials online.

It also would require schools to obtain parental permission to survey students about social and emotional needs and to offer them mental health services. 

The bill echoes the measures other conservative-led states have taken to excise from classrooms discussion about race. Some critics have seized on a university-level concept called critical race theory to stop schools from discussing racial history and events.

Indiana K-12 curriculum does not include that theory, nor does the Senate bill mention it explicitly.  

The legislature likely won’t vote for weeks on the bill. 

Its proponents argue that it would codify parental say over what their children learn in school, and would prevent the teaching of divisive ideas and political ideologies. 

Criticism of the bill ranged from its detailed requirements — like the burden on teachers to post lesson plans and materials online — to the chilling effect it could have on teaching and learning the history of racism.  

Several students in particular spoke of the effects that such a law would have on their classes and peers, warning of the harm of taking mental health services away from students, or preventing their teachers from teaching freely.

“Saying this bill is not intended to prevent the teaching of history is like slashing funding for road maintenance and saying you don’t intend to create potholes,” said Tilly Robinson, a senior at Bloomington High School South in Bloomington. 

Sen. Scott Baldwin, a Noblesville Republican and author of the bill, asked many speakers to specify which of the eight points identified as divisive in the bill they objected to. 

Among those points is that any individual is superior or inferior to another based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation, or should be discriminated against based on those factors.  

The bill also seeks to protect any student from feeling uncomfortable because of personal characteristics, or feel responsible for actions of those who share their traits — phrasing meant to prevent white students from feeling blamed for slavery and persecution of people of color. 

In response to questions from Sen. J.D. Ford (D-Indianapolis) about how often the eight points identified in the bill are taught in Indiana, Baldwin said he had received stacks of materials and hundreds of emails and calls complaining about lessons that his bill seeks to outlaw. 

Ford also asked Baldwin why the bill did not include gender identity and sexual orientation in its list of protected characteristics. Baldwin replied that the Republican caucus would not support such language. 

Ford objected. “I think leaving out those particular folks sends a very loud and clear message to students that their existence is not worth bothering to put in the bill,” he said. 

Baldwin said he had not consulted the Department of Education in creating the proposal. 

He denied drafting the bill in the midst of the national furor over teaching race in the classroom, saying he had written an early version at the start of last year’s legislative session after hearing from concerned constituents.

Speaking in support of the bill, Center Grove parent Cara Cecil said the existing recourse for parents to pull their children out of lessons has failed her family. 

When she tried to prevent her daughter from undergoing a social and emotional evaluation, she said the sixth grader was surveyed anyway and would have had to voice opposition to her teacher to avoid taking the survey. 

Cecil said she removes her elementary-aged son from school every other week during social and emotional lessons she disagrees with, but as a result she has received a warning about his attendance. Those lessons can help students deal with emotions and interpersonal relationships, but opponents fear that teachers also use sessions to address inequity. ​​ 

“I don’t want him to be told he’s guilty of the sins of other people,” Cecil said. 

Attorney General Todd Rokita supports the bill. However, it doesn’t go far enough for Purple for Parents, a parent group that has voiced opposition to topics like critical race theory at school board meetings last summer.  

At Wednesday’s hearing, teachers raised issues with the proposal to post their lesson plans online. The plans are often guidelines for veteran teachers, said Robert Taylor of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, and can change even over the course of one day.

In testimony, Brownsburg teacher Christianne Beebe said that for just one week of lessons, she’d be required to post 75 books, presentations, labs, activities, and video clips, and questioned whether she’d need to get approval from the curriculum review committee for every one. 

Opponents also criticized provisions seeking to protect students’ feelings as too vague and open to unwarranted complaints.  

Baldwin said the bill is not intended to stop the teaching of history neutrally. Several educators disputed that historical events like Nazism could be taught neutrally. 

Justin Ohlemiller of Stand for Children Indiana said a lesson could devolve into a he-said, she-said dispute and involve threats of legal action that might deter teachers and schools from attempting to cover certain topics. 

“We need to consider that this bill could have a freezing effect on teaching race and racism unless we make sure there’s a clear lane for them to do that without fear of retribution,” Ohlemiller said. 

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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