Education forum: State bills will hinder teachers

By Marie Thomas-Baird - [email protected]

The legalities of two bills in the Ohio House that restrict what teachers can teach was a topic of conversation at an Honesty in Education forum.

The forum was held remotely Wednesday, and more than 200 people were reported in attendance.

The forum was designed to inform the public on House bills 322 and 327 and their implication on teaching and learning in our public schools, said Janet Parks, president of the League of Women Voters of Bowling Green, who organized the event.

“Honesty in education matters because when educators explore difficult issues … and incorporate into their teaching the identities, experiences and cultures of their students, the learning process is strengthened,” Parks said.

Racism, sexism and slavery are just a few of the controversial topics these bills are trying to stop from being discussed, she said.

Patrick Pauken, who has a law degree and is professor and director in the School of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Policy at Bowling Green State University, said at question is how the state will enforce these items.

“There’s not a lot of detail, there’s not a lot of clarification on what a violation even means,” he said.

HB 327 gives a lot of power to individuals who will decide on withholding state funding, Pauken said.

Cynthia Peeples, community outreach and development coordinator for the Ohio League of Women Voters, said that both bills prohibit the promotion of “divisive concepts” in education.

Twenty-seven states have either introduced or passed similar bills that prohibit or restrict honesty in education especially in terms of examining race, racism, sex, sexism and other forms of discrimination and identity, she said.

“Note, that is more than half the country, so there is a growing appetite for these bills that cannot be underestimated or ignored,” Peeples said.

House Bill 322 prohibits the introduction of controversial content specifically related to race, sex and current events and affects PK-12 schools, she said.

It also highlights as a controversial topic the advent of slavery as the true founding of the nation and that slavery and racism are anything other than deviations or failures to live up to our founding principles of liberty and equality, she said.

House Bill 327 targets PK-12 grade, as well as higher education and government agencies, Peeples said. It also prohibits the promotion of divisive concepts, including nationality, color, ethnicity and religion. It also disputes the notion that America is fundamentally racist.

The bills’ themes are similar, Peeples said, in that they assign responsibility to an individual based on their race, sex or religion and the notion that hard work ethics are racist and sexist.

“Some opponents to the bill would say that’s a reflexive response to the nation going through this racial reckoning right now and coming to terms with concepts such as white privilege and what that actually means,” she said.

Penalties to House Bill 327 include withholding of 25%, 50% and 100% of state funding for first, second and third violations. It also could include civil actions against an employee, an individual school or a district if a parent feels their child was indoctrinated with divisive concepts.

“This has a lot of educators and administrators terrified,” Peeples said

HB 322 does not issue any penalties but states that administrators can’t force a teacher to instruct on LGBTQ or discuss current events, and can’t require educators to award credit or grades for civics engagement.

“Multiple perspectives are critical in the classroom,” said Ellie Boyle, a 2021 graduate of Bowling Green High School and a freshman at BGSU. “This isn’t something new, this is something we’ve grown up with in the state standards.”

An argument essay is required for state testing and to receive full credit, you need to argue your opinion and as well as recognize a counter argument and exhibit multiple perspectives, she said.

“While we may not agree about the counter argument, we still acknowledge it and learn about it,” Boyle said.

If she is expected to learn about the Civil War and its repercussions, she should also be learning about the perspective and the feelings of the enslaved people, she said.

Arianna Bustos, who is a teaching candidate at BGSU, agreed, adding that including multiple perspectives is important, not only in curriculum but when you’re in the classroom.

“Those are things you have to allow students to experience … because getting one single way of thinking or approaching a controversial topic doesn’t allow for students to gather their own opinions or thoughts on a topic,” she said.

Ana Brown, deputy chief of Diversity, Belonging and Multicultural Affairs at BGSU, said the risk of not teaching what is the truth as we know it leads to subjectivity.

When teaching the Battle of Little Big Horn, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, she asked.

“There is a lot of subjectivity when we talk about truth, and how we answer these questions tells a lot of about us and our perspectives,” Brown said.

If only part of the story is taught, students are at a disadvantage when they’re up against other people who do know the whole story, she said.

“If we’re doing that for the sake of patriotism, that really isn’t patriotism, that is nationalism,” Brown said. “That sets on a really dangerous path that history has shown us time and time again ends very, very poorly.”

There is a very long doctrine that says states control curriculum in public schools, Paulken said.

“These bills enhance state-level control with great peril to public education,” he said.

Prohibited content must be explained with sufficient definiteness that ordinary individuals must understand it, Paulken said.

He cited a 1923 case, where the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraskan law that prohibited teaching in German in the shadow of World War I.

The best way to oppose these bills is to make your voices heard, Peeples said. Prepare opponent testimony, submit letters to the editor and contact local legislators, she said.

If only one group of people feels left out of a conversation or uncomfortable, that is a problem, Brown said.

“Growth happens when we are in moments of discomfort,” she said.

A chatroom participant asked about the implications of teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Could the issues raised in the text be looked at critically and how they would intersect with current conditions?

He would have to look at multiple perspectives of how the KKK came about, both positive and negative, said Clayton Kalaf-Hughes, history teacher at Bowling Green City Schools.

“My job is as much to teach students to how to gather evidence, and how to apply that evidence to these different perspectives,” Kalaf-Hughes said.

“I would hate to think that should a student asked about a certain topic, and we would say we are not allowed to talk about that. We would lose a lot of those teachable moments in the classrooms,” said Todd Cramer, Maumee City Schools superintendent.

“Legislation isn’t the answer,” he said. “If there is an issue, address it at the local level.”

The bills were introduced in May and went to committee in June. Opponent testimony is expected after legislators return Sept. 15.

By Marie Thomas-Baird

[email protected]