Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, speaks during a rally at the Indiana Statehouse on Feb. 14, 2023. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
Indiana teachers and education advocates admonished state lawmakers Tuesday for reviving multiple divisive “culture war” bills — including one that seeks to ban “critical race theory” from being taught in classrooms.
Other contentious proposals moving through the GOP-dominated General Assembly would prohibit sexually-explicit content in school library books and force schools to tell parents about students’ pronouns and gender identities.
The Indiana Educational Equity Coalition rallied against those measures at the Indiana Statehouse Tuesday. The Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA), the Indianapolis Urban League and NAACP, the Indiana Latino Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana, and other groups are part of the coalition.
The group specifically took aim at a bill authored by Richmond Republican Sen. Jeff Raatz that would limit classroom discussions about race. The proposal targets teaching about race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and other factors.
Dr. Russell J. Skiba, a professor emeritus at Indiana University, called Raatz’s bill a “racial gag order” that amounts to “censorship” in the classroom.
“This bill will make some children free from hearing uncomfortable truths about our nation’s history, but leave students of color wondering why their history and their heritage have been wiped out of their classroom,” Skiba said. “That is oppression.”
Teachers could not “compel, promote or indoctrinate” the belief that one race is superior or inferior to another, according to the proposal.
Similar legislation was filed last year but failed after drawing protests and heated debate at the Statehouse, however.
“Unfortunately, instead of focusing efforts and time on meaningful and positive solutions for Hoosier students related to learning or policies that would fix the teacher shortage, some legislators have made it a priority to spend their time promoting discriminatory legislation that would harm kids,” said Keith Gambill, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union.
Mounting opposition against Raatz’s latest bill also centers around a proposed amendment that would only prohibit teaching of concepts that are related to “race or color.”
“This amendment now definitely clarifies chairman Raatz’s true concerns,” said Mark Russell, director of advocacy for the Indianapolis Urban League. “This legislation is a solution in search of a problem.”
The bill was scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday but was pulled from the agenda late Tuesday night.
Raatz, who chairs the committee, said in a written statement to the Indiana Capital Chronicle earlier Tuesday that his priority “is to ensure our students are receiving the best possible education.”
“I want our classrooms to be a place where all children can learn and thrive, and we will continue having conversations about the best way to achieve that,” Raatz said.
Advocates rally to thwart latest anti-CRT efforts
Last year’s unsuccessful anti-“critical race theory” (CRT) legislation stalled and died in what appeared to be an ideological split in the Republican supermajority.
Provisions in that bill would have prohibited classroom instruction about “divisive topics” that might cause “discomfort” in some students. It also included a ban on the teaching of racist concepts or ideas that some people may find “unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”
Story continues below.SB 386 Amendment
A copy of the SB 386 amendment (Provided by the Indiana State Teachers Association)
Such language is not included in the latest proposal, however.
Gambill maintained that parents, students, educators and community allies will return to the Statehouse again this year to unite against Raatz’s bill – and others — that promote “dangerous ideas in classrooms.”
“We can, again, successfully stop these attacks if we all do our part in pushing back on these discriminatory ideologies,” he said.
Gambill said lawmakers should instead focus their efforts around proposals like House Bill 1637, which would increase certain scholarship amounts in an effort to attract more students into teaching — particularly black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
“Across our races, backgrounds and genders, we all want the same thing — great public schools for every student. We want students to have the freedom to be themselves and pursue their dreams,” he said. “But today, some politicians are pushing laws that restrict our freedoms. They fuel division among parents by pushing laws that erase our history — from Selma to Stonewall — and target and punish educators for doing their job.”
Ivan Douglas Hicks, senior minister at First Baptist Church North Indianapolis, said Raatz’s bill is “ignorant” and emphasized the need for Hoosier students to be educated about all aspects of history — not just some.
“It is ignorant to think that a society is going to be better when you whitewash history and teach children that nothing ever happened that has led them to be in the circumstance they are in today,” Hicks said. “We will not stand for it.”
Other ‘troubling’ bills on the move
Numerous bills filed this session additionally target transgender students and attempt to legislate around gender identity issues.
Buried in a separate school accreditation bill authored by Raatz is a provision that mandates teachers and school employees to report to the school if a student indicates that they want to change their “name, attire, pronoun, title, or word to identify the student in a manner that is inconsistent with the student’s biological sex at birth.”
School employees would also have to report if a student expresses having “conflicted feelings about … or difficulty handling or coping with” their gender identity or gender expression.
The student’s parents must be notified with that information within five days, according to the bill.
The bill has yet to come up for a hearing and must pass out of committee before the deadline next week. Raatz has not indicated if he plans to move forward with the proposal.
Another measure up for debate Wednesday would make librarians criminally liable for distributing material deemed “harmful to minors.”
Language in the bill, authored by Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, would remove “educational purposes” as a reason that public schools and libraries could claim legal protection for sharing “harmful material” with minors. That includes books and other materials deemed to be obscene, pornographic or violent.
A similar bill failed in the 2022 session after K-12 librarians and educators argued they would be unfairly criminalized.
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