Senate education bills on human sexuality, cursive move to House

Other bills include youth employment, school counselors and agency rulemaking

By: - February 7, 2024 6:15 am

A slew of Senate bills, including one addressing how school boards handle sex education, crossed the third reading deadline Tuesday and move to the House for further consideration. (Getty Images)

A bill putting school boards “in the driver’s seat” on “human sexuality” instruction faced fierce opposition on Tuesday from Democrats worried it would restrict teaching on LGBTQ identities.

The Senate measure passed the third reading deadline 38-10, along with over two dozen other bills. All head to the House for further consideration in the second half of the 2024 legislative session.

Sen. Gary Byrne. R-(Photo from Indiana House Republicans)

Sen. Gary Byrne, the author, painted the proposal as a transparency move that would publicize materials from sex education classes online and give school boards the final say over curriculum. 

“We already have a law in Indiana that allows parents to remove their child from a sex ed class if they do not want the child to receive those lessons. So publishing this information would just help parents better decide whether they want to opt out,” said Byrne, R-Byrnesville. “… families have different values and different ideals about what is appropriate to talk about or when it’s appropriate to talk about it.”

He noted that the definition of human sexuality is still left to locals and undefined in state code but the Indiana School Board Association wasn’t opposed.

Sen. J.D. Ford, the only openly gay member of the General Assembly, echoed committee comments about a “chilling effect” on LGBTQ topics and pushed back, saying parents are already engaged with their children’s education.

“(In) a 2023 Indiana Department of Education survey … 8% of respondents said that they did not know what was being taught in school. Only 8% of our parents said that and only 7% said they had concerns over the curriculum,” said Ford, D-Indianapolis. “Parents and families are dialed in to what’s going on.”

Other Democrats called it an unfunded mandate or an “additional administrative headache” while Byrne’s fellow Republicans highlighted their shared service on local school boards. 

“This is a small step in making sure that our school boards are actually responsive and doing their duty. That’s all it is,” said Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne. “We do want to know what our children are learning about in terms of sexuality … all we’re asking is to have a public discussion about it.”

Other youth, education bills

One bill from Sen. Linda Rogers attracted bipartisan consternation — Senate Bill 146, which deals with youth employment. The language of this proposal allows Hoosier servers as young as 18 to ring up alcohol sales and serve alcoholic beverages in the dining area of a restaurant or hotel following server training. It also makes several tweaks to loosen employment protections for minors.

Republican Sens. Vaneta Becker, Mike Bohacek and Jim Tomes joined the chamber’s nine Democrats to vote against the bill, which passed 35-13.

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, speaks in the Senate Chamber during session on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Other education matters had more bipartisan support, including a bill to curb school corporations’ use of school counselors in non-counseling roles. Sen. Jean Leising’s bill, Senate Bill 141, would stop counselors from “doing a lot of clerical work that they really shouldn’t be doing.”

The smallest districts wouldn’t have to comply, but larger districts would be required to keep their counselors on counselor tasks 60% of the time, increasing to 80% for the 2026-2027 school year.

Her bill passed unanimously.

Another, decade-long push to mandate cursive writing from Leising advanced in a separate measure, Senate Bill 287. The underlying bill — authored by Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville — dictates that schools “may” include internet safety instruction.

Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington, said he thought the provisions should have switched, with a may provision for cursive and a shall for internet safety. The bill passed on a 46-3 vote.

Non-education measures

Sen. Chris Garten’s ongoing push to limit agency discretion when it comes to fines and regulations continued Tuesday in the form of Senate Bill 297.

“Senate Bill 297 requires state agencies to perform a regulatory analysis, which is a cost-benefit analysis, for all provisional and interim rules. This is already done and required for regular rules,” the Charlestown Republican said.

Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, critiques the Indiana Gaming Commission at a State Budget Committee meeting on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

He said the bill would prohibit the imposition of an agency rule that had an estimated impact of $1 million or more, with a few exceptions, unless it had legislative approval. The Office of Management and Budget already has a similar process in place but this would codify it into law, he added.

“It’s the natural next step for restoring the proper role of the legislature to decide major policy issues,” said Garten. 

Sen. Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton, questioned Garten’s assertion that elected lawmakers were the best equipped to handle these decisions when agencies could be more nimble and immediately responsive. 

“I think, preemptively, to say, ‘Hey, anytime you want to make a rule you have to come to the legislature and get approved with us’ … that may look completely different than the solution that was originally proposed and may not even answer it,” Pol said. “I think that is problematic and I think this is where I have to voice my opinion … on where the line is on the separation of powers.”

Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago split from his caucus to vote in favor of the bill, which passed on a 41-8 vote.

Senators also greenlit the following bills with unanimous or near-unanimous support:

  • Senate Bill 8: higher education matters. The bill requires high schools to offer Indiana college core classes, whether through dual credit or advanced placement courses, that will transfer for college credit. Universities will need to evaluate their programs to see if they can be completed in three years and review whether certain incomplete degrees can become two-year associate degrees.
  • Senate Bill 132: professions and professional services. This omnibus measure addresses various health care concerns, including billing for dentists and protections for elderly Hoosiers transitioning into managed care.
  • Senate Bill 139: psilocybin treatment program. The bill would fund research into the use of psilocybin, also known as mushrooms, to treat mental health disorders.
  • Senate Bill 180: central bank digital currency. Under this bill, state agencies would not be allowed to accept or require central bank digital currencies issued by either the United States Federal Reserve System or a foreign government. It does not include Bitcoin, Venmo or other forms of online banking.

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Whitney Downard
Whitney Downard

A native of upstate New York, Whitney previously covered statehouse politics for CNHI’s nine Indiana papers, focusing on long-term healthcare facilities and local government. Prior to her foray into Indiana politics, she worked as a general assignment reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Mississippi. Whitney is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University (#GoBonnies!), a community theater enthusiast and cat mom.

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