INDIANAPOLIS — New legislation being considered in the Indiana General Assembly could limit the ways teachers can speak about issues like racism and political theory in the classroom, and a local legislator is helping carry the measure.

Two bills, House Bill 1040 and Senate Bill 167, tackle the issue in similar ways. The bills seek to restrict the way teachers can talk about controversial topics, saying they should not include in their instruction that the United States was founded as a racist or sexist nation. It would also ban teaching about concepts like white privilege or anything that could cause students “discomfort, guilt, anguish, responsibility or any other form of psychological distress” about their race, gender, national origin or religious beliefs.

The bills also require that students be actively taught that “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded.”

Both bills have been referred to their respective bodies’ committees on education, but have not yet received hearing dates.

Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, represents northwestern Hancock County and is a co-author of HB 1040.

He said one of his major focuses during the session would be a focus on education legislation that aims to prohibit what he called “anti-American, class-warfare instruction.”

“We don’t want to teach kids to hate each other, hate their government or hate their country,” he said.

Jeter said he wants to make school curriculum as transparent as possible to students, including possibly requiring teachers to post videos of lessons, and establish a complaint process for parents who feel inappropriate material is being taught.

The bills don’t include the term “critical race theory,” a framework that comes from legal scholarship describing how U.S. institutions, like courts, produce racist outcomes. But Jeter said that’s one of the things he doesn’t want to see in classrooms.

Critical race theory isn’t the only thing Jeter is concerned about. He said another concerning topic is social emotional learning, an approach used by many schools to help students “manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions,” according to the organization Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

Groups like the conservative online community Purple for Parents Indiana call SEL “progressive indoctrination.” Jeter said he thinks what’s referred to as SEL can actually be political and include critical race theory topics.

Both bills also outline a procedure for how people could file a complaint if they feel the new rules have been violated, requiring the Indiana Department of Education to accept such complaints and refer them to the attorney general’s office. The House version of the bill allows the attorney general to impose a fee on school corporations of up to $10,000 per student affected if it finds a rule has been violated.

House speaker Todd Huston (R-Fisers) lent some support to the idea, saying in a speech before the session started that the Republican caucus would be working to introduce legislation giving parents more insight into what was being taught at their children’s schools.

HB 1040 is partially focused on that, laying out a standard for school corporations to make all of their curriculum publicly available through a website.

For some educators, bills aimed at creating new regulations for curriculum have been a source of concern.

Harold Olin, the superintendent of Greenfield-Central schools, said the House bill raises alarms because of the sheer number of topics it addresses. He said he hopes it will be trimmed back considerably before receiving final consideration.

“In my humble opinion, legislators should not be voting on one bill that addresses such a broad array of topics: systems of government, communicable diseases, vaccine passports, penalties for the disclosure of student records, changes to the annual performance report, and adjustments to the required social, emotional and behavioral plans.” Olin said in an email. “That being said, my constituents and I will continue to work with our legislators to ensure that the language of this bill is revised in a manner that supports the best interest of the students and the community we serve.”

HB 1040 includes numerous potential changes for schools, beyond curriculum topics. It would establish that school corporations “may not require a student of a school corporation or qualified school to quarantine against COVID-19 or other communicable disease if the student is asymptomatic,” meaning schools would be unable to stop students who have tested posted for COVID-19 from attending school.

That’s not the only revision to COVID-19 rules. The bill would also let families opt out of requirements for their students to wear masks, and would prohibit school corporations from requiring vaccination for either employees or students.

Another provision would let the state attorney general sue a school if a student receives a “medical inspection, medical treatment, mental health assessment, mental health service, psychiatric or psychological examination or test, or psychiatric or psychological treatment without the informed written consent of the student’s parent.” It also prohibits schools from having students take surveys without the express permission of parents.

Nearly all the proposed changes are similar to those sought by concerned parents’ groups that see mental health services in the classroom, the collection of data about students’ well-being, and more as inappropriate intrusion.

George Philhower, superintendent of Eastern Hancock schools, said he was in favor of families being engaged with schools and parents being aware of their children’s curriculum. However, he added, the state is suffering from a shortage of teachers, and education bills should not risk making that problem worse.

Philhower said the role of schools is about teaching subjects like math and history, but it’s also about teaching skills like conflict resolution and communication that will be essential in students’ adult lives and careers.

“In terms of whether or not (the bills) would impact anything that’s being taught at Eastern Hancock, I don’t think they would,” he said.

Southern Hancock Superintendent Lisa Lantrip had similar sentiments.

“Our district does not teach any concepts that these bills would restrict, so we do not anticipate any changes to our instruction at Southern Hancock,” she said in an email. “Both the House and Senate versions of this bill contain a number of additional provisions and requirements for schools. Our administrative team is eager to learn more about these bills and work together with our local legislators to create meaningful legislation to help schools and students achieve.”
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