Indiana state legislators should show some trust, respect and support for the Hoosiers who teach in our public schools.

Young people from Angola to Evansville would benefit. Imagine if the Indiana General Assembly poured as much passion into finding ways to provide universal pre-K for 4-year-olds — like Oklahoma and Vermont — as the Legislature has expended on proposals to stifle and micromanage teachers. House Bill 1134, pushed by the Republican majority, would restrict the issues teachers explore in their classes, heap more government red tape onto their daily workload by mandating they post all of their curriculum materials online for parental review, expose them to lawsuits, and censor books from the school libraries. The Republicans’ justifications for further “reforming” the Indiana education system are contradictory.

They assert that House Bill 1134 will take politics out of school instruction and provide parental transparency through requirements such as using only curriculum topics and materials approved by a community committee, which would include parents.

The bill states that teachers can’t promote any concept “that an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by the individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation.” Well, that doesn’t match up with the premise of another Republican-driven, education-related bill.

The GOP also wants to end Indiana’s long history of nonpartisan school board elections by requiring candidates to declare a political affiliation. That’s a bad idea that will only inject the toxicity of national politics into the local oversight of community schools. Still, Republicans pass it off as a method of giving voters more information about their school board candidates, as if the “R” or “D” or “L” enlightens voters more than existing local meet-the-candidates forums and candidate interviews with hometown news outlets.

The author of House Bill 1182, which would force school board candidates to declare a political party affiliation, described the supposed informational value to voters in a hearing for the legislation last week, as reported by CNHI’s Whitney Downard.

“School boards handle one of the largest budgets with our elected offices,” said J.D. Prescott, a Republican state representative from Union City. “I think you can rank and even tell the difference between financial responsibility [and] moral character … just having that extra indication on the ballot will help share to voters a little bit more about the candidates on the ballot.”

A core element of the restrict-the-teachers bill emphasizes that a person’s moral character isn’t determined by political affiliation.

Yet, the school-board-candidates- must-declare-a-party bill’s author says a candidate’s moral character can be determined by political affiliation.

The legislators backing those bills want to have it both ways. And, given their dominance in the Statehouse, they can get what they want. That doesn’t make this right, though. Neither piece of legislation would improve education.

House Bill 1134 restricting teachers’ topics and classroom conversations claims to address a national campaign wedge issue — how racism through American history is characterized in lessons about slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement and the injustices of the 21st century. But sanitizing history or requiring neutrality on the mentalities behind horrific acts of the past like the Holocaust — as the author of a similar and now-dropped Indiana Senate bill suggested — doesn’t help teach kids about the inherent wrongs of racism, anti-Semitism or any other form of oppression.

Also, the framework already exists at the local level for the all-important aspect of parental involvement in a community’s schools through school board meetings, public forums, parent- teacher organizations, parent-teacher conferences and booster clubs. This overreach by the state into locally solvable situations — initiated by a political-issue-of-the-moment — unnecessarily divides parents and teachers, and would etch that adversarial dynamic into law.

The heart of the problem with House Bill 1134 and the defunct Senate Bill 167 is — as Billy Joel once sang — a matter of trust.

Republicans behind much of the educational reform legislation in Indiana during the past 15 years have shown little trust in the talents and abilities of Hoosier public school teachers, who are among the most educated and well-trained professionals in the state. This bill would deter promising prospective teachers

from entering the field, and would cause many longtime teachers — who’ve endured two years of toggling between in-person and remote instruction, long days, conflicts over mask-wearing and other adversities during the COVID-19 pandemic — to leave the profession. And that would happen while Indiana faces a teacher shortage, which is problematic nationwide but intensified in the Hoosier state because of its historically low starting- teacher salaries.

Legislators’ lack of confidence and trust in teachers reflects a broader trend.

Pew Research Center surveyed Americans in 2019 about their level of trust in each other, personally as citizens. Seventy-nine percent of adults surveyed believed Americans have “far too little” or “too little” confidence in each other. Almost all of them — 70% — believed that lack of trust made it harder to solve the country’s problems.

Indiana’s lawmakers can stop being a part of that problem. They need to spend more time talking to teachers, principals and school board members at length, and not just those who share the legislators’ worldviews. They should visit schools, bringing no agenda with them, to simply observe and listen.

Successful people invariably credit a teacher that inspired and challenged them through a lesson, book, project, experiment, play, song, saying or concept. That creativity shouldn’t be smothered by the state.
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