State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, works at this desk during the opening day of the legislative session at the Indiana statehouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Michael Gard / Post-Tribune)
State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, works at this desk during the opening day of the legislative session at the Indiana statehouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Michael Gard / Post-Tribune)
A bill that would give parents more control over what their children are taught was amended and passed out of committee Wednesday after a tense exchange about teaching about racism in school between Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, and the bill’s author.

House Bill 1134, authored by Rep. Anthony Cook, R-Cicero, would establish a curriculum materials advisory committee in public schools to have access to all curricular materials and educational activities for review and to make recommendations. The bill also gives parents the option to opt out of certain lessons.

Additionally, the bill, in part, states teachers can’t be told “to affirm, adopt or adhere to” concepts that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation is inherently superior or inferior to another; or that an individual is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Cook proposed an amendment to the bill Wednesday to increase the amount of parents on the curriculum materials advisory committee from 40% to 60%; that committee members would serve 4-year terms, which is in line with the school board members who select committee members; that school boards must approve courses or curriculum that can be opted in or opted out of; and give people 30 business days to file allegations of violations, among other things.

Cook said the amendment will ensure “that schools can and should teach that Nazism is bad” by stating that schools should teach that “the ideals and values expressed or enumerated in the Constitution of the United States compared to forms of government that conflict with and are incompatible with the principles of western political thought upon which the United States was founded.”

Smith asked Cook if teachers would be able to teach that racism is bad given that the amendment states teachers should “teach the ideals and values expressed or enumerated in the Constitution.”

“When we talk about ‘all men are created equal’ can we discuss that racism is bad?” Smith said.

Cook said it could possibly be done “without impacting (a teacher’s) opinion on students and utilizing facts” about events like Selma — the African American voter-registration drive led by Martin Luther King Jr. that resulted in police attacking demonstrators crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge — or Japanese Internment — the incarceration of Japanese people, including U.S. citizens, in reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“All of those things would indicate that those are bad and weren’t the original intents and the evolution of what we are now is further from that and those tragic things that happened,” Cook said.

Cook, who is a former U.S. history teacher, said he has taught historic moments using facts.

“Teach the facts. The facts will talk to students. Students will ... fashion their opinions about those. What we’re trying to caution against is bringing in my own feelings and imposing and promoting those to students,” Cook said.

Parents “are just awakening and finding” what is going on in their child’s classroom, Cook said, so the bill gives more parent and local control.

Smith said that Cook did not answer his question. Cook said he did answer Smith’s question just not “probably the way you wanted it answered.”

“It’s factual information. The examples (I gave) would certainly talk about racism and how it was approached in a very bad way in our country at one time,” Cook said.

Smith asked Cook if students ever asked him for his thoughts or opinion during a lesson.

“And you’re zeroing in on one area instead of like religion, where we’ve had people persecute Catholics in the classroom,” Cook said.

Smith said he yielded the floor. The amendment passed along party lines in a 9-4 vote.

In an interview, Smith said he does not believe that Cook answered his question.

“He was going around the mulberry bush,” Smith said. “For the sake of peace, I backed off because he was getting emotional.”

Saying the word racism is a red flag to certain people and they stop listening and go on the defensive, Smith said. His questions seemed to upset Cook, Smith said.

“When your real intensions are different from what your imposing then you’re threatened,” Smith said.

Last session, Smith was booed after calling an education bill — which would allow a rural, mostly white St. Joseph County township to leave the South Bend Community Schools, which is about 60% Black or Hispanic — racist.

Remembering that experience, Smith said he’s been backing off a little on subjects like racism or gun control.

“It seems that those topics that we’re divided on are sensitive now,” Smith said. “I’m going to speak up, but I’m going to do it differently.”

The whole bill passed out of committee in a 8-5 vote, with Rep. Edward Clere, R-New Albany, joining Democrats in voting against the bill.

Clere thanked Cook during the committee hearing “for his sincere and thoughtful efforts on this legislation” ahead of the vote, but then voted against the bill.

After the vote, committee chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he appreciated the committee’s “civility” while discussing the bill.

“I also want to share that Rep. Cook, unfortunately, has had a very short night and apologizes if you felt that he wasn’t as transparent as he normally is but he’s dealing with a lot of issues at home so respect him for the issues that he’s having to deal with as well,” Behning said.

Smith said he will file amendments to the bill when it is heard by the House.
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