A Round up of Objections to HB 1134 Education Bill
Disclosure: I try to keep my persona out of most League columns, but as an educator for the past eighteen years, I cannot.
Like most educators, I have stories of students chronically absent students who present with clear signs of neglect and abuse - wearing the same dirty clothes, turtling into shells, telling a teacher “I’m not sure I can go on,” having a parent interfere and speak in place of their high schoolers. The parents refuse services; the student complies. A team of guidance counselors, administrators and teachers convenes and is flummoxed about how to proceed. When the administrator to whom I report brought up HB 1134 last week, each story, each student flashed before me.
“Will we be in trouble if we press the student or ask too many questions? What if the student is being abused or neglected? Are we not going to be mandated reporters anymore?” Indiana trains education professionals on signs of suicide, neglect, sexual and physical abuse, and bullying. It mandates that we report if there is credible evidence that a student is in danger.
Nearly every educator has stories of students who needed interventions for social, emotional, and mental health and of students whose racial, sexual, gender, or socio-economic identity interfered with their learning. For this reason, teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators have expressed extreme alarm at the HB 1134 “Education Matters” bill. The bill passed out of the state House, going to the Senate, in spite of being similar to SB 167, a bill that died after its author Sen. Scott Baldwin said that even with Nazi-ism and fascism, “We need to be purveyors of reason. We just provide the facts. The kids formulate their own viewpoints.”
Most educators aim for more than just having students regurgitate facts. Learning begins with literacy, then curiosity and questions. Students need to how to learn, how to ask “relevant and appropriate and substantial questions,” as media critic and educator Neil Postman writes. They need to learn critical thinking, which is discerning which questions to ask, which data and evidence are relevant to finding an answer, and how to synthesize those while building healthy relationships and soft skills like trust, honesty, dependability, determination, respect, dignity, and resilience.
Here’s the bugaboo with HB 1134. While teachers prepare students to thrive as adults in a country with all classes, all genders, races, religions, and abilities, bills like this make the very mandate of schools suspect. Don’t teach learning. Teach only what the consensus of parents find least objectionable. HB 1134 hyper-regulates all materials and presentations used in public and charter schools, mandating that committees of parents and educators review and publish online precise bibliographies, presentations, texts, video, et cetera. While some people are riled up, perhaps too few know that the state standards which teachers abide by are published for the public. These standards were carefully put together by Indiana parents, teachers, and professional educators. They review these (and recommended reading lists, job standards, and social-emotional training) regularly. Furthermore, teachers value positive relationships with parents, communities and students. Such relationships ensure the success of learning. Nearly every teacher works to accommodate students, parents, and their community as well as meet the standards, even when there is tension in outlying situations.
At present, Americans are deeply divided about what is fact and truth, so how will these committees compromise or come to consensus? What will their guiding principles be? The bill's authors leave that undefined.
The politicians demand only that the work be done if the bill passes. And, no, they have not set aside funding to pay the teachers and parents. More bricks, less straw in the same amount of time, akin to what the Egyptians demanded of the Israelites. Teaching, re-teaching, creating curiosity, and motivating students will be confined to what is posted or can be posted within days. Principals will have five days to respond to any complaints. Superintendents have ten. School boards will get only thirty. Corporations face lawsuits. Teachers may lose their licenses.
Other objections around the state raise questions about school discipline. The bill states that “any individual should [not] feel discomfort, guilt, anger, anguish, responsibility or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, et cetera.” One lawmaker asked what would happen if a student used a racial slur. On one occasion in my own seventh-grade classroom, a student used a slur for Chinese people, which he didn’t know was offensive. He’d overheard it. Teachers often make this “teachable moment.” Usually one on one, they explain how this creates discomfort, anger, anguish, even psychological distress” for others. What ought a teacher do when a parent’s rejoinder is, “You created discomfort, distress, and anguish in my child?” What takes precedence?
Another concern regards how to apply the “opt-out” clause. Schools must provide alternate materials for students if the parents object. Every day, teachers have students attempt to opt-out of writing, algebra, homework, and state testing. They tell teachers “I don’t write.” “I’m not good at math.” “I am too anxious to test.” Far too often, parents side with their students, saying they’ve never used algebra, their kids just don’t write, they don’t need to learn the theory of evolution. What happens when they opt out of science, history, and literature because they refuse to believe in it? What happens if it means students would miss out on the critical standards? Learning creates some healthy disequilibrium. It stretches and challenges. The changes can feel uncomfortable, but since none of us knows where our students will go in the future, we prepare a strong, broad foundation.
It’s hard not to ask what the future of this bill will be if passed. We have a more diverse country than ever, and that trend isn’t reversing. What are the implications for legally interpreting “discomfort, anger, and anguish” when banned narratives and omitted historical events are the ones relevant to the next generation? What happens when a lawyer finds an interpretation that turns the language of the bill inside out? Can a family pursue complaints and lawsuits when schools exclude accurate history, relevant narratives, and needful science and that creates its own version of anguish, anger, and psychological distress? Have the politicians run this legislation through a stress test or asked if this bill does more than assuage the tyranny of the urgent? This column asks a lot of questions that politicians who may vote for it need to answer before voting “yay.”