House Bill 1134 and its impact on the future of education in Indiana

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The Indiana House of Representatives passed House Bill 1134: Education Matters on Jan. 26, with a vote of 60-37 and three representatives excused from voting. The bill was authored by State Reps. Tony Cook, Republican; J.D. Prescott, Republican and Chuck Goodrich, Republican, and primarily focuses on additional parental involvement within public education. The bill will now proceed to the Senate for committee discussion and voting. 

The bill covers several areas of public education, requiring schools to post educational materials to school websites; giving parents the option to opt their children in or out of these materials; as well as committees created by schools’ governing bodies that must consist of parents, administrators and community members, according to the text of HB 1134. Curriculum will also have to follow new parameters that state schools cannot officially include or promote concepts that may compel employees or students to adhere to certain tenants in relation to the individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or political affiliation, and schools cannot require employees or students to engage in training, orientation or therapy that presents any form of racial or sex stereotyping or blame on the basis of the aforementioned characteristics. According to HB 1134, students additionally cannot be required to participate in any evaluation that reveals or attempts to affect the student’s attitudes, habits, traits, opinions, beliefs or feelings without parental consent, and schools must provide a request for consent to a student’s parents before providing certain mental, social-emotional or psychological services.

State Rep. Ed DeLaney, D – Indianapolis, said the bill attacks the curriculum in order to assuage the anger of certain parts of the population. It does this through the formation of curriculum advisory boards in each district, which will largely consist of parents, in order to help determine what materials are appropriate or not, expanding on those that already exist in most districts both formally and informally, he said. 

“We [schools] have to be very cautious and make sure that students aren’t upset by anything,” DeLaney said. “I don’t really think it’s about students; I think it’s a small number of parents who get upset about all this, and then they impose their fears on their children and now on the system.” 

DeLaney said he is particularly concerned about the extensiveness of the opt-out option for parents and students. Parents can opt their children out of social and emotional counseling, he said, as well as certain classes or any materials they do not want their children to learn, making it difficult to run a uniform school.

“I think we’ve come to a very dangerous point here, where, in effect, we’re going to turn each school into a special purpose charter school . . . so that we have to tailor everything—what kind of classes you can take, whether you take all the class[es], whether you get counseling—all of that has to be tailored child by child to suit the whims of individual parents, and then it has to be tailored district by district to suit the particular attitudes of any particular district,” DeLaney said. “Just one more heavy load thrown on top of public education at a time when public education has real problems.”

Graphic by Kiara Conley

Assistant Professor of Secondary Education Sarah Denney said she has been tracking this house bill and previously wrote to her senator in the Senate Education Committee regarding Senate Bill 167: Education Matters, HB 1134’s matching bill that died on the House floor. She said she is disappointed that this is the focus of the conversation regarding what efforts need to be made in education currently because of students’ needs during the pandemic. This bill is also putting social studies on the chopping block because of certain topics coming under fire, Denney said, which may reduce the amount of time spent on social studies in a time of political polarization where students need these skills.

“With regard to K-12 students, the ability to speak freely in class about sometimes divisive concepts, but also just critically examine multiple perspectives and history, allowing students to feel like they have a voice in the classroom, helps them to develop important communication skills, important critical thinking skills,” Denney said. “And these things are going to lead to higher academic achievement, higher sense of self-efficacy; this is going to translate into citizenship skills that we want for our students later on in life…. I’m worried that attempts to eliminate discussion are just going to eliminate those potential benefits for students in the classroom.”

One of the pieces of evidence presented to the House was regarding a teacher in Middlebury, Ind. that had presented “graphic” sex education materials, which this bill would prevent. However, Delaney said most teachers teach what they need to and do a good job, but teachers are also lacking support. He said Indiana education is underfunded, and teachers need more pay and more respect, but while they will be receiving higher pay, they are going to be watched very closely. But there has also been a discussion about the image issues this could create, he said.

“What’s come up today is the image thing,” DeLaney said. “And now, a small network of people, who are fearful and have bad attitudes, have spread among themselves the idea that our schools are pornographic palaces run by lunatics who want to abuse our children. But the broader dynamic around the country will be that we’re backwards. That’s harmful at two levels: it will not attract people to our state, but it also will demoralize people who were thinking about being a teacher.”

Denney said she has concerns regarding how this bill could affect future educators, mainly because teacher preparation programs across the country have some form of required diversity component. University of Indianapolis’s course is EDUC 290: Teaching in a Diverse Society and Denney is one of five instructors. Students in this course and ones like it are forced to critically examine concepts like systemic racism and white privilege, and Denney said she fears this bill could prevent open and critical examinations of these topics.

“There are specific tenants that say things like, ‘students should not feel any form of discomfort as a result of their race, sex, religion, political affiliation, etc.,’” Denney said. “And while I agree that students shouldn’t feel guilty, and that’s something that’s also mentioned in the bill, I never want a student to feel guilty for part of their identity. I do think that sometimes these conversations can be uncomfortable. If students and families have the right to bring suit against the university for feeling discomfort, that’s just going to limit their growth as individuals, and their ability to have the cross-cultural understanding that’s necessary to teach in diverse classrooms.”

This bill is an attempt to discredit the teaching profession, Denney said, and a base of voters are being awakened that are scared. And she said she understands where those fears are coming from but thinks teachers should be trusted to teach students.

“I think that what’s happening is the dominant narrative and the teaching of American history is being challenged,” Denney said. “And that’s scary. And I completely understand that feeling. I get this attempt to stick to the basics and stick to our traditional form of education. But I also just wish that we could trust that social studies professionals, teacher professionals, have been carefully thinking about the best way to present multiple perspectives to students. This is something that we spend a lot of time on in teacher preparation. And I just wish that we could share more of that with the general public.”

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