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HOWEY: Education ‘reforms’ come at volatile time

This is the so-called "critical race theory" legislation that became du jour in conservative politics this past year.
Credit: WTHR/John Duong
The Senate Education and Career Development Committee meets at the Indiana Statehouse during the 2022 legislative session.

INDIANAPOLIS — Here's a pop quiz: What do Richard Lugar, Joe Donnelly, Mike Braun, and Todd Huston have in common?

Early in their public service careers, they served on local or parochial school boards. This is notable because there is legislation in the Indiana General Assembly - House Bill 1182 - that will politicize school board races, which are currently run on a non-partisan basis. 

“I think you can tell the difference between financial responsibility and moral character,” said State Rep. J.D. Prescott, R-Union City, who is sponsoring the bill. “Having that on the ballot will help tell voters a little bit more about the candidate.”

Newly elected Hamilton County Republican Chairman Mario Massillamany, explained, “We will get involved in school board races. The Democrats have been running candidates the last six to eight years because they are non-partisan races. They help candidates behind the scenes. Those days are over.”

And there's House Bill 1134 that would require teachers to post an outline of classroom curriculum materials by Aug. 1 annually, including textbooks, articles and surveys teachers plan to incorporate, as well as course syllabi. This is the so-called "critical race theory" legislation that became du jour in conservative politics this past year.

State Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Elkhart, offered an amendment on Wednesday that would narrow a list of “concepts” that lawmakers want banned from the classroom from eight to three, removing one that would forbid teachers from teaching that students should feel guilt or discomfort based on their personal characteristics like race or national origin.

A similar bill - Senate Bill 167 - was pulled after its author, State Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, said that “we need to be impartial” when he comes to teaching Marxism and Nazism.

Baldwin quickly backtracked after he was flogged on late night shows: “Nazism, Marxism and fascism are a stain on our world history and should be regarded as such, and I failed to adequately articulate that in my comments during the meeting."

Indiana Democrats see HB 1134 as a key peg in what they call "culture wars" and the politicization of school policy. Party Executive Director Lauren Ganapini, said, "It’s imperative that Hoosiers know that Indiana Republicans will do everything they can to use conspiracy theories and misinformation to politicize our classrooms just to influence elections.”

While Hoosier school board races have been non-partisan, there is a long history of school boards seeking social change into the political realm. When Richard Lugar joined the Indianapolis School Board in 1964, he urged the board to embrace federal funding of school lunch programs, something widely opposed by conservatives. The future mayor and senator also introduced and passed the "Shortridge Plan" that voluntarily desegregated public schools. It was quickly rescinded, leading to a federal desegregation busing plan that lasted three decades and induced "white flight" from Center Township into surrounding suburbs.

Since the pandemic arose in 2020, school boards have become a hotbed of unrest over masking, social distancing and virtual attendance. Several school boards have had to end public comment portions of their meetings.

These bills being considered by the General Assembly come at a critical time.

The pandemic has negatively impacted millions of students. According to 2021 analysis by McKinsey & Co.: "The impact of the pandemic on K–12 student learning was significant, leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. High schoolers have become more likely to drop out of school, and high school seniors, especially those from low-income families, are less likely to go on to postsecondary education.”

USA Today reported that 60% of the current collegiate freshman class is female. This prompted Purdue President Mitch Daniels to ask in his annual letter to the university on Jan. 5, "Where are all the men?"

"There is nothing new about the phenomenon; it dates back at least three decades," Daniels continued. "What was new was the dawning realization that, in a knowledge economy where educational credentials and the skills that (theoretically) they confer are more and more essential, leaving half the population behind would be a problem for society. How ironic if, after a half-century of historic, overdue progress integrating women fully into the nation’s economic, social and political life, we gave back the immense societal gains of that climb because men stopped holding up their end."

And, according to an annual Indiana State University survey reported by the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 96.5% of participating Indiana school districts reported teacher shortages, the highest in the seven years of surveying school corporations. Said Terry McDaniel, ISU professor of educational leadership, “As a result, we are seeing educators being burned-out, scared, disappointed, and no longer enjoying the profession. We are also seeing fewer people entering the profession.”

Lewis Cass School Board member Amy Miller resigned, telling the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, “Increasingly there has been pressure on the board to take a more partisan stand and that is concerning to me.”

Reuters reported earlier this week that "local school officials across the United States are being inundated with threats of violence and other hostile messages from anonymous harassers nationwide, fueled by anger over cultural war issues.

There is great volatility in our education sector, and these reforms are poised to intensify them.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

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