Curriculum legislation concerns local teachers

·9 min read

Jan. 14—SOUTHERN INDIANA — Kristi Charbonneau, a teacher at Floyd Central High School, said she is concerned that legislation under consideration at the Indiana Statehouse could cause teachers to "leave in droves."

She is among the Southern Indiana teachers voicing opposition to Indiana legislation that would affect curriculum in schools. This session, Republican lawmakers in Indiana have proposed legislation they say would increase transparency in classrooms and parental involvement regarding curriculum taught in schools, but opponents worry the legislation could place additional burdens on teachers and limit their ability to discuss topics such as racism.

House Bill 1134 is expected to be considered next week on the House floor. This week, the House Education Committee made multiple amendments on the curriculum bill.

Some of the requirements proposed in this legislation include the requirement for teachers to post curriculum online for parental review and the establishment of oversight committees partially made up of parents to review curriculum.

The bill outlines restrictions on how teachers could address topics such as race, religion and politics.

Sen. Bill 167 also contains similar provisions regarding oversight and limits on curriculum, but after failing to make it out of committee this week, Indiana Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville) announced Friday that the bill will not proceed further.

"Members of the Senate continued to work on Senate Bill 167, but have determined there is no path forward for it and it will not be considered," Bray said in a statement.

State Rep. Ed Clere (R-New Albany), was the only Republican in the committee to vote against House Bill 1134, joining the four Democrat committee members in his opposition to the legislation. The bill was advanced with an 8-5 vote.

Amendments include a 30-day statue of limitations for complaints of possible violations, as well as a "good citizenship" provision specifying that the legislation would allow for education on historical injustices that go against "ideals or values that conflict with the Constitution of the United States."

The amended legislation also changed the makeup of the oversight committees to be composed of 60% parents instead of 40%. No more than 50% of those parents could be employed by the school district.

Clere said his main concern about House Bill 1134 is the strain that could be placed on teachers if the legislation is approved. He notes that his wife is a teacher at Clarksville High School.

"I trust teachers, and as with anything, bad actors should be dealt with swiftly and decisively, but the vast majority of teachers I feel are trying to do the right things at any given time," he said. "And I am very concerned about the burden the legislation would place on teachers."

"Teachers are already over-worked and under-appreciated, and this would only add to their workload and to their stress while at the same time discouraging them from innovating in the classroom and challenging students to think critically," Clere said.

The bill will move to the full House chamber for a vote before going to the Senate chamber. Clere said the bill will be before the House on Tuesday, and if it moves through a second reading, it would be eligible for a final vote in the House on Thursday.

House Bill 1134 was authored by State Rep. Tony Cook (R-Cicero). Cook said during a House committee meeting that the aim is for teachers to share facts rather than opinions about when it comes to teaching topics such as historical racism.

"The facts will teach the students [that racism is bad]," Cook said. "Students will make, inform and fashion their opinions about those. What we're trying to do is caution against bringing in [your] own feelings and imposing or promoting those to students."

Charbonneau said she has "enormous concerns" about the legislation. She works in special education and intervention at Floyd Central, and she previously taught English for 16 years.

She also serves as the Floyd County legislative action team leader for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

"I have a college degree, and I've spent a lot of time learning about how to teach children, and for state legislators to tell me I need to do it in a different way or speak a different way — that's insulting," she said.

Charbonneau said teachers in the district already practice "full transparency" when it comes to curriculum, and she is willing to work with parents if they have concerns. She feels the legislation "does not treat teachers as respected professionals."

"Teachers came into this profession to help kids," she said. "It's why I became a teacher. We model for them and guide them in ways to become productive members of society. When we have a limited script of what we can say and can't say, who wants to do that? Who wants to go into teaching, who wants to worry about what they say all the time?"

Lisa McIntyre, president of the New Albany-Floyd County Education Association, is a health and physical education teacher at Scribner Middle School. She is also concerned about the proposed legislation, saying she wants "educators included on this conversation."

She said parents already have access to her classroom materials through Google Classroom, and she has communicated with parents when they have concerns about curriculum such as sex education. However, she feels that what has been presented in the legislation would be time-consuming for educators who are already struggling to find enough time during the pandemic.

McIntyre said Indiana teachers are "tired," and she also believes the bill could drive people away from the profession.

"It's more and more the feeling of being treated as glorified babysitters," she said. "We've got people who have spent a great deal of time learning the pedagogy and science behind creating all of our lessons and creating materials to support these state standards, and they're telling us the final approval now is subject to a committee."

Charbonneau said the subjectivity of interpreting the legislation is a concern, and she worries it could prevent teachers from educating students about topics such as racism in American history. She noted the national debate on critical race theory.

"I know the temperature in the nation regarding critical race theory is very heated right now — the issue I have that no one really seems to know what it is, and it's so subjective," she said. "Does that mean we that we can't talk about Rosa Parks or anything where someone was discriminated against, that we can't take a position on it? It blocks the opportunity for open dialogue and teachable moments."

In addition to the curriculum piece, Charbonneau expressed concerns about language in the legislation regarding social-emotional learning, saying she is concerned it will affect how she interacts with her students, including situations related to conflict resolution.

The bills states that "before a school corporation or qualified school may provide or administer certain mental, social-emotional, or psychological services to a student, the school must provide the parent of the student or the student, if the student is an adult or an emancipated minor, with a written request for consent to provide or administer certain mental, social-emotional, or psychological services."

Charbonneau said a large portion of her work includes intervention and social-emotional learning, and she worries that bill could interfere with her ability to do her job.

Mark Felix, president of the Greater Clark Education Association, said "we've reached the pinnacle of stupidity" if the legislation passes in Indiana.

If legislation is passed, Felix doubts that it could realistically be enforced. He said "can't imagine that state legislators will go down this road."

"We've gone to school for years to learn this trade, and trust us to do our jobs," Felix said. "We're not trying to motivate children politically in any way — we're trying to prepare them for the future."

Felix believes the bill would contribute to more young people leaving the education field, noting he is already seeing teachers retiring earlier than planned due to the pandemic.

Clere said he supports parts of the House bill that promote "parental involvement" and "greater transparency for both parents and the public," but he also feels that many of the provisions are "both confusing and problematic."

"I think lots of the issues that this bill seeks to address can be handled best at the local level between parents, teachers and school leaders," he said. "In talking with educators, what I've heard is that they would welcome more parental involvement."

Clere said that he voted to amend House Bill 1134, and he supports pieces regarding the 30-day limit on complaints, the "good citizenship" provision and the changes regarding the makeup of the oversight committee. But said he cannot support the bill as it is currently written.

However, he plans to keep an "open mind" and consider any future amendments, he said.

"I would need to see a much simpler bill with fewer layers, more local control and more support for teachers while also maintaining requirements for parental involvement and greater transparency," Clere said.

The curriculum bills were also mentioned by school leaders at Tuesday's Greater Clark County Schools board meeting.

Teresa Bottorff-Perkins, Greater Clark school board member, said the legislation would "change education in Indiana like you would not believe" if passed. She believes the legislation "would take our teachers to their knees," citing concerns about the provisions involving the review of curriculum by parents.

Greater Clark Superintendent Mark Laughner said at Tuesday's meeting that the curriculum would increase the workload of teachers and administrators if passed.

"I'm afraid as a superintendent of this school [district] — and I know I'm with superintendents around the state — it's going to drive more teachers out of education, and we're already facing a severe teacher shortage," he said. "So the fact that they're even considering doing this and negatively impacting the educational field and driving more teachers out of education is really disappointing."

Charbonneau believes the bill will "waste resources" in schools.

"We're going to be spending our time jumping through hoops to appease the parents specifically when we should be focusing on the students," Charbonneau said. "It takes the focus off of students and puts the focus on parents."

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