Oklahoma schools are again the focus of culture-war bills during 2023 legislative session
Culture-war debates could reignite at the Oklahoma state Capitol with a slew of bills filed ahead of the legislative session proposing further limits on discussions of gender identity, sexual orientation and other social issues in public schools.
GOP-filed bills are looking to build on existing laws that already restrict certain expressions of gender identity in schools and block teachers from broaching outlawed subjects in the classroom.
This legislation is likely to have an advocate in Oklahoma’s top education official.
Ryan Walters led a winning campaign for state schools superintendent with a platform opposing “left-wing ideology” and “liberal indoctrination.”
2023 legislative session: Oklahoma lawmakers have thousands of bills to consider
“When you’re telling students that because of the color of their skin they’re inferior or superior to another race, when you get into concepts that tell students they should be ashamed of their whiteness, all of that is ideology,” Walters said before his August victory in the Republican runoff election. “When you are talking about sexuality and sex acts with grade-school students, it is grossly inappropriate, No. 1, and No. 2, it’s indoctrination.”
Senate Bill 935 from Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, would expand the controversial law House Bill 1775, which bans eight race and gender concepts from K-12 schools, including the teaching that a person bears responsibility for past actions of people of their same race or sex.
Jett's bill would prohibit seven more topics, such as the idea that the United States is irredeemably racist or sexist, that the violent overthrow of the United States government should be promoted, and that people's character traits or values can be ascribed to their race or sex.
History, civics, government and social studies teachers could not be compelled to address current events or “widely debated and currently controversial issues” of public policy and social affairs under SB 20 from Sen. George Burns, R-Pollard. Teachers who choose to discuss those topics would have to “explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives to the best of his or her ability,” according to the bill's text.
Two lawmakers, Jett and Rep. Terry O'Donnell, submitted legislation to ban schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity to elementary-age children.
Jett's SB 937 would outlaw any school policies that respect or promote "self-asserted sex-based identity narratives." The same bill would prohibit schools from hosting a "drag queen story time."
Last year, lawmakers passed legislation blocking transgender students from playing on a sports team that matches their gender identity and from using a school restroom that differs from their birth sex.
Three transgender students have sued the state to challenge Oklahoma's school bathroom law.
“Trans students are just students trying to go to school,” one of the students, Andrew Bridge, said in a September interview. “We’re not trying to hurt anybody. The state has decided to go after not just trans people but trans kids. That’s just messed up.”
SB 30, from Tulsa Republican Sen. Cody Rogers, would prohibit school employees from calling students by names or pronouns that differ from the students' birth certificates, unless having received written consent from the child’s parent.
Sex education would be banned from public schools completely should Rep. Danny Williams' HB 1780 become law.
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Williams co-hosted an October interim study discussing ”how far is too far” for public school sex education. Speakers at the interim study, none of whom had taught sex education in Oklahoma, claimed the course presents a risk of sexualizing students at an early age.
“I want to see if there are ways that we can come in and limit that and take that out,” Williams said after the interim study. “After listening today, I don’t think sex education has a place in schools.”
School voucher legislation rises again
Along with his bills focusing on social issues, Jett was one of two state senators to submit legislation that would allow families to access public funds to pay for home-school or private school costs.
Jett’s bill would offer school vouchers to any student living in a county with a population above 10,000.
Students living in lower-population areas could use a voucher only if they attend a ”trigger district.” Jett defined a ”trigger district” as a public school system that allows or tolerates HB 1775 violations, use of school bathrooms according to gender identity, anthropomorphic behavior known as "furries," disparagement of the oil and gas industry, lesson plans promoting social-emotional learning and animal rights activism, among other topics.
A school voucher bill from Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, would allow any Oklahoma student to tap into state dollars to attend a non-public school.
A similar bill was one of last year's most prominent pieces of legislation before it failed in a Senate floor vote. The bill, filed by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, divided Republicans and drew widespread opposition from public-school educators and Democrats.
Walters and Gov. Kevin Stitt have been vocal supporters of voucher policies.
"That means that all of the money follows the kid, and that means that parents get to choose the school of their choice," Walters said in a video posted to social media Thursday.
More: Oklahoma teachers could get pay raise from $541 million proposed education plan
Could lawmakers increase Oklahoma teacher salaries?
Although he voted twice in favor of last year’s voucher bill, the leader of the Senate Education Committee did not include such a policy in his $541 million proposal for education improvements.
Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, instead suggested a package that would spend $241 million on teacher pay raises, guarantee 12 weeks of maternity leave for teachers and offer $15 million in scholarships to future educators who pledge to work in high-poverty schools.
"I hope this plan demonstrates to teachers that we respect the work that they do," Pugh said in a Capitol news conference last week.
Another Senate Education Committee member, Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, also filed a bill to increase teachers' minimum salaries. Pemberton, R-Muskogee, suggested in SB 28 an initial increase of $2,000 next school year and two more $2,000 raises over the next six years.
Former state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and the Oklahoma State Board of Education requested a $5,000 teacher pay raise for next school year.
The governor said raising teacher pay is an “easy cop-out” that doesn’t guarantee better academic outcomes.
"We can always do better, and we'll continue to do that," Stitt said in an October forum. "We are more competitive than sometimes people think."
More: Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt shakes up Board of Education, replaces 4 of 6 members
Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Republican culture-war bills again set sights on Oklahoma schools