Conservative commotion steering Indiana lawmakers on schools

Keywords Laws / Legislature / Politics

Commotion in some school districts over topics ranging from COVID-19 mask mandates to teaching about racial injustice has Indiana Republican lawmakers looking at steps they argue will give parents more sway over what happens in classrooms.

Legislative leaders are touting actions that would increase transparency with parental access to classroom materials and possibly add political party identifications to what are now nonpartisan school board elections.

The issues poised for Indiana’s legislative session that starts Jan. 4 come amid complaints among conservatives across the country about public schools. Critics argue such steps would needlessly further insert politics into local school decisions.

Indiana is among 42 states where local school board elections are held without any party identification on the ballot for candidates. Although House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning said one change being considered would give candidates the option of identifying as a Republican or Democrat.

“I would argue that putting an R or D behind your name does not necessarily identify exactly where you’re going to be in terms of school policy,” said Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “I do see some value, maybe, in allowing candidates to self identify.”

Others in the Republican-dominated Legislature, however, want to go further.

Republican Rep. Bob Morris of Fort Wayne said he has heard many complaints about closed school board meetings and “limited opportunities” for the public to engage in school decisions.

“Many constituents have told me they have no idea what these school board members stand for, who they’re with, where they’re at,” Morris said. “If they have a party affiliation and they’re registered in a certain party, then that needs to be behind their name. Looking at the politics involved on these school boards, politics are everywhere. We should have partisan races.”

Former state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who was elected to the position as a Republican in 2016 but has since switched parties, said further inserting politics into local school boards is “a really bad idea” that came as a reaction to heated exchanges at scattered meetings.

“I think the people who will be encouraged to run are those that are going to be good soldiers for these political agendas,” McCormick said. “It’s hard to find good people who want to do it for the right reason, and they’re out there, but it’s tough. And then you layer this on — it’s a whole other layer of difficulty.”

Republican lawmakers in other states are pushing legislation to ban the teaching of “critical race theory,” which has become a catch-all term for efforts to teach that systemic racism remains a persistent problem in the U.S.

Indiana legislative leaders don’t appear set to go that far.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston has said he expects a bill “ensuring that parents have more insight and input into the curricular materials and surveys being used in their schools.”

GOP state senators agree that it “isn’t appropriate to teach that one race is superior to another or inferior from another,” but it is difficult to know whether any schools are teaching such concepts, Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said.

“If you go out amongst the schools in the state of Indiana, that definition is really, really nebulous and difficult to pin down,” Bray said. “So you’d have to speak to what it is exactly that you’re trying to stop, rather than just using the words critical race theory.”

Tom Simpson, a Yorktown School Board member who is president of the Indiana School Board Association, said he believed most school board meetings have remained civil as meeting attendance and participation has increased during the pandemic.

“In my opinion, creating potential partisan divides or putting political ideology ahead of sound educational decisions is not wise,” Simpson said. “Electing the best qualified people is vastly more important than their political affiliation and with few exceptions, the people have gotten it right. If voters choose to oust an incumbent and select new leadership, that process happens today without partisan elections.”

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