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By Nigel Lisbon
As the 2022 legislative session approaches, far-right forces in Indiana are seeking to tighten their control over education. The massive participation by students, teachers, and even school administrators in the anti-racist uprising of 2020 has already had an effect on schools, one that reactionary forces nationwide are pushing back against. Several bills have already been submitted that attack progressive gains in schools or seek to prescribe curriculum, including efforts to give parents considerable control over curriculum and their student’s participation in it.
Three bills in particular especially warrant closer examination: House Bill 1040, authored by John D. Prescott and co-authored by Chris Jeter, Michelle Davis, and Alan Morrison; House Bill 1041, authored by Michelle Davis and co-authored by Chris Jeter, Joanna King, and Bob Heaton; and Senate Bill 167, authored by Scott Baldwin, Jeff Raatz, and Travis Holdman.
Anti-public health measures would prove disastrous
A provision in HB 1040 would allow students’ parents to “opt out” of a mask mandate issued by the governor, state or local board of health, or school. This is premised on a dogmatic devotion to the idea that all executive action is inherently authoritarian unless explicitly authorized by a separate legislature. While Eric Holcomb has not been a friend of the working people of Indiana and, among his failures to address the pandemic, has said he would not establish a statewide mask mandate as COVID cases surge, House Republicans take the “culture war” even further.
With the prevalence of anti-mask and anti-vaccine propaganda directed at those on the political right wing, giving parents the ability to override mask mandates would remove the best tool that schools have had to reopen with a pretense of safety. Without enforceable mask mandates as new variants emerge and spread like wildfire, the end result will be teachers accelerating their stampede away from the profession. Schools will be pushed past their limit much like our state’s hospitals are amid the surge in cases, which will greatly harm our students for years to come. This totally avoidable health disaster simply serves as a cheap political victory for the far right.
Curriculum would be prescribed by state, controlled by parent committee
In a move that is both totally contrary to pedagogical methods and insults the intelligence of Hoosier students, HB 1040 would inscribe anti-communism in the curriculum of every school. State law already directs schools to provide five full class periods in the two weeks leading up to any general election to cover “(1) the system of government in Indiana and in the United States; (2) methods of voting; (3) party structures; (4) election laws; and (5) the responsibilities of citizen participation in government and in elections.” HB 1040 amends the law to clarify that
students must receive instruction that socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded. In addition, students must be instructed that if any of these political systems were to replace the current form of government, the government of the United States would be overthrown and existing freedoms under the Constitution of the United States would no longer exist. As such, socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems are detrimental to the people of the United States.
As we guide and involve students in studying and presenting the results of their study, educators must not allow the state to prescribe the results of this study. We especially must resist efforts by the far-right to prescribe what politics are and are not allowed to be considered. In that light, it is noteworthy that fascism and Nazism are absent from the list while three names for left-wing politics are proscribed, alongside the meaningless canard of “totalitarianism.”
Meanwhile, SB 167 would require all school districts to establish a “curricular materials advisory committee,” made up of 40% parents of students within the school corporation, 40% teachers and administrators, and the remainder “interested community members who are not employed by the school corporation.” School boards would have the authority to reject candidates for the committee. This committee would only be required to meet twice a year, but would have total control over the school’s curriculum. By law, the committee would be chaired by the parent of a student. The committee would be able to recommend to the school board that parents may opt students out of certain materials or educational activities as determined by the committee.
The issue of education is not the sole responsibility of parents, especially in those cases where parents have lost custody and are not involved in the student’s school life in any other way. Schools are a social institution that are the concern of everyone in that society, regardless of how many children they have or don’t have.
This amounts to a comprehensive anti-democratic attack on education. The clear intent, given the current political climate, is for the political far right to take over school boards and use that power to establish partisan “advisory committees” that would be able to work in concert with the board to censor progressive political expression from students and teachers alike across the state. The struggle in Muncie over a Black Lives Matter poster that was taken down after cops threw a tantrum was an early shot across the bow in this struggle that will only intensify in 2022.
National right-wing attack on transgender students comes to Indiana amid lawsuits
The national attack against transgender students in sport is attempting to make its way to Indiana in the form of HB 1041. The bill prohibits students from playing on a “female, women’s, or girls’ athletic team” if they are determined to be “male, based on a student’s biological sex at birth in accordance with the student’s genetics and reproductive biology.” There is no prohibition against students determined in a similar manner to be “female” playing a sport on a “male, men’s, or boys’ team,” a slick way to avoid criticism over the trend of girls playing gridiron football on boys’ teams due to the lack of existing girls’ teams.
Following the Texas anti-abortion law’s tactic of opening parties up to private lawsuits, this bill would allow students who are “deprived of an athletic opportunity” or are “otherwise directly or indirectly injured” by the participation of a trans athlete in a competition to sue the school or athletic association responsible for the competition for up to $1,000 in damages. It would also attempt to provide a state-level shield to civil suits from trans students suing for the right to exist at school.
There are ongoing lawsuits of this exact nature. ACLU of Indiana and Indiana Legal Services sued Vigo County School Corporation on behalf of a trans student who was denied access to the bathroom corresponding to their gender. ACLU is also suing Martinsville Schools for denying a trans student access to the correct bathrooms, participation on the soccer team, and relentless misgendering by school employees. Case law in Indiana and the appellate district are clear that trans students have rights corresponding to their gender identity, regardless of fascist attempts to police childrens’ opportunities and actions in school according to their genitalia.
Students, school workers have the power and responsibility to stop war on education
In November 2019, teachers led a march on the Statehouse, endorsed and joined by support staff and even school building and district administrators. Thousands of school workers, students, and community supporters surrounded the Statehouse for a rally and march before flooding into the building to demand funding for resources, more educators to allow for smaller class sizes and more one-on-one attention for students, and competitive salaries to bring workers into a profession that people are streaming away from in alarming numbers.
Inside the Statehouse, workers began a spontaneous chant of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” One of the organizers of the event quickly grabbed a microphone and redirected this militant energy into a toothless call to the ballot box: “Vote! Vote! Vote!” The election came and went, but the problems in Indiana schools continue. Workers had militant energy and broad support from the public in 2019 to take drastic action to meet the demands that students, teachers, and our state deserve. That energy was misdirected by overly cautious leadership in the state teachers’ unions who routinely overstate the importance of getting Democrats elected over independent organizing. Two years later, the problems in Indiana education are only worsening.
As we enter 2022, Hoosier students, teachers, school staff, administrators, and community members must urgently forge networks of support and prepare for concerted militant action to protect our most marginalized students and to offer a vital, progressive alternative that can funnel the people’s energy into building better schools across Indiana. Future generations of Hoosier students are counting on us not to fumble at the goal line again.