The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
There’s a certain “slander” at the heart of dueling bills aimed to limit how teachers talk to students about race, sexuality, history, and politics, according to Timothy Messer-Kruse.
If you read the legislation, he said, their language presupposes educators are engaged in practices like indoctrinating, guilt-tripping, and forcing their personal politics onto students.
My best practices as a teacher are to encourage students to think through their ideas, even if their ideas are wrongheaded, because that’s how we learn how to think, and that’s how we learn to make an argument. I’ve never seen my role as an instructor to be one of just indoctrinating my students.
As a grad-student level professor of critical race theory — the target of legislative bans from conservative lawmakers nationwide — in the ethnic studies department at Bowling Green State University, he said in an interview it’s a policy driven on false pretenses.
Two Ohio bills in particular take aim at how teachers handle sensitive topics. One, House Bill 327, forbids teachers at elementary, high school and colleges from teaching any of seven “divisive concepts” including:
- “That any individual cannot succeed or achieve equality because of the individual’s race, ethnicity, color, sex, religion, or national origin”
- “That meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist”
- “That individuals, by virtue of their race, ethnicity, color, sex, religion, or national origin bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, color, sex, religion, or national origin”
Another bill adopts the “divisive concepts” component and folds it into similar legislation that blocks school districts from adopting curriculum around: critical race theory; intersectional theory; The 1619 Project; diversity, equity, and inclusion learning outcomes; and inherited racial guilt.
That legislation, House Bill 616, also prohibits the teaching of “sexual orientation or gender identity” to kindergarten through third grade grade students. Any such teaching must be “age-appropriate” for students in fourth through twelfth grade. The legislation doesn’t define the term “age-appropriate”
What the bills are really about, according to Kruse, is stopping anti-racist activities, and tempering free expression around racial dynamics, discrimination and bias in America.
“The purpose of actually defining what these supposedly divisive comments are, is to create a chilling atmosphere where teachers and university instructors self-censor and self-regulate out of fear of crossing these very fuzzy lines that are created in the legislation,” he said.
Critical race theory is an academic approach to law, politics and economics that essentially assumes laws can and do bear unequal outcomes along racial lines — even if the black and white text of the laws don’t explicitly mention race.
An example of its usefulness, per Kruse: anti-lynching laws. In March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, named for the 14-year-old Black boy who was tortured and murdered after a rumor circulated that he whistled at a white woman. Passage marked success after 200 legislative efforts to do so failed over the past 100 years, according to the Washington Post.
More than 4,000 Black Americans were murdered by white mobs since the 1880s, according to Kruse. The failure to pass such laws — which the U.S. Senate even apologized for in 2005 — are a prime case study.
“This long history of the refusal to create a legal remedy is in itself institutional racism,” he said. “That’s an example of the way critical race theory can help us understand our own situation. Our own present moment.”
The “divisive concepts” bill was introduced by Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur, R-Ashtabula. Making her case on the bill to lawmakers, she alleged that unspecified schools are imposing “ideological test[s]” on students in order to get a good grade. She called it an “unconscionable perversion” to hold eight-year-olds responsible for the crimes of past generations.
Arthur discussed the bill further in an interview with WEWS in March, using the Holocaust as an example. She said teachers can still teach the atrocities of the Holocaust under the bill, but they should still “point out the value that each individual brings to the table.” She said the experiences of Jewish victims should be taught, as should those of Nazi soldiers. She described the Holocaust — which involved the systematic genocide of 6 million Jewish people — as a racial conflict that killed hundreds of thousands.
The expanded bill was introduced by GOP Reps. Jean Schmidt and Mike Loychik. Schmidt was captured on video last week fleeing from television reporters asking her about the legislation. Loychik on Thursday wrote on social media that educators should not be “teaching transgenderism or allowing teachers to discuss their sex life with kindergarteners.” They released a joint statement on the bill.
Rep. Jean Schmidt, who introduced HB 616, just ran away from the press. @SpectrumNews1OH pic.twitter.com/Ewrljz3bzp— Josh Rultenberg (@JoshRultNews) April 5, 2022
“Children deserve a quality education that is fair, unbiased and age appropriate,” they said. “This legislation promotes free and fair discussion.”
House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, said lawmakers are still working out the particulars but noted the concept of not “indoctrinating children” has widespread public support. When asked where in Ohio children are being indoctrinated, he avoided a direct answer.
“Whether they are or they could be, we look at this as a preventive measure,” he said. “If nobody is, then going forward, this is not really going to change things.”
Kruse offered another interpretation of the bills, as primary elections draw nearer.
“It’s just headline bait. It’s not an actual sincere and honest attempt to legislate,” he said.
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