Despite supermajority, Indiana Republicans change curriculum bill

A bill to restrict teaching race and racism has faced a bumpier road in Indiana than similar bills in other Republican-led states as lawmakers try to thread the needle between doing something and doing too much.

While states like Tennessee have passed laws that would punish teachers for teaching a laundry list of ideas, the Republican supermajority in the Indiana legislature has instead cut some of the most controversial parts of its bill, House Bill 1134, and left the door open to further amendments.

Although the changes haven’t satisfied most critics, the effort highlights the tightrope walk between appeasing core conservative voters and not alienating moderates as political opinions in rural and suburban areas pull in opposite directions, analysts said.

Hard to ignore, too, is the growing upswell of opposition that has brought out hundreds of teachers and others to rally against the bill in recent weeks, said Robert Dion, an associate professor of political science at the University of Evansville.

“Farmers and steel mills are important in Indiana. But every district doesn’t have a steel mill in it. Every district has schools and teachers and kids,” Dion said. “When you make life difficult for teachers, you’re going to hear from people in every district in the state.”

Balancing electoral considerations

Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 39-11 margin in the Indiana Senate, and in the House of Representatives by 71-29.

But that doesn’t mean every GOP lawmaker feels safe in their seat, Dion said, and while the state has voted reliably Republican for years, upsets happen. It’s difficult to predict them, as the state’s rural areas become more conservative and suburban areas become more liberal, he said.

While Republicans don’t risk losing their supermajority, Dion said passing HB 1134 could cost them some seats in the general election.

“It’s possible you might lose when people get mad,” Dion said. “I think they’ve mobilized teachers in a way that could have consequences in the fall.”

In an otherwise good year after Republicans designed the redistricting map, they may hesitate to rock the boat over this issue, said Chad Kinsella, director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University. Their goal is to satisfy primary voters without alienating general election voters.

“You have two constituencies—can you keep them happy enough to stay in office in the primary, but then can you also win the general?” Kinsella said. “They just got to redraw the seats, but there’s a point that people can only take so much.”

The Senate, which gutted HB 1134, also tends to be a more deliberative body, Kinsella and Dion both said. Senators tend to have more experience in politics and represent more people, Dion said, and take more time to think through legislation.

The Senate killed its own version of the bill after national outcry over a lawmaker’s remark on teaching Nazism neutrally.

“Maybe it’s about bringing the rhetoric back down,” Kinsella said.

Compromise and its limits

While Senate Republicans have agreed to change the bill to significantly reduce the burden on teachers and schools, they’ve kept a shortened list of “divisive concepts” that legislators want to ban and that have drawn the most vitriol.

It’s unlikely that senators would strip this portion of the bill, Kinsella said, as the core purpose of the legislation is to ban the teaching of critical race theory—a postgraduate legal theory with a tenuous connection to public schools and to most legislation aimed at getting rid of it.

To cut the concepts out of the bill completely would be to admit a total loss, said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University in Fort Wayne.

But it’s not uncommon for legislation to change throughout the process, Downs said, as lawmakers consider any unintended consequences. Ideological differences crop up even within a single party.

“You still need 51 members of the House and 26 senators to agree to something,” Downs said. “The group that could be considered extremists … usually isn’t that large.”

Downs said HB 1134 is a legislative response to angry constituents who wanted to see lawmakers take action after a summer of tense school board meetings disrupted by protests over critical race theory and COVID-19 protocols.

But as the state drops masking and contact tracing for schools, for example, the specific form of that action becomes less important, Downs said.

“The legislature can now say, we don’t need to address that because the local folks did,” Downs said. “People want results. Legislators want to be able to sell results. They can say, we didn’t do it, but the threat was enough.”

The role of public opposition

In recent weeks, hundreds of teachers have gathered at the statehouse to oppose HB 1134, in scenes reminiscent of the 2019 Red for Ed rallies for increasing educator pay.

Downs said such rallies tend to affect lawmakers if the protesters come from their districts. Red for Ed worked in part because it drew teachers from all over the state, he said.

Dion, the University of Evansville professor, said the public opposition this year appears to be growing as the session goes on, with senators facing more outcry than House lawmakers did when they passed HB 1134 in January.

Sen. Linda Rogers (R-Granger), who sponsored HB 1134 in the Senate, offered an amendment to the bill in part to alleviate the concerns that teachers raised about their workload under HB 1134.

Nearly 200 people signed up to testify to the Senate committee last week, the vast majority in opposition, saying that changes to HB 1134 can’t fix it.

“A wrongly conceived idea can only be improved so much,” said Gail Zeheralis, director of governmental relations and public affairs at the Indiana State Teachers Association.

The Senate Committee on Education and Career Development is scheduled to hear further amendments and vote on HB 1134 on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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8 thoughts on “Despite supermajority, Indiana Republicans change curriculum bill

  1. “Senators tend to have more experience in politics and represent more people, and take more time to think through legislation.”

    More to the point, only half are up for election each cycle, so can more easily ratchet back the primary-voter-focused legislation from the House.

  2. Is this about voting along with the supermajority of politicians, or is it about voting along the lines of what the majority of the constituents believe is appropriate? It seems like supporting a vocal minority of constituents in defiance of the interest of the constituent majority is a clear way for politicians to be shown the door.

    If the Republican Party wants to destroy public education so education tax dollars can be redirected to charter and private schools, then why not use the supermajority to simply go straight for that instead of all this indirect effort to destroy the public school system?

  3. “Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.”
    – Noah Webster, On the Education of Youth in America, 1788

    When Noah Webster penned these words, not long after American independence was achieved, there was a greater consensus about what ideas would be “useful . . . in life and practice” and what the “history of his own country” was. A whitewashing of history serves no one well, but the average teacher then would have held views more in line with the average American, and as often among the most educated in their communities, teachers were held in very high regard. Today, teachers are often no more educated than many in their community, and there has been a growing divide between what teachers are taught and encouraged to teach about our history and what at least half of Americans believe to be true. The education system has largely been captured by a particular ideological camp that not only are convinced that they are right, but that any who would disagree with their ideology are at best ignorant and at worst “deplorables” who need to be silenced. By straying so far into ideological partisanship and arrogance toward parents with differing views, I would argue that it is professional “educators” who have significantly weakened trust in public education in general.

    1. I would love to hear some examples of how you feel that the education system has been “captured by a particular ideological camp that not only are convinced that they are right, but that any who would disagree with their ideology are at best ignorant and at worst ‘deplorables’ who need to be silenced.” I see no such thing. It seems that, instead, you are describing those who want to whitewash history and de-professionalize education masquerading as “parental rights” groups, e.g., so-called Purple for Parents, or even Republicans in the IN legislature. Having been raised by a public school teacher and knowing many of them, I resent your weak argument that they are arrogant toward parents with differing views.

    2. In addition, which parents are these bills meant to provide comfort and choice to? It’s certainly not Black parents, many of whom would strongly object, I’m sure, to the whitewashing of American history.

    3. Suffice to say William, these are the ramblings of a dolt. On one hand you make the case that teachers are necessary and valuable in the need to relay American History. On the other, you mention “what at least half of Americans BELIEVE to be true”. Belief is not knowledge and parents with “differing views” are trying to force their beliefs onto the education system.

      Not all teachers are perfect. They are human, after all. Yet this is their job, and a thankless one at that. There seems to be, really, only one political party that is pushing their ideology on the education system- and it’s not the one you avoid mentioning above. I’m sure Mr. Webster would find the rich irony of you using his quote much like the talking heads abuse Dr. MLK’s famous speech.

    4. Well, William, Noah Webster might well be one of those who today’s right-wing would likely censor. During the economic downturn of the early 1790s, while toiling as a lawyer in his hometown, Noah joined the fledgling Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom. In the first wave of the antislavery movement, similar abolition groups cropped up in states from Massachusetts to North Carolina. In 1793, at the Connecticut society’s annual meeting, Webster delivered a memorable speech, “Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry,” later expanded into a widely disseminated 56-page pamphlet that emphasized how the barbaric institution dehumanized everyone. Citing mountains of demographic data, Webster also maintained that slavery would continue to be a drain on macroeconomic productivity. In our America where 700,000 of the four million inhabitants were then slaves, exports per capita were about two thirds of the comparable figure in Great Britain where slaves had never comprised more than a tiny fraction of the population. “Men will not be industrious,” this keen observer of human nature concluded, “without a well founded expectation of enjoying the fruits of their labor.”

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