Controversial race education bills enter Ohio House committee

By: - June 16, 2021 12:40 am

State Rep. Fowler Arthur, R-Ashtabula. Photo from the Ohio Channel.

Two bills seeking to ban “divisive” language about the role of racism in American history entered a House committee on Tuesday, along with plenty of debate over the measures.

House Bill 322 and House Bill 327 were both presented by sponsors in the Ohio House’s State and Local Government Committee, despite Democrats’ efforts to have the bill re-referred to the Primary & Secondary Education Committee based on the focus on K-12 and higher education curriculums in the bills.

Both bills seek to ban the “promotion” of ideologies, particularly “Marxist ideologies,” that the bill’s supporters claim pit races and other classes against each other in state-funded public schools, and also in local and state government training environments. One cosponsor, state Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur, R-Ashtabula, said teaching American history does not have to bring guilt to current students based on the historical background of their race, sex or nationality.

“It is an unconscionable perversion that any child should be held personally responsible for the sins of their father, or a group of individuals in the past,” Fowler Arthur said. “This is not justice.”

State Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, is the main author of HB 322, which focuses primarily on K-12 classrooms. He compared the teaching of history based on racial and social divides to the Common Core educational standards in the state. Jones claimed many of the state’s school districts opposed Common Core — and it was widely criticized — but because the state needed money, they were willing to take on the prescribed educational standards to receive the money.

“I think this will be the next Common Core,” Jones said. “I think this is going to change the way we look at history. I think it’s going to change the way that we present history, and not just history but how we present information to our students.”

Jones’ bill, and the other divisive concepts bill co-authored by fellow Republican state Reps. Fowler Arthur and Diane Grendell, have already received deep criticism, with the state teachers union, the Ohio Education Association, saying the efforts are “depriving (children) of the world-class, truth-based education they deserve.”

“For our children to thrive and become critical thinkers, we must trust Ohio’s dedicated educators to have age-appropriate conversations about the tough subjects, as they do every day in their classrooms now,” OEA president Scott DiMauro said in a statement.

Fellow state teachers union the Ohio Federation of Teachers said the bills “were written to address a non-existent problem” and to dissuade teachers from covering important topics.

“Legislators who support these bills are either being duped by these dishonest attacks or are complicit in them,” OFT said in a statement.

But the sponsors of the bills say claims that they seek to prohibit teaching the chapters of American history such as segregation, slavery and other conflicts are false.

“The goal of the bill is not to police individual thoughts or individual beliefs,” Fowler Arthur said. “The goal is to make sure that when we’re using taxpayer dollars in the classroom or for instruction for employment, that it is not promoting a particular ideology.”

Fowler Arthur introduced substitutions to the original bill during Tuesday’s committee hearing, which inserted protected classes from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into the anti-discrimination clause, and specified consequences for districts who are found to have teachers or administrators knowingly promoting one “ideology” over another. Those consequences could include reductions in state funding.

Committee members conducted a lengthy debate and asked for specific examples of how this would be implemented in the classroom. State Rep. Tavia Galonski, D-Akron, expressed confusion as to the true strategy of the bill, especially with an American history filled with disagreements, not the least of which was the founding of the country based on dissatisfaction with English rule.

“That to me seems like a strong American tradition…the idea that through our growing pains, through our disagreement we’ve just fought so hard toward that more perfect union, and none of that came without that critical thought,” Galonski said.

State Rep. Adam Holmes, R-Nashport, stepped in for an excused Grendell to explain the bill, and maintained that the bill doesn’t seek to exclude teaching the history, rather to exclude pushing one side of history over another.

“When you think of that word (ideologies), you usually think of Marxism, but there’s a lot of ideologies in the way we live,” Holmes said. “Capitalism is an ideology, religions are ideologies, and so advocating one or the other, that’s where it gets uncomfortable in those environments.”

Similar bills have been introduced across the country, pushed by national conservative groups who say the teachings of racial and ideological impact on American society are damaging to the country’s students.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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