Apr 11, 2022 - News

Educators fear Ohio bill prohibiting "divisive" teachings

Illustration of a word balloon drawn in chalk on a chalkboard being erased.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

If a boy at school gets teased for "acting like a girl," Angel Dyer Sanchez tries to turn the bullying into a teachable moment.

  • The Salem Elementary School teacher talks about respect and not assuming somebody must behave a certain way just because of their gender.

Driving the news: Dyer Sanchez fears conversations like that may become illegal under a new bill introduced by two lawmakers last week.

  • House Bill 616 is the latest in a string of proposed bills by Ohio Republicans placing heavy scrutiny on school curriculum — along with two previous "divisive concepts" bills currently stalled in the House and HB 529, which would require all school curriculum be posted online.
  • Educators and other school officials say they are caught in the middle of an ongoing culture war.

What's happening: HB 616 is likened to a controversial Florida law — called "Don't Say Gay" by critics — because both outlaw discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3.

  • Ohio's proposed bill goes further by prohibiting broad concepts including "divisive or inherently racist concepts" and "diversity, equity and inclusion."
  • Teachers also can't take courses related to such topics when renewing their license.

The latest: Local teachers tell Axios this would be especially harmful in a diverse Columbus City Schools district that is 79% students of color and has many students from LGBTQ+ families.

What they're saying: "I work really hard to have a curriculum that my students see themselves in, and this would eliminate my ability to do that," Independence High School teacher Kelsey Gray tells Axios.

  • Gray recently played a "1619 Project" podcast about Black music history in class. She says students loved the lesson, but 1619 Project educational materials would be explicitly banned under HB 616.

The other side: In a statement, cosponsor Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Loveland) says HB 616 will provide parents with "tools to be able to see what their child is being taught."

  • Ohio law already allows parents to obtain copies of curriculum.

Between the lines: The state board of education determines what is "divisive" and regulates HB 616 if it becomes law but it has struggled with its own stance on the subject.

  • The board approved a resolution condemning racism in 2020 but repealed it in 2021, replacing it with one condemning teachings that "seek to divide." Two members then resigned.

What's next: HB 616 awaits a committee assignment and has no other cosponsors, so it's unclear if it will gain momentum.

What others are saying about HB 616:
"We know that when we see reflections of ourselves in education, in popular culture, that we find a deeper understanding of who we are and what we’re about. This bill would diminish representation within the classroom, diminish representation in terms of conversation around identity."
Stonewall Columbus
"Ohio's Don't Say Gay bill is yet another [insidious] attempt to chill and censor free speech in the classroom. Lawmakers are effectively trying to erase LGBTQ+ people and skew history in their favor."
Alana Jochum, executive director of Equality Ohio
"Anyone who has a problem with the bill that stops kindergarteners from being indoctrinated with crazy and divisive ideas about sex, gender, and race is truly off the deep end."
Jim Renacci, Republican candidate for governor
"The Chamber is concerned that some of the language in this bill may impede Ohio's ability to lure the best and brightest minds to fill these openings and put down roots in the Buckeye State."
Steve Stivers, president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce
"This kind of legislative attack goes against hard-fought LGBTQ+ protections that the residents of Columbus voted into the City Charter. It is bigotry in one of its ugliest forms, and I urge state and local leaders, and Ohioans across this great state, to speak out to protect our neighbors."
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther
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