“[HB 616] would have an impact on [whether] students feel comfortable expressing themselves or even their identities in the classroom, and that’s not a direction I want to go in,” School Board President Megan Walsh said. (Ana Ribeiro Duraes)
“[HB 616] would have an impact on [whether] students feel comfortable expressing themselves or even their identities in the classroom, and that’s not a direction I want to go in,” School Board President Megan Walsh said.

Ana Ribeiro Duraes

The Statehouse Versus the School Districts

As Republicans in the Ohio state legislature move forward with an increasingly radical education agenda, will they preserve home rule?

November 11, 2022

Republicans increased their supermajority in the Ohio legislature on Tuesday, making it likely that they will soon move forward with their education agenda, including a scattershot of bills aimed at restricting conversations about controversial topics in schools.

HB 616, along with 322, 327, 454 and 722, were all introduced in the Ohio legislature in the past year, aimed at restricting curriculum on topics such as race, sexuality and gender. 

Republican State Representatives Mike Loychik of Bazetta and Jean Schmidt of Loveland proposed HB 616 because they believe students need protection from indoctrination and parents should have a voice in reviewing the curriculum.

“[HB 616] would prohibit the teaching of divisive or inherently racist concepts from being taught,” Schmidt told the Ohio House in the bill’s first hearing on May 31. “No child should fear being called “racist” because of the color of their skin or be forced into thinking that the wrongs of the past are on their shoulders.”

Additionally, Ohio’s State Board of Education is scheduled to consider a resolution early next week that would oppose federal protections for transgender students.

Beachwood is one of many Ohio school districts that would oppose these policies, and School Board President Megan Walsh says that if HB 616 becomes law, the Beachwood School Board would issue a statement in support of local choice of curriculum and emphasizing the importance of inclusion for all students. 

Walsh recognizes that some topics make people uncomfortable, but emphasizes that students do need to grapple with them.

“Talking about racism and knowing that it is part of our country’s history should make people uncomfortable, [but] that’s the point,” she said. “I think when we’re not able to face that and we’re not able to teach that in our schools, we’re doing society a tremendous disservice.”

66 BHS students from grades 10-12 responded to a Beachcomber survey regarding House Bills 99 and 616. A majority of respondents were not previously aware of these bills.”

Beachwood’s opposition to the bill is grounded in the Ohio constitution, which allows Ohio municipalities home rule power of self-government, as long as doing so does not conflict with state and federal laws. 

In the past decade, Ohio school districts have pushed back on the state’s educational policies as overreaching and violating their power of home rule.

In 2015, the Greater Cincinnati School Advocacy Network criticized the state legislature’s actions changing school curriculum, assessments and accountability. 

They fought to reclaim more of that power by encouraging more discussion with their communities about increasing local authority while condemning the state’s mandates regarding teacher evaluation and career education. 

This included the third grade reading guarantee, enacted in 2012, which mandates that students not demonstrating adequate literacy skills will not be advanced to fourth grade. Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline of the Mason District along with 40 other superintendents argued that these measures restricted school boards from meeting the needs of their students. 

Similarly, in 2018, while the former executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) praised the accomplishments of local school projects, he lamented that local authority was declining. He believed that many school choice advocates viewed education as a business, inhibiting school boards from doing what was best for the community.

After reading an explanation of HB 99 and of the Beachwood School Board’s resolution, nearly 70% agreed with the school board’s decision not to arm teachers. Below are some survey responses written by students.”

House Bill 99

The Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 99, which was signed into law by Governor DeWine on June 13. 

In its final form, this bill allows local school boards the choice to permit staff to carry concealed weapons and also reduces the number of training hours from 700 hours to just 24 hours for those staff members; although, districts have the opportunity to increase training. 

The initial proposed legislation did not give school districts an option.

“This is a local choice, not mandated by the legislature nor by the government,” DeWine was quoted after signing the bill. “Each school board will determine what is best for their students, their staff and their community.”

Republican representative Thomas Hall proposed the bill because he felt it offered more security in schools. Hall told the general assembly a story about his father, a school resource officer who drove off a shooter at Madison High School who had fired at students. 

Hall used this story to illustrate why he feels that this bill will save lives. Other Republicans in the Ohio legislature feel the same, hoping the bill will encourage more school safety discussions within each district, determining what course of action is best for them. 

Democrats all voted against the passage of House Bill 99, believing that more firearms will not protect students from gun violence, but are more likely to perpetuate violence.

“I’ve been to numerous funerals in my district of young girls, elderly adults, grandparents who were killed for doing things like sitting on their front porch, sitting in their living room, lying in their bed, or driving in their parents’ car,” said State Senator Kenny Yuko, whose district includes Beachwood. “For whatever reason, they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and they get shot and killed.” 

If teachers in school have guns, then kids could get their hands in them, potentially causing even more shootings.”

Yuko recognizes that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry arms; however, he supports prevention measures such as background checks, greater training requirements and a minimum age requirement of 21 to carry a weapon. 

“We would never [reduce training requirements] with our law enforcement…[or] our military,” Yuko said. “But we’re going to do this with our teachers.” 

Both Senator Yuko and State Representative Kent Smith, who represents Beachwood in the Ohio House of Representatives, said they suspect the gun lobbies such as Buckeye firearms and the NRA put pressure on the Ohio legislature to pass House Bill 99 because it benefits the gun industry. 

Smith feels these organizations prioritize selling firearms over public safety.

“If the notion were true that more guns on the streets make us safe, we would be the safest country in the world,” Smith said. “We have more firearms available to American citizens than any developed country in the world, and yet our crime and murder rate is the highest among developed nations.” 

Smith also worries that HB 99 may make Ohio a less attractive state for those in teacher education programs. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if HB 99 makes these students reconsider teaching in Ohio,” he added.

Proponents of the bill point out that rural districts do not have quick access to police and emergency services in the event of critical threats. 

Sgt. David Spicer of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office testified before the house that this bill could address these challenges.

“I know our response times, especially rural areas, allow far too much time for an active killer to injure or kill innocent students,” Spicer said. “Having an armed response team on school grounds is the mosteffective means to minimize the damage.”

I feel that adding more guns does not help to fix the problem with guns.”

Rich Wanner, who testified in support of this bill, mentioned that having law enforcement on school grounds is much more expensive than arming teachers. 

“Armed staff add to the level of security while costing a fraction of the salary of a law enforcement officer,” he said.

Many school districts across Northeast and Central Ohio have not permitted the use of firearms on school grounds. However, even prior to HB 99 taking effect, some Ohio school districts have permitted their staff to carry firearms and will continue to do so. 

English teacher Dr. Casey Matthews argues that alternative routes should be pursued in order to prevent these situations from occurring.

“I still think that we can provide additional services to individuals to help prevent these things from happening in the first place,” she said.

School Board President Walsh appreciates that local school boards were given the choice of whether or not to arm teachers, although she does not agree with the reduction of training hours. 

Beachwood’s Board of Education passed a resolution on June 27 against arming school staff.

Walsh believes the Beachwood community supports the board’s decision. 

While Beachwood has opted not to arm staff, she worries about students in other districts that have opted for armed staff. 

“I absolutely worry about how students are feeling in the classroom knowing that their teacher has a gun,” she said. “To me, it doesn’t necessarily feel more safe to have more guns in a situation.”

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the legislature will consider home rule concerns if and when passing legislation aimed at restricting school curriculum.  

I would rather a trusting teacher [have a gun] than not have a chance at all.”

House Bill 616

One of the most prominent of these proposed bills is  HB 616, which was introduced before the Ohio House in April.

The bill would restrict the teaching of any divisive or ‘inherently racist concepts’ as well as any curriculum or discussion of sexual identity or gender orientation in k-3 classrooms. It would also allow parents to file complaints with the state Board of Education in order to conduct an investigation.

Stanley Kurtz, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center gave testimony in June 2021 in support of House Bill 322, which was also aimed at limiting the teaching of ‘divisive’ topics in schools. Kurtz argued that children shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for mistakes their forefathers committed.

“We do not want our children taught that that they bear the guilt of oppression simply because of their race or sex…nor do we want them taught that citizens should receive special status or entitlement simply by virtue of identity-group membership,” he said. “We want our children taught by both precept and example that in the public sphere we are individuals first and foremost.”

He added that adults possess more maturity than children to truly understand the significance of inexcusable events in history. Therefore, he believes that divisive topics surrounding race and sexual identity should not be discussed in the classroom since doing so would prevent children from making their own decisions.

“Children are not so mature, nor so fully formed, and are therefore more vulnerable to shaping by their schools and teachers,” Kurtz said. “No child should be subjected to such teachings…that is not freedom [but rather] pernicious indoctrination.”

In addition to concern about political indoctrination, the bill sponsors are concerned about inappropriate information about sex and gender. 

Nearly 70% of respondents would not support HB 616 as explained in the survey, and 87.9% feel that it is important for school curriculum to include diverse perspectives. ”

“When I send my child to kindergarten I want him to be learning his ABCs, not the birds and the bees,” Loychik said when introducing HB 616.

Democrats oppose 616 and bills like it because they believe they would  make the school environment less inclusive and would inhibit students from learning truths about United States history.

There is also concern that these bills will make students less safe. Specifically, Smith worries that they could put students in danger.

“It targets LGBTQ+ students and their families…there’s no positive outcome if this would become law,” Smith said. “It removes some of the abilities of local communities to make their own curriculum decisions, but it’s doing so based on fear.”

According to the Washington Post, the total number of reported hate crimes nationwide was 8,305 in 2020 which was the most since 2001 and third highest since the federal government began tracking such data nearly three decades ago. In Ohio alone, there were 580 hate crimes reported in 2020, a 41% increase since 2019.

“That’s not what we should be striving for,” Smith said. “If you have this kind of legislation being introduced by elective leaders, that’s going to create more division.”

Yuko and Smith worry that laws such as HB 616, if passed into law, would make many people reluctant to move to Ohio because they would feel less welcomed. 

I think it is very important for all people, no matter their race, to see and understand what this country has come from. For white students, although it is showing them the history of their ancestors, it is also showing them the wrongness of racism and to be better because of it. Instead of feeling guilt for something that happened before they were born, they can simply learn from it. For those of color, it allows them to understand the history of their ancestors as well as the things they strove to achieve. Allowing them to hold their rights and freedoms more closely, and forever fight for equality when it is threatened. To not teach history and the reasoning behind actions back then is to rob students of awareness of their country’s legacy and how to better it.”

The Importance of Local Control

Republican leaders seem to have attempted to preserve some local control in the final text of HB 99, allowing school districts to make their own decisions. However, in its current form, HB 616 contains no such language. 

The OSBA advocates for local control, but Schwartz acknowledges that the state already controls many aspects of education in Ohio.

“I think that there are times statewide policies are needed to provide a starting base when it comes to school funding or graduation requirements,” said Schwartz. “There’s a shared goal among all Ohions where students should be or what they should know, or what they should be able to do.

However, he feels that there are other issues that need to be decided at the local level.

“Ohio is an incredibly diverse state with a diverse population of different types of school districts and different types of students,” Schwartz said. “In every piece of legislation that comes before a lawmaker, we always stress the fundamental importance of local control so that the diverse needs of students and school districts in Ohio can be represented and let them make the decisions that are the best for their community.”

“We’re always supportive of local control ensuring that [school boards] can meet the diverse needs of students and communities, not the one size fits all approach,” he said.

In this regard, Schwartz has concerns about HB 616. 

School Board President Walsh also opposes 616 both on its substance and because it would violate home rule. 

The only way to become a more inclusive, more understanding society is if we learn about our issues (racism, homophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism, etc.). Preventing people from learning about these topics not only prevents an understanding of the darker sides of U.S. history, but it also prevents our students from being exposed to challenging topics and facts about the issues of our country, issues that they will be responsible to solve in the future.”

Why Beachwood District Leaders and Staff Members Oppose 616

Walsh believes 616 would inhibit student expression and individuality in schools.

“It would have an impact on [whether] students feel comfortable expressing themselves or even their identities in the classroom, and that’s not a direction I want to go in,” she added. “One of the reasons I’m motivated to serve on the Board of Education is that I want every student in the district to feel comfortable with being their authentic self.”

Matthews believes that House Bill 616 violates the purpose of a school environment for children. 

“The purpose of schools is to serve children and teenagers,” she said. “If we’re not doing those things, not serving children, and not accepting them for who they are when they come into these buildings, then we’re doing a disservice.”

Social studies teacher Pam Crossman feels that students need to learn about the controversial issues at the center of our national politics. 

“If a student is wrestling with a topic that is considered a hot button issue in society and they can’t ask questions and I can’t provide that forum, when are they going to learn it [and] where are they going to go for answers?” she asked. 

In fact this is one of the main objectives of social studies classes, according to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS)

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world,” the organization’s website states.

I don’t believe ignoring something will make it go away. People are different and come from different cultures, and it is important to learn about them. Things like racism are around everywhere and teaching how hurtful and evil it can be is very important.”

In testimony against House Bill 322 in Sept. 2021, Adam Motter, Interim Executive Director and Past President of the Ohio Council for the Social Studies (OCSS) argued that the shameful parts must not be left out of the classroom if students are to understand American history. 

Motter also pointed out that the bill’s ban on accepting outside funding for social studies curriculum is likely to be very damaging to civic education in Ohio.

“There are many organizations that provide legitimate curriculum solutions, including financial literacy, US Constitutional supports, geography supports, and primary source collections,” he said. “Losing these resources, which have nothing to do with the original concern, will disadvantage every school’s social studies program.”

Representative Smith explained his understanding of Republicans’ motivations for pushing these curriculum-limiting bills.

“I think there’s a philosophical underpinning in the Republican caucus that they want American nostalgia and not American history,” he said. “If you only teach nostalgia and you cherry-pick your history, I think that we could repeat the errors of the past.”

Crossman says passage of this bill would undercut her ability to do her job.

“As a social studies teacher, it scares me because I think that now we’re talking about free speech in the classroom, and it can curtail the perspectives of history that I’m expected to teach,” she said. “We want kids to be able to think about things from multiple perspectives and hear different narratives, and if you remove anything that’s considered divisive you’re eliminating a lot of history so that to me, as a history teacher, is alarming.”

Social studies teacher John Perse believes that eliminating discussion of these topics would also eliminate the possibility of finding common ground.

“One of the great things about our country is that we were able to overcome divisiveness…that was a mark of tremendous skill, compromise, and the ability to work together,” Perse said. “How do you move forward as a country if you don’t successfully deal with division?” 

I’m trans, and when people don’t understand pronouns or make fun of me it impacts my mental health. So if we all learn about diverse cultures and identities we can learn to respect everyone.”

Representative Smith says some business leaders have said 616 would be “bad for businesses,” adding  that the most large corporations have embraced diversity.

“Business interests are traditionally Republican constituencies and they’re a part of the opposition to 616 which is perhaps one of the reasons it hasn’t passed yet,” he said. 

For this reason, Smith believes 616 has a slim chance of passing.

Perse also worries that the combined impact of House Bills 99 and 616 will have a negative impact on student safety.

“I would have to question how much these two bills help safety,” Perse said. “If you’re not making people feel welcome, I don’t think that helps their emotional safety and if in the heat of the moment, bullets are flying, people are running, and all hell is breaking loose, I don’t know how you necessarily help their physical safety.”

Increasingly Extremist Laws

“Ohio’s laws are becoming increasingly representative of a small margin of the population,” Walsh said. “I think that on both sides, our legislators are more to the outside fringe of their respective party and are putting forth legislation that speaks to a particular small base, but I don’t think that the majority of Ohioans are in favor of a lot of these things.”

Schwartz feels that communities elect the leaders to represent them and therefore, the Ohio legislature is representative of the population. 

“The challenges that school leaders and educators are facing are growing more complex and larger by the day,” Schwartz said. “The state general assembly attempts to address these challenges and ultimately they are most likely in the best interest of students.” 

Nevertheless, the reality is that Ohio is currently dominated by Republicans. An analysis of Ohio’s voting over the last 10 years has indicated that 54% voted Republican and 46% Democrat, according to the Ohio Capital Journal. Ohio is slightly more Republican. 

However, through gerrymandering, the process by which legislative districts are drawn to give a disproportionate advantage to one political party, and strict party affiliations, strongly partisan Republican supported legislation has a better chance of becoming law.

It’s so important to learn about these ‘controversial’ subjects because they are real topics that we shouldn’t be shielded from. Not learning about race, sexuality, or gender is a misrepresentation of the general population, and it leaves people who are of other races or in the LGBTQ+ community without any understanding of their groups.”

“Because the Republicans were able to draw the maps of legislative districts, they packed Democratic voters into districts and expanded the number of districts that were more likely to vote Republican,” Smith said.

When the new legislature is seated in January, Republicans will have a stronger majority than ever with 26-7 in the Senate and 68-31 in the House.

Smith emphasized that not a single Democrat voted for House Bill 99. In fact, Democrats made speeches against the bill in both committee meetings and on the House floor, but it didn’t make a difference.

“Because so many of these representatives in Ohio have protected seats through gerrymandering and other realities, they feel that they can just throw their agenda out there and that [everyone] will be supportive,” Perse said. “Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, but that’s how these representatives get re-elected—they’re carrying out the will of their constituents.”

Senator Yuko explained that his district is one of the most diverse in the state, and he believes that many legislators who come from the more rural and homogeneous communities will not understand the challenges that his constituents face. He is frustrated that many of his Republican colleagues do not understand the problems found in his district, such as  poverty, poor infrastructure and high crime rates. 

“The sad part is this, I like my Republican colleagues,” he said. “I don’t understand what their thought process is at all other than the fact that it’s their political party, that’s their affiliation, [but] I continually try to work with them.”

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