During a legislative committee hearing on Thursday, public school teachers, librarians and administrators offered a multiple-choice list of reasons to oppose a bill designed to impose limits on what they can discuss in Maine public schools.
LD 589, sponsored by Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley, aims to bar teachers from participating in political, ideological or religious “advocacy” discussions in the classroom. It would require teachers to “provide students with materials supporting both sides of a controversial issue … and to present both sides in a fair-minded, nonpartisan manner,” according to language in the bill.
Though the bill is not likely to pass into law in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, it has garnered significant attention from educators and free-speech advocates who voiced concern that violation of its language could result in a teacher’s firing.
During Thursday’s hearing before the education committee, Lockman said his bill would help “restore basic principles of public education in a self-governing society.” Lockman, who made headlines last February for saying the political left had waged a “war on whites,” called his bill Thursday a “nonpartisan” solution to the “abundant evidence that leftist indoctrination is taking place in Maine classrooms.”
It’s at least the second bill submitted this session aimed at constraining teacher behavior in the classroom. The first, LD 94, from Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, sought to criminalize teachers’ distribution of allegedly obscene material to students. It failed in committee.
Lockman’s bill is more restrictive, seeking, for example, to block teachers from “singling out one racial group of students as responsible for the suffering or inequities experienced by another racial group of students,” according to the bill.
Two parents spoke in favor of the bill, and Lockman read testimony from Karen Gerrish, a teacher and former legislator from Lebanon who supports the measure. But for the more than a dozen teachers, staff and education advocates who spoke up, the bill’s implications are problematic and paradoxical to the role of public education.
Portland English teacher Caroline Robinson said the bill was a “dangerous proposal based on erroneous logic.”
Related to that argument, other educators told the committee that when discussing government, history or current events, students and teachers often delve into controversial topics, but doing so does not constitute advocacy. It moves students to a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
“I, too, want to have safe, healthy, well-informed young adults, however I differ in my approach to moving us in that direction,” Isabelle Weyl, a Deering High School library media specialist, said.
These changes to public education risk “cutting [students] off from the one resource that can transform their minds and change the course of their lives,” she said.
The committee could vote as early as next week whether to recommend the bill for passage in the Legislature. A work session is scheduled for 1 p.m. Feb. 28.