Many of us are familiar with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the far-right bill mill that creates and distributes model bills to be introduced across the fifty statehouses to create waves of similar public policy. There was the Taxpayer Bill of Rights(TABOR), for example, and there are all sorts of ALEC model bills promoting charter schools and voucher programs.
(This blog has been updated and corrected. There are 11 elected members and 8 appointed members of the 19 member Ohio State Board of Education.)
But even though the proposed statutes look alike, most of this year’s bills being considered in many of the state legislatures—bills that prohibit teaching of divisive concepts that touch on race and human sexuality, eliminate diversity training for teachers and other school staff, and ban books—are not coming from ALEC. ALEC’s model “American Civics and History Act,” introduced ten months ago is mild compared to most of the rest. It does, like many of these model bills, require that civics and history materials be posted online for parents to review, and it prohibits school districts from forcing students to agree with any particular point of view on controversial topics.
The so called bans on the teaching of “critical race theory” being debated in myriad state legislatures (and passed in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and North Dakota) look so similar, however, that they cannot possibly be bubbling up spontaneously. So where are these bills originating?
Last July, Education Week‘s Sarah Schwartz set out to answer that question: “Within several months, Republican legislators in more than 20 states have introduced bills that would restrict how teachers discuss racism, sexism, and controversial issues… The same language echoes throughout much of the legislation, from bans on ‘divisive’ or ‘racist or sexist concepts,’ to provisions that require teachers to present contending perspectives on ‘controversial’ issues… At the core of most of the bills… is language lifted from a September 2020 executive order by former President Donald Trump. But it’s not that simple. Education Week reporting uncovered a complex web of individuals and conservative organizations that are writing model legislation and supporting these state-level bills.”
While all of these laws try to control how teachers handle discussions (or avoid discussions) about race and sexuality in their classrooms, Schwartz breaks the model laws into five categories: legislation that would ban teaching “divisive” concepts; laws that would restrict discussion of racial, gender, or social identity; laws that would prohibit teachers from encouraging students in civics classes to participate in advocacy for course credit; laws that would require schools to post online all curricular materials; and laws that would prohibit teachers from showing their own political biases. Some of the proposed legislation covers several of these categories at once.
Schwartz identifies some of the organizations producing and distributing model bills. One is Citizens for Renewing America, led by Russell Vought, former director of President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget: “Citizens for Renewing America has drafted its own model legislation using the list of divisive concepts, which also bars schools from asking students to support any of the ideas outlined in the 1619 project… Two of the recently passed laws, in Idaho and Tennessee, most closely match language used in Citizens for Renewing America’s model legislation….”
Another organization “putting forth a model bill is the Alliance for Free Citizens…. Former Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, who led Trump’s voter fraud commission is the group’s general counsel… The Alliance for Free Citizens’ model legislation also includes a list of ‘racist or sexist’ topics, but is more restrictive than some other bills—banning any materials that promote these concepts, and preventing schools from hosting speakers that hold these views.”
“The America First Policy Institute, a think tank and advocacy group employing former Trump administration officials and advisers, has also consulted with at least two states on their proposed bills…. Outside of this circle, critical race theory has also become a central issue for some conservative organizations established well before the Trump era, such as the Heritage Foundation… State-level conservative organizations have taken up the issue as well—the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Idaho Freedom Foundation. A proposed Texas law, the ‘Partisanship Out of Civics Act’: “matches provisions…authored by Stanley Kurtz, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group. Bills proposed in Ohio and Arizona… also include this language.” In Maine, Schwartz reports that the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a right-wing, anti-Muslim foundation advised legislators on a bill “that would prevent teachers from ‘engaging in political, ideological or religious advocacy in the classroom.'” A law in Wisconsin reflects the priorities of the far-right Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.
It is important to recognize that while raucous hearings about the model bills from far-right organizations are dominating the public education debates across state legislatures, the racist ideology attached to the bills has definitely also infected power politics. In super-majority Republican, highly gerrymandered Ohio, for example, we have been watching this play out.
In July of 2020, the Ohio State Board of Education passed Resolution 20, a progressive anti-racist statement. Here is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s editorial board summarized Resolution 20: “The resolution… condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms, white supremacy culture, hate speech, hate crimes and violence in the service of hatred’ and said the board itself would work to ‘engage our members in open and courageous conversations on racism and inequity’ while offering training ‘to identify our own biases.’ The resolution directed the Ohio Department of Education to examine curriculum and standards to see if any changes were needed to ‘eliminate bias’ and ensure accuracy, and to encourage and support school districts, parents and communities in examining their own practices.”
The 2020 election shifted slightly the membership of the Ohio State Board, and last October 2021, the newly constituted board replaced Resolution 20 with a weaker Resolution 13. That is when Ohio’s legislative leaders began to use the ugly politics around discussions of racial issues at school to drive their broader agenda.
While 11 members of the 19 member Ohio State Board of Education are elected, Ohio’s governor appoints 8 members. Last October 2021, the governor and leaders in the Ohio Senate discovered a little-used State Senate power of “advise and consent” over the governor’s appointments to the State Board of Education—a power of advise and consent that can, apparently, be imposed even after members are already serving on the State Board. In the months prior to the vote to replace Resolution 20, Republican State Senate President Matt Huffman and the Senate’s Republican Education Committee Chair, Andy Brenner met with all of the appointed members of the State Board to evaluate their performance. After the vote on Resolution 20—based on the Huffman and Brenner’s evaluations—Republican Governor Mike DeWine requested the resignations of both of his appointed members who voted to keep the anti-racist Resolution 20 —including the state board’s popular elected president, Laura Kohler.
Now it is mid-February 2022, and Maureen O’Connor, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court just threatened to hold Governor Mike DeWine, Republican House Speaker Bob Cupp, Senate President Matt Huffman, and other state Republican leaders in contempt of court for refusing to present un-gerrymandered Congressional and state legislative district maps (which are also required for delineating state board districts).
The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reports that last week—according to his legal prerogative when the legislative maps are missing—Governor DeWine himself redrew the districts for the 11 elected members of the Ohio State Board of Education.
What is striking about his new maps—which will stand unless they are legally challenged or other maps are approved—is that Governor DeWiine has broken up the districts of all four of the remaining elected State Board members who voted to support keeping the 2020 ant-racist Resolution 20. The districts of two of the three African American members of the State Board of Education have been drawn to include rural, largely white and Republican counties. While incumbents will not be removed from office, the redistricting will affect future elections.
Hancock describes the concerns of current State Board member Meryl Johnson, a 40-year Cleveland teacher, now retired, who currently represents Greater Cleveland’s District 11, set in the Governor’s new maps to be broken up. Johnson calls the Governor’s new maps “very sad.” “The state’s education system is not effectively meeting the needs of specific groups of students, such as African American, Hispanic, English learners, economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities.”
Hancock also reports the reactions of Ohio educators. The president of the Ohio Education Association, Scott DiMauro worries: “The continuing attempts to gerrymander Ohio’s maps threaten to undermine the promise of a high-quality public education for all of Ohio’s children… Unfair… district maps… rob Ohio voters of their right to choose board members who represent their interests and who will stand up for what’s best for Ohio’s kids.”
The president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, Melissa Cropper predicts the likely result: “The effect of Governor DeWine’s delineation of Ohio’s State Board of Education districts will be to dilute the voting power of Black communities and other communities of color and to jeopardize the seats of the strongest advocates for the Board’s strategic plan for Ohio’s schools.”