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Lawmakers focus bills on school curriculum

Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media

State legislators released a spate of bills aimed at public education curricula this week, including several from Soldotna Republican Sen. Ron Gillham.

Gillham said he’s making education the focus of his legislative session.

“When I came down [to Juneau] last year, it was a lot of focus on the dividend and the budget and a few other things," he said. "And over the winter, I did a lot of investigating on our education system. And we needed some things changed.”

Gillham said, overall, parents should have more involvement in their kids’ education.

A "parents’ rights" movement has become popular in education during the pandemic, as parents demand more input over what their students are learning in schools and how COVID-19 mitigation is being handled. 

One of Gillham’s bills (HB 342) would require schools to publish lists of textbooks and course syllabi on their sites. It’s not unlike bills being proposed in Ohio and Michigan.

Some teachers in those districts said they’re worried that oversight will lead to censorship. Gillham said he sees the bill as a way to ensure transparency. 

“And if they’re trying to keep you from seeing what it is, that tells me you are trying to hide something," he said. "They may not be, but that is kind of in the back of my mind.”

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District already publishes some of its curriculum materials online.

Another bill (HB 329) would provide public funding for students who are homeschooled or in private school. Students would be eligible for $5,930]per year in scholarships if they have disabilities, attend a “low-performing school” or have a parent in the armed forces, among other criteria.

Gillham said he got the idea for that bill from a summit he attended last November in Florida, held by ExcelInEd, an organization started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Gillham said he also attended a summit for conservative state legislators last year in Texas, sponsored by an organization called WallBuilders. The WallBuilders website said the group is dedicated to preserving the “moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined.”

Another bill from Gillham (HB 330) would bar teachers from making students feel guilty or inherently “racist, sexist, or oppressive” by virtue of their own identities. It’s similar to a bill proposed in Florida.

Gillham said he is thinking about critical race theory, or CRT – an academic framework that’s become a rallying cry in conservative circles for fighting back against a perceived progressive ideology in schools. The Kenai district and many others have said they aren’t teaching critical race theory in their classrooms.

District Spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said the district looks at new education bills when they’re introduced to see if they align with the district’s legislative priorities. She said the district will be looking into the bills proposed this week in the next few days,

Tom Klaaymeyer heads the Alaska branch of the National Education Association. He said in an email he did not find Gillham’s bills productive.

“The education reform package proposed by Rep. Gillham does not address the urgent needs I'm hearing from Alaska educators or the students they serve," he said. "NEA-Alaska is eager to work with any and all parties to improve educational achievement and student learning. Unfortunately, this package of bills does not appear to be productive, practical, or a strategic investment in our public education system."

Gillham said next week, he’s filing a bill to introduce a “character development program” that would emphasize values like patriotism, responsibility and racial and religious tolerance. He said the program would teach high schoolers employment and civic skills, among others.

“So that one will be read across on Tuesday," he said. "Right now there’s no bill number so it’s not available online.”

Gillham is not the only Alaska legislator who filed bills focused on public education this week. 

Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman wants the state’s education department to create a social studies program about “victims of communism,” including instruction on former communist leaders like Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro (HB 324).

And both the House and Senate are considering bills (SB 111and HB 164) that would – among other things – establish a Read by 9 program for students. Another piece of legislation, (HB 272) would increase the amount of money schools get for each student, a metric which has not been changed in the last several years.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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