Academic Balance Bill: Will It Do More Harm Than Good?
May 5, 2018
Bill SF 2487, more commonly known as “the academic balance bill,” would prompt schools to create a classroom environment in which teachers would be required to implement more uniformity and omit personal opinions. Two Zephyrus writers express their opinions on each side of the argument: is the academic balance bill beneficial?
The Bill Sets a Dangerous Precedent
The past year at Edina High School has faced controversy after controversy as school administration and teaching staff have been placed under continuous fire for accusations of attempted indoctrination and bullying. S.F. 2487, or the Academic Balance Bill, is only an extension of this rhetoric, aiming to bar teachers from expressing political opinions and prohibit the introduction of “controversial matters” in the classroom when they are not needed. While this policy is intended to improve the quality of education in Minnesota, the implementation of this bill into school districts would negatively affect the everyday lives of students and create an environment of fear for Minnesota educators.
Vague language, especially pertaining to the amount of power an administration is given over curriculum, can be a dangerous variable. In this case, the lack of a definition for “controversial matters” in this case is especially troubling. Without any clear-cut boundaries on what can or cannot be included in a class curriculum, the school board is handed a disproportionate amount of power over what is deemed appropriate for a classroom setting. This concern was brought to the table when Dave Edwards, the father of a transgender girl in elementary school, spoke at the hearing of the bill on March 8. “[My daughter] is still transgender during math, at recess, and in the lunchroom,” Edwards said. “There are not two sides to treating her equitably. If teachers can’t respond with factual information about gender identity or other protected classes when questions arise, students can’t feel safe in school.” Although speakers at the hearing claim that the Academic Balance Bill is the best option for today’s children, students who do not fit into the mold of what the school board deems “normal” could suffer because their existence has suddenly become politicized in the classroom.
Restricting a teacher’s right to teach is dangerous in more ways than one. Language in this bill suggests that “controversial matters” be subject to meticulous censorship. “During these hearings, I’ve heard concepts like white privilege, white supremacy, and that even discussing our country’s history of colonization and slavery [should be] deemed political and social indoctrination, which would be prohibited by this legislation,” Josh Crosson, a policy director with Ed Allies, said. “To me, it sounded like the groups supported this legislation in order to convert our welcoming schools initiatives—and even our state standards—to serve the comforts of our most privileged.”
This effort to restrict educator’s first amendment rights in the classroom is strangely reminiscent of the Scopes Trial in 1925, a Supreme Court case in which a high school teacher was accused of talking to his class about evolution, a practice that was unlawful under Tennessee academic policy. The Academic Balance Bill would open the door to such punishment of teachers on a smaller, but far more personal scale, possibly resulting in a further shortage of teachers in Minnesota. The ability to discuss present day issues in educational curriculum teaches students to foster critical thinking skills which they can use to analyze and craft an opinion on world issues. By creating an environment of fear surrounding conveniently undefined “controversial matters,” this bill would require educators to teach their students to live in the past.
Conservative EHS students at S.F. 2487’s hearing cited bullying by other students and aggression by teachers for political views as a basis for why Minnesota school districts need the Academic Balance Bill. However, these issues are entirely separate from what the bill aims to accomplish. If students and teachers are allowed to get away with bullying conservative students, the problem lies in the district’s lack of action, not whether or not the biology teacher mentioned abortion. To truly make a change in Minnesota school districts, unacceptable behavior must be dealt with on a case by case basis to enforce the reality of what it is: unacceptable. However, micromanaging the classroom and censoring its educators will cause far more harm than good, and will serve only to increase ongoing hyper-partisanship at EHS.
Though Imperfect, The Bill is a Good Starting Point
Minnesota legislators continue to debate the contentious bill SF 2487 that, if passed, will require public school districts to develop and implement policies that require academic balance in all educator teaching methods. Conversation about the bill has focused on Edina Public Schools and allegations from conservative EPS students accusing the district of liberal indoctrination and discrimination against conservative students. This topic gained widespread community awareness this past fall when the right-wing Center of the American Experiment publication mailed a magazine to all Edina residents that featured an article condemning the district’s focus on equity.
The bill’s opponents argue that it is completely unnecessary and that educators are already prohibited from displaying discrimination in the classroom and must establish an atmosphere that is conducive to learning by the Code of Ethics for Minnesota Teachers. However, this policy is clearly not being implemented properly, and lacks a strong foundation for teacher regulation when it comes to controversial issues in the classroom.
Some that the language of the bill is extremely vague, which would give school board members too much power to judge what is appropriate to teach in the classroom. Some opponents of the bill, like Dave Edwards, father of a transgender girl attending a St. Paul charter schools, claim that through this bill teachers will not be able to respond with ‘factual information.’ However, the language in the bill specifically says starting on line 2.19, “The policy [of this bill] does not apply when an employee disseminates factual information consistent with the employee’s contractual duties.” If the teacher is not educated on certain topics that pertain to gender identity for example, then how are they supposed to be able to respond with factual information when all that they really have is their own opinion to share with the students? Therefore, the bill’s proposal in making sure that the teacher has special competence or training in the controversial political topic up for discussion is a logical way of making sure that teachers are teaching students how to talk about controversy without imposing their personal viewpoint.
Another argument against the bill is that it will obstruct educators’ first amendment rights in schools. This seems like a silly argument because in reality, does anyone really have complete freedom of speech in school? Past Supreme Court rulings (see discussions about Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and Bethel School District v. Fraser) have made it clear that the right to free speech and expression is subservient to achieving legitimate educational goals. Therefore, a school cannot be comparable to a public setting where anyone can stand on a soapbox or post a notice on a bulletin board at any time one pleases. While students and teachers technically do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Tinker v. Des Moines), both speech and expression are not quite as free inside educational institutions. Therefore, this bill will not be taking away any of the teachers’ rights in a school setting, but will be legally implementing a policy that has been continuously broken by teachers, allowing students to take a stand against their teachers that are creating a partisan environment.
Schools ought to be political places, but not partisan ones. Public schools are supposed to embody a key goal of the First Amendment by creating informed citizens that will one day be capable of self-governance and political debate. According to the Supreme Court in Keyishian v. Board of Education, the classroom is the marketplace of ideas, and the future of the U.S. depends upon leaders trained through exposure to diverse ideas in order to uncover the truth for themselves. Teachers should be leading their classrooms in a discussion between students with different perspectives, not using their authority to tell students what to think or what is right and wrong.
It is uncertain that the SF 2487 bill is the solution to this complex predicament. It is not as simple as banning pupils, teachers, administrators, and other school personnel from engaging in controversial political debates in the classroom, the same way that gun control is not as simple as taking away the second amendment and banning all guns from public possession. There most certainly is not going to be one overarching policy that is going to apply to every single case of political discrimination in the classroom, but the introduction of this bill is the first step in addressing the problem. Teachers should never get away with bullying other students because of their political affiliation, making them feel like outcasts in what should be a safe place. The problem lies within a lack of action from district officials in addressing the taboo topic of politics in schools, and SF 2487 has done its job in bringing this issue to light.