By Stephen Caruso
With a Tuesday vote, the Pennsylvania House Education Committee quietly inserted state lawmakers into the national debate over what students are taught in school about race and history.
In a party-line vote, the panel’s 15 Republican lawmakers voted to approve a bill requiring public schools to post all school curriculum on its public website. The listed instruction material must also include a hyperlink or title for every book students will read.
The debate Tuesday was mild, as Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, and his fellow Republicans framed the bill as a transparency measure. But in a Facebook post announcing the bill in April, Lewis was more explicit about why the additional transparency was necessary.
“Parents need to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to education, not some out-of-state textbook publisher teaching heaven knows what (hint: anti-American socialism) to our students,” Lewis wrote.
Speaking to the Capital-Star on Tuesday afternoon, Lewis said that the bill was not related to recent debates over “critical race theory” or an academic term that conservatives have co-opted to refer to lessons on race relations and U.S. history to which they object.
Developed in the 1970s, critical race theory is a concept on how race and the law intersect taught in college courses, not grade school.
Still, Lewis said his bill was needed because “a lot of parents, they don’t know what’s being taught in school. And they should have that information at their fingertips.”
The reference to socialism in his Facebook post, Lewis added, is because there is “some level of philosophical indoctrination in our schools that, really, there is no place for.”
State law already requires that public schools allow parents and guardians to access and review their child’s curriculum, academic standards, instructional materials and assessment techniques.
However, state Rep. Barbara Gleim, R-Cumberland, said she thought it was a good bill, and followed the digital trend during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Right now, Gleim argued, parents could only access curriculum materials by going to a school office and inspecting the records in person.
Lewis’ bill “would save time, actually, for parents and the public, if it would just be posted some place where they could actually view it,” Gleim said. She is also sponsoring her own bill to regulate what and how schools teach about race.
Democratic members of the committee, meanwhile, asked Lewis to clarify sections of the 2-page bill, which did not define curriculum, or provide a timeline for updates to be posted.
Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, also asked Lewis if he’d be willing to change the bill to allow only parents, not the general public, to access the online materials.
“I certainly don’t object to parents and guardians having access to curriculum,” Zabel said. But he raised concerns about teachers having to address questions from people with no stake in public education on a particular lesson plan.
National conservative groups such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Goldwater Institute also have proposed similar legislation in recent years, though Lewis said he thought up the bill on his own in 2019.
“I’ve seen states, specifically addressing the [critical race theory] issue … specifically dealing with certain types of curriculum, but to me this was a nuanced approach that was completely issueless and all about transparency,” Lewis said.
And two Republican members of Congress have introduced federal legislation to require that public schools share their curriculums online to qualify for federal funding.
“Parents, students, and community members deserve to know what their children are learning,” U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement announcing the Congressional bill.
Lewis’ bill now heads to the full Pennsylvania House, joining a number of other contentious, culture war bills that might or might not be called up for a vote by House Republican leadership.
Stephen Caruso is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.