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This Week in Statehouse Action: Too Cool For Session edition
Everything is stupid.
And by “stupid” I mean that I am so bored and annoyed with breathless coverage of the RNC chair race and the Democratic presidential primary schedule and George Santos’ latest lie and MTG becoming besties with Kevin McCarthy and which former White House occupant has found classified docs in their garage this week and …
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I’m not saying that none of this is important.
I’m just saying that what’s happening in state legislatures right now is about a bajillion times more important.
Like, say, the ongoing and escalating threat GOP-controlled statehouses pose to public education.
Republican attempts to siphon taxpayer dollars away from public education and funnel that money to private schools are nothing new.
But giving public money to private schools is … well, it’s bad.
Legislatures either don’t have the funds or simply aren’t interested in replacing the money shunted away from public schools to private institutions, which makes it even harder for public schools to serve their communities and prepare kids to succeed – and then the Republicans who wanted to steal that money from public ed in the first place point to the resulting struggles public schools face from underfunding, and then they use those struggles to justify giving even more money to private schools.
Private schools aren’t required to meet any kind of federal or state standards of transparency in terms of finances or meetings or … well, anything.
There’s little or no state oversight to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly or that the school is being run competently.
Private schools aren’t subject to the same accreditation and curriculum standards governing public schools.
Rural areas without nearby private schools suffer the public school funding cuts without being able to take advantage of private education alternatives.
And yes, private schools’ test scores are sometimes higher than their public counterparts–but since private schools get to pick and choose who they admit, they have an automatic advantage over state-funded schools, which have to let everyone in.
But despite all these issues with giving public money to private schools, voucher programs and “education savings accounts” (which, by the by, started off as an ALEC model bill) seem to be all the rage this year.
In Utah, the GOP-controlled legislature gave final approval to a $42 billion bill this week that will create “the largest school voucher program in state history” --despite pretty much every education org there opposing it.
The measure – which Utah’s governor is sure to sign – gives double the amount ($8,000) per student to attend a private school than is currently allocated per child in the state’s public education system.
Never mind that those private schools getting all that cash don’t have to bother with pesky requirements like hiring licensed teachers, meeting state curriculum requirements, and serving students with disabilities.
A lobbyist for this voucher bill was even caught on tape saying the quiet part loud.
Over the weekend, an audio recording of longtime pro-voucher activist Allison Sorensen hit the interwebs.
On it, she just up and says, “I want to destroy public education,” as part of a discussion around “framing” the voucher issue and why she and lawmakers can’t actually come right out and say they want to take money from public education.
Mission accomplished, I guess
In Iowa, the debate over the private school voucher bill that just passed that GOP-controlled legislature had some Republicans saying a different quiet part loud.
Most GOP supporters of the measure–which would cost the state about $878 million over the first four years and contains no spending cap–stuck to the “school choice” script during discussions of the measure.
But some Republicans revealed other motivations for taking money away from public schools, and they’re all rooted in the right-wing conspiracy theories that have become the core of the GOP’s overall approach to education policy.
Republican Sen. Jesse Green claims that parents want to enroll their kids in private institutions to avoid the “woke ideology” of public schools–ideology that involves those schools implementing guidelines that follow state and laws to protect LGBTQ kids.
Green claims not being shitty to these children involves “violating [Iowans’] values,” and he and others went on to rail against books involving LGBTQ themes being in school libraries and, of course, their favorite bogeyman: CRT.
And just in case you weren’t convinced that Republicans in Iowa believe that LGBTQ kids just, like, shouldn’t exist, nine GOP state senators (including the above-mentioned Jesse Green) banded together to introduce a bill this week that would ban gender-affirming care for anyone under 18.
The legislation would also punish doctors who provide such care.
As written, the measure would also block any medical professional who “performs any gender-transition procedure on an individual” — no mention of age restrictions—from receiving payments from Iowa’s Department of Health and Human Services.
These bills blocking gender-affirming care for anyone under 18 were all the rage in statehouses last year, just as measures banning transgender kids from playing school sports were huge the year before that.
This hateful legislation is still being proposed in legislatures across the country, part of the 150+ such bills across at least 25 states.
A separate proposal in Mississippi takes things in the opposite direction in terms of age, defining a person’s “sex” as a permanent designation that must match their biological sex at birth—effectively eliminating any chance for a transgender Mississippian to be legally recognized as who they are.
In West Virginia, the GOP-controlled legislature is considering a bill that would effectively define being openly transgender around minors as “obscene.”
Another wretched recurring theme in Republican bills this year?
Outing transgender kids to their parents against their will.
These bills started popping up last year, but they seem to be gathering a bit of steam this time around.
Generally speaking, these measures require schools to notify a parent if their child “has expressed conflicted feelings with gender identity or expression,” as well as if the student wants to change their name or outward presentation “to one inconsistent with their biological sex at birth,” as one Indiana state senator described it (this is also known as “social transitioning,” or is a part of that process).
Never mind that forcibly outing a transgender child to unsupportive parents and/or before they feel prepared and safe doing so is objectively monstrous and potentially quite dangerous.
This year’s fresh crop of awful legislation makes it incredibly clear that all these anti-trans bills are fundamentally about denying transgender folks’ right to even exist … not that there was really any doubt.
Seriously, this boils down to a bunch of assholes in some state capitol trying to find creative ways to eliminate folks’ right to just be.
Imagine if they actually directed that creativity towards helping folks
Meanwhile, Republicans in South Carolina are trying to place onerous restrictions on how educators teach history in public schools.
The so-called “Transparency and Integrity in Education Act” seeks to prohibit certain concepts deemed by white lawmakers to be “divisive” from being included in school curriculum.
The legislation is broad and terrifyingly vague, failing to define crucial terms like “objectionable material” and “age appropriate.”
Moreover, fully half of the text of the bill is dedicated to how to file complaints against and penalize teachers for allegedly running afoul of the “transparency and integrity” requirements of the legislation.
And I specifically say “white lawmakers” above because a quick glance at the South Carolina House’s website indicates that not a one of the bill’s sponsors are Black, which is both sadly expected and super problematic when you’re telling teachers they can be fired or otherwise disciplined for, say, telling students that the South entered the Civil War to protect their supposed right to own slaves.
It’s true, and it might make some students uncomfortable (although, in this day and age, I’d hope not).
The debate over this bill rightly also involves the fact that South Carolina already faces a pretty savage teacher shortage.
During a recent hearing on the legislation, a number of educators testified that this law would scare off prospective teachers or educators interested in returning to the profession.
And this is a pretty huge problem for the state! When the 2022 school year started, South Carolina had a record 1,474 teacher vacancies.
A Democratic lawmaker, understanding that teaching about Black history could make some folks uncomfortable, suggested a … solution, of sorts, to the fact that teaching about some aspects of race in the United States could raise “concerns” among some students and parents.
“If we’re afraid of teaching children about things that could cause discomfort, then we need to add slave owners to the list,” Johnson said. “Many people find this topic uncomfortable and upsetting, especially the grandparents of children who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and had relatives who were slaves themselves. We should protect our children from being exposed to this evil by sweeping it under the rug and never addressing it.”
Obviously Rep. Jermaine Johnson was being sarcastic here, but given the nature and language of HB3728, it’s not an unfair suggestion–and of course serves to underscore how problematic these bills banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” truly are.
Bills like the one I just bitched about aren’t new; in 2022, at least 14 states enacted these measures.
And they all look a lot alike.
So where did they come from?
While a patchwork of conservative groups have made a parallel push to whitewash the teaching of history in public schools in recent years, a lot of the language contained in these measures is lifted straight from former Pres. Donald Trump’s September 2020 executive order on the issue.
So I write these missives each week to help you stay on top of the stuff that flies a little under the radar—stuff that’s a little harder to see, or sometimes even to find.
Because folks need to know what state legislatures are up to!
After all, the laws passed in statehouses have extensive impacts on most aspects of our lives: the quality of the roads we drive on, the relative amount of taxes we pay, the caliber of the schools we send our kids to, whether or not we can smoke weed legally, whether we lose the right to decide what we do with our bodies if we get pregnant, whether we can enjoy the same civil rights as our peers, how hard it is to cast a ballot … the list is long as hell.
That’s a lot of power! So it’s important to be able to keep tabs on what legislatures are doing.
But Republicans in Arizona apparently don’t want us examining what they’re getting up to too closely.
You may or may not already know that Arizona has a pretty decent public records law.
It requires that “all officers and public bodies” (included elected officials) indefinitely keep records and correspondences “reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain an accurate knowledge of their official activities,” and of any of their activities that involve taxpayer money; with some exceptions, public officials have to comply with public records requests promptly.
… or should I say, HAD to.
The slim GOP majorities in the Arizona legislature pulled a sneaky maneuver this week that effectively exempts lawmakers from this kind of transparency.
Via a new rule (buried here on page 27), Republicans not only exempted themselves from the state’s public records law, they also authorized the destruction of all emails sent or received by lawmakers and their staff after 90 days.
This exemption applies to both chambers, but the state House went a step further: state representatives and their staffs can now immediately delete all sent and received text messages and “communications on online platforms.”
And because this change was executed via legislative rules instead of through legislation, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs can’t veto it.
Watchdog groups have pointed out that if these new rules had been in place two years ago, they would have prevented us from ever knowing the extremes to which Trump and his allies went in their efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in the state–including but not limited to Cyber Ninjas’ antics in the Maricopa County vote “fraudit.”
To wit, the FBI subpoenaed former Arizona Senate President Karen Fann's and Republican Sen. Kelly Townsend’s records last year as it investigated Trump's efforts to overturn his defeat, and oversight orgs and media outlets used the Arizona public records law to obtain correspondence among GOP lawmakers and other Republicans—including Ginni Thomas, the wife of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—that helped expose the right-wing efforts to overturn a free and fair election.
None of these records would have been around to find under the rule Republicans just adopted.
Which is, kind of obviously, the whole point
Another fun part of the House rule caps debates on proposed legislation at just 30 minutes, removing from the minority (Democratic) party the ability to use debate as a tool to slow the passage of controversial legislation for examination or public discussion.
Honestly a little surprised the Arizona legislature hasn’t kicked the press out yet … I probably shouldn’t go giving them any ideas, hm?
Welp, that’s enough awful news for one week.
I’m declaring School’s Out … at least until next week.
In the meantime, take good care of yourself.
You deserve it!
Because you’re important.
We need you.
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