State Lawmakers Make Curricular Demands of Schools

May 10, 2011 8 min read
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It’s not unusual for lawmakers to debate aspects of the American political system, but a recent discussion in Utah’s House of Representatives wasn’t merely theoretical.

The bill under consideration, since signed into law, requires public schools to teach that the United States is a “compound constitutional republic.” The curriculum also must provide a “thorough study” of key historical documents, it says, such as the U.S. Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, and Supreme Court decisions.

Speaking in opposition, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss said the bill represented a “slippery slope”—indeed a “double black diamond slope”—of legislative interference. “A ‘no’ vote on this just would say, we don’t believe in micromanaging the curriculum,” the Democrat argued.

Although decisions on what gets taught are usually seen as the purview of school districts and state school boards, the legislators in Utah aren’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, state lawmakers to try to influence the curriculum. Other recent examples span the country and content areas—civics and science, financial literacy, arts education, sex education, and anti-bullying measures that call on schools to work the issue into health classes.

Especially in a time of tight state and district budgets, and in the face of an already crowded curriculum, some observers suggest that such measures can prove particularly burdensome.

But whether sponsored by Republicans or Democrats, the legislative proposals keep coming.

In California, a bill approved in mid-April by the state Senate would require public schools to incorporate the history and contributions of homosexuals into social studies classes. The Tennessee House of Representatives last month passed a bill that would require state and local educational authorities to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies,” including evolution and global warming. It also would protect teachers from disciplinary action for analyzing and critiquing those topics.

And Wisconsin lawmakers in late 2009 pushed through a mandate to revamp the state’s social studies standards to include teaching the history of labor unions and collective bargaining—a requirement that’s taken on an ironic cast with a new legislature’s curbs on public-employee unions.

Lessons From the Statehouse


Lawmakers have introduced, and in some cases passed, legislation mandating additions to or changes in the curriculum taught in public schools. Recent examples include:

SB 48 | Status: Senate approved, April 14, 2011
Adds lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, as well as persons with disabilities, to the list of groups whose roles and contributions must be “accurately portrayed” in social-science instruction and instructional materials. Prohibits the state or districts from adopting textbooks or other instructional materials that “reflect adversely” on a person’s sexual orientation.

HB 105 | Status: Gov. Charlie Crist signed, May 11, 2010
Requires the successful completion of at least one semester-long civics education course in the middle grades. Students must pass a new end-of-course assessment in civics to receive course credit.

SB 2313 | Status: Gov. Deval Patrick signed, May 3, 2010
Requires the state to set academic standards for instruction in bullying prevention and requires both public and private schools to provide age-appropriate instruction on the topic.

AB 2920 | Status: Assembly approved, March 14, 2011; Senate approved, March 21, 2011
Requires the state to develop a policy for school district dating violence and requires all districts to incorporate age-appropriate dating-violence education into health curriculum.

HB 1412 | Status: House defeated, 47-47, Feb. 18, 2011
Requires school districts to teach concepts of personal finance at least once during the 6th, 7th, or 8th grade.

HB 368 | Status: House passed, April 7
Requires state and local educational authorities to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies,” including evolution and global warming. Prohibits state or local authorities from preventing a teacher from helping students “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course.”

HB 220 | Status: Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed, March 25, 2011
Requires American history and government instruction to address forms of government, including the United States as a “compound constitutional republic. Requires school curricula to include a “thorough study” of American historical documents, such as the U.S. Constitution, the Mayflower Compact and Supreme Court decisions

AB 172 | Status: Gov. James E. Doyle signed, Dec. 10, 2009
Requires the inclusion of “the history of organized labor in America and the collective bargaining process” in the state’s model academic standards for social studies.

SOURCE: Education Week

Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, said lawmakers in California and elsewhere have long tried to wade into the curriculum.

In contrast, the federal government is prohibited from doing so by language in the law establishing the U.S. Department of Education, as well as in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“They usually insert very narrow things that are disconnected from the broader flow of the curriculum,” Mr. Kirst said of state legislators. “[The measures] pile up over the years and lead to somewhat of a disjointed process.”

‘Checks and Balances’

In Utah, Republicans led by Rep. Michael T. Morley championed the civics education bill, which in part calls on schools to contrast the U.S. form of government with others.

“I think we gloss over a little too quickly the very essence of what makes our country so great,” Rep. Morley said in an interview, “and why it’s so important that all of these checks and balances are in there, and what the founders so masterfully put together.”

The GOP lawmaker said the measure was spurred in part by complaints he’s heard that some teachers aren’t providing accurate or thorough instruction on the U.S. government and its nature.

The particular wording about the U.S. government morphed during the legislative process.

As originally introduced, it said the government should be taught as a “republic.” That was later amended to say a “constitutional republic.” The Senate added the word “compound” to signal the mix of federal and state authority.

While Rep. Morley concedes that the final phrase might be unfamiliar to many people, that doesn’t trouble him. “It will require a little more discussion ... that goes deeper into the whole [issue] of what the checks and balances are,” he said.

Limited Time

But the effort has encountered some stiff criticism.

“We maintain that delving into particular curricular items is going beyond their constitutional mandate and duty,” said Debra G. Roberts, who chairs the Utah school board. “Practically speaking, the legislature has long delved into curricular issues. Is that healthy for the system? No, I don’t believe it is.”

She also expressed concern about the law’s particulars, including the phrase “compound constitutional republic,” which she suggests might be confusing to some educators and students.

“It isn’t wordsmithing the curriculum that’s needed, it’s finding a way to tell that unique American story in a way that helps engage [students],” she said.

Matthew J. Burbank, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said the measure supplies “a rather unusual phrase” to describe the U.S. government, though he added that, “in political science terms, it’s a perfectly accurate thing to say.”

Mr. Burbank said he did find it striking that the conservative lawmakers who pushed it left “democracy” out of the description.

“It’s not like schools don’t already teach this,” he said, “but how much do you emphasize democracy and how much do you emphasize republic?”

A House Democrat offered an amendment to call the nation a “democratic constitutional republic,” but Republicans said no.

The mandate that schools teach a list of historical documents “thoroughly” also sparked debate.

“I can think of a lot of things I’d like to be taught thoroughly,” Rep. Moss, who voted against the measure, said during floor debate in February. “The place for this to be handled is at the local level.”

Ms. Roberts said she believes students should study key U.S. historical documents and suggests that many schools already do so.

But she also said schools face limits, given how much academic content they must cover.

“It becomes a matter of time when you look at the long list [of documents identified],” the state board leader said. “Finding the time to put those into a teacher’s lesson—that will be challenging.”

Meanwhile, California Democrats have championed a bill that would require public schools to include the history and contributions of lesbian,gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in social studies courses.

Sen. Mark Leno, the lead sponsor, said the bill aims to combat what he sees as the “censorship” of such information from many classrooms. He also argues that promoting awareness would curb anti-gay stereotypes and thereby reduce bullying of and violence against LGBT students. (“Calif. May Mandate Inclusion of Gay History in Curricula,” April 27, 2011.)

The state Senate passed the bill April 14 on a party-line vote of 23-14. With Democrats controlling the state Assembly and the governorship, advocates say they’re hopeful it will become law.

Some Republicans and conservative activists have attacked the bill for what they see as inappropriately promoting the widespread acceptance of homosexuality.

But that’s not the only line of criticism. The Los Angeles Times editorial board, while saying that gays’ struggles against discrimination have a “legitimate place” in the curriculum, issued its own rebuke last month.

“Years ago, California made the wise decision to have experts draw up a balanced social studies curriculum,” the editorial said. “Legislators aren’t improving education in the state by stuffing the curriculum with new politically correct requirements.” It continued: “If more is added, ... something else will have to be deleted or treated more shallowly.”

Another Mandate?

The Wisconsin measure on the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining was enacted about a year before the state saw a political sea change, bringing the issue of collective bargaining into sharp focus. First-year Republican Gov. Scott Walker recently signed a bill to curtail the bargaining rights of many public employees.

The curriculum measure, strongly backed by state labor unions and signed by then-Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, came when Democrats controlled the legislature, now in GOP hands.

Steven J. Cupery, the president of the Wisconsin Labor History Society and a union representative for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said the 2009 legislation was needed because the history of unions and collective bargaining is “not taught in many schools.”

“Many teachers feel intimidated when it comes to talking about unions and collective bargaining in the classroom,” he said. “We want to make clear that the state has a policy that this be incorporated into the curriculum, so teachers feel ... they have some backing when it comes to teaching those subjects.”

But M. Scott Neederjohn, an associate economics professor at Lakeland College, near Sheboygan, Wis., called its passage “more a political maneuver than an educational maneuver.”

“My concern is it’s just another mandate that schools have to meet without any support,” said Mr. Neederjohn, who recently completed a study on civics education.

The bill passed by the Tennessee House in April on classroom instruction in scientific theories is seen by critics as a thinly veiled attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution. A companion bill in the state Senate, however, was recently withdrawn by its author.

Louisiana enacted a similar measure in 2008, but the debate isn’t over. Recently, a bill was introduced to repeal the law. Opponents of the law held a rally at the Statehouse last month, and a group of 42 Nobel Prize-winning scientists wrote a joint letter urging lawmakers to repeal it.

Some Oregon lawmakers are trying to move away from curricular demands. A bill the Senate passed last month with backing from many education groups and the state education department would eliminate a variety of legislative mandates, including measures that require instruction on the Irish potato famine, the arms race, and conflict resolution.

“It’s not that I don’t think [these] are important issues,” said Sen. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat and the lead sponsor. “It’s, do we need to have a statutory requirement that those be included?

“If they’re an important part of history,” she said of the potato famine and the arms race, “teachers will include instruction about them without being told by the Oregon legislature to do so.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week as Lawmakers Set Curricular Demands

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