Dueling Bills Propose Major Changes to Ohio Social Studies Classrooms

Ohio lawmakers have introduced competing bills to overhaul the state’s K-12 Social Studies curriculum. The Democratic bill seeks to make education more inclusive with “age and grade-appropriate instruction in the migration journeys, experiences and societal contributions of a range of communities in Ohio and the United States.” The Republican bill seeks to create a task force based on the controversial standards presented in “American Birthright: The Civics Alliance’s Model K-12 Social Studies Standards.”

The current Ohio social studies standards philosophy reads, 

“The aim of social studies is the promotion of civic competence – the knowledge, intellectual processes, and democratic dispositions required of students to be active and engaged participants in public life. Although civic competence is not the only responsibility of social studies nor is it exclusive to the field, it is more central to social studies than any other subject areas in schools. Civic competence rests on a commitment to democratic values, and requires the ability to use knowledge about one’s community, nation, and world; apply inquiry processes; and employ skills of data collection and analysis, collaboration, decision-making, and problem solving.” 

Democratic House Bill 171

The Democratic bill, House Bill 171, seeks to expand social studies education to “adopt statewide academic standards with emphasis on coherence, focus, and essential knowledge that are more challenging and demanding when compared to international standards.” This would include, “instruction in the migration journeys, experiences, and societal contributions of a range of communities in Ohio and the United States, including all of the following: African American communities; Asian American and Pacific Islander communities; Arab, African, and North African immigrant, refugee, and asylee communities; Appalachian communities; Jewish communities; Latin American communities; Native American communities.”

Proponents of the bill believe that it is really important for children to see themselves in their learning. “Building a model curriculum that helps all kids learn better, helps all kids be seen in their classroom and to build more respect in our kids for our shared dignity and humanity,” Tessa Xuan, Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership’s co-director said. “I am excited to continue to fight for the chance for these kids to see their stories reflected in the curriculum.”

Rep. Don Jones (R-Freeport) said in a statement that he appreciates Lightbody’s “attempt to improve the K-12 social studies curriculum.” But, he said, her bill “does not solve the problem of presenting accurate, non-partisan learning objectives. The broad and undefined standards currently in practice leave Ohio students vulnerable to the political ideology of any classroom teacher.”

However, Mary Lightbody (D-Westerville), a former teacher and the bill’s sponsor said her bill seeks to help students and teachers understand more about people in their classrooms and communities, and there’s nothing partisan about that.

“I don’t think there’s anything political about looking at the makeup of the students in our communities and in our schools and seeking to provide information for teachers so that those children can be seen and heard and understood by their classmates.” 

Republican House Bill 103

The competing Republican bill, House Bill 103, “seeks to create new standards for social studies in K-12 schools in Ohio through a task force appointed by state lawmakers and the governor, using a civics program developed by a conservative coalition that’s been fighting mandating diversity training and other policies that it sees as hindering free speech from the right.”

While according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Don Jones, the bill “only seeks to set new standards and does not dictate any curriculum,” the task force would be made up of political appointees and use the standards that align with the far-right American Birthright standards. 

These standards were developed by the Civics Alliance, a New York-based group which states in its mission statement preceding “American Birthright” that it is “dedicated to preserving and improving America’s civics education and preventing the subornation of civics education to political recruitment tools.”

Supporters of the bill want social studies curriculum and education to focus on a “facts only” approach, using the American Birthright standards as “guardrails.”

“The standards are liberty focused and based on a proud telling of America’s liberty story,” Jones said. “The new standards will stand in the way of those who misrepresent America’s origins, such as the 1619 Project and A People’s History of the United States.”

“This bill only seeks to set new standards and does not dictate any curriculum. We will leave that up to our teachers. Instead, these standards will serve as guardrails rooted in teaching the rich history of America,” Jones said.

Grave Concerns

Critics of House Bill 103 call it a Trojan Horse that would set back instruction 60 years, moving the classroom back to a teacher-centered space instead of the current method of teaching, “where the teacher facilitates learning, and students are active, engaged, and learning by doing.”

American Historical Association expressed “grave concern” about the American Birthright model, saying it would “hobble students” with a “pleasant fantasy” of history such as colonization by European empires “without ever meaningfully engaging with any evidence to the contrary.”

“These standards are not the product of an evidence-based study; they are merely a risky, untested document that, if they were adopted, would impose wrenching opportunity costs on Ohio students, parents, teachers and schools,” the group stated in committee testimony.

Supporters and Opponents

House Bill 103 is also opposed by the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the Ohio Education Association, Public Education Partners, the Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio, and the Ohio Council for the Social Studies.

House Bill 171 has the support of the Council on American Islamic Relation’s Ohio Chapter, the Ohio Education Association and its Hispanic Caucus, Ohio Progressive Asian Woman’s Leadership and the Black Led Organizing Collaborative (BLOC).

As noted by Statehouse News reporter Karen Kasler,Democrats have little hope in stopping HB 103 or advancing HB 171 since they’re the superminority in the legislature.” 

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