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Colorado committee rejects curriculum transparency bill

Imagine depicts books on shelves in a school library.

Conservative activists are pushing curriculum transparency legislation in more than a dozen states.

Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post

Colorado Democrats voted down a bill that would have required school districts to make all learning materials readily available to parents and made it easier for parents to raise objections about topics they deemed controversial.

Members of the House Education Committee said Thursday that they believe most teachers and school districts already make such information available to parents and disagreements can be handled at the local level without new laws. 

“For 20 years I had parents come in and ask me what we were reading and I would show them, give them a book, let them take it home and read it,” said state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and retired English teacher. “Most teachers welcome it. There aren’t enough parents who go in and talk to a teacher.” 

McLachlan apologized to parents who told lawmakers their concerns had been brushed off and urged them to keep working in their local communities.

“I think transparency is valuable, and I think parent involvement is valuable,” McLachlan said. “Parents who are concerned need to go to their district and not the state.”

The Republican-backed bill was similar to legislation being run in more than a dozen states. National conservative activists identified curriculum transparency policies as a way to challenge how schools teach topics like race, gender, and American history. Supporters of the Colorado bill said it would also give parents more tools to help with homework and open conversations with educators. 

Bill sponsor state Rep. Tim Geitner, an El Paso County Republican, amended the proposal in committee to remove the requirement to post all teaching materials online at the start of the school year. Instead, school districts would have to make all teaching materials readily available and respond to a request to see them within seven days. 

The bill also would have covered nonacademic surveys, such as Healthy Kids and other surveys of student well-being, teacher training materials, and information about electronic devices and software used by students. It also would have required districts that adopt controversial topics policies — as many already do — to have a clear way for parents to report violations.

Several parents told the committee about times their children were exposed to difficult or sensitive topics in ways they thought were inappropriate.

Erin Lee said her elementary-age daughter was invited to an after school art club where a speaker broached topics of gender identity and sexuality, told students their parents weren’t safe, and invited them to keep in touch with the speaker on a chat app.

Sherri Yockey said she was refused when she wanted to review a presentation on sexual assault and consent because her adopted children had been through past traumatic experiences. She was also denied when she asked for a lesson on the Russian Revolution to help one child study for a test.

Republicans on the education committee said parents need additional protections when schools aren’t forthcoming.

“The authority doesn’t lie with another person. It lies with the parent,” said state Rep. Mark Baisley of Roxborough. “And the only way that gets talked through is if the education community is willing to talk that through.”

But other parents raised fears that schools would change how they approach important topics.

Deronn Turner said she’s had to fight for information about her children’s education, but as a Black mother of four Black children, she worries about what wouldn’t get taught if schools felt subject to more intense scrutiny, including from people outside the school community.

“Being a person of color, I look at controversy in a different way,” she said. “Right now in this country, teaching Black history is controversial. Children should be able to learn about themselves in school, and teachers should not be restricted or censored because if students don’t learn about those things, we’re doomed to repeat things.”

Lauren Sorensen, a former Tennessee teacher, said the bill represented a dangerous first step that would leave teachers fearful of “being reported by Moms for Liberty bounty hunters.” She was referring to a conservative group that’s objected to teaching the story of Ruby Bridges, who integrated a New Orleans elementary school as a young girl, among other topics.

“I just moved here from Tennessee where they do ban books, and I know what censorship looks like in the beginning,” she said.

The bill faced opposition from school districts, rural schools, teachers unions, and progressive education advocacy groups.

“Teaching would be impossible if every parent were directing the instruction of every child differently,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association.

The bill was part of Republican lawmakers’ “Commitment to Colorado” legislative agenda that includes expanding parental rights in education. 

On Thursday, the House Education Committee rejected two other bills from that agenda, also on party-line votes. One would have allowed parents to petition for changes at low-performing schools and the other would have provided parents with tax money to enroll their child in another school.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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