While red states debate CRT, Illinois looks at curriculum transparency

Teacher Kathy McInerney, center, spends intervals of time dedicated to teaching a specific group of students during class at CICS West Belden. The Chicago charter school employs the personalized learning method for its K-8 students. The school is part of the Chicago International Charter School network, and is managed by Distinctive Schools. Photo by Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

A trio of Republican-backed bills have popped up in the Illinois legislature that appear to increase parents’ access to what’s being taught in classrooms. One bill would require all Illinois schools to post textbooks and learning materials online for parental review. Another would require libraries to provide full lists of books if asked, and a third would give parents and students the power to formally oppose a unit of study they find objectionable.

But a closer look at the bills, which mirror similar efforts targeting curriculum in other states, shows they could prohibit educators from using content that covers an array of topics, including race, gender, sexuality, and religion.

Recently, anti-critical race theory bills to prevent schools from teaching about racism and LGBT issues in classrooms surfaced across the country in Republican-led states. There have been efforts in 36 states to restrict education on racism and contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history. Legislation has been successful in states like Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and many more throughout the country.

Republicans in a number of states are now taking another approach to try to achieve the same goals, pushing bills to require teachers to post curriculum and lessons online.

Supporters of the bills believe that legislation would give parents the opportunity to know what their children are being taught. Opponents say if such bills became law, they could damage the trust between educators and teachers, lead to a loss of instructional time, and cause educators to lose confidence in their ability to decide what is good for students. 

Agustina Paglayan, an assistant professor at the University of California-San Diego, says the parallels between anti-critical race theory bills in Republican states and curriculum transparency in Democratic states is interesting because it has the potential to gain support from parents who might have been against the anti-critical race theory bills. 

“The term ‘transparency’ is something that everyone is going to think, in principle, parents should know more about what’s going on in school and what their children are learning. When framed that way, people aren’t going to find much to argue against,” said Paglayan. 

She suggests that people look closely at the language in the bills. “It’s not just about observing what’s happening in the classroom and giving parents more information but also about controlling teachers.” 

HB 5239, sponsored by Rep. Keith R. Wheeler (R-50th), would require school districts to adopt a policy to ensure that a parent or guardian can request to review curriculum and learning material throughout the school year. The Parental Access and Curriculum Transparency Act, or HB 5505, sponsored by Republican lawmakers Rep. Adam Niemeg (R-109th) and Blaine Wilhour (R-107th), is similar to what Wheeler proposed that goes further, requiring school boards to provide parents a clear process for objecting to what is taught. 

HB 5344, sponsored by Republican legislators Rep.Avery Bourne(R-95th) and Rep. Deanne Mazzochi (R-47th), would require that all curriculum and learning materials used by schools are posted on the district’s website. The bill also would allow parents to petition the school board at school board meetings and request parent-teacher conferences twice per year and would require school libraries to maintain a list of books for parents and students to review. 

The House’s school curriculum and policies committee held hearings on the bills in mid-February, but all three have stalled.

But Dale Chu, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, said  the issue of curriculum transparency could trickle down to local elections — especially school board elections. 

Conservative voters have long memories, according to Chu, and Republican lawmakers will have to show voters that they put up a fight to enact bills that were important to them. Conservatives, he said, could make this a top issue during local school board elections. Illinois will hold a primary election on June 28 and a general election on Nov. 8.

Carol Tilley, a professor of information science at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, submitted a witness slip in opposition to HB 5239 because she was concerned about the portion of the bill that would require school librarians to post information about every book in the library. She’s concerned that these bills are less about parental rights and more focused on excluding material based on how they talk about sexuality, race, and other concepts. 

“In my time working in K-12 education, I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t invite parents and community members to their spaces to have conversation or to look at the library or to talk about things,” Tilley said. “This sort of rhetoric around parents not having sufficient transparency, I think it is just plugging in some other concerns.”

Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., said that there needs to be more transparency from states and local school districts about what teachers are required to teach and the content they use in the classroom. 

However, Walsh also said it’s not appropriate for parents to micromanage a teacher’s lesson plan. 

“If teachers had to post what they’re doing on a regular basis for the express purpose of ‘if you disagree, that let me know,’ that sets up a relationship of mistrust and also gives far too much power to parents,” Walsh said.

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