What’s in Ohio’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and why teachers are concerned about it

Raygene English

Wyatt Loy, Reporter

Two Ohio state lawmakers introduced a bill on April 4 that would heavily regulate how K-12 teachers could teach concepts like slavery, segregation and the fight for same-sex equality.

The language of House Bill 616, introduced by Republican Reps. Mike Loychik of Trumbull County and Jean Schmidt of Hamilton County, bears resemblance to Florida’s Senate Bill 1834, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and signed into law in March.

The Ohio bill primarily targets teaching materials in kindergarten through third grade like textbooks, lesson plans or curriculum that contain “divisive or inherently racist concepts,” which the bill defines as:

  • Critical race theory [which legal and historical scholars say is not taught in K-12 schools, NPR reports]
  • Intersectional theory
  • The 1619 project [a book and podcast from The New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones]
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion learning outcomes
  • Inherited racial guilt [a concept that is not clearly defined in the bill]
  • Any other concept that the state board of education defines as divisive or inherently racist, in accordance with rules adopted under Chapter 119 of the Revised Code.

In grades four through 12, teachers are not allowed to “teach, use, or provide any curriculum or instructional materials on sexual orientation or gender identity in any manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Educators and legal scholars, including Kent State political science professor and former lawyer Chris Banks, criticize the bill as a way for legislators to feed partisan populism.

“The underlying message is, you’re trying politically to give voice to populism, which is basically that parents have a right to control their education,” Banks said. “Or the school boards, for example, are doing it incorrectly, and allowing on their bookshelves, or public libraries, things that relate to gender identity, sexual orientation and critical race theory.”

If teachers are found in violation of the bill, they could face discipline ranging from warnings to suspension of teaching licenses.

“But it’s not like the Florida law, which I understand you could actually be sued for doing it,” Banks said. “The Ohio [bill] is a little more stringent, because you’re primarily using teaching materials. I don’t think that’s part of the Florida basis.”

In addition, Banks said the language in the bill leaves a lot of room for interpretation, including the terms “inherited racial guilt” and “diversity, equity and inclusion,” which leaves questions for how the bill could be enforced.

“That’s part of the objection to it. If you’re an educator, freedom of ideas and freedom of speech is part of the academic enterprise to encourage free discussion about things that you don’t like to hear,” Banks said. “It’s very unique in the sense that if you ban curriculum and you have it under the penalty of law, which is a threat, you’re essentially working against those types of academic freedom principles to score political points.”

HB 616 joins two other bills currently in the Ohio House, HB 322 and HB 327, which all focus on the teaching of “divisive concepts.” The former focuses on the teaching of current events and public affairs, and says teachers in public school districts cannot be required “to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs.”

HB 327 goes a step further. It prevents any required education on divisive concepts like sexual orientation and race studies in “any state agency.” The bill defines a state agency as any body established by the state that carries out the functions of state government, and includes any and all public school systems–including universities–and state employee retirement systems.

Banks said that while anything’s possible, a bill prohibiting the teaching of diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education would face pushback from teachers unions and advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle. He also said it would almost certainly be challenged in court, and wouldn’t go into effect anytime in the near future, should it pass.

The representatives who introduced HB 616, Loychik and Schmidt, released a joint statement on April 5 explaining why they wrote the bill.

“Children deserve a quality education that is fair, unbiased and age appropriate,” Loychik said. “This legislation promotes free and fair discussion.”

Schmidt said HB 616 makes clear that all people are equal regardless of their skin color, race, sex, religion or national origin.

“The classroom is a place that seeks answers for our children without political activism,” Schmidt said. “Parents deserve and should be provided a say in what is taught to their children in schools. The intent of this bill is to provide them with the tools to be able to see what their child is being taught.”

Under Ohio law, parents are already able to acquire any curriculum used in their child’s education.

Banks said the bill isn’t about equality, and it robs the student of the agency to decide what they believe.

“The idea is that you should, from my point of view as a professional educator, take subjects that are just revealing a point of fact, or something that’s reality, and then debate one side or the other, and let the student decide,” Banks said. “That’s what their education is about, to figure out what the correct side is, and then make your choices accordingly. You’re just criminalizing teachers and institutions unnecessarily to score political points with your base, which I think is a horrible way to govern.”

The likelihood of the bill passing is up in the air. Unlike HBs 322 and 327, HB 616 does not have any other co-sponsors as of April 24, which is a traditional method of gauging a bill’s likelihood of becoming law. On the other hand, one of the co-sponsors of HB 327 might have sunk any chance of that bill passing, following criticism from Republican colleagues of her comments on the Holocaust.

Banks noted that because Republicans hold a majority in Ohio’s General Assembly, the only way to really know whether or not it will pass is when lawmakers tally the votes.

The bill has already received admonishment from advocacy organizations. Cynthia Peeples, founding director of Honesty for Ohio Education, released a statement on April 6 in response to HB 616.

“House Bill 616 is another shameful attempt by Ohio legislators to attack honesty in education by using classrooms as a political battleground to foment racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” Peeples said. “In combining the worst aspects of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill with Ohio’s harmful ‘Divisive concept’ bills, Reps. Loychik and Schmidt have demonstrated that they do not care about honest education or the welfare of Ohio students.”

Honesty for Ohio Education represents students, parents and teachers in state government and tracks the status of bills like HBs 616 and 327 that govern public and private education.

“HB 616 and similar bills, like HB 327, are a direct attack against Ohio students, families and educators,” Peeples said. “Instead of peddling dishonest, anti-child political agendas, Ohio legislators must prioritize honesty, student well-being and academic achievement.”

Wyatt Loy is a reporter. Contact them at [email protected].