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Pair of controversial bills on civics teachings in La. pass in House Education Committee

Rep. Hodges, R-Denham Springs, center, advanced two bills to mandate specific civics teachings...
Rep. Hodges, R-Denham Springs, center, advanced two bills to mandate specific civics teachings in Louisiana.(Louisiana House of Representatives)
Published: May. 12, 2021 at 8:45 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU) - Two bills that were met with backlashes in the House Education Committee still advanced on Wednesday to the House floor.

House Bill 352, authored by Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, would require the teaching of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address and the concepts of national sovereignty, American exceptionalism, globalism and immigration policy.

It would retain present law to teach civics as a prerequisite for high school graduation, but these concepts and documents would be mandated in civics classes.

The bill has been controversial, and it became even more so on Wednesday when some legislators felt that an amendment proposed by Hodges seemed similar to a recent bill by House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Raymond Garofalo, R-Chalmette, that would have prohibited any teaching that the United States or Louisiana is systematically racist or sexist.

His bill was shelved after protests by members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus. On Wednesday, Garofalo did not chair the hearing but instead came in and out of the room to vote.

Hodges’ amendment would have prohibited the Louisiana Education Department from approving materials that would teach “that a particular sex, race, ethnicity or national origin is inherently superior or inferior to another.”

That amendment failed on a tie vote, but the overall bill passed 8-5. Garofalo voted for the amendment and the bill.

“I truly do not understand how the chairman can be in another room and not presiding and then come in the room to vote,” said Brass, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus.

The committee also approved another Hodges bill, House Bill 416, that would mandate the instruction of World War II and the Holocaust to middle school and high school students. It would include mandated training to teachers instructing students on such history.

The bill would call on schools across the state to partner with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans to teach the curriculum.

“The purpose of this bill is to make sure we don’t forget [the Holocaust],” said Hodges.

David Barton, a representative from WallBuilders, a company that owns over 10,000 original historical documents, spoke on behalf of HB 416, stating that a survey in 2020 showed that 63% of millennials and Generation Z members did not know that 6 million people died in the Holocaust. Fifty percent of millennials and members of Generation Z could not name a single concentration camp.

Many representatives opposed both bills. Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, questioned why HB 416 was not brought to the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which is meant to make decisions on curricula taught in the state.

David Barton’s son Tim said it is important for the Legislature to mandate this teaching because the College Board removed the Holocaust from the 2014 teaching standard for advanced placement tests. A revised standard in 2015 added one paragraph requiring the teaching of the Holocaust.

Rep. Ken Brass, D-Vacherie, and Rep. Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport, also said curriculum changes should go through BESE rather than the Legislature. Brass stated that “we are opening Pandora’s box if we begin to add things legislatively to the curriculum.”

“The Holocaust is a genocide by which all others are measured,” said Ari Morgenstern, policy and communications director at Christians United for Israel. “One cannot understand the depths of depravity of human history without understanding the Holocaust. That is why it is a special case.”

Ethan Melancon, director of governmental affairs with the Louisiana Department of Education, said BESE did not take a position on HB 416.

However, Melancon stated that BESE opposed HB 352. He said curricula should be set through the board that was constitutionally created for that purpose. He added that components of HB 352 would be added to a social-studies standards review BESE is conducting.

U.S. history is currently taught in fourth grade, seventh grade and in high school.

Dr. Jenna Chaisson, assistant superintendent in the Office of Teaching and Learning at the state Education Department, said a steering committee there is looking to change the sequencing of when U.S. history is taught.

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