MONTPELIER — A bill to introduce social justice education to Vermont preK-12 students was approved unanimously on the House floor Thursday without controversy.
The vote followed quickly after the House Education Committee the week before also approved the bill with no resistance.
“The goals of H.3 are consistent with the stated goals of our education system,” Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex Junction, said. “In the Education Committee, we primarily look at education policies through the lens of equity. We ask questions such as, how can we ensure equal opportunity for all of our students?”
The bill will create a working group consisting of 10 education and state policy members and eight leaders of minority social groups. The group will develop curriculum reform recommendations to present to the State Board of Education, then it will disband on July 1, 2022.
The bill also establishes that the Board of Education should collect data on hazing, harassment, and other negative behaviors involving minority groups.
According to Giambatista, students as young as preschool age could soon be learning controversial topics such as changing genders and other social justice ideas.
“Ethnic studies means the instruction from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 on the historic contributions of perspectives of ethnic groups and social groups,” he said. “Social groups means females, people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, and individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, or nonbinary.”
Students will also be tested on the social justice curriculum, and the scores will part of Vermont education performance standards.
“Subsection G describes the duties of the working group which include revealing standards for student performance adopted by the State Board of Education,” Giambatista said.
Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford, is a sponsor of H.3 and one of its most adamant supporters. Speaking from the House floor, he told fellow lawmakers that Vermont education will soon cover events and people formerly overlooked in the classroom.
“As the working group does its work, they will look at the contributions of all those ethnic groups and social groups that were mentioned, that have been omitted from our education in the past,” he said.
A an example of African American history largely missing from the current curriculum, he cited the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot of 1921.
Giambatista reiterated that his committee gave full bipartisan support for the bill.
“Madam Speaker, your House Education Committee recommends passage of H.3 on a vote of 10-0-1,” he said. “This bill is a first step to move all of our citizens into our textbooks, into our classrooms, and into our student’s hearts and minds where the seeds of learning are planted.”
Other voices from the chamber only promoted the bill.
“When students learn about themselves and other people, they increase their engagement and improve their academic success and abilities,” Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P-Winooski, said. “For indigenous and LGBT folks, it not only increases academic abilities but also decreases suicide rates.”
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, also praised the bill.
“One of the biggest challenges in working on addressing inclusivity is in trying to be inclusive,” she said. “I thank the committee for all of its work and the breadth of those they heard from because we know there are ethnic and social minority groups who are less obvious than others.”
Not everyone is convinced that social justice agendas belong in public school classrooms.
Jack Bryar, chair of the Grafton School Board, told True North that while he is socially liberal on these matters, having the state push these reforms is more state overreach into education.
“I think it’s a problem that the legislature has, which is they interfere in the size of schools, the type of governance, [and more] and they have no idea what’s going on in the schools,” he said. “I don’t have a problem about teaching diversity, but our curriculum already aggressively addresses that people are different and accepted. I think first they should go to an elementary school and actually see what is being taught.”
He said mandating some of these initiatives is similar to efforts on the political right in some states to promote biblical creationism education or anti-LGBT messages.
“It’s not the legislature’s place to insert themselves into telling schools how to teach these subjects in a detailed way,” he said.