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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Commentary: Orwellian Republican Thought Police come for Ohio educators

school desk

The Thought Police are stirring in the Republican-controlled Ohio House.

And they are coming for a teacher or professor near you.

Perhaps an educator who told your child the truth about American history — for instance, that systemic racism has always been and remains today a shameful part of the American experience.

It is a sad piece of useless and unnecessary legislation known as Substitute House Bill 327; and it is very likely that, sometime this spring, it will sail through the Ohio General Assembly and became the law of the land in Ohio.

Like Big Brother and The Party in 1984 — George Orwell's dystopian novel of a totalitarian society where no thought contrary to The Party was allowed — HB 327 would hog-tie educators and the schools they work for when it comes to teaching the truth about American history, without also presenting the "truth" as seen by a bunch of right-wing legislators.

And, if they dare defy the law, the teacher, the principal and the school superintendent could be punished by the Ohio Board of Education by having their state licenses suspended or revoked.

So, what is it these 37 conservative Republican legislators who sponsored or co-sponsored the legislation want to do to Ohio's education system?

The relevant language from the bill would prevent educators from "promoting a teacher's personal or ideological belief or position;" "failing to fairly present both sides of a political or ideological belief or position;" or "unfairly evaluating a student's work because it does not reflect the teacher's political or ideological belief or position."

The most interesting, of course, is the one about failing to present both sides of a political or ideological belief or position.

What exactly is the "other side" of 9-11? Of slavery in America? Let's see how you politicians in your infinite wisdom pretty up that one.

What is a teacher to do when a high school student sees in a paper that Joe Biden was elected to the presidency in November 2020? Are they supposed to insist that the student also make the ridiculous, thoroughly discredited Donald Trump argument that the election was somehow "stolen" from him?

As Orwell wrote, "the further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those who speak it."

What exactly is it you want teachers to say when teaching about the horrors and violence Black people and their allies suffered in the early days of the civil rights movement? Well, on the other hand, kids, Bull Connor probably had good reason to turn vicious dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors in Birmingham. Let's look at Bull's side of the story.

The bill even makes this statement, a clear admission that the bill's all-white sponsors have no understanding whatsoever of the perilous journey Black Americans have faced for hundreds of years:

"Slavery, racial discrimination under the law, and racism in general are so inconsistent with the founding principles of the United States that Americans fought a civil war to eliminate the first, waged long-standing political campaigns to eradicate the second, and rendered the third unacceptable in the court of public opinion, all of which dispels the idea that the United States and its institutions are systematically racist and confutes the notion that slavery, racial discrimination, and racism should be at the center of public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary educational institutions."

It begs the question: What planet do these people live on? Racial discrimination has been eradicated? Tell that to George Floyd's family.

State Rep. Brigid Kelly, a Democrat from Norwood, is the ranking minority member on the Ohio House State and Local Government Committee, where Substitute House Bill 327 is parked awaiting passage by the committee and going to the full House for a vote.

It is a "terrible piece of legislation," Kelly said.

"Teaching students the truth, as painful as it might be, is important," Kelly said. "How can we have a trained work force in a diverse society without an honest education system?

"Under this bill, you can't even acknowledge some of the unpleasant truths that exist in our history," Kelly said. "It goes way, way too far."

Honesty for Ohio Education, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 30 educational and civic institutions around the state, agrees with Kelly. But so far, they can't get the Republican leaders of the State and Local Government Committee to allow them to come to the committee and offer testimony against HB 327.

So, on Wednesday, they are gathering in the Ladies' Gallery of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus for a press conference explaining their opposition to HB 327.

“We believe that honesty in education is the bedrock of a high-functioning, representative democracy,” said Cynthia Peeples, the coalition’s founding director. “We oppose this legislation and other efforts to restrict and prohibit the comprehensive examination and acknowledgment of how racism, sexism, and intersecting forms of discrimination have shaped America’s history.”

The bill that the coalition is fighting has been rattling around since last June, after being introduced by two Republican House members, Diane Grendell of Geauga County and Sarah Fowler Arthur of Ashtabula. It appears to be a result of this Republican battle against "critical race theory" — a straw man that conservatives like to stand up and knock down repeatedly, regardless of the fact that it is not part of the curriculum of any public school in Ohio.

There have been four different versions of the bill and it has been re-written repeatedly in committee. But the objections of its opponents remain the same. It is an overreach by meddlesome politicians, shielded from the reality of classroom teaching, intent on imposing their world view on young minds and making the already difficult job of educators that much harder.

No question about it — Ohio's Thought Police are knocking on the schoolhouse door.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.