Government

Controversial education bills spark heated debate in Rhode Island

Rhode Island’s House Education Committee heard opposition to four controversial bills submitted by State Representative Patricia Morgan. The bills work to attack the rights of marginalized students, undermine public education, and promote a narrow-minded view of history and sexuality, negatively impacting LGBTQI+, Black, and Brown communities.

March 30, 2023, 5:35 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

“These bills are not about protecting parents rights,” said Lindsay Paiva, the 2022-2023 Providence Teacher of the Year, testifying before the Rhode Island House Education Committee. “They are about attacking the rights of queer, trans, undocumented, poor and working class students, as well as student of color. We’ve already sen the effects of bills like these in other states. Teachers in Florida today, that violate the provision of laws just like these, can face a third degree felony charge, which is five years in prison.”

Paiva was the first of 36 people who spoke out against four bills, submitted by Rhode Island State Representative Patricia Morgan (Republican, District 26, West Warwick), that represent, in the written testimony of Providence resident Jackie Goldman, “a violent and regressive attempt to vilify LGBTQI+, and Black and Brown Communities.”

All four bills submitted by Representative Morgan on Wednesday were held for further study and are unlikely to advance. No one testified, in person, in favor of any of Morgan’s bills.

“We’ve already seen how bills like these have harmed LGBTQ students in other states, and recent reports have shown that the advocates for the policies in these bills include known extremist and hate groups, from outside Rhode Island, making calculated attacks on the LGBTQ community,” testified Ryan Fontaine, on behalf of Thundermist Health Center.

The seemingly-innocuous description of each bill does not convey the full measure of their intent. The bills are aimed at undermining public education, and would criminalize the teaching of accurate history and realistic sexuality. The language of the bills is filled with righteous virtue signaling and name check important concepts like “civil rights” and the rights of parents, but the intent has little to do with ensuring the rights of children, students, and families, and instead works to censor materials that deal truthfully with difficult history and honest sexuality. The bills seek to undermine the health and safety of vulnerable students and children, especially LGBTQ children and students.

The bills are largely modeled on out-of-state legislation that has passed in places like New Hampshire and Florida, where some teachers have stopped addressing anti-LGBTQ and racists bullying out of fear of legal consequence, erasing LGBTQ+ students and families from the classroom, and banishing books that provide important stories for students as they explores their sense of self,” wrote Dr. Cara McDavitt, MD, in her written testimony to the committee.

The Bills:

  • H5688 would “provide for a parents bill of rights preventing the state or any governmental entity from infringing on the fundamental rights of parents in the upbringing of their children. The act would spell out the rights of parents with respect to the health, education and welfare of their minor children. Violations of the act would result in civil, criminal and/or administrative penalties.”
  • 5738 would “require that schools develop a program for in-school suspension that sets aside and equips a specialized learning area in each school, that is appropriately equipped with individualized, computer-assisted learning modules consistent with the educational level and goals of the student.”
  • 5739 would “would require that both curriculum and teaching practices in Rhode Island schools protect and respect the civil rights of all members of the school community.”
  • 5859 would “would prevent the state or any governmental entity from infringing on the fundamental rights of parents in the upbringing of their children.”

“One need not be a serious student of history to know that my last name, Jefferson, was given to my paternal ancestors just a few generations ago by the third President of the United States of America – and slaveholder – Thomas Jefferson,” testified Leonard Jefferson to the committee. “My intention is to remind you all of the importance of seeking, speaking and acting upon truth, as opposed to seeking, speaking, teaching and especially acting upon falsehoods and lies.

“It is painfully apparent that the intent of House Bill 5739 is nothing other than to prohibit teaching of truth in order to formally indoctrinate students, as opposed to properly educate them in the schools of this state with the hope that no one would dare speak about the elephant in this bill.”

If the bill were to pass, said Jefferson, the General Assembly should move to change the name of the Department of Education to the Department of Racist Indoctrination.

Over the last few General Assembly sessions Representative Morgan has so far failed in bringing odious right-wing legislation to Rhode Island, but she has succeeded in helping unify public opposition to such ideas.

Pictured at top: Volta Tran and Simon Olson

In person testimony

Written Testimony: