Louisiana House education debates keep inflaming tensions

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Rep. Hodges, R-Denham Springs, center, advanced two bills to mandate specific civics teachings in Louisiana. (Courtesy Louisiana House of Representatives)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Tensions between Black lawmakers and conservative House Republicans over a stalled bill seeking to prohibit teaching of “divisive concepts” about racism and sexism continued to churn Wednesday in a separate debate over which principles to promote in civics and history classes.

The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus is seeking the ouster of House Education Committee Chairman Ray Garofalo for pursuing legislation to put limits on classroom conversations about racism and for holding an hourslong contentious hearing about the bill.

Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, who won his leadership job with the support of Black lawmakers, has so far refused to remove Garofalo, a St. Bernard Parish Republican. Garofalo is trying to survive the controversy and has been avoiding scenarios where he could get into direct questioning with Black lawmakers. The dispute has derailed tax debates and threatens to keep legislative leaders from achieving their goal of a tax overhaul this session.

And it bubbled up again in the House Education Committee on Wednesday.

Garofalo didn’t chair his committee’s hearing, but he rankled Black lawmakers when he continued to show up in the room for votes on contentious issues — including on a measure to require teaching “American exceptionalism” and other specific “founding principles” in public school history and civics courses.

“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 Rep. Ken Brass, a Vacherie Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Garofalo didn’t respond to the criticism in the committee hearing.

He returned to the room to vote for the civics and history bill by Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican. He also showed up to support a failed amendment to Hodges’ bill that would have prohibited the state education board from approving content standards or recommending instructional materials that “provide that a particular sex, race, ethnicity or national origin is inherently superior or inferior to another.”

Brass suggested Hodges’ proposed amendment was Garofalo’s stalled bill “in disguise.” The amendment failed on a 6-6 vote, but it further ratcheted up agitation in the committee.

“I’m not offended. I want to say I’m more appalled,” that a similar debate over teaching race in classrooms was surfacing, said Shreveport Rep. Tammy Phelps, a Democrat and Black lawmaker.

Garofalo’s legislation — which hasn’t moved out of his committee — would prohibit teaching in public schools or colleges that the United States or Louisiana is “systematically racist or sexist,” among a long list of requirements about how to handle discussions of race, sex and national origin in the classroom. It would bar giving students or employees information that “teaches, advocates, acts upon or promotes divisive concepts.”

Garofalo and supporters said they were trying to stop any teaching of critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism have influenced politics, culture, governmental systems and laws. Garofalo has said critical race theory “fuels hate.”

Hodges’ bill to require teaching of national sovereignty, American exceptionalism, globalism and the United Nations, immigration policy in public school civics and history classes won the House committee’s support in an 8-5 vote — without the amendment about race, sex and ethnicity included. The measure heads next to the full House for debate. It also would require textbooks to promote the “benefits of capitalism, private property, constitutional liberties, the value of a constitutional republic and traditional standards of moral values.”

Hodges said her bill “seeks to restore honest and patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love in our country.” Opponents said decision-making about what should be taught in schools should be left to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which opposes the bill.

After the debate, Republican Rep. Mark Wright, the committee vice chairman who was running the hearing for Garofalo, forgot to turn off the microphone when talking with another lawmaker and said on the hearing broadcast: “This is a ridiculous day.”

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The bill is filed as House Bill 352.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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