OPI Education Law Conference explores current issues in education

Public school officials and educators got a nuanced look at the legal background to several ongoing debates in K-12 education on Tuesday at a virtual school law conference hosted by the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

The conference addressed some of the toughest issues facing school boards, teachers, parents and students in 2021, including critical race theory, standardized testing, and parent and transgender rights.

The most illuminating nugget of the day was delivered during a briefing on recent changes to state laws affecting K-12 schools in Montana. Assistant Attorney General Brent Mead and the state attorney general’s office spoke about a series of new laws passed by the Montana legislature this spring, including Senate Bill 400, which allows parents to sue a government agency if they believe their parental rights have been violated. But in explaining the ramifications of Montana’s new vaccine discrimination law on public schools, Mead unequivocally said that an exclusion in the new law for pre-existing student vaccination requirements did not extend to Covid vaccines. -19.

In other words, Mead said: “[HB] 702 still prohibits discrimination against individuals in schools if they have not received the Covid-19 vaccination, because Covid-19 is not one of the diseases listed in Title 20. “

Vaccinations listed under Title 20 of the Montana code include measles, mumps, rubella, and pertussis. Mead said adding Covid-19 to the list would require legislative action.

The remainder of the conference featured mostly in-depth presentations on legal issues now swirling around public education in Montana and across the country. The day began with a talk by Dr. Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Kansas who spoke nationwide about the need for a paradigm shift in America’s public education system. On Tuesday, Zhao stressed the importance of individualized education that recognizes and promotes a child’s special abilities, and questioned how far educational policies have come in recent decades.

“If you look at our school reform, school changes, they have almost nothing to do with children,” Zhao said. “We changed the curriculum. We have changed the pedagogy. We forced the teachers to be highly qualified, we fired the principals. We are investing more money in this program or taking money out of this program. We have reduced our program. We cut recreation, we cut art, we cut music, we increased reading. It had nothing to do with children.

Zhao attributed much of the blame for the shortcomings in public education to what he called an inordinate focus on standardized test scores and student performance in key areas like reading and math. At a time when schools in Montana struggle to understand how the pandemic has affected students’ academic progress, Zhao warned educators against falling into what he called the “loss trap. ‘learning’ and urged them to help children become ‘owners of their own learning’. . “

“If we want to avoid the learning loss trap, instead of testing our students, instead of forcing them to read and do math only, can we do something different? Zhao said. “First of all, can I suggest that we meet our students where they are? Can we meet each student individually? I know schools are struggling, a teacher teaches 25 students. But if you restructure the staff, if we build a strength profile for the students, we can talk to each student to find out where they are.

WILFRED REILLY, an assistant professor of political science at Kentucky State University, addressed the issue of Critical Race Theory, or CRT, which has become an increasingly important point of debate in public schools in the United States this year. Reilly, author of “Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War”, first rose to national prominence by debating members of the alt-right in the presidential election of 2016. He has since appeared in many conservative media outlets in recent years and has challenged the argument that racism contributes to achievement gaps and inequalities in criminal justice.

The question that has proved particularly infuriating for educators and public observers is what exactly constitutes CRT in an educational setting. During Tuesday’s talk, Reilly identified the three claims he believes are shared by all of the CRT documents he has seen. The first, he said, is that society is structured to support institutional racism. The second is that the existence of institutional racism is proven by performance and achievement gaps that indicate prejudice. And the third, he continued, is that the solution to institutional racism is fairness.

“It might not be possible to achieve fairness all at once across all groups, but that’s the idea,” Reilly said. “If you have more black kids hanging out than white kids… you don’t really have to wonder why. The goal is to bring the numbers to equality, either by suspending more white children or fewer black children. “

Reilly has said that in his opinion, to claim that America’s success gaps are due to genetics or “hidden racism” is “silly simplistic.” He added that the current spotlight on the CRT is part of a battle between “leftists and mainstream liberals” for control of the political left. Ultimately, he said, the decision whether or not to adopt CRT in public schools rests with local school officials. But Reilly spoke favorably of a free program called 1776 Unites, which promotes positive messages and stories about black history in America and has established itself as a counterbalance to Project 1619, an initiative adjacent to the CRT developed. by the New York Times. Reilly said he sits on the advisory board of 1776 Unites.

Reilly also briefly referred to a 25-page legal opinion released in May by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, which calls the CRT potentially discriminatory and pledges to help parents or students bring complaints of racial discrimination in schools. public schools. Reilly said her understanding of opinion is that it prohibits not only racial discrimination in schools, but also labeling a particular race “as bad or failed.” A Montana school could teach CRT, he continued, as long as it does so alongside other educational theories.

“What you cannot do,” said Reilly, “is make the students confess the past sins of their group. You can’t make whites apologize for the past behavior of whites or blacks for the currently higher black crime rate or anything like that. You cannot force students to list specific negative stereotypes for their group or to engage in “privilege walks,” which have become more and more common. And I think that’s a pretty consistent rule.

THE CONFERENCE also looked into the issue of parental rights, which Montanais recently invoked to challenge masking policies at school, garnering support from State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. Anthony Johnstone, professor of constitutional law at the University of Montana, gave attendees a detailed lesson on the history of parental rights in Montana and America. He explained that these rights, at the federal level, are mainly rooted in the Civil Rights Act and the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which the court has applied to various questions about civil rights and freedoms.

At the state level, Johnstone said, education matters are largely left to local districts. The Montana Constitution guarantees the rights of citizens to free, quality public education. Even in situations where the state is permitted to deny a parent’s rights, he continued, that parent has the right to due process. In short, said Johnstone, “parental rights are not absolute.”

Perhaps the most important lesson here in regards to parental rights is that the Montana Constitution puts in place a process for parents, students and other Montana stakeholders to be heard in regards to parental rights. education system, “he said,” first and foremost through their school districts and boards which have primary supervision and control of schools in each school district.

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