AUGUSTA — A statewide teacher’s code of ethics being proposed by state Rep. Larry Lockman would prevent public school educators from pushing their political, ideological or religious views onto students.

The Amherst Republican recently called it “a back-to-basics measure” that should not be controversial.

That is not how it is shaping up, though.

Lockman said his critics are gearing up for “a smear campaign” to try to block the bill that is going before the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs for a public hearing. So far, opponents appear to be taking the high road.

Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, said Tuesday the measure “is simply not needed” because there is not a problem in Maine’s classrooms.

Moreover, she said, its passage “could make it very difficult” for teachers to talk about controversial issues that sometimes come up, especially with older students. Leavitt said she worries it might create “a climate of fear,” rather than making it easier on educators.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana tweeted his opposition to the legislation. He said, “Teachers have a First Amendment guarantee and a professional obligation to teach controversial subjects without fear.”

The Maine ACLU issued a statement Tuesday declaring the bill “has many problems.”

Among them, it said, is the proposal “encroaches on teachers’ constitutionally protected free speech rights,” and is “too vague to be enforced, because what may constitute a controversial topic to one person may not be at all controversial to another.”

“By prohibiting teachers from addressing race-based discrimination in its current forms, it could lead to unsafe school environments,” the ACLU said. “And it would undermine the universal goal of preparing our young people to be thoughtful, educated thinkers.”

Daniel Greenfield, a fellow for the David Horowitz Freedom Center, supported the bill Tuesday, saying the proposal would help create boundaries so “a lot of the ugliness” that permeates politics could at least be kept out of the classroom.

“We’re Americans,” he said. “We have to live together.”

Lockman said Tuesday with the country so deeply divided, it would help teachers “to put some limits, some guardrails, in place.”

Lockman’s bill has anti-liberal origins. The proposed legislation is almost a carbon copy of a model bill posted online last summer by a group called Stop K-12 Indoctrination. It is part of the Freedom Center, Greenfield said.

The K-12 Indoctrination group said on its website it was taking action on the issue because, in its view, “today, no age group and no corner of our K-12 classrooms are immune from the left’s ideological aggression.”

One of its leaflets reads: “Young students learning arithmetic are given thought problems involving homelessness and the percentage of ‘undocumented workers’ subjected to heartless deportation proceedings. Social studies is now a race, gender and climate change-obsessed curriculum designed to frighten rather than educate.”

The David Horowitz Freedom Center’s namesake, a 1960s radical who turned away from leftist politics in the decades that followed, “has since the late 1980s become a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Lockman said he has been a Horowitz fan for half a century, and has followed the same path from reading the radical Ramparts, where Horowitz served as an editor, as a college freshman, to recognizing “the sober second thoughts” that come with more experience as they both moved to the right. He said the SPLC is “a discredited left-wing hate group.”

Greenfield said the controversy that swirls around the Freedom Center is one of the reasons he would like to see politics left outside the schoolhouse door. Schools, he said, could be a model for the rest of an increasingly partisan society.

Lockman has long been a controversial figure, from his anti-tax roots in the 1980s to his leadership of the campaign against a new generation of immigrants in more recent years.

Lockman said his motivation for pushing the proposal to clamp down on teacher advocacy came after hearing from many Mainers about “a liberal bias” in too many classrooms.

He cited a few examples in an interview, but admitted it is hard to know just how pervasive the problem he perceives might be. He said, though, he is concerned that too much “left-wing hate speech spills over from the faculty lounge to the classroom.”

The lawmaker said he found it interesting the Maine Education Association claims there is no bias among teachers while the ACLU defends its right “to do what they’re not doing.”

In a friendly radio interview recently with Bangor’s WVOM, Lockman said his education bill does not aim at stirring up divisions.

Instead, he said, “it is meant to restore just basic principles of public education in a democracy and to prevent teachers from inserting partisan politics into their teaching.”

Lockman said teachers should not use classrooms as bully pulpits. He also said students should not be subjected to teachers’ personal views for or against a southern border wall, for example, or to call for the deportation of illegal immigrants.

Teachers, he said, need to present both sides on controversial questions, not push a particular agenda.

“That’s not what they were hired to do,” Lockman said.

When a Maine teacher griped that the bill would restrict what could be taught, Lockman responded on Twitter that his measure “does not address curriculum. You would still be free to mention that the KKK was the military arm of the Democrat Party,” a reference to the hate group’s roots among Democrats in the post-Civil War South.

The measure would also prohibit educators from introducing controversial subject matter that is not germane to the course’s subject.

Penalties for violating the proposed law could include firing a teacher who strayed repeatedly.

Similar bills are under consideration in several other states, including Arizona. Some science teachers have expressed concern it could be used to stymie discussion of climate change, evolution and other topics they routinely bring up in class.

If the measure wins the Legislature’s support, it calls for state education officials to develop rules governing the issue that would eventually land in lawmakers’ laps for final approval.

The MEA’s Leavitt did not want to speculate on what the Legislature’s Education Committee would do with the bill. But, she said, she has seen its members are “a very dedicated group” that will give careful consideration to the idea.

Lockman said if legislators approach the bill along party lines, he will lose. But it is possible they will agree to tweak it instead of voting it down.

Still, he said, he expects his Democratic colleagues are going to be lobbied hard “by their donor class,” and may be reluctant to let the proposal move ahead.

 

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