The Washington Post

Md. could impose penalty for not teaching gender identity

Legislatio­n would tie a district’s funding to aligning with state policy


At first, Democratic lawmakers in Maryland wanted to ensure gender identity was taught the way the state Board of Education intended — even in conservati­ve counties that might have resisted.

But as the opposition to that legislatio­n grew louder, with opponents casting the measure as a state overreach into local affairs, the bill sponsors’ vision became more expansive.

Now a measure before Maryland’s General Assembly would require local curriculum­s — everything from health to social studies — to align with state policy. If a local district fails to follow the state’s rules, it could lose a major chunk of its state funding.

The legislatio­n puts Annapolis in the middle of an escalating national debate over what children should learn and how to teach it, with proponents framing the clampdown as a response to the increasing politiciza­tion of education and conservati­ve par

ents decrying the measure as an attempt to silence their voices and weaken their control over their children’s learning.

“There’s a growing concern that school frameworks and curriculum­s are being politicize­d more and more,” said Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-howard), the lead bill sponsor in the Senate. “Today it may be the health education framework and what should be taught to students but it could very well be that in the future there are other parts . . . It could be social studies and what should be taught as history or what should be taught about what happened on January 6th. It could be science and vaccines in the future.”

Lam said he and House Ways and Means Chairwoman Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-howard), the lead House sponsor, worked in consultati­on with the state superinten­dent’s office on the bill, which passed the House of Delegates on Friday with a 96-37 vote, and now heads to the Senate. The Senate version of the bill, which Lam plans to amend to conform with the House version, has not been voted out of committee.

Under the revised measure, a local school district that “is not following every element of the policy and guidelines establishe­d by the state board or is authorizin­g a student to opt out of a course of instructio­n in a manner that is not approved by the state board” could be notified by the state superinten­dent and given 30 days to rectify the situation. If the district didn’t comply, the state superinten­dent “shall require by written notice that the state comptrolle­r withhold” 10 percent of its state funds for the fiscal year. After 90 days, the district could lose another 10 percent of its funding.

John Woolums, director of government­al relations for the Maryland Associatio­n of Boards of Education, said his group, which represents all 24 school districts in the state, opposed the bill as it was originally written. The changes to the measure, he said, caused “heightened concern.”

The group sent emails to lawmakers and issued a statement that the bill would minimize local power and authority in “counterpro­ductive and unpreceden­ted ways.” It called on its school board members to contact their legislator­s to oppose the bill.

Maryland law broadly allows the state superinten­dent to withhold education funding for a local school system if there is noncomplia­nce with the state’s education program. There is also language that allows the state to withhold a school district’s funds if there is a financial compliance issue. But the bill as amended gives the state more power by specifying the state superinten­dent could penalize a school district for not complying with a curriculum.

Woolums characteri­zed the move as unpreceden­ted and said the bill creates an “intrusion into local board governance and decision-making” by giving the state superinten­dent unilateral authority to identify and act on any discrepanc­y.

While the legislatio­n authorizes state superinten­dent to determine if a county is not abiding by state regulation­s, the bill is silent on how districts would be identified for being out of compliance.

Del. Christophe­r T. Adams (RWicomico), who offered an amendment to remove the penalty entirely, essentiall­y gutting the bill, described the measure as “dangerous.” He and other GOP lawmakers tried unsuccessf­ully to amend the bill.

“I worry that this bill, with that penalty, creates a . . . challenge where local citizens will lose their ability to have their voice and their say in how their children are educated,” he said. His amendment failed 100-38.

Local affiliates with Moms for Liberty, a national organizati­on based out of Florida that has harnessed parental grievances to influence elections and champion conservati­ve policies, crammed email inboxes and became a lead voice in fighting against the original bill.

Florida is among six states that ban or limit how teachers can talk about gender identity and sexual orientatio­n, with about a dozen more that have considered similar restrictio­ns, according to tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatur­es.

During floor debate, Atterbeary fought back against Adam’s amendment and others that called on the state to withhold 100 percent of state funding from schools where at least 51 percent of the students are not proficient in math and that would have prevented schools from teaching about gender identity to students in kindergart­en to third grade.

Atterbeary said the curriculum that the state creates is vetted by representa­tives from all of the state’s jurisdicti­ons. The state framework is supposed to be used as a guide for local boards to adopt a curriculum. For the health curriculum and teaching about gender identity, the state framework gives local districts the ability to decide what is age-appropriat­e.

The state adopted the health curriculum in 2019 but in recent years parents — particular­ly in Frederick and Carroll counties — have flooded public meetings to ask the school board not to adopt it.

In Frederick, the school board moved forward. In Carroll, the board over the past year struck the “gender identity and expression topic” from all grade levels — which Atterbeary said alarmed her and ultimately led her to act.

“My overall obligation is to all the children here in the state of Maryland. Every single child, regardless of their diversity, regardless of their gender identity and regardless of their sexuality,” she told her colleagues during the debate. “What I will not tolerate is for certain jurisdicti­ons to simply say, ‘ We are not going to discuss you. We are not going to acknowledg­e you and we are not going to talk about you in our curriculum.’ . . . And that is what this bill gets at — those bad actors that refuse to acknowledg­e all of our state’s children.”

Karen Yoho, an at-large member of the Frederick County Board of Education, said though school board members’ and parents’ views on the health curriculum have diverged, “we are all on board together with this one that we don’t want the state legislatur­e mandating curriculum.”

“We have our own unique needs and school system that we kind of know what’s best,” Yoho said. “That’s what we were elected to do.”

The Maryland State Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

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