Law & Principles
Ray Carter | May 25, 2022
Oklahoma House supports new school standards promoting abortion?
Members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives have approved legislation that would force the State Board of Education to adopt new academic standards for health education. Critics are concerned the proposed replacement standards may allow school officials to promote abortion in a classroom setting.
Notably, less than half of House Republicans voted in favor of the legislation and the measure would have failed if not for the support of Democrats.
House Joint Resolution 1070, by state Rep. Mark Vancuren, R-Owasso, declares that the Oklahoma Academic Standards for Health and Oklahoma Academic Standards for Physical Education adopted by the State Board of Education on March 24 “do not reflect the intent of the Legislature and are hereby disapproved in whole.”
The resolution then “instructs the State Board of Education to adopt, by no later than July 1, 2022,” a new set of standards, and indicates those standards should be similar to a draft originally proposed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.
When the State Board of Education considered new academic standards in March, state board member Brian Bobek moved to retain the prior health and physical education standards, amended to include objectives dealing with the mental health education. Bobek’s motion also allowed for the board to revisit the proposed new standards within the next 12 months to implement any potential changes that may be needed for the 2023-2024 school year.
Bobek said he believed more time should be devoted to reviewing the proposed new standards, which guide classroom instruction statewide, before the board gave final approval to them.
During that March meeting, the attorney representing the state board said Bobek’s proposal complied with state law.
Notably, Hofmeister refused to vote on Bobek’s motion. Hofmeister’s name was not even called by the board secretary during the vote, an indication Hofmeister informed staff prior to the meeting that she would not vote on the standards.
When HJR 1070 was heard on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Vancuren said he had been “working with State Department of Education on doing this HJR.” Hofmeister, a Democrat seeking her party’s gubernatorial nomination, heads the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
The academic standards originally proposed by Hofmeister in March, which the board temporarily set aside, stated that high-school teachers should instruct students on “the importance of talking with trusted adults” about issues related to “sexual health and related services.”
Abortion is often referred to as a health service in that category.
The standards included teaching children in grades six through 12 to analyze “the accessibility of products and services that enhance health.” It is not clear if that language encompasses discussions of birth control or similar topics.
The proposed standards also call for teachers to instruct students to analyze how “family” and “personal beliefs” affect “a personal health and wellness-related decision.” Critics worry that broad language could allow teachers to criticize parental religious instruction regarding abortion and other issues.
The proposed health standards also include teaching “advocacy” as a skill.
State Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, was among those who opposed passage of HJR 1070. Williams said he is concerned the potential replacement academic standards would “open a door that I didn’t think was appropriate, giving expanded opportunity for teachers and other unlicensed or unvetted people to get involved in a conversation they don’t need to be involved in” with children.
The proposed standards also include emphasis on addressing anxiety and depression, beginning as early as the sixth grade.
State Rep. Sherrie Conley, a Newcastle Republican and former teacher, said that could put teachers in an untenable situation and require them to engage in discussions for which they are not trained.
“Some of the standards for the lower grades would lead to conversations that were a little bit too mature for the age (involved),” Conley said. “And holding those conversations with kids, when a teacher is not a licensed therapist or licensed counselor, it’s inappropriate. Those conversations between the teacher and a child, unless they’re a certified practitioner, they should not be having those kinds of therapy conversations with children.”
When HJR 1070 was heard on the House floor, state Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, noted the new health standards are not scheduled to take effect until fall 2023, and asked why HJR 1070 seeks to prevent review and consideration over the next year.
“Why did we include a date in this resolution that says they have to … produce new rules, essentially, within a one-month time frame?” Caldwell asked.
Vancuren said teachers want to apply the standards in a classroom setting before they are mandatory.
“They want to have a year of presenting that material in their classrooms before they come into effect in 23-24,” Vancuren said. “So we want to have those in the classrooms next year, give them a year to basically practice those.”
HJR 1070 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 53-22 vote. Less than half of Republicans in the House chamber voted in favor of the resolution, and it took the votes of Democratic caucus members to provide the majority required for the measure to pass. No member of the Democratic caucus voted against the measure.
HJR 1070 now awaits a vote in the Oklahoma Senate.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.