Salem parents weigh in as legislators consider digital access to school materials

A move to give parents more access to school textbooks and class curriculum has advanced a step at the Oregon Legislature with Senate action.

Under Senate Bill 409, school districts in Oregon would be required to post to their websites a link to see state-approved textbooks and instructional materials. The link would take visitors to an Oregon Department of Education site that already has made such material public.

The bill passed the Senate 27-2 on Tuesday, April 11, and now goes to the House. State Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, was a chief sponsor along with state Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass. State Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, was one of the no votes.

Thatcher had proposed that each school district be required to post its own textbook and instructional materials.

“I’ve been hearing from parents for a long time that they want to know what their kids are learning,” Thatcher said in an interview.

She said requiring only a link to state information provides “at least something” for parents to go on.

“A lot of people are operating on rumor or inaccurate information.”

–State Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer

THE LINK: ODE’s Adopted Instructional Materials webpage 

Thatcher said her original idea was contested by school boards, who raised cost issues.

The topic of textbook choices and class instructional material has grown as a state and national issue. Some parents and organizations have contested textbook selections at school systems around the country over concerns about presentations of history or about gender matters.

The U.S. House in March passed on a largely party vote the Parents’ Bill of Rights that mandated local schools take actions to give parents more access. Under the legislation, which is not expected to pass in the U.S. Senate, schools would be required to make curriculum materials “freely and publicly available on the internet” and to provide parents “a list of the books and other reading materials available in the library of their child’s school.”

Thatcher’s legislation doesn’t go that far.

She said providing easier access to the state-approved materials used in districts is a start, sparing parents from having to “go hunting and pecking” for the information.

“A lot of people are operating on rumor or inaccurate information,” Thatcher said. “There is a lot of chaos and confusion about what is actually being taught in a school.”

School districts in the state can on their own post textbook and curriculum material, but there is no state mandate now that they do so.

The Salem-Keizer School District does post materials for elementary education but doesn’t have similar listings for middle and high school instruction. The district doesn’t currently link to the state material.

Several Salem parents submitted testimony about Thatcher’s bill as it was considered by the Senate Education Committee. The bipartisan committee eventually approved the modified proposal by unanimous vote.

Anna Munson described herself as a mother and grandmother who has lived in Salem 40 years.

“This will rebuild the relationship between school districts and parents and community,” she wrote. “Questions of what is being taught will no longer be a mystery. This will empower parents to assist in their child’s education in their home.

 A sampling of other testimony from Salem residents:

Darla Salchenberg: “Many parents aren’t able to easily schedule a meeting to view this material at the school, and the ability to view online would keep the parents aware of the curriculum being taught in class. Teachers and the school district are not the only adults that should be aware of what is being taught to the kids.”

Richard Kramer: “The notion that parents are left in the dark – while school committees (i.e., complete strangers) – seek to be in control of what my child is taught is an outrage. We ask and seek transparency instead of the opposite.”

Melaniya Huff: “This will place accountability on teachers, who try to go outside of planned materials and teachings and insert a personal/political agenda into the teaching and doing things with our children that would be inappropriate by the educators and that parents would take issue with.”

Michael Stoffey: “By requiring school districts to provide information on textbooks and instructional materials used for each course, parents can better understand what their children are being taught and make sure it aligns with their values.”

The Oregon Education Association, the state teacher union, formally took a neutral stand on Thatcher’s bill but submitted testimony wasn’t favorable.

“Classrooms have been politicized in recent years in an effort to intimidate and scare teachers from teaching subjects they have been teaching for decades,” wrote Kyndall Mason on behalf of the union. “What was once just a history class has now become fodder for bigotry and hate, overshadowing parents’ rights and eclipsing the critical thinking being taught in schools.”

Thatcher said she’s hopeful the measure will advance in the House, but is bracing for “a campaign to kill it” by education interests.

In a statement, she said she would continue pressing her original proposal to require each district to post its material.

“Every parent deserves a seat at the table in their child’s education,” she wrote. “I will keep standing up for curriculum transparency and parental rights in Oregon.”

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected].

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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.