As officials in the state Education Department work to update guidance for school districts pertaining to LGBTQ+ issues, state lawmakers are weighing taking the matter into the Legislature's hands.
With only days left of legislative session, lawmakers are considering updating the state education curriculum to mandate the teaching of LGBTQ+ history and awareness in all New York public school districts and charter schools.
Two bills proposed in the state Legislature would change the state curriculum to mandate teaching the political and social impact LGBTQ people have made throughout history. Both sit in their respective education committees.
One of the proposals, which more lawmakers support, would create a task force to study and recommend the best instructional materials for schools to teach about LGBTQ historic figures and lifestyles where appropriate.
Sponsor Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, who was the first openly gay lawmaker in the state, says the legislation aims at reducing hate by teaching children not to fear gay people.
"The LGBT people have been part of the fabric of Western culture for thousands of years," he said. "And we're not taught that. I was never taught that, but that's true."
The bill is gaining traction before session ends June 8 after the state Democratic Committee unanimously voted to recommend the Legislature mandate the curriculum earlier this month.
Supporters say New York must counter actions taken in other states like Florida, which passed a law to ban discussing sexual orientation in schools last year.
"There's this organized effort to dehumanize people like me, and say that we're not part of the fabric of America, and that we're not entitled to fair treatment," O'Donnell said.
Nearly half of LGBTQ+youth, including half of transgender youth, seriously considered attempting suicide between 2021 and 2022, according to a survey from The Trevor Project.
"Only about 20% of students in our public education system are taught anything positive about queer people during their K through 12 education here in New York state," said John Scott, a member of the state Democratic Committee from Queens.
Democratic leaders in the state Democratic Committee first tabled voting on the resolution to urge the Legislature to mandate the curriculum, saying they're concerned about how Republicans will weaponize it against them or use it as a vehicle for misinformation. Democrats are focused on working to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2024, with eyes on key swing districts in New York.
At the meeting, Scott stood and angrily push back against the hesitancy from other members of his party.
"Here's the nitty gritty: This resolution is about the safety of our children," he said to the statewide committee. "...We are letting the Republicans dictate the conversation yet again, just like they did with bail reform. We can either, as New York Democrats, be leaders on this issue, or we can here vote and say we are the same as [Gov.] Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans. If we're worried about losing seats and we're worried about elections, it boggles my mind that we are not thinking about the future."
State Republican lawmakers have blasted the proposed curriculum mandate, arguing it would influence New York youth with a certain political philosophy. They also want more details of what their Democratic colleagues feel is age-appropriate for students.
Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt says the proposal is a misplaced priority to address education issues as U.S. student skills continue to decline and lag behind other developed countries.
"Our conference has been very concerned about the trend that we see in state education policy," Ortt said. "...We are failing. We are falling behind China and other countries, not because we're not teaching about LGBTQ, it's because we're not teaching enough STEM, and science and code. ... Don't kid yourself — that's the reason. It's not because kids don't know what bathroom to use or they don't know what Pride Month is, it's because we're not teaching the tools and the education for our kids to go out there and succeed."
Officials with the state Education Department do not support curriculum mandate bills because New York is a local control state.
"NYSED is responsible for setting the New York State Learning Standards, which outline the expectations for what all students should know and be able to do," a spokesperson with the department said in a statement Tuesday. The Department does not direct or create curriculum, which has always been and continues to be determined at the local school district level.
Sen. John Liu sponsors legislation to align instruction in public and charter schools with the Board of Regents Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education, or CRSE, framework to elevate a range of historically marginalized groups and cultures. SED supports the bill, which advanced out of the Senate Education Committee last week.
"It is expected that districts teach 'about the diversity of cultures representative of the state of New York (e.g., Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, Gender Studies) in a way that is comprehensive (e.g., across grade levels and not relegated to one specific month) and empowering (e.g., African American history does not begin with slavery, but with African history),'" according to SED officials. "Additionally, this bill would require the Commissioner and the Department to update the NYS Learning Standards on an ongoing basis and provide technical assistance and resources to aid public schools in providing instruction that includes but not be limited to: The history of diverse groups across race, social, class, gender, language, nationality, religion, and ability; the history and civic impact of Asian Americans, America's Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, Muslim Americans, Hispanics, Latinx, and Caribbean Americans and the Holocaust."
SED will release its updated guidance for school districts, including changes pertaining to LGBTQ+ issues, in the coming weeks, according to the department.