Rep. Bob McDermott is troubled about new classroom materials that are being tested out by some Hawaii public school teachers.

This time, however, the program isn’t Pono Choices. And it isn’t about sex, though it does, in a way, have to do with homosexuality and religion.

The vocal, socially conservative Ewa Beach lawmaker recently wrote a memo to Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi requesting that the department prohibit teachers from using any materials or lesson plans from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program in their classrooms.

The program, which was developed by the Alabama-based civil rights organization 22 years ago, provides “anti-bias education resources” in an effort to teach children how to be inclusive and compassionate and create classrooms where students of all backgrounds and identities are accepted and celebrated.

But Teaching Tolerance, McDermott says, has some particularly “troublesome aspects.”

In particular, McDermott is worried about what he sees as a “political agenda” that is being promoted in a new Teaching Tolerance literacy curriculum known as “Perspectives for a Diverse America” that the law center is piloting and plans on formally launching during the next school year. It’s the newest initiative of the Teaching Tolerance program.

McDermott also says that teacher participation in the pilot program — regardless of its content — violates the state ethics code because the teachers are receiving private funding to take part in it.

“You can’t serve two masters,” he said.

‘Perspectives on a Diverse America’

Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance program, said the new K-12 materials are geared for English and social studies classes and include an anthology of curated “anti-bias” readings that “are really designed to reduce prejudice and, also, instill in students a positive sense of self no matter what their identities are.”

She stressed that the materials include texts that are in line with the national Common Core standards and that are meant to supplement rather than replace existing classroom lessons.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently conducted a voluntary two-day training session in Hawaii for teachers interested in piloting the “Perspectives” program. The workshop was meant to precede a research portion in which participating teachers incorporate the materials into their classrooms and then provide the center with feedback. Twenty-eight teachers participated in the workshop and volunteered to teach the lessons to their students, according to DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz.

Hawaii is one of just six school districts to pilot the program. Roughly 200 teachers are formally taking part nationwide, according to Costello, while another 500 or so are informally experimenting with the materials and providing feedback.

The teachers received $160 in compensation from the DOE for participating in the Saturday workshop, as is standard under department policy. They got an additional $250 stipend from the Southern Poverty Law Center for attending the session and helping the center with its research.

McDermott describes that second stipend as “a bribe.”

“I am unaware of any circumstance under which a private, nongovernmental entity can make such large, direct payments to teachers without running afoul of ethical standards,” McDermott wrote in his memo to the DOE. “It would be equally troubling if the tea party of the conservative Focus on the Family were allowed to similarly influence public teachers and educators in their decision-making regarding curricula.”

Les Kondo, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, declined to comment, saying the commission has received an inquiry from McDermott about the issue and is looking into it. He said he doesn’t know of another instance in which the commission has been asked to examine this issue, though it has received relatively similar inquiries in the past about things like state employees receiving money to speak at events.

Political Motivations?

McDermott said he wouldn’t have complained had it not been for the content of the lesson plans.

“The ethical concerns are a real issue but they wouldn’t have been a real issue if I weren’t an advocate in this arena,” he said.

McDermott is concerned about what he describes as the program’s promotion of homosexuality and its stigmatization of religion. He cites one of the program’s suggested readings: a children’s story about a male penguin couple that can’t lay its own eggs.

“We don’t need politics in the schools,” he said.

He compared the program to Pono Choices, a sexual education pilot program that refers to gay couples and anal sex and that has caused outrage among some lawmakers and parents, especially since Hawaii legalized gay marriage. Complaints prompted the DOE to temporarily discontinue Pono Choices.

McDermott garnered attention earlier this year when he announced that the department refused to give him the materials because of the sensitive nature of its contents.

The department has put together a working group that is currently conducting a review of the curriculum.

“All my dealings with the department have been an exercise in swinging the windmills,” he told Civil Beat recently, adding that parents wouldn’t be given the opportunity to opt their children out of the “Perspectives” curriculum because it isn’t standard material and won’t be posted publicly.

Costello, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that while she doesn’t want to “impugn (McDermott’s) political motives,” she thinks he wants to “cherry-pick our materials and find things, take them out of context and make public accusations that are really way over the top.”

She pointed out that same-sex marriage is now legal in Hawaii and that gay couples will become an increasing reality for children in the classroom. She pointed to a hypothetical situation in which a young child has two moms or two dads.

“A teacher’s primary concern is making sure that child is not ostracized and is as welcome in the classroom as any other child,” Costello said. Teaching Tolerance “helps a teacher navigate” those scenarios.

“The whole point of anti-bias is you help kids to understand each other, to increase empathy while also offering perspective,” she said.

Tammy Jones, a social studies teacher at Campbell High School who recommended the “Perspectives” pilot to some colleagues, said she’s been incorporating other Teaching Tolerance materials into her classes for years because “it fits so well into the curriculum.” She cited readings about historical events and figures, such as civil rights icon Rosa Parks, as particularly relevant and useful in helping teenagers understand the importance of acceptance.

“When you get to the high school level it’s almost too late already — the students already have opinions about each other,” she said. “That turns into hatred and bullying.”

“Kids need to understand diversity,” Jones continued. “Look at (the DOE’s) mission statement. It’s to make kids real citizens ready for the real world.”

Programs like Teaching Tolerance, she said, simply provide teachers with comprehensive lesson plans and readings for topics they’re already teaching.

Pay for Professional Development

Costello said research compensation is a normal aspect of any such pilot program, as teachers are volunteering their expertise and time by evaluating the materials to see what works and what doesn’t.

Aside from McDermott’s letter, the Hawaii DOE as of late March hadn’t received any complaints about the “Perspectives” program, according to Dela Cruz. Costello also said that McDermott is the only person she knows of who has raised concerns about the program, though a school district in Minnesota that is also piloting the program refused the extra stipends, saying they’re against the district’s policy.

The workshop was among the many privately run professional development opportunities available to DOE teachers, Dela Cruz said, adding that participation in these programs is always voluntary. The department is in the process of researching how, if at all, teachers are compensated for the many privately sponsored professional development workshops that exist; the DOE is still analyzing how many private programs actually offer teachers extra stipends, Dela Cruz said.

The department, she noted, has clear guidelines saying that teachers may receive stipends from the state for participating in voluntary training that takes place outside of official work hours. These stipends aren’t considered “gifts” as defined by the state Ethics Commission.

Meanwhile, “While the department provides stipends for those purposes, it is not uncommon for teachers to receive an additional stipend from educational partners for required supplemental work,” she said.

Jones said she thinks McDermott is singling out the program to promote his own “ideology and religious perspective.” She said it’s very typical for teachers to receive stipends from outside organizations for participating in professional development opportunities.

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