It’s January, which means that most state legislatures are beginning their sessions. Lawmakers are pre-filing bills, announcing priorities, and outlining the main issues they intend to address in the next few months.
As in most years, higher education leaders are looking forward to new bills that could strengthen their campuses, help their students, and boost their budgets. But they are also bracing for a spate of legislation that ranges from the just plain silly to the downright harmful. Here’s an early look at some of this year’s bad legislative ideas, a list that’s sure to lengthen in the weeks to come.
Ending or restricting college faculty tenure has been a favorite legislative target in recent years, and, while it appears the anti-tenure fervor has cooled a bit, 2023 is still likely to see some action on this front. In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has recently revisited his much-publicized criticisms of tenure at Texas universities.
Last February, Patrick announced his intent to end tenure in public universities and curtail the teaching of critical race theory. While colleges leaders have justifiably argued that ending tenure would make it difficult for them to recruit and retain top-notch faculty, Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate and is in charge of its agenda, is now calling for “reform” of college tenure.
Ending Transgender Sports Participation
Conservative legislators in several states are jumping on what they apparently believe is the critical issue of saving women’s sports from the transgender rights movement. In 2021, anti-transgender student athletics bills were introduced in 36 states, and more than a dozen states have passed such laws.
A flurry of such bills is coming in 2023, often under the title of “Save Women’s Sports.” They’re really worried about the issue in Missouri. Numerous bills have been pre-filed there already in both the Senate (SB 2, SB 48 and SB 165), and the House (HB 170). According to the Jefferson City News Tribune, more bills banning transgender athletic competition have been prefiled for Missouri’s 2023 legislative session than there are transgender athletes currently competing in the state.
It’s all part of an intense targeting of LGBTQ+ folks through hundreds of bills introduced across the country, a particularly mean volley in the political right’s continuing waging of the cultural wars.
Restricting Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives
In Texas, State Rep. Carl Tepper recently introduced a bill that would ban public colleges from funding campus offices of diversity, equity and inclusion. It also provides that individuals who are not even associated with an institution can sue over potential violations of the legislation.
This bill is a prime example of the contorted logic often found in so-called “divisive concepts” legislation that attempts to control college curricula. On the one hand, it requires institutions of higher education to adopt a policy “detailing students’ rights and responsibilities regarding expressive activities at the institution. The policy must demonstrate a commitment to intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.”
At the same time, that policy must prohibit the “funding, promotion, sponsorship, or support of any office of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and any office that funds, promotes, sponsors, or supports an initiative or formulation of diversity, equity, and inclusion beyond what is necessary to uphold the equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” It also prohibits the endorsement or dissuasion of, or interference with, any lifestyle, race, sex, religion, or culture by an institution.
Nothing says “academic freedom” like restricting what can be said at a university. Academic freedom for me means no DEI for thee.
Attacking Critical Race Theory
Anti-DEI bills are often conflated with another favorite campus scapegoat – critical race theory (CRT) and laws that would ban it from being taught in schools and colleges. This is a solution in search of a problem. CRT is seldom taught anywhere except the occasional law school class. What the crusaders against CRT really don’t like is that students be required to learn about the roles that race and racism have played – and still play – in American life.
After failing to get a critical race theory ban across the finish line earlier this year, South Carolina legislators are gearing up for another try with HB 3464. So are other states.
The logic used by legislators to justify anti-CRT legislation can make gobbledygook look reasonable. Here’s what Alabama State Rep. Ed Oliver (R-Dadeville) had to say about the need for Alabama to pass a CRT ban this year. “Ultimately, the reason that the left wants to push CRT amongst little kids is simply they want to sexualize them. They want to racialize them at an early age to make them easy to manage, pure and simple.”
Banning Vaccine Mandates
Legislators in several states remain intent on banning vaccine mandates on college campuses. In Ohio, Republican state Rep. Scott Lipps has introduced House Bill 747 that would ban mandates for Covid-19 vaccines at Ohio’s public and private institutions.
“By requiring vaccines and discriminating against individuals who choose not to receive one, we are not only making very intimate health decisions for our students, but we are showing them that their education, choice, and autonomy are less meaningful and not of their own control,” Lipps told the House Higher Education and Career Readiness Committee.
Lipps has also introduced legislation that would ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates in elementary and high schools, despite the fact that mandates don’t exist in them.
Missouri State Senator Nick Schroer has pre-filed SB 159 which “prohibits school districts, public schools, and institutions of higher education, as well as employees of such entities, from requiring any employee or student to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or gene therapy in order to be physically present at any events, premises, or facilities.”
The bill also states that a vaccine may not be required as a condition for employment or for acceptance as a student and that testing for Covid-19 may not be done without written consent of the school employee, student, or, for a minor student, by parents or guardians. It authorizes fines, license revocation and civil actions against individuals who violate provisions of the bill.
In Texas, the Republican-led Senate Health and Human Services Committee has released a new report calling for the state to ban mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
College leaders and students will be monitoring a number of other topics that are sure to crop up in the new year, including abortion restrictions and access to reproductive health care, voting rights, TikTok bans, legalization of marijuana, affordable housing, financial aid, and – of course – higher education appropriations.
They also will be on the watch for legislative proposals that either would enshrine a bad idea or exalt a trivial one. Here are three examples.
Texas Representative Jared Patterson, a self-described “full spectrum conservative,” has filed HB 845, which would prohibit a college or university from providing any sort of financial support, including advertising, to a nonprofit media organization, like NPR. Among other bills filed by Rep. Patterson is one that would ban anyone younger than 18 from having a social media account and another that would dissolve the city of Austin.
In California, SB 11 is an apparently well-intentioned, but ill-advised, example of legislative meddling. It states that the intent of the Legislature is “to enact future legislation that would restrict contracting out for mental health services at the 23 campuses of the California State University and instead increase the number of full-time, permanent mental health counselors.” Hiring full-time mental health professionals is a good idea, prohibiting the use of contracted providers as a supplement or alternative is not.
In Oklahoma, Senator Nathan Dahm has taken the early lead for introducing the most trivial legislation. His SB 2 would require school districts, public charter schools, virtual charter schools, career and technology schools, and institutions of higher education to disseminate historic proclamations regarding the Thanksgiving holiday. Senator Dahm has proposed other bills destined to be known as a turkeys, including one proclaiming Oklahoma a sovereign state.