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Pa. state House Republicans push to expedite Holocaust school curriculum bill

A sign for the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex in Harrisburg on May 13, 2024.
Jeremy Long
A sign for the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex in Harrisburg on May 13, 2024.

Pennsylvania House Republicans are pushing to fast-track a bill that would increase the transparency of Holocaust instruction in public schools.

It’s part of a larger package of bills addressing antisemitism in schools that came about after the war in Gaza began late last year. That package has received criticism from pro-Palestine Harrisburg-based organizers and encountered silence from House Democrats.

Another bill in the package would require colleges and universities to create policies prohibiting antisemitism to qualify for state funding. A Senate bill that would withhold state funding from colleges and universities who divest from Israel passed the House Thursday and will move to the House.

The package has waited in the House Education Committee since January. Rep. Kristin Marcell (R-Bucks) said she could not say why Democrats have yet to consider the package.

Rep. Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh), majority chair of the Education Committee, declined to comment.

“The Democratic-majority in the House has failed to act decisively on this pressing issue,” Marcell said in a press conference this week.

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House Republicans announced a discharge resolution on Monday in an effort to separate Marcell’s Holocaust instruction transparency bill from the package and bring it out of committee to the floor for a vote.

If passed into law, public and charter school districts would have to post curriculums pertaining to instruction on the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations on their websites for public access. The titles of all primary resources used for teaching about the Holocaust would have to be uploaded no later than 30 days after approval.

“It’s really just a way for there to be transparency and sunshine on what exactly is being taught,” Marcell said in an interview.

The Department of Education would also have to publish Holocaust curriculum guidelines for the state on its website. Marcell said her experience as a former school board member in Bucks County influenced her legislation.

She said some community members have shared links to curriculum and materials “that concern them because they’re not teaching the history of the Holocaust the way it occurred.”

One link in question leads to the website for the School District of Philadelphia Parents for Palestine, which offers classroom resources for those interested in teaching about Palestine.

While its language does not specifically address antisemitism in Pennsylvania, the bill reflects a push by House Republicans to pass legislation in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and protests at colleges and universities around the U.S. calling for an immediate ceasefire and divestment from Israel.

House Democrats could not be reached for comment on why the bill has yet to move. But organizers with the Harrisburg Palestine Coalition say the bill is not as innocuous as it seems.

Hadeel Salameh, a Palestinian-American organizer, said the bill will likely not hold the same care for violence against the Palestinian people, including the 1948 Nakba.

“Genocide studies, including Holocaust studies, are important; and the politicians putting this bill package forward are absolutely the wrong people with the wrong motivations to be the ones ensuring these studies are taught properly,” Salameh said in a statement.

Brian Keisling, a Jewish organizer with the coalition, said the bill is not about transparency.

As someone who has spent his life learning about the Holocaust, he argues putting lessons of the Holocaust in action would mean working against the crisis in Palestine.

“It’s about their broader project of using the Holocaust as a way to drum up support for Israel at a time that they know the public doesn’t support Israel,” Keisling said.

Keisling said the coalition has not had an opportunity to speak to lawmakers about the package.

Marcell’s introduction of the bill was triggered by an Economist poll showing that one in five young Americans think the Holocaust was a myth.

The poll received constructive criticism from other pollsters, including Pew Research, for its collection methods. Nevertheless, it inspired lawmakers around the country to pursue legislation mandating Holocaust education.

Pennsylvania schools do not have to teach about the Holocaust or other genocides, but the majority of school districts in the state choose to. A 2017 study by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education showed that 93% of 710 school entities reviewed offered instruction on the Holocaust.

Those who didn’t were mostly charter schools and intermediate units.

Under the Right-to-Know law, school curriculums are public record and can be requested from the district. But requests can take up to 30 days, or more if the district argues the records cannot be produced.

But the transparency bill would let families access their childrens’ curriculums immediately.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the bill would allow school district personnel to save time and resources that would normally be spent fulfilling requests. The public would avoid jumping through “administrative hoops.”

“Any time you can tear down administrative barriers to public information, that serves the public interest,” she said.

Read more from our partners, WITF.