Supporting Educators, Not an ‘Agenda’

Karen Paikin Barall is the director of government relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and a resident of Potomac, Maryland.

Last month, thanks to the leadership of elected officials in Annapolis and advocates from the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the Maryland State Department of Education announced plans to “enhance and expand” Holocaust education. Its a positive step forward. But even as we celebrate, supporters of comprehensive Holocaust education are looking warily at Maryland’s leading newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, and the tightrope its editorial board is walking on who decides whether and how students are taught the lessons of the Holocaust.

The Sun believes that neither Annapolis nor Washington should be “determining the classroom agenda.” We agree. Legislative bodies should not try to make lesson plans. But, it is entirely appropriate for our elected representatives to require that certain subjects be taught in some form or fashion, and it is their responsibility to ensure teachers have the resources they need to do so with confidence, accuracy and professionalism.

The Holocaust — an emotional and tremendously complicated issue to teach at any level — is without question important and relevant in the classroom. Holocaust education reduces anti-Semitism and hate. It’s lessons for contemporary conflict reduce hatred and increase understanding between members of our communities. It is, in a word, vital.

But right now, whether mandated or not, Holocaust educators in Maryland and nearly everywhere else in America are largely left to fend for themselves in finding supplementary classroom resources and professional development opportunities from reliable external providers. They train on their own time and their own dime, and hope what they bring to the classroom is comprehensive and accurate. This structure is clearly a disservice to students.

Thankfully, there is a legislative solution. A bipartisan bill is making its way through Congress — the Never Again Education Act — which Hadassah and other leading Jewish
organizations strongly support.

If passed, the Never Again Education Act will establish a federal fund at the Department of Education — the Holocaust Education Assistance Program Fund — which will finance grants to public and private middle and high schools to help teachers develop and improve Holocaust education programs. The funding could cover training for teachers, textbooks, transportation and housing for teachers to attend seminars, transportation for survivors to be brought to a school, and field trips. The bill would also direct experts at the Department of Education to work with trained Holocaust educators to conduct regional workshops to help teachers incorporate the Holocaust into their classrooms.

Currently, the House bill has the support of five Maryland Representatives — David Trone, Jamie Raskin, John Sarbanes, Anthony Brown and Dutch Ruppersberger — and 287 others. Neither of Maryland’s senators have joined their 20 colleagues who have announced their support for the Senate bill since its introduction this summer, but Hadassah is hopeful both Senators Cardin and Van Hollen will add their names soon.

To be clear, the overwhelming responsibility for public education should be with school boards and educators, but elected representatives can and should ensure the state’s students learn critical subject matter. We’re excited that momentum is building in Maryland behind Holocaust education. Now it’s time to ensure its teachers are set up for success with the information, training and resources needed to succeed.

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