Bill requiring lessons about World War II reignites tensions in Louisiana House

By: - May 25, 2021 6:00 am

The Louisiana House will likely be going into a veto override session next week. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

Fallout from the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus’ fight with Rep. Ray Garofalo (R-Chalmette) is to blame for the tense debate on the Louisiana House floor Monday over a bill requiring that high schoolers learn about World War II and the Holocaust, Rep. Tammy Phelps (D-Shreveport) said Monday evening.

Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs) got HB 416 through the House to the dismay of Black lawmakers who couldn’t win support for their attempts to simply have the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education consider adjustments to the curriculum.

Hodges told the chamber that “the sacrifice our country and our forefathers made in the part of a worldwide attempt at domination of the Third Reich” are worthy of being taught in every high school.

“The Holocaust is a study in how much the future of our nation depends on its citizens to stand up to the forces that divide us and stand up to hate among us,” she said. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Phelps, who in an interview with the Illuminator called Monday “another sad day in history,” also said, “If that was me (introducing this legislation), it would’ve been killed at committee.” She said the same would have been true for any Democrat.

Sen. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans) said in an interview that during last year’s special session when he introduced a resolution that would have asked BESE to consider adding more African American history courses into its curriculum, but it was killed.

“If we’re going to mandate studies, then we shouldn’t mandate one subject matter over another,” he said during that interview. “The best approach is to let BESE handle it.”

During a House Education Committee meeting earlier this month, Ethan Melancon, the director of government affairs at the Louisiana Department of Education, told the committee BESE opposes Hodges’ bill. “The curriculum should be set by the board that was constitutionally created to set it,” Melancon said. “We’re talking about civics here, and we have a board that is set to do that. So that’s part of their duties. So they believe that they should be the ones to do this.”

From the floor of the House Monday, Phelps told lawmakers, “If all of us, next session, come up with what we want to do (with the curriculum), despite what BESE wants to do, I want us to remember this day.”

The House voted 66-32 in favor of Hodges’ bill.

Hodges’ bill follows a failed effort by Garofalo to prevent Louisiana’s public schools from teaching that the U.S. or the state of Louisiana is systematically racist or sexist. As the House Education Committee debated Garofalo’s bill, he said that lessons about slavery should include “the good, the bad, the ugly,” and was instantly criticized. Not only was his legislation killed in committee, but the Black Caucus also asked House Speaker Clay Schexnayder to remove Garofalo as head of the House Education Committee. Garofalo is no longer chair. He says he was forced out. Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma) told the Associated Press Garofalo stepped down.

During the committee meeting when Hodges attempted to amend her bill to include language that would prevent schools from using textbooks or other learning materials that “provide that a particular sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior to another,” Rep. Ken Brass, a Vacherie Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus, Hodges was essentially pushing Garofalo’s bill “in disguise.”

Members of the Black Caucus have been feeling retribution and less support from the House floor ever since, Phelps said to the Illuminator. Despite a news release from the Black Caucus demanding Garofalo’s removal, in Monday evening’s interview, Phelps called it a rumor that the caucus was involved in the leadership change.

“The rumor out there is, he was removed because of the Black Caucus,” she said. “None of this had anything to do with the Black Caucus.” But because the Black Caucus is being blamed for Garofalo’s removal, she said, Democrats in the House “have been getting the short end of the stick.”

During Monday’s debate, other members attempted to amend Hodges’ bill by proposing that the legislation mandate that students be taught about women’s suffrage, Japanese internment camps or “significant figures in Black history.” But all those amendments were rejected. 

Phelps said if the House were serious about making sure students learn about important historical events, “the amendments would’ve stood.”

Hodges’ bill moves to the Senate.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.