When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago this spring, the city’s school district put together a lesson guide with ideas and resources for teaching about her inauguration — without explicitly referencing her sexual orientation.
“Chicago made history by electing our first African-American woman to serve as Mayor,” the document began.
Under a new Illinois law taking effect next year, similar guides might mention another way Chicago made history: by electing its first openly gay mayor.
The Inclusive Curriculum Law, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Aug. 9, mandates that by the time students finish eighth grade, public schools must teach them about contributions to state and U.S. history made by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“This law will give more young people the opportunity to see themselves in those who came before us and recognize they are not alone,” Lightfoot said in a statement.
That includes students like Michelle Vallet’s transgender son, who is now also more likely to learn about the civil rights struggles that led to milestones such as marriage equality and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Vallet, of Chicago, and other parents of LGBT students have pushed for curricula that show children like theirs the types of professionals they could become. To them, the law is a progressive, if vague, step forward. But some detractors see the state forcing districts to promote an agenda that conflicts with their personal or religious beliefs.
Beyond including the contributions of LGBT people to arts, sciences and social movements, it remains largely up to teachers and local school administrators to navigate when and how to bring up the gender identity or orientation of figures such as artist Frida Kahlo, astronaut Sally Ride and gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Anna Moeller, a Democrat, said the mandate is “not prescriptive” and though various groups are working on guidance for how schools can start incorporating information into classrooms, the state does not plan to issue any more formal guidelines.
Helping compile resources for schools to draw from is Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. Klaisner said he wishes the requirement had more structure but hopes his office can be a conduit of information.
The law says merely that the teaching of U.S. and Illinois history in public schools “shall include a study of the roles and contributions of” LGBT people.
“Being that vague could mean a simple unit or a few lessons at one grade level in the school, which I think is insufficient,” Klaisner said. “On the other hand, we don’t want [state officials] to be too heavy-handed when they tell exactly what’s going to be said.”