A still frame from an "adoption awareness instruction" video for grades 10-12, distributed by the Arkansas Department of Education ADE

Last week, Arkansas public schools began receiving reminders that they must offer an hour of instruction on “adoption awareness” to all students in grades six through 12 before the end of the school year.

The requirement comes from Act 637, passed by the state Legislature last year. The legislation is not connected to Arkansas LEARNS, the omnibus K-12 education package that also passed in 2023.

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There’s absolutely nothing wrong with adoption, or adoption awareness, of course. It’s an ongoing challenge to ensure that there are enough great parents willing to take in foster kids, many of whom come from tough circumstances.

But the law doesn’t just require teaching students facts about adoption. It also mandates that the lesson include “the reasons adoption is preferable to abortion.”

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If you’re wondering what those reasons are, the law doesn’t say, and curriculum materials developed by the state don’t either. It will be up to teachers to figure that out if they wish to comply with the law.

In practice, educators will presumably rely on the materials provided by the state, but that just makes this bizarre law yet more confusing: The materials barely cover or completely ignore several components required under the statute, including the controversial stuff about abortion.

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Act 637 also requires that written materials from the lessons be provided to the parents or guardians of any student who is pregnant. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the motivations behind this really have anything to do with adoption at all.

Abortion, adoption, and a new mandate

A memo from the Arkansas Department of Education about this new requirement was sent out May 6, with just weeks remaining in the 2023-24 school year.

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As the message has trickled down to educators, social media chatter this week suggests the new mandate may be coming as a shock to many of them.

Some teachers, of course, might not believe that giving birth and then giving up the child for adoption is always preferable to abortion for all people in all circumstances. There are any number of reasons that might not be the case, given the physical risks associated with pregnancy, the psychological and physical impacts of being pregnant for nine months, the psychological challenges of giving birth and then giving up the child, challenging family dynamics for the mother, and many other variables.

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Or, most simply of all: the woman’s (or girl’s) choice in the matter. But we know perfectly well what the Arkansas Legislature thinks about that.

Some teachers might have particularly strong feelings about the matter when it comes to the possibility of teen pregnancy among their students. But teaching any of this nuance would be against the law. Even remaining mum about abortion would be against the law!

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Let’s pause to note that Arkansas LEARNS forbids “indoctrination” in public schools  (though the state was forced to acknowledge recently in federal court that the prohibition is all but meaningless). In any case, this bit of highly charged political rhetoric apparently doesn’t count as indoctrination in the eyes of the state.

The law also has more subtle requirements that might be coded language for anti-abortion talking points: Adoption awareness instruction must include “statistical data on abortion, adoption, and childbirth” and “a description of child and human development.”

While Arkansas faces plenty of challenges with the adoption system, the abortion question is only relevant within the framework of anti-abortion political rhetoric. It’s extremely hard to find enough good families to take on foster kids, especially if those kids are older or have difficult backgrounds. That’s largely because adoptive parents prefer babies, as young as possible. But it’s not obvious that the state’s policy goal should be to serve parents who don’t like the idea of adopting older kids. That’s probably not the first thing you think of when you read one of the state’s other mandated components, “the benefits of adoption to society.”

The problem facing the state regarding adoption, in other words, is not that there are not enough babies being put up for adoption. Unless, that is, you are searching for an anti-abortion talking point of the kind favored by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the majority opinion in Dobbs, the 2022 case that overturned Roe v. Wade. Alito mentioned in a footnote the limited “domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth” as one potential anti-abortion argument to force women to carry their pregnancies to term.

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Yet again, one of the primary goals of the language in Act 637 appears to be to push that kind of anti-abortion rhetoric in public schools.

Busybody legislators (including some Democrats)

In addition to trying to talk potential teen moms out of abortion (or enlist the parents of pregnant kids in the cause), the law prescribes an ambitious slate of material, all of which is supposed to be covered in under one hour. This was supposed to happen “at the beginning of each school year,” according to the law, but apparently the education department is just getting around to pushing it through.

Here’s what teachers are expected to get through in a single hour: “the benefits of adoption to society; the types of adoption available; the difference between adoption through the foster system and private adoption; the reasons adoption is preferable to abortion; public and private resources and agencies available to assist in the adoption process; statistical data on abortion, adoption, and childbirth; public and private resources available for pregnant mothers and parents enrolled in a public school; and a description of child and human development.”

Good luck!

The lesson can be taught either during a regular class period or “at a special event.” (My stars, now I’m getting flashbacks of cornball school assemblies.)

The teaching materials provided by the state basically amount to adoption recruitment videos made by the Gladney Center for Adoption, a large adoption agency in Fort Worth, Texas. A good deal of it gets into detail about the process — the sort of thing that you would show as an intro video to parents interested in adopting, for example. This seems like a weird thing to force on 6-12 graders, though more or less harmless, even if adoption policy can bring up thorny questions not covered by a short promo video.

But does any of this this really suggest the need for an hour of instruction mandated in every public school in the state? An hour that will now have to be squeezed into the dwindling weeks of instruction time in the school year? This is a classic case of busybody legislators trying to micromanage practices at local schools. Lawmakers know best, after all — not school administrators or teachers or local communities.

Yet another strange feature of this legislation: It was the handiwork of Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville), which sounds about right. But for reasons I can only guess, Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), a former schoolteacher and longtime progressive stalwart, signed on as a co-sponsor. I’ve contacted Chesterfield to ask what her motivation was, but she hasn’t responded. The amendments added alongside her signing up as a co-sponsor don’t clarify matters.

Perhaps relying on the thumbs up from Chesterfield, it looks like Senate Democrats didn’t review the legislation very closely and wound up voting for it: The measure passed in the Senate 35-0. On the House side, eleven of the eighteen Democrats voted No (or voted Present, or did not vote, both the same as a No), while seven backed the measure.

The curriculum

The State Board of Education was charged with developing “curricula, standards, materials, and units” for the adoption awareness requirement, which it did in collaboration with the Gladney Center.

You can peruse the material they came up with here. (I suffered through reading and watching every single thing.) Most of it seems like it may have been drawn from pre-existing material from the Gladney Center; a number of the videos note that the laws described apply specifically to Texas, where the center is based.

For sixth and seventh graders, the main curriculum is almost entirely focused on adoptive parents rather than pregnant mothers, which perhaps makes sense, though the law has the same mandates for younger students as older students. For eighth and ninth graders, the focus is on adopting foster kids — again, that seems reasonable enough, but the law requires much more than that. For kids in grades 10-12, the lesson is an “adoption simulation” that walks through the experience of a hypothetical teen mom.

The accompanying videos are mostly slickly produced stories about adoption. Sometimes they’re sweet, sometimes they’re tedious, and there are some cringey bits. (A video about international adoption features white American parents explaining that they want to adopt a Chinese child because, “We love the Chinese culture and we felt this was the culture we wanted to adopt into our family.”) A lot of the videos are tearjerkers of the sort you’d expect an adoption agency to produce as a recruitment tool. There’s also some material that is seemingly superfluous to the mandates listed under the law, such as a discussion of trauma and attachment styles (with some language that frankly might code as too liberal-therapeutic to some conservative parents).

The 10-12 graders, meanwhile, get lots of very low-grade computer animation of the sort that was boring children even back when I was in school — see a still shot example above. It’s fine, if cringey in a different way — a half-baked narrative about teenagers having sex and winding up in a pickle. It makes you wish the state had invested resources into more robust or evidence-based sex ed instead.

All grade levels have various cookie-cutter lesson plans with standard-order discussions, worksheets and so on. The 10-12 graders have a “journal” assignment that has them go through the pros and cons of adoption versus parenting, complete with incredibly detailed financial information to help them determine if they can afford to become a parent. But the curricula absolutely do not include all of the components mandated by law to be taught as part of the adoption awareness lesson. In a given age-specific lesson plan, many of these requirements are barely mentioned or ignored altogether.

The law v. the curriculum

In particular, there is nothing at all about abortion in the lessons for grades 6-9. And in the 10-12 grade lesson, it gets only a passing mention: The main character in the simulation is told by a health care provider that abortion is an option, but she has already decided she doesn’t want to do that, so the story just moves on to the choice between adoption and parenthood. That’s it.

The irony here is that in fact, thanks to the Arkansas Legislature, the video is not giving accurate information on this point: It is not a legal option for a teen mom to get an abortion in the state. The fact that abortion is illegal in Arkansas in almost all circumstances sort of undercuts the law’s focus on that possibility — but in any event, there is nothing about “statistical data on abortion” or “reasons adoption is preferable to abortion” or anything of the kind (or much “description of child and human development” for that matter, if you’re keeping score).

This shouldn’t be all that surprising: At least on their website, there’s nothing obvious to suggest that the Gladney Center is involved in anti-abortion activism. It’s a big, mainstream adoption agency. There’s no reason the materials they produce would sound like Samuel Alito or an Arkansas Republican legislator.

And even if the State Board wanted to follow the letter of the law, it’s kind of confusing how one would go about responsibly writing a lesson plan that pushed right-wing anti-abortion dogma on sixth graders or how one could jam in all of the required abortion material into an hour-long lesson about adoption for any age.

As Harrison Ford once told George Lucas about “Star Wars” scripts that were too clunky to actually read: “George! You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it!” Sen. David Wallace can put some micromanaging requirements into legislation, but that doesn’t mean actual educators can sensibly put them into a lesson plan.

So what exactly are educators supposed to do? Keep in mind the language of the law is crystal clear: Districts are mandated to teach this lesson, and the lesson must include all of the elements listed in the law.

In practice, almost certainly all schools will simply follow the curricula and lesson plans provided by the state. For one thing, there simply isn’t much time to come up with their own version in-house. Most administrators will surely prefer to use the cover provided by the state rather than risk coming up with their own highly controversial materials in order to follow the law — a law many of them had probably never heard of until alerted by the state recently.

Asked about the discrepancy between the law’s requirements and the state’s lesson plans and accompanying materials, education department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said, “School districts have the autonomy to choose the curriculum implemented at the local level for the purpose of fulfilling the requirements related to Act 637 of 2023.”

But that doesn’t answer the question about actually following the law. Districts can use the state materials or come up with their own, but the state’s curricula will likely be read as the baseline for schools. It’s an invitation, in other words, to violate the law.

Does that matter? Probably not. The law was silly to begin with, pure political posturing. It’s unworkable in practice, so state officials are essentially ignoring the unworkable bits as they implement the law. That might feel a little uncomfortable for educators, but it’s increasingly becoming par for the course as the state also scrambles to shambolically implement the various components of LEARNS.

Probably no one will file a lawsuit against a school district for failing to follow the law or against the State Board of Education for putting out curricula that skirt the law’s requirements. But they might!

It’s a mess.