TAR HEEL VIEW: Bill hints at a bid to censor school movies

State Rep. Justin Burr seems to be contemplating a second career as a film critic, but his efforts thus far earn him two thumbs down.

Burr, R-Stanly, filed a Friday bill that would devote a six-figure sum to tracking the movies shown in traditional public school and charter school classrooms over the academic year ending this week. House Bill 1079 would require schools to crunch the numbers and provide reports to the N.C. Department of Instruction in September.

If Burr’s bill becomes law, teachers will have to recall every movie shown during the months of November, December, January, April, May and June, list the name of each movie and the date it was shown and defend “the instructional purpose for viewing the movie” along with figures on the percentage of classrooms that viewed movies and the amount of instructional hours devoted to them.

A study on big-screen curriculum supplements isn’t the strangest thing we’ve seen proposed in Raleigh, but the retroactive data request and its limited scope (why not include the months of August, September, October, February and March?) has all the hallmarks of a legislative fishing expedition.

The liberal North Carolina political blog BlueNC posits that Burr may have received a complaint about a specific movie shown at a particular school. If so, surely that could be resolved on the local level without the need for a statewide study bill.

Generally we’re in favor of brevity and plain language, but the one-page, 26-line Burr bill suffers from a lack of specificity. It requires schools to track “movies,” preferring the popular parlance to the more technical “motion pictures” or “films.” Are Hollywood theatrical releases the only titles under the state microscope? Do documentaries and short films count — and if not, why not?

If policymakers truly want to gauge the role of movies and films in public education, why not start collecting data during the 2018-19 school year? A call for retroactive research suggests Burr has an issue with one or more specific screenings. That would be better addressed at the school where the movie was shown than on the floor of the General Assembly.

A comprehensive study on movies shown to individual classes seems like ammunition to wage a battle against academic freedom at a time when stringent state curriculum standards already tie teachers’ hands. Don’t lawmakers trust our educators to best determine which films are relevant and appropriate for students?

Adding insult to injury, HB 1079 would appropriate $100,000 in one-time funding “to provide for collection and summarization of data.” First of all, that money would be better spent helping teachers buy classroom supplies than tracking their class movie time. Secondly, it isn’t clear to us how that money would be spent. Compiling the data is an opportunity cost that doesn’t translate to dollars and cents at either the local or state level. The Department of Public Instruction already employs professional number-crunchers to do the math.

We aren’t sure what Burr is trying to accomplish, but his window for doing so is closing. Burr lost his Republican primary to Wayne Sasser and will leave the House at year’s end. The lame-duck legislator was only able to enlist one co-sponsor, Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, in his film studies crusade.

Most public school-educated North Carolinians remember teachers wheeling the audio-visual cart into the classroom for rare screenings of documentaries, miniseries and movies on historical subjects such as the Civil War (“Gettysburg,”) World War I (“All Quiet on the Western Front,”) the Holocaust (“Schindler’s List”), World War II (“Band of Brothers”) and the Watergate scandal (“All the President’s Men”). There’s no doubt that these and other films teach worthwhile lessons and serve a legitimate educational purpose.

If a movie causes consternation or controversy, teachers, principals and school boards are well-equipped to resolve these local issues without lawmakers and bureaucrats butting in.

Representative Burr’s script reeks of big government, wasteful spending and censorious impulses. Speaker Tim Moore and Rules Chairman David Lewis should see to it that HB 1079 is left on the cutting room floor and won’t be premiering in a public school near you.

The Wilson Times

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