HARRISBURG — The looming onset of new state guidelines for certified teachers that require training in culturally relevancy and inclusivity in education spurred three school districts in Western Pennsylvania to sue the commonwealth over the “woke” training and professional development initiative.

Laurel, Mars Area and Penncrest school districts are challenging the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s “Culturally-Relevant and Sustaining Education Program Framework Guidelines” announced in November under former Gov. Tom Wolf and former acting secretary Eric Hagarty.

The lawsuit was first reported by PennLive and filed April 17 in Commonwealth Court on behalf of the petitioners by attorneys with the Thomas More Society of Chicago, a conservative, public-interest law firm.

The districts are joined in the lawsuit by individual students and parents from Mars, Armstrong and Knoch school districts as well as teachers and varied district officials: Superintendent Leonard A. Rich and teachers Matt Barker and Justin Simon all of Laurel School District, Knoch school directors William Gebhart and Donna Eakin, Mars school director Sallie Wick.

Respondents are the Department of Education (PDE) and its new acting secretary with Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration, Dr. Khalid N. Mumin. The guidelines were finalized April 23, according to the lawsuit.

According to a PDE review cited by petitioners’ attorneys, the guidelines must be implemented for professional development toward re-certification beginning next school year, 2023-24, and for new certifications in teacher prep programs in 2024-25. Schools risk financial penalty including withholding state funding if the guidelines aren’t implemented.

The guidelines encourage educators to reflect on their own life experiences and biases, “acknowledged that biases exist in the educational system,” recognize schools’ history of inequities and disrupt harmful institutional practices, design culturally relevant learning experiences including the integration of advocacy skills and deep listening, and be respectful and sensitive to the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) persons.

The Thomas More Society’s special counsel, Thomas Breth, described the guidelines in a statement online as “a blatant attempt to impose ‘woke’ activism into school curriculum.”

The lawsuit asserts the guidelines should be voided and made subject to regulatory approval under the Regulatory Review Act and that they violate petitioners’ constitutional rights to free speech while undermining local school board’s authority.

The state has not yet filed a court response.

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