Conservatives have opened a new front in their campaign to excise from the classroom what they see as offensive lessons. Transparency bills are proliferating across the country, and proponents hope they will empower parents to scrutinize books and readings, setting up a fresh wave of battles with teachers.
Proponents argue that more disclosures would help parents to better support their children’s learning, because they would know more about what is happening in school.
“The problem is lack of transparency in schools, increasing infusion of politics into the classroom and the mentality of trying to shut parents out,” said Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that is promoting these bills throughout the country.
Typically these bills require that schools post online every piece of instructional material that will be used over the course of a year, including books, articles, handouts and videos. Teachers would not simply disclose, for instance, that their class will learn about the civil rights movement; they would be required to list the specific texts, articles, videos and other materials used with students.
Teachers and school advocates say multiple ways of accessing this information already exist, including talking with teachers, attending back-to-school nights or accessing online portals such as Canvas or Google Classroom. Formal curriculums are online for the public or available by request, they say.
They argue these new requirements would be a burden for already overworked teachers. Schools nationwide have struggled to fill positions, meaning teachers are stretched thin covering for one another. In some states, too, tip lines allow parents to report instructors who have discussed politically sensitive topics or aired views parents dislike, putting more stress on educators.
“Our teachers are so overwhelmed,” said Debra Pace, the schools superintendent in Osceola County in Florida, one of the 17 states considering transparency legislation, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures. “We’re doing everything we can to take things off the plate for our teachers that aren’t absolutely essential. This would be an incredible burden that I think would just send people over the edge.”
Pace added that her district gives the public opportunities for input on curriculums before they are adopted. To address community concerns, the district added a spot on its website where anyone can request a review of any aspect of the curriculum. Pace said that so far no requests had been lodged.
People on both sides of this debate anticipate that various pieces of legislation, if passed into law, will lead to challenges and debate over the propriety of various lessons, particularly on race, that some see as overdue and others see as liberal indoctrination.
“You have these groups of activist parents who are going to comb through this and find things to be mad about,” said Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at Pen America, a free-speech advocacy group. “It is just breeding conflict between parents and teachers.”
Conservatives have objected to a range of teaching around race and equity, including conversations about White privilege, systemic racism and the negative aspects of American history over, they say, unifying and patriotic elements. They have also protested that certain books are inappropriate, including texts involving sex, transgender characters and broad statements about modern-day racism.
It is unclear, though, how often parents are unable to find out what material is being used in their children’s classes.
Advocates point to the case of Nicole Solas, a Rhode Island mother who sought information from her local school when she was considering enrolling her daughter in kindergarten. Solas says the district told her to file an open-records request and, after she submitted some 200 such requests, sought to bill her $74,000 in copying fees.
Solas says she learned that the school does not use gender terminology such as “boy” and “girl” in the classroom. She was also upset to learn about a holiday lesson. “When they teach the children about Thanksgiving, they ask them, ‘What could have been done differently on Thanksgiving?,’ which strikes me as a way to shame children for their American heritage,” she said on Fox News.
“Of course it is. It’s a way to make them hate the country,” responded Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Solas declined an interview request. Calls to Solas’s South Kingston, R.I., school district seeking comment were not returned. The district has said previously that it does not oppose transparency but that the volume of Solas’s requests was burdensome and pulled resources away from important district operations.
Transparency legislation also is pending in Congress, with House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), promising to pass it as part of a “parents bill of rights” if they take control after the November midterm elections. This week, a bill giving parents power to review sexually explicit material before it is taught passed the Virginia General Assembly and was sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who campaigned for the measure and plans to sign it.
In the aftermath of Youngkin’s election last year, many Republicans concluded that parental rights is a winning political message.
Christopher Rufo, an activist who has helped lead the attack on critical race theory in schools and elsewhere, says his goal is for at least 10 states to pass transparency bills this year. He has been candid about the sales pitch.
“The strategy here is to use a non-threatening, liberal value — ‘transparency’ — to force ideological actors to undergo public scrutiny,” he wrote on Twitter earlier this year. “It’s a rhetorically-advantageous position and, when enacted, will give parents a powerful check on bureaucratic power.”
He said supporters will “bait the Left” into opposing these bills and then ask what they are trying to hide. Once they pass, he said, these bills will be a tool for rooting critical race theory out of schools. “The ultimate goal is to shift incentives: we will empower parents over the bureaucracy and put a price on promoting racialist abuse in public schools. That’s how we fight CRT.”
Spurred by Rufo and others, 13 states already have laws or rules on the books that ban the teaching of what is often called critical race theory, an academic framework for examining the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism and a catchall term that opponents have embraced to describe racial equity lessons and initiatives they find objectionable.
Several of the transparency measures were introduced in state capitols last year, with more unveiled in 2022. One, in Pennsylvania, cleared the legislature but was vetoed by the Democratic governor last year.
The bills are driven partly by national conservative think tanks including the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, as well as the Goldwater Institute. They vary in their details, including how much material must be posted. Some of the pending bills allow teachers to update their lists as the year unfolds with any additional material used in class or post the material after the fact to allow for spontaneous lessons.
Some bills are paired with other parents rights ideas, such as requiring districts to disclose details of their professional development programs.
In Kansas, legislation requiring all classroom material to be posted online is part of a broader parents rights bill saying that parents have the right to “direct the education and care” of their children, though it is unclear what that power would mean in practice. The measure has cleared a House committee and awaits action by the full chamber.
Dave Trabert, chief executive of the Kansas Policy Institute, which is advocating for passage of the bill, said that it is not clear what the power to direct the education of one’s child means but that it could give parents a chance to keep their children out of certain lessons that they do not like.
“Parents have been trained that they really can’t trust a lot of education officials and school boards,” he said.
The official, nonpartisan legislative research report on the bill said it has the potential to increase litigation in the courts but did not estimate to what extent.
Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the National Education Association’s Kansas affiliate, said teaching would be impossible if every parent were directing the education of every student differently. The bill, he argued, is not about transparency, which he says already exists, but about politics.
“It’s about energizing a conservative base and vilifying teachers in schools,” he said.
The result, he said, will be teachers constantly censoring themselves and school administrators pressuring teachers because they fear litigation. “They will say: ‘Here’s the curriculum. Don’t deviate from it,’” he said. “If you are constantly wondering, ‘How can this be challenged?' there’s going to be a chilling effect.”
The bill’s chief sponsor in Kansas, state Rep. Kristey Williams (R), said she has nothing against teachers. She is a former teacher, her daughter is a teacher and her parents were both teachers. Asked for examples of Kansans who had trouble accessing information from schools, she pointed to testimony submitted to the education panel that she chairs. But none of the people she mentioned complained about transparency or access to information in their remarks on file.
Nonetheless, she said that more transparency is always a good thing and that posting instructional materials will help parents better engage in their children’s education.
“It’s a great way for parents and students to have discussions at home,” she said. “Transparency helps build bridges. It tears down walls.”
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