The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to challenge the right wing’s radical schools agenda

Gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin outside Rocky Run Middle School in Fairfax, Va., on Election Day in November. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The right wing is invoking the slogan of “parental control” to rationalize imposing a radical agenda on schools. Its ideas reflect not the wishes or interests of the vast majority of parents but a narrow, ideological worldview rooted in culture wars and censorship.

Enough.

Middle-of-the-road parents should unite with progressives in standing up to this dangerous campaign. Their shared purpose is not some flight of leftist fantasy, but to endorse propositions rooted in common sense and good pedagogy.

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To wit: We all long for a mask-free world. But in the short term, mask requirements are necessary to achieve what everybody claims to agree on — keeping schools open safely.

A small group of parents should not be allowed to censor controversial books by tossing them out of school libraries. We don’t need “snitch lines” that encourage parents to offer complaints aimed at intimidating teachers who dare to talk about race, racism and other topics displeasing to the ideologues.

American history should be taught accurately. Our nation’s story should not be distorted to meet the short-term electoral needs of conservative politicians. And while citizens should certainly be free to protest and complain, school board members should not face harassment, threats or actual violence.

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It’s imperative to assert these basic commitments because some Republican politicians have succeeded, until recently, in hiding their true goals behind reasonable-sounding rhetoric.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) prevailed in November partly by focusing on legitimate parental discontent. This has left Democrats cowering about how they were losing the education issue to the GOP.

Yes, many parents remain worried about the impact that school lockdowns have had on learning and children’s mental health (in addition to the stresses that scheduling hell introduced into families’ lives). If Youngkin’s victory shakes previously complacent Democrats into realizing they can’t take for granted their long-standing edge on education, great.

Youngkin showed why his message is so alluring in a Post op-ed this week in which he insisted on a point no one disagrees with: “Parents should have a say in education.”

Glenn Youngkin: Virginia's parents can decide what's best for their children

The problem is how he translates that sentence into policy — which is precisely why he is facing a vigorous backlash against his executive order barring local school boards from requiring masks. Seven school boards have filed suit to overturn the governor’s ukase, arguing that it violates the state constitution, which vests control of education in school boards. Funny how conservatives love “local control” until they want to impose their own preferences from on high.

Substantively, the school officials argue from overwhelming evidence that masking helps contain the spread of covid-19 and that making masks optional will render schools less safe.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) delivered his first address to the Joint General Assembly in Richmond at Virginia’s State Capitol on Jan. 17. (Video: The Washington Post)

Youngkin’s order banning the teaching of critical race theory is dangerous in a different way. It’s not just that CRT is not formally taught in Virginia’s K-12 public schools but also that the governor has made clear he’s talking about a lot more than a theory.

On Monday, he went on a conservative talk show to tout a government email address where parents could “send to us any, any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated, where their children are not being respected, where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools.”

“Inherently divisive” covers a lot of ground, and it’s the sort of concept being used around the country to stop any teaching that right-wingers don’t like. Last week, a committee in the Florida Senate advanced a bill that would prohibit making White people feel “discomfort” when taught about past discrimination. It would affect private business trainings as well as schools. Who says conservatives are against big government’s regulation of free enterprise?

“An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race,” the bill reads. This from conservatives who regularly call liberals “snowflakes” ready to ban free speech in the name of “feelings.”

Meanwhile, as my colleague Dana Milbank pointed out recently, an October memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland taking on “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff” has been painted by right-wing media as an attack against free speech by parents.

No, it wasn’t. Garland took pains to insist that “spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution.” Perhaps the far right prefers not to draw a distinction between free speech and “intimidation and threats of violence.” (See: Jan. 6.) But the rest of us should.

There will always be controversy over what schools should teach. But it’s time to draw sharp lines against censorship and a right-wing form of political correctness that privileges feelings over knowledge and ideology over learning.

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