Conversations about public schooling have been utterly sidetracked this year by fights about Critical Race Theory, “Don’t say gay!” laws, and whether somebody is “grooming” children at school? Where did these culture wars come from?
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A NY Times analysis earlier this week tracks book banning in public schools as part of an epidemic of culture war disruption: “Traditionally, debates over what books are appropriate for school libraries have taken place between a concerned parent and a librarian or administrator, and resulted in a single title or a few books being re-evaluated, and either removed or returned to shelves. But recently, the issue has been supercharged by a rapidly growing and increasingly influential constellation of conservative groups. The organizations frequently describe themselves as defending parental rights. Some are new, and others are longstanding, but with a recent focus on books. Some work at the district and state level, others have national reach. And over the past two years or so, they have grown vastly more organized, interconnected, well funded — and effective. The groups have pursued their goals by becoming heavily involved in local and state politics, where Republican efforts have largely outmatched liberal organizations in many states for years.”
The reporters track research from PEN America: “(T)here are at least 50 groups across the country working to remove books they object to from libraries. Some have seen explosive growth recently: Of the 300 chapters that PEN tracked, 73 percent were formed after 2020. The growth comes, in part, from the rise of ‘parental rights’ organizations during the pandemic. Formed to fight COVID restrictions in schools, some groups adopted a broader conservative agenda focused on opposing instruction on race, gender and sexuality, and on removing books they regard as inappropriate.”
How is the culture war uproar affecting public schools? In a recent newsletter, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) tracked research concluding: “Preparing students to participate in civil and respectful ways in our diverse democracy has long been a core mission of public schools.” Today, “U.S. high schools are struggling to fulfill this mission as they increasingly encounter hyper-partisan efforts. Those efforts have sought to spread misinformation, to encourage harassment of LGBTQ+ students, and to limit opportunities for productively discussing controversial topics. Such challenges are particularly pervasive in politically diverse areas where one party does not dominate.” The researchers surveyed 682 public high school principals and subsequently followed up by interviewing 32 of those principals. NEPC reports:
- “Public schools increasingly are targets of political conflict. Nearly half of principals (45 percent) reported that the amount of conflict in their community was higher during the 2021-2022 school year than it was pre-pandemic… Teaching about race and racism was the area where principals were most likely to report challenges from community members, followed closely by LGBTQ+ content.”
- “Political conflict undermines the practice of respectful dialogue. A majority of high school principals report that students have made demeaning or hateful remarks toward classmates for expressing either liberal or conservative views and that strong differences of political opinion among students have created more contentious classroom environments.”
- “Conflict makes it harder to address misinformation. Misinformation—much of it tied to partisan organizations and causes—makes it more challenging to encourage productive and civil dialogue. After all, it is difficult to develop a shared sense of how to move forward when different people are working from different sets of ‘facts.’ Nearly two thirds of principals (64 percent) say parents or community members have challenged information used by teachers at their schools. The share of principals saying parents or community members challenged teachers’ use of information three or more times nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022.”
- “Conflict leads to declines in support for teaching about race, racism, and racial and ethnic diversity. High schools increasingly struggle to teach students about the full spectrum of American experiences and histories, especially when it comes to issues related to racism and race… ‘My superintendent told me in no uncertain terms that I could not address issues of race and bias etc. with students or staff this year,’ said a principal in a red community in Minnesota. ‘We could not address the deeper learning.'”
- “Principals report sizable growth in harassment of LGBTQ+ youth. The survey results also suggest that schools are increasingly facing challenges related to teaching students to treat one another with dignity and respect… Fewer than half of principals said school board members or district leaders made statements or acted to promote policies and practices that protected LGBTQ+ student rights.”
“Parents’ rights” are the rallying cry for many of today’s culture warriors who want to protect the dominant culture and shield their children from uncomfortable controversy. But in a recent and very personal Washington Post column, “When Children Ask About Race and Sex, We Have No Choice But to Answer,” Danielle Allen, a political theorist and the Director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and an African American mother, explains the point of view of many other parents and children. Allen examines why it is so urgently important for teachers to be able to respond to children’s own observations and questions when the students themselves initiate conversation about the same fraught subjects the NEPC researchers describe organized parents trying to ban from the schools.
Allen describes a conversation her own two-year-old daughter launched about race, while the child sat in seat of the grocery store cart as they were in the midst of shopping. The child declared, “Mommy, I think it’s not good to be Black.”
Allen reflects upon what her toddler had already observed about race in America: “My daughter’s statement was a question. Its subtext went like this: ‘I’ve noticed something, Mommy. It seems like it’s not good to be Black. But can that be right? You’re Black. I love you. How can these things fit together? And what does this mean for me?'”
Allen continues: “What I can assure you of is that even before any of our kids, of any racial or ethnic background, get to school, every Black family in the United States is having to teach its children about race and the history of enslavement and stories of overcoming that have played out generation after generation. The same must be true for kids raised in LGBTQ families, with regard to the history and contemporary experience of gender and sexuality… This means that the only way you can keep knowledge and questions about these histories, experiences and perspectives out of the school curriculum in early grades is to keep Black people or members of LGBTQ families out of school.”
Or, according to NEPC’s research, many school districts are enrolling Black and Brown children and children from LGBTQ families while the school districts may be imposing policies to silence such children, to make their realities invisible to other students, and to refuse to help them answer their own hard questions.
Public schools are required by law to serve all the children whatever their race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. It is not the business of school board members, school superintendents, school principals, or teachers to cater to any one group of parents’ rights advocates, no matter how well organized or well funded is their lobby.
Here, writing for The Progressive, is retired high school teacher, Peter Greene, who understands educators’ obligation to protect the interests of all the students who fill our nation’s public school classrooms: “Schools must balance the needs and concerns of all of their many stakeholders. Parents absolutely have rights when it comes to public schools, but so do non-parents, taxpayers and other community stakeholders. It’s up to the school district to balance all of these concerns, while also depending on the professional judgment of its trained personnel. It is a tricky balance to maintain, requiring nuance and sensitivity. It is correct to argue that ‘schoolchildren are not mere creatures of the state.’ But framing the issue as parents versus school has served some folks with a very specific agenda.”
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