In 2021, public school parents vaulted to the forefront of America’s fractured political landscape. Around the country, parents objected both to Covid-related school closures and to racially divisive curricula. Parental frustration helped secure sweeping GOP wins last month in Virginia, highlighted by Glenn Youngkin’s victory over former governor Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin has promised to rein in public-school radicalism and “ban critical race theory” on his first day in office.
Perhaps the central moment in the Virginia gubernatorial race was McAuliffe’s comment during a debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Like most Virginia voters, we couldn’t disagree more. Research shows that greater academic success follows when parents actively engage in their children’s education. To be sure, this doesn’t mean that we should decide the finer points of curricular design by plebiscite; nor does it mean that a minority of objecting parents should dictate school pedagogy. But public schools are institutions created by “We the People” and should be responsive to the input of parents and the broader voting public at the state and local level.
At a minimum, parents should be able to know what’s being taught to their children in the classroom. Transparency is a virtue for all of our public institutions, but especially for those with power over children. To that end, we have drafted a template—building on one of our earlier efforts at the Manhattan Institute and the work of Matt Beienburg at the Goldwater Institute—to inform state legislatures seeking to foster school transparency. The policy proposal is designed to provide public school parents with easy access—directly on school websites—to materials and activities used to train staff and teachers and to instruct children.
The last year and a half has demonstrated the need for transparency measures. As many public schools migrated to “virtual only” learning in response to the pandemic, parents received a first-hand look at the divisive, racialist curricula being taught to their children. They learned that public schools were forcing third-graders to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities, showing kindergarteners dramatizations of dead black children and warning them about “racist police,” and telling white teachers that they were guilty of “spirit murdering” minorities. These were not isolated incidents.
These revelations prompted parents to demand to know exactly what was being taught to their children. They felt that the public-school bureaucracies had been hiding controversial materials and exerting undue influence over their children, all in the service of fashionable left-wing ideologies.
Frustrated parents understandably pushed back, protested at school board meetings, and, in some cases, forced the resignations of school superintendents who refused to listen to their concerns. School officials often responded to parents’ concerns with resentment. Some were so agitated by the parental pushback that they sought federal intervention—including through a well-publicized (and since retracted) letter from the National School Boards Association comparing parents to “domestic terrorists.” Other school officials insisted that they, not parents and not voters, should be in charge of children’s pedagogy. This is precisely backward. While government schools necessarily cannot meet every parent’s demands, parents have a fundamental right, long recognized in law, to guide their children’s education and moral conscience. To exercise those rights, parents need accurate information about the learning materials and activities their kids are encountering in government schools.
Our model for transparency adequately balances the needs for robust curricula and parents’ rights in a pluralistic society. It does not attempt to define specific concepts, methods, or ideologies. Nor does it seek to ban, restrict, or discourage any materials, activities, or pedagogies. Its aim is simply to provide parents with information about the curricula used in the classroom across all subjects—and to let families, teachers, and schools negotiate disagreements at the local level. If they cannot resolve their differences, parents have options: petition elected leaders or run for school board seats themselves, move to a different area, or remove their children from the public school system.
According to the Education Liberty Alliance, 11 states already have state-law provisions for parental review of curricular material. Legislatures in Utah, Arizona, and Wisconsin have recently seen bills introduced to require online access. More states will surely follow.
It’s important to strike the right balance. We are sensitive to the concern that state or local policy should not overburden teachers with compliance-related paperwork. Our blueprint for transparency in education thus requires listing only essential information about curricular materials and activities, such as title, author, organization, and a web link, if available. Moreover, most teachers already use free cloud storage systems, such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive, to organize their materials; to satisfy our proposed transparency requirements, teachers could simply share a link. For those who do not already use such systems, the parents’ right to know what is happening in the classroom easily justifies the extra effort.
By focusing on transparency, our prescriptions sidestep arguments about “censorship” in public schools. (Realistically speaking, any school necessarily has to pick and choose what to teach among near-infinite options. For the record, we think Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved is an excellent addition to high school curricula; we’re far more dubious about sharing Maia Kobabe’s sexually graphic cartoon book Gender Queer with elementary school students.) Our transparency-based approach also ignores pointless debates about whether critical race theory is actually being taught in K-12 schools.
Openness will not necessarily engender trust. Parents will certainly disagree about pedagogy. There’s no simple way to reconcile all competing perspectives. But the answer to these inevitable disagreements cannot be to hide from parents what’s being taught to their own children. We believe that funding common schools in our democratic system requires information and engagement—and so we propose that public schools open their books and let parents see what’s inside.
Originally published in City Journal with co-authors James R. Copland and John Ketcham