The debate over America’s public schools, which began in 2020 with Covid-19-related closures and continued in 2021 with the backlash against critical race theory, has shifted to a third phase: curriculum transparency.
Last December, my Manhattan Institute colleagues Jim Copland, John Ketcham, and I developed a model transparency policy, which, if adopted, would require public schools to make teaching materials available to parents online. Since then, legislators in 19 states have introduced bills to require curriculum transparency statewide. It has become, within a matter of weeks, one of the hottest public-policy ideas in the country—and, just as quickly, one of the most controversial.
As soon as conservative legislators began introducing these bills, left-wing activist organizations lined up in opposition. In states such as Kansas and Indiana, teachers’ unions have rallied their members to state capitols to protest curriculum transparency. The unions object to any imposition on teachers, but they also fear—after the unprecedented public anger generated by school closures, mask mandates, and critical race theory—that giving parents a window into the classroom will strengthen the backlash.
They should be worried. In recent years, teachers’ unions have been captured by their most radical elements. Last year, the NEA, which represents more than 3 million public school employees, explicitly endorsed critical race theory and other radical ideologies. This year, the organization is fighting to block parents from knowing whether its members have implemented these unpopular pedagogies in the classroom.
Civil rights organizations have also moved to block greater transparency in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union, which once vigorously supported legislation to provide government transparency, recently abandoned this principle. “Some of these so-called ‘curriculum transparency bills’ are thinly veiled attempts at chilling teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender in schools,” said ACLU staff attorney Emerson Sykes. “We are actively pursuing litigation to block these laws and policies.” Even more absurdly, one activist associated with the “free speech” organization PEN America told NPR that “school transparency is essentially this Big Brother-type regime” that could be used to “intimidate and punish instructors.” This inversion would make Orwell blush: in 1984, Big Brother was the government monitoring the people; now, to some left-wing activists, Big Brother is the people monitoring the government. For the ACLU and PEN America, speech is violence, transparency is censorship, and democracy is tyranny.
Conservative legislators should not be deterred. The case for curriculum transparency rests on an irrefutable moral argument: parents have the right to know what the government is teaching their children. Parents are not only taxpayers but also the primary stakeholders in the public education system. Approximately 90 percent of American families entrust their children’s education to public schools. That system’s minimum responsibility is to provide accurate, timely, and comprehensive information about the curriculum—especially as it relates to sensitive and controversial topics such as race, gender, identity, and political ideology. The recent parent backlash underscores the importance of transparency. Millions of American families feel that the public schools are working against their values. Transparency legislation is the bare minimum for public schools to start rebuilding trust with these families.
Curriculum transparency has been a political winner, too. As I explained in January, after the victory of anti-critical race theory legislation last year, the Left hoped that conservatives would overplay their hand. No such luck: by supporting curriculum transparency, conservatives have baited the Left into opposing a non-threatening, liberal value once embraced by citizens of all political stripes. As Zaid Jilani noted in City Journal, organizations like the ACLU immediately abandoned their principles to protect the interests of teachers’ unions and entrenched powers. “The ACLU of old would never have argued for government secrecy, especially when it comes to public schools,” Jilani wrote. “America still needs the commitment to government transparency that the ACLU once exemplified. One might even say that we need it more than ever.”
The race is now on to see which governor will become the first in the nation to sign curriculum transparency into law. He or she will not only honor parents’ right to know what their children are being taught in the classroom but also initiate the long and necessary process of rebalancing the relationship between public schools and the public. The ultimate goal of curriculum-transparency legislation is to restore trust in the school system and provide families with a mechanism for accountability. Good teachers will have no problem sharing their lessons and working with parents; bad or ideologically motivated teachers, on the other hand, will be exposed to parental oversight and can be held responsible by administrators. That is how good government is supposed to work.
Originally published in City Journal.