Republican state legislators around the country are attempting to push schools to make all course materials available online for parents to review, as part of a bigger national GOP campaign for a comprehensive parents bill of rights ahead of the midterm congressional elections.
At least one proposal would allow non-expert parents control over curricular decisions. Parents can also make complaints about specific lessons and sue school districts in some situations.
Parents already have easy access to what their children learn, according to teachers. They are concerned that the mandates will impose an undue burden on them and may jeopardize their professional independence, all while dragging them into a culture war.
The bill “insinuates there’s some hiding happening,” said Katie Peters, a high school English teacher in Toledo. “It makes me a little defensive, because I’m like — no, wait a minute, we’re not hiding anything. The transparency is always there, and the parents who have cared to look have always had access.”
The bills came from a debate last year about how racism, diversity, and sexuality should be taught in schools. The Republicans argue that the reforms are necessary to allow parents some control over what their children see and hear in class.
“I don’t think anybody disagrees that more information is better for parents,” said Brett Hillyer, a Republican state representative from Ohio who is one of the bill’s co-sponsors. He believes the initiative will help to resolve conflicts between parents, teachers, and school boards before things become too serious.
Educators agree that keeping parents informed is important, but they believe that the so-called curriculum-transparency rules will lead to censorship, professional exhaustion, and resignations.
Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, and West Virginia are among the states that are exploring the possibility of enacting the bill.
The Ohio bill would affect public, private, and charter schools, as well as colleges and institutions that participate in the state’s dual-enrollment program for students in grades seven through twelve.
The Associated Press recently sat together with a panel of three Ohio teachers to debate the plan. At least at the middle and high school levels, they stated they already provide syllabuses, textbook information, course materials, and occasionally remarks for parents and students.
They couldn’t recall ever turning down a parent’s request for more information.
Elementary classes, according to Juliet Tissot, a mother of two from the Cincinnati suburb of Madeira, are a different tale. Schools ceased sending home textbooks years ago, according to the nonprofit worker and volunteer, and often fail to offer curricular details when asked. As a result, parents are left scrounging for knowledge when assisting their children with schoolwork.
“Children are with their parents a lot more than they’re with their teachers, and it’s bad that parents don’t know what’s going on — and they don’t anymore,” she said. “I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner, but it seems like it’s finally coming to a head.”
Tissot also believes that instructors’ behavior should be more strictly monitored, including the use of body cameras.
Parents of older children occasionally withdraw their children out of class — for example, when evolution or the Big Bang are being taught in science — or seek an alternate assignment when offended by a selected book, according to the Ohio teachers, and these encounters usually go smoothly.
“That’s the thing that this law misses. It’s painted as broad-swath, as if there are these improprieties going on,” said Dan Greenberg, who teaches high school English in the Toledo suburb of Sylvania. “You’re talking to people who are right there in the trenches, and we always have a really good partnership with parents.”
After conservatives protested about public schools’ responses to the COVID-19 outbreak and the racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis cop in 2020, the GOP took action. Books about race relations, slavery, and gender have been banned by some states and local education boards.
Republican attempts, according to Ohio teachers, might weaken their capacity to make professional judgements and suffocate the spontaneity that brings their classrooms to life, all while adding to burdens that have already taken a toll on school staffing.
“I’m worried it’s sort of a Trojan horse to get into the classroom to pick through what they see and point us in different directions or stop us from doing things,” said Robert Estice, a middle school science and critical thinking teacher in the Columbus suburb of Worthington.
Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney at the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, called the bills “thinly veiled attempts at chilling teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender in schools.”
Hillyer doesn’t wish to allow parents to be capable to censor school materials.
Access to classroom resources, academic, medical, and safety data, as well as specific entry privileges to school buildings, are all part of the proposed parents bill of rights. Some saw last year’s campaign to politicize ordinarily sleepy school board races as a dress rehearsal for driving Republican turnout in 2022.
In a Twitter post last month, Chris Rufo, a senior scholar at the conservative Manhattan Institute who is campaigning for curriculum transparency, said the plans will “bait the Left” into appearing to oppose transparency. He believes that this will raise the question of what Democrats are hiding, which will benefit Republican candidates.
“The strategy here is to use a non-threatening, liberal value — ‘transparency’ — to force ideological actors to undergo public scrutiny,” Rufo tweeted, explaining that the GOP proposals will “give parents a powerful check on bureaucratic power.”
Curriculum-transparency legislation have been vetoed by Democratic governors in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. After receiving a strong outcry from teachers, a Utah politician withdrew a bill last month.
Already forwarded bills have had to be withdrawn by their sponsors due to outcries and criticism.
During a debate in Indiana on a Republican-backed education reform plan, Republican state Sen. Scott Baldwin claimed that maintaining neutrality on controversial matters requires teachers to be “impartial” while studying Nazism and other political beliefs.
Baldwin then walked back his remarks, saying in a statement that he “unequivocally” rejects Nazism, fascism, and Marxism, and that instructors should do the same.
Conservatives in Indiana banded together and inserted clauses allowing educators to examine “social injustices” and “teach that Nazism is bad.” Parents could submit complaints and lawsuits if they believe teachers have breached a restriction on certain “divisive concepts,” according to the legislation, which gives local parent committees with no experience influence over the curriculum teachers employ.
The Indiana measure, according to teachers, is so burdensome that it will likely drive some out of the field.
“I’m struggling to see how I’m going to put some of the language that is currently in these bills into my classroom and still be able to teach kids to be critical thinkers,” said Suzanne Holcomb, who teaches fifth grade in Elkhart. Lawmakers should understand “just how much this is asking of a lot of people who are already on the verge of walking out and being done.”
The president of Ohio’s largest teachers union, Scott DiMauro, is afraid that such bills may exacerbate the rise in resignations and retirements brought on by the stress of teaching in the COVID-19 age.
Teachers, he said, have “felt caught up in a culture war that they didn’t create.”