John Merrow: “Parents’ Rights” & the War on Public Schools
John Merrow enjoyed a long and respected career as education reporter for NPR, then went on to become a much-honored education reporter for PBS. In a recent post, he looks at the newest wave of attacks on public schools, starting with CRT panic, but broadening the attack.
Opportunistic politicians are also attempting to limit classroom discussion of other controversial topics. In late February Florida’s House of Representatives passed a bill to ban “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools. Governor DeSantis has indicated that he will sign the bill if the Senate passes it.
Of course, the GOP maintains that it’s doing this for parents “Speaking to legislators on the House floor, Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican who introduced the bill, said the measure is about “empowering parents” and improving the quality of life for the state’s children.” Florida isn’t alone. According to the highly regarded publication Chalkbeat, at least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism.
As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote recently, “Defenders of this push for censorship say they are simply working to protect the nation’s children from prejudice, psychological distress and inappropriate material. ‘To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, and with photos, is another,’ said Tina Descovich, a leader of (a Florida chapter of) Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that seeks to enshrine ‘parental rights’ into law.”
Ms. Descovich, who lost her seat on a local school board in 2020, is a parent, but many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states.
Simply reviewing curricula and banning discussion aren’t enough for some. Legislators in Florida, Iowa, and Mississippi want cameras installed in classrooms so parents can watch what’s going on. “The Iowa bill, H.F. 2177, would require that cameras be placed in every public school classroom in the state, except for physical education and special education classes. The cameras would feed to livestreams that could be viewed on the internet by parents, guardians and others.” Educators who fail to keep the cameras operational would lose 5% of their salary, per infraction. The bill died in Committee, but its supporters haven’t given up.
The pandemic has created opportunities for opponents of public education. Twenty-two states created or enlarged school voucher programs in 2021, and more are in the offing. “School voucher proponents in statehouses across the country have spent much of the past year working to pass legislation that transfers critical public school funding to the private sector. Framing these debates around education “reform” and the inauthentic culture wars surrounding public schools, voucher proponents have been steadily working to undermine public education on the state level.” That’s from the publication of the National Education Association, which explains the loaded language.
But the NEA numbers are correct, as others have reported. ”Nearly half of all state legislatures last year increased funding for school choice programs in their state budgets or passed laws to expand or create new Education Savings Accounts or scholarship programs. They also notably expanded eligibility requirements to include home-schooling, charter schools and private schools. Four states created entirely new programs; three created new and expanded programs, and Ohio created the most improved programs of them all, according to the analysis. The majority, 14, either expanded or improved their existing school choice programs.”
While this isn’t the time or place to debate vouchers, let’s stipulate that money dedicated to vouchers would otherwise have gone to public schools.
COVID and the ensuing closure of most public schools frustrated many parents, some of whom felt that teachers cared more about their own health than their students’ learning. Teacher unions, a favorite whipping boy of the right, may have hurt their own cause by defending members who did not want to risk contracting COVID–but defending their members is what unions are supposed to do.
But what’s happening now has very little to do with education and far more to do with politics. Republicans feel that being ‘pro-parent’ is a winning position, even though barely 20% of households have school age children. I don’t think most Republican politicians really care whether parents dig deeply into curriculum. What they hope is that the other 80%–those without children–will be outraged at the idea of meddling teachers indoctrinating America’s children. Their goal is for the other 80% to go to the polls and vote Republican.