A Florida charter school principal was pressured to resign this week after three parents complained about 6th graders being exposed to images of the David—the famous marble statue of the Biblical figure by Italian sculptor Michelangelo.
The uproar at Tallahassee Classical School, a public charter school in the state’s capital city, made international news. One of the parents leading the ouster referred to the images of David as “pornographic,” according to a news report in the Tallahassee Democrat.
The incident is the latest in a growing number of conflicts involving parents exerting influence on schools’ curricular decisionmaking, and it has prompted some principals to reflect on the growing potential for a chilling effect on what gets taught in schools. Here’s a look at what’s driving parents to push for control over curriculum, a window into the mission of the Tallahassee Classical School, and fellow school leaders’ takes on the parent-led push for the resignation of Hope Carrasquilla, Classical’s principal.
What’s behind parents’ ‘overinvolvement’
Some say the the growing parents’ rights movement comes directly from the pandemic. For an extended period of time, remote learning allowed parents a close-up look at how their children were being educated and inspired the desire to weigh in more heavily on school issues than ever before: Think masking, vaccines, and library books.
Legislation such as the Parental Rights in Education, or ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ law, signed into law last March by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, further emboldened parents to insert their opinions into educational decisions, as did rallying speeches by such education policymakers as former Florida K-12 schools chief Richard Corcoran. When his state’s parents’ rights bill was signed into law, Corcoran voiced thanks for the “governor, legislature and so many parents who continue to stand up for parents’ rights to be the foremost authority involving their children.”
Florida’s not alone in taking legislative action that favors parent input. In at least 10 states, legislators recently proposed bills that would require administrators to list every book, reading, and activity that teachers use in their lessons. Some of those bills would also require districts to allow parents to review prospective curriculum adoptions or library additions.
School that fired principal provides a ‘classical education’
On the surface, the controversy over teaching about the Italian Renaissance sculpture seems to conflict with the charter school’s mission. The Tallahassee Classical School focuses on “training the minds and improving the hearts of young people through a content-rich classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue,” according to its website. The website also asserts that “reform of American public education, to be successful and good, must be built on a foundation of classical liberal arts learning.”
Michigan-based Hillsdale College provides curriculum, training, and resources for the school as well as for other public schools through Hillsdale College K-12 support. When asked whether the teaching of Michelangelo’s David to middle school students aligns with its classical liberal arts curriculum, Emily Stack Davis, executive director of media relations and communications, Hillsdale College, responded in an email: “Generally speaking, the teaching of classical works of art and the displaying of images of those works would not be considered unusual in classical education. However, there are many pedagogical methods, and Hillsdale College is not involved in the advising or training of teachers at Tallahassee Classical School.”
In an interview with Slate, the chairman of the school board for Tallahassee Classical insisted that there were more reasons that the board pressured the principal to resign saying that “this wasn’t about that one issue.”
Principals’ take: efforts to include parents as partners
Monica Asher, the principal of Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, said incidents like the one in Florida are concerning and can have a chilling effect on school leaders already juggling full plates.
Liz Garden, the principal of H.P. Clough Elementary School in Mendon, Mass., said she was “very shocked” to learn that a few parents’ disapproval of something taught in the classroom could result in a principal losing her job.
When nearly 40 percent of principals told the National Association of Secondary School Principals last year that they planned to quit the job soon, they cited not just pandemic-era working conditions but political and social divisions that were making their way into schools.
“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” Asher said. “We are reflections of our community. … But when there is so much political division, and you have such a widely divided society, you are still responsible for educating every child in your building and responsible for serving every family in your community, regardless of their belief structure.”
Neither principal has witnessed anything as extreme as this incident. But Garden acknowledged having seen an uptick in parents being “vocal” about wanting to have a say in what’s going on in schools ever since COVID, when they had more insights into their children’s schools.
“It should be a team effort [among parents and schools],” said Garden. “And I think there are ways to do that.”
Garden said that when she has faced parents who are upset about something, often simply providing the opportunity to have a conversation about the issue is enough to make them feel better.
Communicating in advance helps, too, she acknowledged. “I say all the time to my parents: ‘This is a partnership; it shouldn’t feel like we’re doing this to your kids,’” Garden said.
Asher’s district has a formal review process, but none of the parents has sought to use it after speaking with her, she said.
“Everything that we have and we utilize has an academic reason that is tied to the curriculum, that is tied to our standards—whether it’s our Ohio standards or the College Board standards. There’s a rationale—an academic rationale—for everything that we utilize.
“If they have questions,” she added, “they just call me directly, and we just talk through it. That’s one of the reasons why it’s critical to build strong relationships with parents and prioritize community engagement.”
Communication is something the ousted principal, Carrasquilla, admitted was supposed to happen in her case as well—but didn’t, due to an administrative oversight—before the middle school lesson featuring Michelangelo’s David, according to the report in the Tallahassee Democrat. Earlier this school year, the school board had passed a rule requiring advanced parental notification when the curriculum involved anything that could be perceived as “potentially controversial,” according to the school board head, Barney Bishop.