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Families & the Community

How Politics Are Straining Parent-School Relationships

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 10, 2022 12 min read
History teacher Wendy Leighton holds a copy of "They Called us Enemy," about the internment of Japanese Americans, while speaking about marginalized with her students at Monte del Sol Charter School, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M. Leighton is one of dozens of educators who helped draft state's proposed changes to the social studies curriculum, including adding the Sept. 11 attacks and the history of LGBTQ rights. It would increase the focus on ethnic studies in a state where 49 percent of the population is Hispanic, and 11 percent is Indigenous.
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When a government official tells members of the public he values their feedback about education, the declaration usually doesn’t make huge headlines.

But when Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in recent weeks talked up his new “tip line” for parents to report concerns about schools related to racial issues and COVID, it spotlighted the tense national political climate affecting schools and educators on the ground.

The nation’s K-12 schools aren’t strangers to culture wars and concerns about oversight. But new disputes about transparency in curriculum and the role of the general public in what schools do every day have been supercharged by prominent politicians, the pandemic, divisions about race, and other factors.

Caught in the middle are those like India Meissel, who has taught in Virginia for more than three decades.

The department chair of social studies at Lakeland High School in Virginia’s Suffolk City school district, Meissel said the governor’s tip line is not only threatening, but raises a host of questions: What if a student’s parents report her based on a poor grade and not actual misconduct? What if there’s no investigation into her work, but the mere fact that she was reported is made public? Will she even be able to find out if she’s been reported to the email address?

“The tip line ... does that frighten people? Yes,” Meissel said.

And from an educational standpoint, she wonders who will exert real authority over what counts as a “divisive concept” in classrooms, instead of something that’s challenging but worth exploring.

Educators are finding themselves under the microscope

The number of teachers who are preoccupied with those uncertainties could soon grow.

This year, Republicans in at least 10 states are considering requiring schools to publish lists of all the books, reading materials, and other activities teachers use. Some proposals would allow parents to review materials before they are added to lessons or the school library, or to opt their children out of certain activities.

Such proposals build on last year’s explosion of political pushback against the teaching of what their sponsors have deemed “divisive concepts” that prompted 14 states to enact bans or restrictions on how schools address topics like racism and sexism. And beyond curriculum, one bill in Arizona would allow the state to punish teachers who withhold students’ confidences—like a disclosure that a student is gay—from their parents.

At the same time, through approaches like Youngkin’s tip line, elected officials are expressing greater interest in hearing concerns directly from the public about reading materials, academic content, or teaching practices that they find objectionable. A bill in the South Carolina legislature introduced by a GOP lawmaker on Feb. 7, for example, would create a similar reporting system focused on allegations of schools teaching critical race theory.

A pattern could be emerging: Elected leaders push for schools to share exhaustive details of their work, while encouraging parents to share detailed concerns or complaints about educators. Those same elected leaders may then seek more disclosures from—and potentially new restrictions on—schools.

Members of Congress have introduced versions of a similar “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that would require detailed disclosures about curriculum and other matters; a Senate version would even create a mandate for parent-teacher conferences. These proposals have gained virtually no traction on Capitol Hill so far. However, the 2022 midterm elections and the increased public attention that schools have generated during the pandemic could continue fueling interest in the topic nationwide.

Supporters of the new pushes for transparency and parental involvement say that after the turmoil of the last two years in which many parents saw local schools struggle, it’s natural for policymakers and the public to put schools under a more powerful microscope. If schools then prove more responsive to the demands of taxpayers and state leaders who fund the system, they argue, it’s a praiseworthy outcome.

Yet critics see a nefarious sleight of hand. They allege that far from fostering true transparency, lawmakers are really interested in intimidating educators while ignoring the practical headaches such rules would create. Calls for things like “curriculum transparency” are just a stalking horse, critics say, for forbidding ideas some dislike, eroding trust in public schools, and placing teachers at the mercy of ideologues.

And some who sympathize with the idea of transparency still worry that mandated, sweeping disclosures will do little or nothing to actually improve the relationship between parents and schools.

What a ‘tip line’ actually looks like

Youngkin’s tip line for parents—in practice an official Virginia government email address—went online soon after he unveiled an executive order on the first day of his term in January that put education squarely at the top of his priority list, just as his campaign did. His order stressed that while students must learn about everything from slavery and segregation to America’s triumphs over the Nazis and the Soviet Union, concepts like critical race theory must be prohibited because, in Youngkin’s view, they tell students what to think about each other and not how to think for themselves.

“Virginia must renew its commitment to teaching our children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas,” Youngkin’s order states.

In the order, Youngkin also initiated reviews of state and local school policies to link things like professional development to the new restrictions. Much of that work will be led by Jillian Balow, who Youngkin appointed to be Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction and who previously held the same job in Wyoming.

Like many governors, Youngkin is finding that getting his priorities through the state legislature—such as a bill enacting a ban on teaching “inherently divisive concepts” that lawmakers voted down—is difficult.

And Meissel, the Virginia teacher, doesn’t believe a horde of adults will rush to use the governor’s tip line. Most parents, she stressed, will still bring questions and concerns to a teacher or a principal without trying to turn the situation into a big political incident. She recalled one situation in which a fellow teacher, following a concern raised by a child’s parent, was asked by an administrator to use news sources other than CNN with students, a request Meissel thought was reasonable and fair.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, signs an executive order establishing K through 12 lab schools while surrounded by children and educators at the Capitol, Jan. 27, 2022, in Richmond, Va. In his opening days, the new governor issued executive orders methodically ticking off his top campaign promises that effectively banned classroom mask mandates, aimed to restrict how students are taught about racism, approved an investigation into a wealthy suburban Washington school district that's become a national symbol for battles over so-called parents rights and attempted to scrap a carbon-limiting initiative meant to combat climate change.

But going over educators’ heads to officials like Youngkin and the media to lodge complaints, she said, essentially tells them they are unworthy of being treated like other professionals with expertise.

“In many instances, it degrades teachers, let’s face it,” said Meissel, who is also the president of the Virginia Council for the Social Studies.

Meissel also warned that building consensus and trust in school communities might be more difficult if elections and culture wars tighten their grip on schools and teachers’ professional decisions.

As an experienced and established teacher, “I probably will get the benefit of the doubt,” said Meissel. “Does that mean I’m going to relax? No.”

A new chapter for an old playbook

Fights over curriculum and transparency date back decades. One prominent example is the American Legion’s opposition in the 1930s and 1940s to textbooks authored by Harold Rugg, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, associated with the progressive movement in education.

In that situation, the American Legion moved beyond calling Rugg’s work subversive propaganda and encouraged parents to scrutinize “other parts of the curriculum to see where else subversion was occurring,” said Charles Dorn, the chair of the education department at Bowdoin College who specializes in how schools approach patriotism. Rugg’s textbooks became less popular in the wake of such attacks.

In part due to controversies like the one involving Rugg, Dorn said, “textbook publishers tend to make their content less controversial when it comes to history.”

Today, factors like social media and blanket coverage from fast-moving news outlets bring a new dynamic to such tensions.

When Youngkin’s office promoted the email address for the public on Jan. 21, his team did not single out critical race theory and related issues. Instead, the notice highlighted details of the governor’s executive order allowing parents to opt out of local mask mandates in schools. The press release encouraged them to email his office with questions or concerns.

Yet on Jan. 24, he told radio host John Fredericks that people should use the email address to notify his office about things like “privilege bingo,” a reference to a classroom activity in which students are asked to recognize advantages they enjoy if they are white or male. This activity gained prominence after one class in a large Virginia district used it.

But the government email address quickly became a target for Youngkin’s critics; reports emerged of people filling up the inbox by praising the performance of teachers and schools.

The transparency of the tip line itself has also become an issue. Youngkin’s office has declined to publicly release emails to it, stating that they are protected “working papers and correspondence.” (A spokesperson for Youngkin did not respond to a request for comment from Education Week about the issue.)

Setting aside such issues, some believe the attention Youngkin and other officials are paying to education largely reflects their desire to speak directly to parents who feel frustrated and betrayed, especially by the past two years.

“It’s a system that is unresponsive to parents’ concerns, whatever they are,” said Ginny Gentles, a fellow at the conservative Independent Women’s Forum who backed Youngkin’s 2021 campaign, referring to public schools and their performance during the pandemic. “There are plenty of parents who say: I want the public school I thought I had back.”

She also cited other factors behind the new push for school transparency and feedback from parents. Among them: prominent videos of school board members reacting poorly to parents worried about things like learning during the pandemic, and fear that schools are putting less emphasis than before on academic achievement and the traditional bedrocks of math and literacy.

Yet schools can solve the skepticism many parents now feel about curriculum by proactively sharing material with them and telling individual parents what lessons their children are responding to positively, laws or no laws, Gentles said. “If you put physical textbooks in parents’ hands, they will calm down,” Gentles said.

But others see a different dynamic.

Jon Becker, an associate professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that Youngkin’s stance reflects the position of people who want public institutions to serve their desires and only their desires, while spurning the give-and-take that reflects traditional decisionmaking in local schools.

“Increasingly, families are acting not as members of a deliberative democracy, but as citizens who mostly care about their own individual needs and wants and acting like a consumer,” Becker said. “They’re trying to have it both ways.”

He also stressed that schools have long-established ways for parents to provide input on issues like curriculum. “Going to the governor to tattle on your teacher is not a good process,” Becker said.

At the same time, Meissel said that typically, when Virginia officials release draft curriculum standards on different topics and take them on a “road show” around the state, parental input tends to be minimal or nonexistent.

Meanwhile, the response from GOP-run states, even to relatively high-profile complaints about school curriculum, isn’t always predictable.

In November, the Tennessee Department of Education declined to investigate a complaint that a local school district was in violation of a new state law banning critical race theory because it used the Wit and Wisdom curriculum that includes content about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruby Bridges. The complaint alleged that this curriculum taught children to “hate their country, each other and/or themselves.”

The department stated it wouldn’t probe the issue because the complaint didn’t follow the processes laid out in state law, and not necessarily because the complaint lacked merit.

Becker said that while he sees it as a discouraging sign for Youngkin’s education priorities, it is also vulnerable to being mocked and subverted.

And Gentles said that while she thinks the tip line is a helpful signal from Youngkin to many parents, she doubts it will lead to a sweeping effort by the government to hold teachers and schools accountable.

“It’s probably going to go to a state employee who will process it in a spreadsheet and probably won’t lead to a lot of action,” Gentles said.

‘Our school is really transparent’

Parental concerns and disagreements don’t have to lead to big political disputes.

Not too long ago, a parent of a student at Van Duyn Elementary School in Syracuse, N.Y., expressed concern about what was being taught in a 4th grade class about LGBTQ and social-justice issues and said, in effect: I don’t want my child learning about this.

Reba Y. Hodge, the school’s vice principal, recalled that the child’s teacher was able to draw on a relationship she had previously built with her students’ parents in dealing with the complaint. That foundation allowed the teacher to better understand the parent’s anxiety, clarify what was being taught, and show how it was different from the parent’s original understanding.

“That only comes if you feel confident in what you’re doing and you can rest assured that what you’re talking about and what you’re teaching about is important for all students in the classroom,” Hodge said.

She added that when teachers bank that kind of trust early on with parents, “You’re able to have these tough conversations with them” if there is tension later.

Such incidents are uncommon at her school, where most teachers would feel comfortable freely sharing such materials with parents if asked, Hodge noted.

Yet she also questioned the motivations of those who said nothing about past instruction that provided a “Eurocentric” view of history, yet are now claiming that history lessons with a different orientation should be viewed with mistrust and picked apart.

“Our school is really transparent about what we believe and what we value here,” Hodge said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as How Politics Are Straining Parent-School Relationships

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