It’s time for Democrats to go on offense in the public school wars


Ever since the slogan “Parents Matter” propelled Glenn Youngkin to the governorship of the predominantly blue state of Virginia in 2021, Republicans have made public school policies a partisan political issue; 17 red states have restricted or banned teaching of “Critical Race Theory” in public schools and limited how teachers can discuss racism, sex, or gender identity. Several other states are considering similar legislation.

The American Library Association has received 330 reports of challenges to books, many of which involve multiple texts, since the fall of 2021. Although the most frequent targets are books that address race, gender, and sexuality (ranging from Toni Morrison’s classic novel, “The Bluest Eye,” to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, to mathematics textbooks), the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee recently voted to remove the Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth grade module on the Holocaust because it depicted nudity and used curse words.

“The bottom line is if parents are concerned about something, politicians need to pay attention,” Tiffany Justice, a former member of the school board in Indian River, Fla., and the founder of Moms For Liberty, has proclaimed. “2022 will be a year of the parents at the ballot box.”

Over 80 percent of Americans affirm that when they vote in 2022, education will be either very or extremely important to them. There is considerable evidence, however, that a substantial majority of them do not share Ms. Justice’s concerns. And so, it’s time for Democrats to go on offense in the K-12 public school/culture wars.

In a poll released at the end of April, 76 percent of respondents agreed that “my child’s school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.” Only 24 percent believe they have too little to say about what is taught or what books are included in the school library; 18 percent indicated that their child’s school provided instruction about gender and sexuality in a way that clashed with their family’s values; 19 percent made that claim about issues related to race and racism; 14 percent about the history of the United States. The parents who complained about the teaching of race and American history, it’s worth noting, were as likely to be Democrats (some of whom believe that racial discrimination, in the past and the present, is not receiving enough attention in the schools) as Republicans. Another poll found that 62 percent of Americans oppose legislation prohibiting discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary schools.

Democrats should begin their offensive by emphasizing what has been a well-kept secret: The Biden administration has already made substantial investments in public education. The COVID-Relief Act and the Infrastructure Bill allocate money to schools for facility upgrades and new construction; removal of lead pipes; hardware and software purchases; and expansion of broadband access. Biden’s 2023 budget provides $88.3 billion for education, targeting funds for students with disabilities and schools in low-income communities; school-based mental health counselors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers; and English language learners.

Democrats should then lay out their fundamental goal for K-12 schools: making equal opportunity in the United States a reality by providing all students with the physical and human resources essential to a quality education. They should make sure to contrast this goal with Republican culture war mongers’ agenda: distractions, distortions, and demonization of already marginalized groups of Americans aimed at mobilizing voters, not solving real problems.

To implement their goal, Democrats should emphasize, schools must recruit and retain first-rate teachers, with expertise in one or more disciplines in the core curriculum. With the current nationwide average at $63,000 (much lower in many red states), annual salaries should be increased to a level commensurate with the value of the work K-12 teachers do. Tax credits, a reduction in or forgiveness of college loans should be offered to individuals who teach desirable subjects in high-need schools for at least three years. Most important, teachers should be respected, instead of being libeled for supposedly “indoctrinating” students. They should have considerable autonomy over the curriculum and classroom discussions.

The U.S. Department of Education should offer competitive grants to school districts (with funds matched by states) to design, deliver, and then evaluate a K-12 core curriculum, using pedagogies (for example, games, videos, and team projects) that enhance skills relevant to the 21st century workforce as well as scientific, historical, and cultural literacy. Special attention should be given to written and oral communication, research methodologies, textual and quantitative analysis, creativity, problem solving and fluency in at least one foreign language.

Finally, Democrats should affirm that public schools must help prepare students to be civil and civic-minded citizens of a religiously, ethnically, and racially diverse, democratic society, dedicated to the proposition that every individual has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

They should challenge Republicans to join them in that effort.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections banned books Critical race theory Education in the United States Education policy Gender identity Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden K-12 education K-12 schools parents rights public schools race and society Republican Party School curriculum Teacher salaries teachers textbooks

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