Opinion | Education

To empower parents, reinvent schools

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Buoyed by recent gains in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans see an opportunity to win back suburban voters by stoking public anger at what's happening in their public schools. A Fox News headline says it all: "Parents across US revolt against school boards on masks, critical race theory and gender issues. 

While Fox's claim is typically hyperbolic, the issue of parental control over kids' education did loom large in Republican Glenn Youngkin's victory over Terry McAuliffe in Virginia's gubernatorial contest. Since GOP strategists view it as the template for next year's midterm elections, K-12 schools seemed destined to become the new central front in the nation's culture wars.

Around the country, riled-up parents are storming normally soporific school board meetings and targeting members for online abuse and threats. In Washington, Republicans have cobbled together a "parental bill of rights" to campaign on next year. Teacher unions and their political allies call for a counter-mobilization to win school board races around the country.

Before they strap on their armor, however, Democrats should recognize a political trap Republicans are laying for them. By filling the air with the usual noxious fog of fear-mongering, conspiracy theories and racial denial, they hope to bait Democrats into lining up with a change-averse K-12 establishment. 

Instead of defending the status quo, Democrats should offer a progressive vision for modernizing America's public schools and empowering parents. Designed for the industrial era, our legacy  school model has failed to provide equal educational opportunity to millions of low-income and minority students. U.S. students lag far behind their counterparts in China and other top performers in international reading, math and science tests. And the "one-size-fits-all" model for public schools is badly aligned with how our diverse population learns and acquires valuable work skills in the knowledge economy. 

Rather than focus on these fundamental flaws, conservatives prefer to stir white fears by fixating on "critical race theory" (CRT). Democrats are entirely right to oppose their demands to scrub school lessons of references to America's ugly history of racial prejudice and subjugation, simply because they might discomfit some white students.

While insisting on unflinching historical accuracy, however, Democrats need not endorse faddish academic theories and books about "white privilege" and "systemic racism" that aim at delegitimating America's founding ideals and chilling honest public discussion of race. Our kids are not legitimate targets for ideological indoctrination campaigns, whether pushed by the Trumpian right or the identity-besotted left.

In addition to CRT, Republicans decry vaccine and mask mandates, sexually explicit books in school libraries and school leaders' attempts to accommodate transgender students. Harder to dismiss as cultural trolling is the widespread complaint that pandemic-related school closures dragged on longer here than in other advanced countries.

Moreover, it's not only conservative parents who object to lowering standards in the name of equity and diversity, for example by eliminating "gifted and talented" programs or gutting entrance exams for academically rigorous schools. And many low-income Black and Hispanic parents resent white progressives' attempts to limit school choice. 

It's worth recalling that, until recently, Democrats led the way in demanding expanded parental choice of schools; higher academic standards and diverse curricula; and real accountability for schools that fail continually to narrow race and class achievement gaps.

For example, President Clinton championed parental choice for low-income families that can't afford to move to the suburbs to find a decent school. He started the first federal charter school program and worked with governors to lift academic standards across the country. One of President Obama's most creative initiatives was Race to the Top, which ignited a nationwide competition to develop innovative schools that expand choices for minority and low-income parents. 

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has done little to build on those reforms, despite irrefutable evidence that they often deliver better educational results for disadvantaged and minority children. In fact, Democrats at all levels of government nowadays seem more responsive to teacher unions than to parents. 

In this vacuum of political leadership, today's rightwing demagoguery flourishes. Many conservatives tell parents that public education has become a culturally alien enterprise they should either take over or abandon. They cheer the growth of home schooling during the pandemic, and double down on demands for vouchers to privatize public education.

The best way for Democrats to defend the public education ideal is to reinvent our legacy K-12 model, which is overly centralized, standardized, bureaucratic and unresponsive to parents. Successful prototypes for change exist in New Orleans, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., Newark and other cities where pioneering efforts to create more innovative and effective public schools have reached critical mass.

They point to an emerging 21st century school architecture built upon autonomy, accountability and parental choice. The new model decentralizes key decisions, including budgeting and hiring and firing staff, from the central office to school leaders on site. It features more varied instructional programs tailored to students' different learning styles. It not only enables but requires public authorities to shut down schools that continually fail to make the grade. And it is beginning to ease the school-to-work transition by connecting students to employers and work-learn opportunities before they graduate. 

This is the real agenda for "parent power" - one that can trump Republicans' base-rallying "message bills" and make Democrats the party of radically pragmatic change in America's public schools.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

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