It feels wrong to assert that there might have been a silver lining to the pandemic, but if one does exist, it’s that so many families got a front row seat for their children’s day-to-day education and were deeply unhappy with what they saw. With distressing lessons and curriculum on full view – and the fact that many schools were closed to in-person classes for the 2020-21 school year – parents have spent the past 18 months scrambling for options, with many taking a fresh look at private schools and revisiting the role that vouchers, tax credits, and homeschooling might play in their education decisions going forward.
It is understandable that people — advocates, especially —would say that school choice is the solution to unsatisfied, disgruntled, and desperate parents. And in a perfect world, perhaps it could be. But in the real world, despite increased parent engagement and 8.7 million children who switched schools during the pandemic, residentially zoned school assignment is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Most parents can’t outrun the ideological takeover of K-12 education even if they have options.
It’s likely that many parents with children in the Los Angeles Unified School District would like nothing better than to exit a system where powerful union bosses like Cecily Myart-Cruz say things like this:
"It's OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables....They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words 'insurrection' and 'coup.'"
Parents are increasingly outraged by the politicization of their children’s classrooms at the expense of the most basic skills and academics. Across the country, lessons on “whiteness,” “privilege,” and “heteronormativity” now stand in for lesson plans, despite the fact that children face significant learning losses from the past year (compounding the already-low proficiency levels plaguing students in reading, math, civics, and other subjects prior to the pandemic). Thousands of ideologically motivated educators and administrators have pledged to continue using practices based in critical race theory in that way – in some cases, in violation of state law – and hide it from parents.
There is no question that one potential escape hatch from this madness would be more policies that enable families to take the public funds allotted for their children’s education and put them toward an alternative that suits their values, regardless of school type. But more choices are hardly a panacea when so many private schools are more steeped in the ideology of race essentialism and gender theory than the public school down the block. And private school parents have little legal recourse; there are no federal or state mandates obliging private schools to disclose curriculum.
Curriculum transparency is crucial. Parents who can’t or don’t want to switch schools deserve to know what their children are being taught. The concealment of curricular materials has proven to be widespread—parents should not have to file public records requests to see what their child is learning (and schools should not be able to charge exorbitant fees for those public records.)
Policy transparency is also vital. If school policy around transgender and gender-nonconforming students is to use a Gender Support Plan that keeps parents in the dark about the name, pronouns, and restrooms their child is using during the school day, it should be front and center on the school website and in the policy handbook. Schools need to stop making parents dig for information and instead ensure that parents are aware that the school will deceive them if that’s what their child says they want.
Commitment to diversity of thought As students and parents recoil from their schools’ insistence on practices and policies steeped in critical race and gender theory that allow no room for dissent, they inevitably feel silenced. One strategy to push back on this trend is for parents (and staff) to follow the lead of New Trier High School in Illinois this past July and adopt a statement of commitment to free expression and diversity of thought. The statement can be tailored to K-12 but modeled on The Chicago Statement which the University of Chicago adopted in 2015 as a response to the illiberal trend of free speech intolerance on college campuses. The unfortunate reality is that the same illiberalism has infected many K-12 schools.
School choice is essential because it provides much-needed options and levels the playing field when it comes to who can access those options. But it is just one part of a much larger whole from which our children need support and protection. Any assertion that school choice is the silver bullet to quell the exploding culture war in our K-12 schools is a pipe dream. At the end of the day, there’s simply no substitute for full transparency and a commitment to freedom of expression and diversity of thought so that parents and community members can see what is happening and students don’t have to check their beliefs and ideas at the schoolhouse door.
Erika Sanzi is director of outreach at Parents Defending Education, a group opposing political indoctrination in schools.