As school districts start dropping the mask mandates, removing pornographic books from their libraries, and explicitly prohibiting critical race theory, it’s clear that the parent protests are working. School boards, even in progressive bastions like San Francisco, are currently being cleaned out and replaced by more pro-parent members. Moreover, politicians like the governor of Oklahoma are openly instituting a school choice model that would allow for different schooling models and have education dollars follow the student, not automatically go to the school.
Naturally, these developments invite more pushback (sometimes literally so) from those who believe they’re supporting public education. It was fine in the past to let various kooky parents carry on about the evils of teaching Harry Potter or sex ed; school boards and district leaders could simply yawn and carry on as before. However, now that it actually threatens their authority and influence, they can no longer ignore parents’ concerns..
In general, opponents of protesting parents make the same points over and over. They deny that public schools have problems, play semantic games with critical race theory (“it’s just an abstract legal theory taught in law school,” etc.), and accuse angry parents of being misguided racists. In their view, parents who demand a more wholesome and academic experience for their children are actually demanding an exclusively white and privileged experience. And for good measure, they will add an anecdote about a heroic public school teacher changing lives, proving beyond any doubt that public schools are still doing noble work and are essential for a healthy, diverse society.
A good example of this argument is a recent op-ed by Mark Wingfield, the director and publisher of Baptist News Global—something of a poor man’s David French.
According to Wingfield—who begins his argument by saying he has teachers in his family—parents who take issue with their city’s public schools are engaging in something that is “disgusting, dismaying and disheartening to see.” They aren’t exercising their freedoms and speaking out; they are simply attacking good people for selfish reasons. And without any hard evidence (he’s personally related to teachers, remember?), he dismisses so many of the current controversies in one fell swoop: “book banning, the made-up hullaballoo about critical race theory, and the bogus fears about transgender athletes” are “examples of insanity.”
As such, Wingfield will not even bother trying to rationalize or justify these issues, which can become very complex. More than likely, he doesn’t really understand them, nor does he care. Like too many public leaders, he picks a side, makes education an either-or proposition, and essentially kills constructive dialogue.
This logic leads Wingfield to conclude that parents’ calls for reforming public schools are “at root, about Christian nationalism and more specifically, white Christian nationalism.” Just like the white racist parents in the 1950s who put their children in private schools to keep them away from newly integrated black students, white racist parents today are supposedly demanding that their children be “educated in a world that hasn’t existed since Little House on the Prairie” and are “desperate to divert taxpayer funding from public schools to support their sectarian private schools.”
Although one might be tempted to simply respond “OK, Boomer,” Wingfield’s smug views are representative of most progressives and warrant a more detailed rebuttal.
First, let’s start with the out-of-touch, out-of-date characterization of public education today. It should go without saying that schools today are much different than those he and most of his generation attended. On average, they are far bigger, more diverse, and fully secularized. Additionally, most of them are now saturated with smartphones, tablets, and laptops. And this is all especially true in the suburban schools that most students around the country attend.
All these factors have created difficult challenges for educators. Not only do they need to find ways to accommodate so many different groups with different abilities and different attitudes about education, but they also have to develop strategies on handling severe distractions and screen addiction. Educational consultants can preach “differentiation” (individualizing instruction for each student in a class), “equity” (eliminating achievement gaps between students), and “future-ready learning” all they like, but these challenges exist all the same.
In all fairness to educators (and unlike Wingfield, I actually am a public school teacher), it’s an impossible task. Something usually gives way: either academic performance, behavioral discipline, or school culture. Yes, keeping kids in their seats, taking away their phones, and giving them difficult work to do will make them smarter and safer, but it will also make them sadder and likely lead to more noticeable achievement gaps and less diversity in the classroom. Conversely, lowering standards and taking a lax approach to discipline can give the impression of a more integrated, kinder community, but it will also lead to more dunces and bullies.
In most public districts, regardless of the politics of the surrounding community, school boards and school leaders have generally opted for embracing technology and lowering standards. In contrast to this, charter and private schools, as well as test prep centers, have adopted the opposite course, upholding high standards and eliminating technology—“classical learning” has become a catch-all term for this setup. Quite naturally, parents (and I include myself in this since, unlike Wingfield again, I actually have school-age children) who care about their children’s future and safety want to see more of the latter and less of the former.
This situation all connects with the hot-button issues that Wingfield derides as “delusional.” For instance, in the case of critical race theory, he’s right to assume that the great majority of teachers don’t actually teach critical race theory in its literal sense, he’s wrong to think it doesn’t exist. In many districts in both blue and red states, the ideas of CRT—mainly, that achievement gaps among different racial groups is attributable to systemic racism—form the rationale for many detrimental policies.
In many cases, the principles of CRT reorient a school system towards prioritizing equal outcomes among all races over learning and safety. In practical terms, this means removing penalties for late work, lowering admission requirements for college, eliminating gifted and talented and advanced academic programs, dumbing down standardized tests, lightening punishments for bad behavior, and of course beefing up teacher training to include this kind of language and mindset.
When parents complain about critical race indoctrination, this is why. Hence, they often happen to be a diverse group of many races and backgrounds, not bigoted “Karens” wanting to protect their kids from other kinds of students. For most of these parents, opposing CRT translates to promoting achievement, accountability, and truth. They want their children to become smart, productive members of society, not ignorant slacktivists spouting Marxist propaganda on TikTok.
For a similar reason, it has become necessary for districts to remove pornographic texts from their school libraries and create protections for students of various faiths. Wingfield thinks this will become a slippery slope to banning all kinds of books and prohibiting the teaching of “LGBTQ issues, evolution, the big bang theory, and even birth control.” Rather, the intention of most parents and anti-CRT politicians is to place these ideas in their proper context so that they don’t become anti-religious and anti-American dogma. There’s also the small matter of preserving some modicum of innocence for children today, many of whom could use a space free of morally corrupting content—a “safe space,” if you will.
Finally, despite Wingfield’s repeatedly claiming, “This is insanity” to the many problems happening in public schools, it’s curious that he has said nothing of the greatest insanity: vaccine and mask mandates for an age group that is at the least risk of suffering from COVID. For many parents, particularly in America where students have suffered enormously from COVID learning loss, this was the final straw. Not only would their children receive a mediocre education at their neighborhood public school, they would also be smothered with a useless mask for most of the day and, in certain places, be forced to take the jab against their will.
At this point, it’s only fair to ask Wingfield and other like-minded people: What are these parents supposed to do if the schools—not the parents—go insane? As it stands, they can either homeschool or pay for private school. For many parents, this is unfeasible and frankly unfair if they’re already paying thousands in property taxes to support their local public schools.
Wingfield’s somewhat desperate tone indicates the days of the big, one-size-fits-all public school are numbered. To meet the growing needs of today’s students, parents and their children need a real choice. Moreover, we teachers could use some more options in the way we want to work with students. We do what we can within these parameters set by our campus, but all too often we are the ones having to make the decision between satisfying our administrators or our parents.
Before there can be a choice, there needs to be a voice. These issues are large and require many conversations and many viewpoints. When it comes to education, we are all stakeholders (even Wingfield) and need to provide our input. As it stands, public schools are in great need of reform, and it’s time for everyone to speak out and start taking serious action.