Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 20, 2020
By Ryan J. Owens
Public education has been one of our country’s most treasured successes. It has helped lift millions of people out of poverty and provided them with a breadth of knowledge they would not have enjoyed otherwise. That legacy, however, is being mismanaged and run into the ground.
If COVID-induced online classes have done anything, they have provided parents a front row seat to observe in real time the content of their children’s education. And for some schools and some parents, the results are not pretty. What many parents—myself included—have discovered is just how much schools are trying to indoctrinate students, at the expense of a critical education.
Like many parents, I have been working with my kids during their online classes. One day, the topic of my son’s ninth grade World History class was—to my shock—“how to be a good activist.” As my jaw dropped, the teacher continued. It is not good enough for students to post messages on social media, he argued. They had to do more and push people to change their minds. Of course, nowhere in the discussion was the propriety of “activism” itself addressed. Nor was there any discussion of actual history. A different teacher the next day used two false narratives to tell students that President Trump was a white supremacist, and later bemoaned that we only hear about “white men” scientists. I was aghast.
The relationship between parents and teachers must be strong and brokered on trust. As parents, we trust teachers to educate our children and provide them the resources and latitude to do so. In turn, teachers impliedly promise to be good stewards when they teach our kids. But when they seek to further their own political goals at the expense of our children, they break that promise and nullify that trust.
And the data reveal that trust has been broken. A recent study of Wisconsin parents found that many of them are concerned about the leftward trend in public schools.
When asked: “How concerned are you with the extent to which your child(ren)’s school(s) promotes a liberal ideology,” 42% of all parents expressed such concern (24% were “very concerned”). Among Republican parents, 66% expressed concern that their kids’ schools pursued a liberal ideology (45% were “very concerned”).
Another question asked parents whether they were concerned about politics “creeping into the classroom.” Among all parents surveyed, 49% expressed concern about politics in their schools. That number is frightening. But the results also revealed a significant political divide. Among Republican parents, 70% were concerned about politics creeping into the classroom (45% were very concerned) while only 26% of Democratic parents expressed concern (11% being very concerned). These results show what many of us believe—that some schools have been captured by the left, with little accountability.
What can be done to repair the damage?
First, educators and administrators should follow their own advice, consider their personal biases, and change their behavior. Schools across the country today ask students to consider their “implicit biases” across a range of topics. It is not too much to ask that those same teachers and administrators consider their own biases and work to minimize them.
Second, conservatives and moderates must run for seats on their local school boards. It seems too obvious to state, but schools should not be political. They operate best when they focus on educating children. Period. But the far left has captured many of our schools and many of our education departments on college campuses. They are pushing their agenda on our children, right under our noses. Electing conservatives and moderates to school boards could help. Perhaps the presence of conservatives could block further leftward lurches or even pull wayward schools back to common sense. As we have seen over the last year, the wrong people in local offices can wreak tremendous havoc.
Third, conservatives and moderates should push for greater educational liberty. Parents who are dissatisfied with their children’s education should enjoy the freedom to send their kids to another school, without having to sell their house and move. The notion that parents must send their kids to a particular school simply because of their zip code is unconscionable. We do not tolerate that kind of monopoly elsewhere in life. If we do not like a burger at one restaurant, we can go to another. If we do not like one airline, we can fly another. If we find a television show offensive, we can turn it off and watch another. So why, when it comes to educating our children, would we accept anything less? People who claim to value children’s education should support parents’ rights to send their kids to another school—even with tax dollars.
It’s a sad state of affairs that everything in life has become political, including our kids’ education. Most of us want our kids to learn the “three R’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic, not someone else’s political agenda.
Conservatives and moderates must make their voices heard. We value education. In fact, we value it so much that we refuse to leave it in the hands of those who would manipulate it for their own political purposes. Everyone is entitled to their own political beliefs. But they are not entitled to push them on our kids.
Ryan J. Owens, J.D., Ph.D., is an attorney and the George C. and Carmella P. Edwards Professor of American Politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.