January 14, 2020
By Matt Beienburg

Parents can easily access a lot of information about their child’s school online, including student performance data, graduation and dropout rates, and enrollment practices. But when it comes to the very curriculum their child is learning in the classroom, that information is not always so easy to get—and it’s time for that to change.

In K-12 schools across the country, politically charged content is spreading at an extraordinary pace, in some cases even eclipsing more academically rigorous instruction—causing alarm among partisans of all stripes and leaving parents and policymakers to grapple with increasingly polarized school environments. However, a new report from the Goldwater Institute, De-Escalating the Curriculum Wars: A Proposal for Academic Transparency in K-12 Education, offers a solution to defuse this challenge before it further consumes our public school dialogue.

In the last year alone, politically motivated content has begun displacing academically based instructional materials within many K-12 schools: For example, Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, recently implemented resources at every one of its high schools that suggest that most Americans believe “1776 is the year of our nation’s birth… [but] this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong.” (emphasis added)

As documented in the report, such examples have prompted conservative education scholars to warn that  “activists on the Left [are] imposing their views” onto K-12 curricula, “moving further from the unifying impulse undergirding the entire purpose of public education,” while at the same time, liberal “critics argue…public school students are being exposed to what equates to right-wing, free-market propaganda.”  With such warnings from across the political spectrum, it is no surprise, the report points out, that polling has found nearly 1 out of every 2 voters now express concern about politics in K-12 classrooms.

All this has left parents to navigate an increasingly partisan educational landscape when it comes to the materials their students may encounter in the classroom—materials those parents usually have limited knowledge about until their student is already in the process of consuming them. Meanwhile for policymakers, there seems only an unhappy choice between heavy-handed curricular intervention on one side, or passive indifference on the other. Fortunately, there exists another solution, as explored in the new Goldwater report.

That solution is to equip parents with the information they need to discern which schools are teaching academically rigorous, politically neutral content, and which are not. To this end, the report highlights the widespread practices of schools posting information online and suggests policymakers apply similar tools when it comes to academic content. More concretely, the report proposes that schools post on their websites a list of the materials they use in the course of student instruction. In other words, give parents the information they need to make an informed decision and allow them—not political activists or special interest groups—to decide if they want their children attending a school that teaches 1776 or 1619 as the birth year of the United States.

As the Goldwater paper documents, state legislatures across the country have for years already made clear their intent that parents have full knowledge of the academic content presented to their children. In Arizona, for example, state law declares unequivocally, “A parent of a student in a public educational institution has the right to review learning materials and activities in advance,” while others like Texas similarly assure, “A parent is entitled to review all teaching materials, instructional materials, and other teaching aids used in the classroom of the parent’s child.” Yet outdated protocols frequently require parents to physically travel to district facilities during specified hours (often when they need to be at work), prevent parents from reviewing a full list of materials (outside basic textbooks and the like), and/or allow for a review of materials only after a student has already been enrolled in a particular school.

As the report makes clear, it is time to replace these burdensome requirements with a 21st-century approach, one which builds on the work of innovative schools at both the K-12 and college level already working to provide parents with online access to such information. It’s time to infuse our public K-12 system more broadly with that same kind of transparency.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

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