June 2, 2021
By Matt Beienburg
This spring, members of the Oakley, California, School Board—not knowing they were being broadcast live—unabashedly mocked parents who desired in-person learning opportunities for their kids as simply wanting “their babysitters back.” When these bureaucrats’ naked disdain for parents came to light, the entire board resigned in well-deserved embarrassment.
But now, as parents around the country again seek to engage their local school districts—to find out whether or not politically and racially divisive content will be showing up in their kids’ classrooms—some district bureaucrats have apparently decided not to simply denigrate those parents, but rather to intimidate them.
This week, Rhode Island mother Nicole Solas found herself on the agenda of the South Kingstown School Board as the target of potential litigation in retaliation for her entirely legal requests for public records to uncover what content is being used in the district’s classrooms. This is a district that has reportedly deemed terms like “boys” and “girls” too problematic for use in its classrooms, while declaring that it is “taking important policy steps to ensure our district’s curriculum dismantles racism and addresses inequities in our community.”
But the district’s (ostensibly) public servants appear to object to Solas’ attempt to find out what sort of content actually comprises these vague and sweeping slogans—an important distinction when politically extreme and racially discriminatory material is currently masquerading as “anti-racist” enlightenment in K-12 classrooms around the country.
The district characterizes Ms. Solas’ records queries as abusive on the grounds that she made an excessive number of requests—a total, they say, of 160. But the law specifies that these requests should be treated as a single request, so the district’s argument seems to be based on a technical quibble. And as witnessed firsthand by the Goldwater Institute, districts virtually require parents and the public to spell out in excruciating detail and specificity the records being sought through numerous related queries—lest the district find a clever way to refuse to comply.
In Arizona, for example, the Goldwater Institute’s requests for content pertaining to terms like “critical race theory” or “anti-racism” have often been met by districts claiming that there is an unmanageable trove of content, and insisting on more specific—and thus numerous—keyword queries to respond to. These are simply delay tactics designed to avoid telling parents what is being taught in schools that their tax dollars pay for. In fact, in 2010, an Arizona school district sued a group of parents for seeking information about their children’s education. The Goldwater Institute took their case and won.
Meanwhile, a new report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty documents the struggle and expense of obtaining K-12 curriculum materials through records requests in the Badger State, as school districts resist, obfuscate, and/or demand up to thousands of dollars per district to fulfill records requests dealing with course content. Again, this is all information paid for by tax dollars and used in taxpayer-funded schools.
It should not be this way, and fortunately, it doesn’t have to be.
The Goldwater Institute’s Academic Transparency Act model language, which has been adapted into legislation passed by the Arizona State Senate and the North Carolina House of Representatives this spring and is now also being advanced in Wisconsin—would provide parents unprecedented access to the classroom materials being presented to their kids. Under the legislation, schools would post on a publicly accessible portion of their website a simple list (i.e., syllabus) of the actual materials being used in student instruction so that prospective parents like Nicole Solas could immediately review the type of content awaiting her daughter if she were to enroll at the local public district school.
Teachers wouldn’t be required to violate copyright law or spend time scanning materials, but rather simply account for whatever curriculum resources they used during instructional periods—whether that be textbooks, essays like those from the 1619 Project, or online news articles—in a format as simple as a Google Doc.
It should not take hundreds or thousands of dollars—much less a willingness to brave the threat of retaliatory lawsuits, as in Ms. Solas’ case—for parents to know what is being taught in the nearby schools in which they’re considering enrolling their students.
With academic transparency, those roadblocks to parental awareness and engagement can become a thing of the past.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Academic Transparency at the Goldwater Institute.