January 7, 2022

By Joe Setyon

Public records aren’t actually “public” if the government charges citizens more than $409,000 to access them. But that’s exactly what a Michigan public school district tried to do when concerned parents requested public records about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related subjects.

It’s yet another example of a troubling nationwide trend that highlights the barriers government bureaucrats put up to keep parents from finding out what’s going on in the classroom. But the Goldwater Institute is fighting back by defending parental rights and advocating for legislation that enables parents to easily access information about what their kids are learning without having to go through cumbersome bureaucratic processes.

Last May, a group of parents filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with Kent County’s Forest Hills Public Schools district seeking “Any and all writings since March 1, 2020 through the date of this Request that reference the words or phrase ‘critical race theory'” (CRT), according to an account from one of the citizens. As The Center Square and Michigan Capitol Confidential reported, the request also asked for documents that included words like “anti-racist,” “equity,” “diversity,” and “inclusion.”

Rather than fulfill the parents’ request, the school district said it would charge a whopping $409,899.10 for the parents to access the records. “The original FOIA request from May 11, 2021 was composed of eight individual requested items. After investigation, the request generated 440,333 documents and emails and completing the request would have taken an estimated 9,800 hours of staff time,” school district spokesman Kyle Gilbert told Michigan Capitol Confidential.

The parents narrowed down their request to “documents authored by staff, board, and superintendent only,” but at first, they were told accessing the public records would still cost more than $400,000.  

After much back and forth and a significant effort to narrow down the scope of the request, an updated search produced about 2,000 emails. Even then, the school district charged $2,197 for parents to access public information. 

The hoops these parents had to jump through over a period of months to get the fee lowered — as well as the fact that they had to set up a GoFundMe to raise the $2,197 — illustrate an important point: Making it this difficult for Americans to view public records defeats the entire purpose of the documents being “public” in the first place. If the government really wanted records to be public, it wouldn’t implement artificial barriers preventing the public from seeing them.

It’s not just happening in Michigan. Last September, a group of parents and other concerned residents in Minnesota filed a public records request with the Rochester Public Schools district seeking documents related to “equity and social justice topics often referred to as Critical Race Theory (‘CRT’).” Nearly two months later, the school district replied, saying it could provide the requested public records—if the parents were willing to pay up to the tune of more than $900,000.

Both cases bring to mind the saga of Rhode Island mom Nicole Solas. Concerned about the school district teaching CRT and gender theory, Solas emailed the school principal and asked to see the curriculum. When she couldn’t get any answers, Goldwater stepped in and made an additional public records request on her behalf. Then, the school district said it would cost $74,000 to provide the simple information she sought. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest public sector teachers union, even sued to block Solas’ access to the materials.

So why do education bureaucrats make it so difficult for parents to find out what’s going on in public schools? The education establishment is often indoctrinating children with destructive ideologies that ignore and misrepresent the very ideals America was founded on and that encourage kids to judge each other on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. Pundits, policymakers, and public school officials can insist all they like that CRT isn’t part of school curricula, but the fact that Forest Hills Public Schools originally said it needed 9,800 hours to produce documents on CRT and related topics tells a different story.

Parents deserve the truth about what their children are learning, and they deserve for that truth to be easily accessible.

That’s why the Goldwater Institute is advocating for the Academic Transparency Act, which would require public schools to post a listing of their learning materials online. In the Forest Hills Public Schools case, much of the information the parents were seeking may have already been posted online if the Academic Transparency Act were law, meaning they wouldn’t have even needed to file a public records request to obtain it.

Bureaucrats are trying their hardest to prevent parents from making informed choices about their children’s education. But the solution is simple—transparency.

To learn more about Goldwater’s efforts to promote academic transparency, you can click here.

Joe Setyon is a Digital Communications Associate at the Goldwater Institute.

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