Will Teacher Transparency Sink the Democrats?

Published January 11, 2022

National Review Online

Just about everyone agrees that Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe made a disastrous political error when he said during his failed reelection campaign, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” “Deadliest political gaffe of the year” and “top listing in the Hall of Fame of Political Blunders” were typical pundit takes at the time. A couple months after the election, when 1619 Project author Nikole Hannah-Jones echoed McAuliffe’s parents-keep-out remarks, some warned that the “Democrats’ education lunacies” mean “a lot more . . . losing ahead.”

But what if McAuliffe’s plan to cut parents out of their children’s education turns out to be more than an isolated gaffe? What if, on top of cheers from radicals such as Hannah-Jones, every sitting Democratic governor and Democratic state representative in the country were to cast an on-the-record vote to cut parents out of a say over the curriculum at their local school? Several such votes have already happened, in fact, and more will be taken in state legislatures this year.

I’m not talking about votes on bills that bar critical race theory (CRT) from K–12. I’m talking about state laws that mandate curriculum transparency — new laws detailed enough to require public Internet posting not only of textbooks and reading assignments, but also of teacher lesson plans, teacher handouts, accounts of political-advocacy exercises known as “action civics,” and other similar material generally hidden from parents.

The Goldwater Institute has just released the “Sunlight in Learning Act,” model legislation that represents the state of the art in K–12 curriculum transparency, combining prior efforts of both Goldwater and the Manhattan Institute. Goldwater’s Sunlight in Learning Act is going to kick the curriculum transparency issue into high gear nationally. The new model will likely inspire bills in many states. Every time it does, Democrats who vote against curriculum transparency, as they did with depressing regularity in 2021, will effectively be repeating — on record — McAuliffe’s gaffe. Here’s why.

Parents can’t have a say over what happens in their children’s schools if they don’t know what’s being taught. Sadly, classroom teaching is largely a black box. Vague state education standards and local curriculum guidelines allow individual principals, curriculum coaches, and teachers to effectively tweak and control the great majority of classroom content. In theory, states and school districts — i.e., the public, through its elected representatives — decide what is to be taught in our schools. In practice, a lack of information and oversight cedes de facto control of curriculum to the whim of individual staffers. A single diversity officer or teacher can turn almost any topic itemized in state standards or local curriculum guidelines into a woke political exercise or sermon, and it’s been happening with increasing frequency.

Teachers’ unions and professional organizations regularly approve resolutions urging the injection of politics into the classroom. Schools of education train for politicized teaching (always leftist, of course). Parents can’t push back against these trends unless they know what’s actually happening in classrooms. Ditto for state laws on critical race theory, action civics, or any other curriculum-related matter. Thousands of teachers have actually pledged to violate the new state CRT laws. Those teachers can’t be held to account if we don’t know what they do in the classroom.

In short, curriculum-transparency laws are essential, not only for enforcing state laws on CRT, action civics, and other specific topics, but for allowing any meaningful parental say over the content of education. Without a proper curriculum-transparency law — one that requires the posting of lesson plans, handouts, web-based material, and advocacy exercises, rather than just textbooks — teachers will easily flout state education laws while evading the wishes of parents and school boards to boot.

That means a vote against a state-of-the-art curriculum-transparency bill is a vote to prevent parents from knowing what’s happening in their own children’s classroom. A vote against a new-generation curriculum-transparency bill is also a vote to stop parents from “telling schools what they should teach” — exactly what Terry McAuliffe and the creator of the 1619 Project want. In fact, Democratic state legislators and governors have already worked to block K–12 curriculum-transparency bills in several states. In doing so, they have effectively gone on record in support of McAuliffe’s notorious gaffe. Yet so far, voters barely know that curriculum transparency is in play in their state.

Republicans ought to be making K–12 curriculum transparency into an issue on the scale of CRT. They should do this, first, because anti-CRT laws require transparency if they’re to be effective, and second, because curriculum-transparency laws pose a pure test of parental rights to informed influence over the content of the school curriculum. A vote against curriculum transparency is a vote to keep the public in the dark, to shut out parents, and to allow teachers to politicize the classroom. Even voters who may know little of CRT will immediately be struck by the legitimacy and importance of teacher transparency. For many, a politician’s stand against a parent’s right to know what’s happening in the classroom may be even more off-putting than a politician’s refusal to vote against CRT. K–12 curriculum transparency should henceforth be a top-tier issue for state legislators and governors everywhere — not above CRT in priority, but alongside it.

The new wave of K–12 curriculum-transparency legislation is largely the brainchild of the Goldwater Institute’s Matt Beienburg, who floated the first proposal early in 2020. State laws before that had allowed for public examination of curriculum material, yet typically under time and place restrictions that effectively shut out working parents. Beienburg had the bright idea of posting curriculum materials on the Internet, including items that usually escape scrutiny — including “supplemental” materials and activities beyond those found in districts’ officially adopted textbooks. Such materials are where the politicization often hides.

Working in Arizona, where school choice is widespread, Beienburg called for the annual posting of curriculum materials. That way parents could survey curriculum content when deciding which school to choose. At states began to pass CRT laws, however, the need for more frequent posting, and other changes, emerged. At that point, Christopher Rufo, James Copeland, and John Ketcham of the Manhattan Institute issued a new transparency model that built on and strengthened Beienburg’s. Rufo, of course, is the leading national critic of critical race theory, so the Manhattan Institute’s transparency model worked to maximize the effectiveness of laws barring CRT.

To create a blended and expanded version of both models, I consulted with Beienburg to add provisions disclosing the political-advocacy exercises and politicized internships that go under the name of “action civics.” I have written model legislation barring both CRT and action civics, and I consider Goldwater’s new Sunlight in Learning Act an indispensable companion to my own model bill. If bans on K–12 CRT and action civics are to work, transparency will be essential.

Goldwater’s Sunlight in Learning Act, which blends the earlier Goldwater Institute and Manhattan Institute models, has all the bells and whistles. Its requirements for disclosure are comprehensive, yet respect the proprietary nature of copyrighted material. Not only what transpires in the classroom, but the content of teacher-training sessions, must be disclosed. (CRT is at least as widespread in teacher training as in the classroom.) Action-civics exercises, projects, and political internships must also be made transparent. Provision for continuous updates allows teachers to develop new materials, while ensuring prompt disclosure after use. Enforcement provisions allow for investigations and, if necessary, lawsuits when it is alleged that curriculum material has been improperly withheld from disclosure.

Note that many schools already require teachers to submit their lesson plans and related material to administrators. It takes very little additional effort to post the same material on a public website. In fact, as some educators have already pointed out, posting materials online will make life easier on teachers, as they will be able to see what resources their most successful peers are using, instead of spending hours searching the Internet for new content. No need to reinvent the wheel.

The Sunlight in Learning Act is now the most up-to-date and comprehensive version of curriculum-transparency legislation. The 2021 state-legislative session, however, saw several bills inspired by the initial Goldwater Institute transparency model, or other similar proposals. A bill passed the North Carolina House on a near-party-line vote but languished in the North Carolina Senate, likely because a CRT bill (which did not become law) took priority. The Republican-majority Wisconsin State Legislature passed a good transparency bill on a strict party-line vote, after which Democratic governor Tony Evers vetoed it. Arizona passed a Goldwater-inspired transparency bill through the Republican-controlled Senate on a strict party-line vote, after which the bill stalled in the nearly evenly divided Arizona House. Fifteen Illinois Republicans, led by Representative Steven Reick, sponsored a Goldwater-based transparency bill, but it was held up without a hearing in the Democrat-dominated Illinois legislature. Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor Tom Wolf vetoed a transparency bill passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. The Pennsylvania bill was not as thorough in its disclosure requirements as the Goldwater Institute or Manhattan Institute models. Pennsylvania should consider a new bill based on Goldwater’s Sunlight in Learning Act this year.

All signs for the 2022 state-legislative session are that Republicans will back transparency bills, while Democrats will oppose them. It shouldn’t be that way, of course. Curriculum transparency and the parental involvement it enables ought to be a point of bipartisan agreement. No doubt many grassroots Democrats feel exactly that way. Teachers’ unions, however, bitterly oppose curriculum-transparency bills, and the Democrats are greatly beholden to those unions.

We cannot rule out efforts by elected Democrats to show some independence from the teachers’ unions. As the public turns against school closings for Covid, Democrats have begun to worry that their ties to the teachers’ unions are driving away voters — especially the swing suburban-woman demographic. Opposing curriculum transparency at the behest of teachers’ unions can only aggravate the Democrats’ problem. So maybe some Democrats will come around, as they should, to the side of parents and transparency. Let us hope.

Should Democrats continue to block curriculum transparency, however — and with it the ability of parents to have some say over the education of their children — they will richly deserve any electoral comeuppance they receive. Republicans take note. Both substantively and politically, curriculum-transparency legislation is every bit as important as laws that bar CRT. Transparency may seem like a “boring” process issue. It isn’t. Just wait till you see what the new transparency laws produce: a passel of nightmare curricular smoking guns on CRT, action civics, and other topics as well. Exposure of harsh truths about our politicized curriculum will rightly build further support for reform. Good curriculum-transparency legislation is actually the key to enforcing CRT laws. When it comes to politics, just watch what Democratic lawmakers who vote against curriculum transparency have to say when their Republican opponents call them on it. They’ll be McCauliffe-gaffing from sea to shining sea.

With the release of the Goldwater Institute’s Sunlight in Learning Act, K–12 curriculum-transparency legislation has become the next big play in the battle to take back America’s schools.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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