Last week I offered some hopeful examples that called into question the myth of failing public schools. Today I wanted to slice into that myth in a different way, one that I hope will make you as angry as it does me. We’ve been suckered once again by what appears to be a powerful movement to the right yet turns out to be something else entirely.
The Great Parent Uprising against wokeness focusing on CRT discussions of race and racism and to classroom attention to issues of gender really gained steam with the election of Glen Youngkin as governor of Virginia. Soon the media was flooded with stories about powerful parent forces that were going to drive Republican victories in the 2022 Congressional elections. Groups with labels like Parents for Choice in Education and Parents for Freedom were emerging across the country.
One of the lessons we should have taken away from recent decades of dark money-dominated politics is that organizations calling themselves Parents for…., Citizens for…. Or Americans for…. are not necessarily representative of parents, citizens or Americans. Think of the infamous Citizens United case adjudicated (shamefully) in the Supreme Court. It had nothing to do with “citizens” but was a well-financed effort by corporate interests to legitimize their disproportionate political power and fueled by limitless pools of money. Let’s look at the parents against CRT and gender discussion in this light. There’s no question that they represent some parents’ views on education and the fears that their children are being brainwashed in schools, but in fact how widespread and representative were these views and to what extent were they magnified by the money forces that had their own political motivations to promote these ideas and the suspicion and distrust that lay behind them?
And at last, we have evidence to bring to bear on that question, and the answer is one we really knew all along. Last week NPR and Ipsos, a polling organization, conducted a national poll of parents, the results of which were presented by NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz. A national representative poll of 1,007 parents of school-age children demonstrated a surprising level of satisfaction with their children’s education. 88% agreed that “my child’s teacher(s) have done the best they could, given the circumstances around the pandemic. 76% of parents agreed that their child’s school “does a good job of keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.” At the same time, education turns out to be one of the top three issues listed by parents, though not in the way the crisis mongers would have us believe. You’ve heard the oft- repeated finding that people have a low opinion of Congress but love the congressman from their district. Something similar is at play here.
On the issues that have been the primary focus of the “parents’ rights” advocates – again gender and sexuality, race and racism and the teaching of US history – only between 14 and 26% of respondents said the schools were teaching in ways that clashed with their family’s values. Remember the time when the term “Silent Majority” referred to the conservatives who were being bludgeoned into silence by an oppressive liberal minority? These data suggest that the spectrum has shifted to the other end of the political spectrum, and that the views of a very small minority are being used by politicians like Governor DeSantis to promote draconian legislation governing what can and can’t be taught in his state’s schools.
Several commentators have responded to the leaked Supreme Court decision on abortion with the observation that we are becoming a country resigned to rule by minority. The quirks of the electoral college and the structure of the senate have locked in that minority power. Six of the sitting Supreme Court justices were appointed by presidents who themselves were the choice of only a minority of the voters nationally. For decades the Senate has been deadlocked on legislative action blocked by Senators who represent a significant minority of the country’s population.
In addition, what is remarkable about the current parents’ survey is the lack of partisan divide on the issues addressed by the poll, in contrast to the remarkable polarization of almost any other issue on the public docket. This brings me back to the influence of dark money that I mentioned earlier. What we are seeing is the way dark money has been brought to bear to promote distinctly minority voices. Although we’ve been focusing on issues of education here, the same forces are at play on many other issues – the environment, for example. If you want to understand more about how these insidious forces operate, I recommend Jane Mayer’s astoundingly well- researched book, Dark Money, as well as many of her articles in the New Yorker on related issues. She has an unparalleled ability to trace the connections among a web of organizations without constituencies who trade resources among themselves and draw their funding from the same sources.
One thing that all this suggests to me is that Progressives and Democrats have failed to weigh in on issues of parent rights and resigned themselves to being flayed by Republicans in the upcoming elections. As Charles Blow has said very forcefully, Progressive parents and parents of minority students have rights too. They want their children to be educated to have an honest and accurate sense of their nation’s history and a respect for themselves and for people who are different from them. Their rights as parents are nowhere recognized or acknowledged by the people who call themselves parents’ rights advocates. It’s time to counterattack to regain lost territory. Once again, because those voices of discord are so loud, too many of us have been suckered in to accepting a false narrative about the state of education and what parents are seeking for their children.
The study ends with a mini portrait of a parent who is probably typical of our silent majority.
‘I know there’s been some controversy… but I don’t honestly pay much attention to that as much as some others here.’
“She and her neighbors tend toward the conservative and the local school board does as well, so she feels like everyone’s on the same page.”
‘I have no issues with any of her teachers…I’m fairly comfortable with all of that.’ “Besides, she says, her top priority isn’t the culture wars; it’s making sure her daughter stays engaged with her studies and is prepared for college.”