As state legislatures convene this month, Republican governors and lawmakers who have fought to limit racial discussions in public schools are rallying behind a new goal: curriculum transparency.
At least 12 states have introduced legislation requiring schools to post lists of all of their teaching materials, including books, articles, and videos, online. In speeches to their legislatures this month, the governors of Arizona, Florida, and Iowa, who have previously expressed concerns about how teachers discuss racism’s impact on politics and society, called for curriculum transparency laws.
“Florida law should give parents the right to review the curriculum used in their children’s schools,” said Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his State of the State address last week.
Some conservative activists say the effort — which has come under fire from Democrats, teachers and civil liberties advocates — is a potent strategic move to expose and root out progressive ideas from schools. It’s the next step in a battle over critical race theory, an academic concept taught in college courses that examines how laws and institutions perpetuate racism, and which some conservatives have used to describe ideas and books they believe are too progressive or political for the classroom.
Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who has been instrumental in drawing opposition to racial sensitivity training, said in a series of tweets this month that shifting from pushing bans on teaching critical race theory to pushing curriculum transparency bills is a “rhetorically-advantageous position” that will “bait the Left into opposing ‘transparency.'”
The push for curriculum transparency policy emerged after at least seven conservative think tanks publicly urged legislators to enact such legislation in the previous year. The Goldwater Institute and the Manhattan Institute are two of them that have published model bills, policies, and resolutions for legislators and school boards to use as models.
However, teachers, their unions, and free speech advocates argue that the proposals would overly scrutinize daily classwork and force teachers to pull potentially contentious materials ahead of time to avoid criticism. After learning that books dealing with race and gender were available in school libraries and classrooms, parents and legislators began campaigns to remove the books, citing passages they found obscene.
As part of a campaign to combat critical race theory, 25 states considered legislation limiting how schools can discuss race and gender last year, with nine enacting legislation.
PEN America has called the laws “educational gag orders,” and it is equally concerned about the curriculum transparency proposals, which Friedman claims are designed to incite more outrage about race and gender lessons in schools.
Friedman said the proposals are reminiscent of tactics used by conservative activists in recent years to systematically target college professors and accuse them of liberal bias, which were widely condemned by free speech groups and resulted in some academics going into hiding due to threats.
While most schools have insisted that they do not teach critical race theory, a new report from UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access found that local efforts to prohibit schools from teaching or using critical race theory have emerged in at least 894 school districts, which enroll more than a third of all K-12 students in the country. The uproar over critical race theory has resulted in educators being fired, parents becoming skeptical of mental health initiatives, and schools prohibiting books by Black authors.
Many proponents of curriculum transparency point to a remark made by Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a Virginia gubernatorial debate in September: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
“The comment by McAuliffe, who went on to lose the election despite the fact that Virginia is trending increasingly blue, drew immediate condemnation from conservatives, and it was widely viewed as a boon for Republican candidates in the state.”
Republicans across the country have vowed to keep discussions about critical race theory at the forefront of their midterm election strategy.
Some of the bills being considered in state legislatures, including one in Missouri, would require schools to post all teacher training materials online, as well as descriptions of what is taught. It’s part of a bill that would also prohibit schools from using curriculum that teaches that any group of people is “systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed.”