An Educator’s Plea to Keep the “Public” in Public Schools
I am a teacher in Lake Travis ISD (Austin, Texas), and I am angry-writing on my three-day weekend in defense of public schools, critical thinking, and student choice. And I am allowed to be angry — I am passionate about what I do. I hope you would want me to be. Public education is my profession, and it is central to my purpose. I care deeply about the future and unveiling the potential in every child. I have taught for many years; I have a master’s degree, and yet I have spent much of this year feeling the need to defend my professionalism and expertise. In fact, my last statement lacks necessary detail because I fear retaliation from anyone with a difference of opinion in this climate of finger-pointing and the divisive politicization of public education. And to be clear, no one has personally questioned what I teach in the classroom, but the stress of becoming the next victim of what feels like an “I gotcha war” is enough to experience the unyielding sting of burnout.
I anger-write because I love our district, I anger-write because I love what I do, and I anger-write because I believe in public schools. Access to public education is a cornerstone of liberty, diversity, and patriotism. Preserving public education is to preserve the core values of democracy. Educated minds tolerate differences of opinion without obligation to accept them. “Instead of retreating to separate ideological corners, [one should] engage in deliberative discourse that requires civic reasoning and often requires us to meet in a place that serves us all” (Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin, and President, National Academy of Education in her endorsement of Ronald W. Evans’s Handbook on Teaching Social Issues). Educated minds know conflicting ideologies either elevate their understanding or challenge their thinking by adjusting the dial on their spectrums of ignorance and expertise. Conflict is a win-win when respected. If an educational stakeholder wants to preserve public education, it is imperative to join the experts in this field in asking, “If we think it’s important to ask how well students score on standardized tests, shouldn’t we also ask how well students are prepared to protect religious freedoms and uphold the standards of the Constitution?” (Boyle & Burns 36).
It is this lack of meeting in a place that serves us all that allows armchair experts and keyboard warriors to continue driving social media threads to ugly places, dealing out heavy doses of ad hominem, equivocations, and false dependency on anecdotal evidence in lieu of holistic analysis, shutting out expert voices and students who are already marginalized. This division is placing educators and parents on separate ends of a battlefield where no war should be fought, and as evidenced by a recent NEA study, this combative environment is one of the top reasons for educator burnout in 2022. Coupled with financial stress and the improved leverage employees hold in today’s career market, educators are leaving their profession in droves (National Education Association). As of February 22, 2022, PEN America counted 155 bills introduced in 38 states that would censor what teachers can say or teach in classrooms. There has been a steep rise this year in the introduction of what PEN America calls “gag orders.” These gag orders are often masked pleas for more “parental choice,” which is not the voice most at risk of being lost in public education. If we are going to talk about gaining more control through the power of choice, then we cannot ignore the fact that politicians are driving a wedge between teachers and parents for short-term political gain by perpetuating fallacies. If we allow this to continue, parents and teachers alike lose that control, but the ones who suffer the most are our children. After all, research shows that when parents work in partnership with teachers, their children are more academically successful (Murray & Mereoiu).
In Texas, recent “gag orders” limit how social issues are addressed in the classroom — social issues, being the conditions or behaviors, in need of addressing, that have negative consequences for large numbers of people. What is education, if not at its core, a safe place to learn how to think critically and problem-solve real-world issues whenever it makes sense in the curriculum? That is unless one defines social issues differently. Cue the boogeyman — Critical Race Theory. If we understand how the Critical Race Theory debate seems to have suddenly found its way to the center of raucous public school board meetings, we would be remiss if we did not first question the source of this information before adopting it as truth. Both interesting and alarming is to discover that this debate traces back to one person — Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist. What resulted from Rufo’s statements on Fox News about the pervasiveness of CRT in American corporations and government entities, essentially became a political game of telephone when he equated CRT with an outpouring of diversity training following the death of George Floyd. Instead, the “basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others” (Ladson-Billings on NPR). Although CRT is strictly a university-level subject and not a part of any secondary curriculum in Texas, it has become the short-hand term, as well as the slang, “wokeness,” for district initiatives involving diversity and social issues.
Banning Critical Race Theory, the red herring at recent school board meetings, is a priority wedge topic for Political Action Committees funding nominees with more conservative leanings for upcoming school board of trustee elections, creating a culture war and a deflection from the real policy issues our district is facing, such as overcrowding at the high school, a drop in ratings, and staff retention. We all need to ask ourselves — Are we okay with a PAC buying our public school district because it might fit our personal agenda when the very principle of it takes the “public” out of public schools and limits true democracy? Also blatantly ironic, yet tacitly ignored, is the fact that Political Action Committees funding these candidates claim their platform aims to take the politics out of public school districts. They want to “lower the temperature,” after the same associated group of parents have come swinging at our school board meetings, sent a police officer to question a librarian about a book (despite not first going through proper district protocols and in front of a class full of students), flooded our district with records requests in games of hopeful “I gotchas,” and successfully influenced modifications on a beloved civil rights author’s visit to an elementary campus. No good educator wants a child to feel guilt, inferiority, or the weight of this culture war on their shoulders. What good educators want is to facilitate learning so that students know how to think, not what to think, and so literature can — as much as I would like to avoid the cliché — serve as both a window and a mirror into students and the world around them. Good educators want students to engage in a deep analysis of history, not a whitewashed version, so that learners may be able to think critically and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. We want students to be able to approach difficult topics with great care and attention to facts, so that we do not find ourselves in the thick of these very culture wars we find ourselves in now. Facts do not require approval.
If our district and its faculty are touted as outstanding, then we also trust that their education, professionalism, and experience have prepared them for facilitating healthy debate. Critical thinking skills, problem-solving, empathy, and debate are embedded in the analysis of subject matter that requires differences of opinion. If our curriculum and test scores are touted as top-notch, then we must also trust that our educators follow state-mandated objectives and research-based pedagogy. Well-rounded students do not get into top colleges based on their math and verbal scores alone. These students also have a higher social and emotional intelligence, and reinforcing these types of intelligence is what trained educators know how to do well (MacCann).
No good educator is opposed to parents having a say in what their children read or even questioning what is in their children’s library, but there is a system in place for that, where it is understood that there is no one-size-fits-all choice. While it is important to honor all voices in the community, and while no singular system is without flaws, we do the opposite of honoring voices when non-professionals have a monopoly on those choices for every educator and every child other than their own. Not all parents will agree on what is best for their children and the enrichment of their worlds through access to literature with value, and we cannot ignore the voices speaking up for marginalized children who gain from seeing themselves reflected and valued in a text. Anything short of supporting equal opportunities to engage in critical thinking and moral and ethical choice puts this powerful democratic tool in peril. Please join me in fighting for our children arm in arm, truly lowering the political temperature, and setting aside our egos and personal agendas for the betterment of our community and the preservation of our public schools.
Boyle, P., & Burns, D. (2012). Preserving the public in public schools: Visions, values, conflicts, and choices. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education
Busser, Celeste. “NEA Responds to CDC’s Guidance on Distance for Students in Classrooms.” NEA, 2022, https://www.nea.org/about-nea/media-center/press-releases/nea-responds-cdcs-guidance-distance-students-classrooms.
“Educational Gag Orders Target Speech about LGBTQ+ Identities with New Prohibitions and Punishments.” PEN America, 16 Mar. 2022, https://pen.org/educational-gag-orders-target-speech-about-lgbtq-identities-with-new-prohibitions-and-punishments/.
“Emotional Intelligence Predicts Academic Performance: A Meta-Analysis,” by Carolyn MacCann, Ph.D., Yixin Jiang, Ph.D., Luke Brown, MSc, and Micaela Bucich, BPsych, The University of Sydney; Kit Double, Ph.D., Oxford University, and Amirali Minbashian, Ph.D., University of New South Wales Sydney. Psychological Bulletin, published online Dec. 12, 2019.
“How Critical Race Theory Went from Harvard Law to Fox News.” NPR, NPR, 6 July 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/07/02/101269618
Murray, M.M. & Mereoiu, M. (2016). Teacher-parent partnership: An authentic teacher education model to improve student outcomes. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 40(2), 276–292. Retrieved from: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1086941