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As aspiring presidential candidates —like our very own Phil Murphy—start nosing up to the gate, both the national Democratic and Republican parties have issued “Parents Rights” platforms in an effort to harvest the energy produced by less-than-stellar appraisals of classroom instruction during Covid and, of course, our tiresome culture wars.
Look, it’s great to see more interest in public education. But here’s the problem: both the GOP and the Dems engage in self-indulgent, half-baked memes targeting extremists instead of being serious about improving our schools.
As a lifelong Democrat I’ll start with the Republican version introduced last week by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, which is as full of dog whistles as a puppy breeding farm. We move from allusions about book-banning (because kids are reading soul-destroying books like “The Bluest Eye”) to demanding “parent consent before medical exams” because, after all, the goal of teachers is to coax gender dysphoric declarations from five-year-olds.
How about the Democratic proposal, released on Friday by Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, applauded by teacher unions, and as refreshing as dishwater? The most important item for this coalition has nothing to do with learning. Instead the spotlight is squarely on schools as “environments where [students] can be their full selves and remain free from all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on their actual or perceived identity.”
Come on, guys. What a missed opportunity—especially when you factor in the biggest taxpayer investment in K-12 education through federal emergency funding—to directly address what parents are looking for: improved learning in the wake of historic levels of learning loss and just a little oxygen between your assigned school district and your home address. (Low-income New Jersey students are the primary losers here).
What’s even more frustrating (as I start to wonder if there’s room for me in the Blue tent) is that we really have lots of common ground to work with! Instead of Democrats kowtowing to union talking points and Republicans hurling MAGA hats into the air, why not come together on one result of the pandemic: After a close view of classroom instruction through Zoom screens, parents are demanding a louder voice in education policy whether that expresses itself in being able to opt children out of discussions of gender identity (c’mon, we’ve got to give a little to get something, right?) or having access to a choice of schools, regardless of place of residence.
Let’s compare two threads from the same skein: in states ruled by Republicans, there is a plethora of bills promoting Education Savings Accounts, which let parents use public money for tuition in private schools or for homeschooling. In Democratic states, where the voices of Black and Brown parents are loudest, there is an escalating cry for more seats in public charter schools.
Not so different, right? Red or blue, we’re giving parents a smidgeon of choice, at taxpayer expense, about where their children go to school.
Here’s Andy Rotherham:
In my view any parents rights agenda that doesn’t include any choice will be easy pickings for the critics and perhaps politically worse than doing nothing because it will lay bare the tensions. Choice ideas are not rapidly being adopted in states because they’re all proven, but because right now they’re all popular….[for Democrats] doing nothing is not a great strategy.
(Um, paging Terry McAuliffe….)
Can both Republicans and Democrats forget about drag queens for a moment and think about what it takes to create bipartisan momentum for the change we want? Can we cop to the fact that American parents want more diverse options for educating their children?
This would be a whole lot more productive than dog whistles.