In at least a dozen states, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills seeking to make instruction in public schools more transparent. Pennsylvania’s bill, for example, would require public schools to post their curricula online. Democrats have largely opposed these bills, viewing them as the latest conservative salvo against critical race theory–inspired pedagogy. In vetoing the Pennsylvania legislation, Democratic governor Tom Wolf warned that the “legislation is a thinly veiled attempt to restrict truthful instruction and censor content reflecting various cultures, identities, and experiences.”
Taken literally, Wolf’s statement is false. Requiring schools to be transparent about what they’re teaching does not inherently restrict instruction or censor content. But Wolf, like many progressives, is obviously concerned that if citizens knew what is being taught in schools, then they might demand a change in curriculum.
As debates over school curricula have raged for the past year, progressives have openly expressed anti-democratic views about how the education system should operate. Nikole Hannah-Jones, progenitor of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, made her view clear during an NBC appearance. “I don’t really understand this idea that parents should decide what’s being taught,” she said. “I’m not a professional educator. I don’t have a degree in social studies or science. We send our children to school because we want them to be taught by people who have expertise in the subject area.” Meantime, Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe arguably cost himself a second term in the governor’s mansion by admitting that he didn’t “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
So it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that the Democrats are resisting public school transparency. What’s more surprising is that the American Civil Liberties Union decided to join them in taking this position. The ACLU wrote on Twitter that the curriculum transparency bills are “are just thinly veiled attempts at chilling teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender in schools.”
The ACLU has long been known for its principled advocacy on behalf of individual rights and government accountability. But during the Donald Trump years, it became an increasingly partisan organization. Its fundraising ballooned thanks to liberal donors. Its membership reportedly went from 400,000 before the Trump era to 1.84 million 15 months after Trump was elected. During that time, it raised $120 million online—a substantial increase from its previous norm of $3 million to $5 million annually.
With a new constituency in hand, the ACLU has come under pressure to behave differently on various issues—and school transparency is one of them. In the past, ACLU state affiliates have used records-request laws to investigate school curricula and practices, arguing that government institutions should be accountable to the public. In 2013, for example, the ACLU of Nevada “requested the sex education policies and curriculum from each of Nevada’s 17 counties.” A few years later, the ACLU of Kentucky used the state’s open-records act to send “requests to all of Kentucky’s 173 school districts seeking policies and curriculum for ‘Bible Literacy’ courses.” When the ACLU of Alabama discovered sex segregation in the Mobile County School System, it used the Alabama Open Records Act to demand that the “school district make public any and all documents relating to sex segregation in Mobile County schools” over two years.
The ACLU of Nevada’s then-legal director Staci Pratt offered a compelling argument for transparency from the Clark County School District. “The days of back door decision making are over,” she said. “Compliance with the open meetings law is meant to secure the opportunity of parents, students, and community members to have a meaningful impact on the development of policy. We are all well served when decisions on the appointment of sex education advisory committee members is subject to public scrutiny, rather than the result of the presentation of a narrow range of interests.”
When the ACLU was demanding transparency about issues like religious instruction or sex education, it didn’t need to choose between government accountability and progressive social revolution. But the modern ACLU worries that greater government transparency may prevent “teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender in schools”—by which it really means learning and talking about race and gender in a way that the new progressives approve.
By opposing transparency, progressives, the ACLU among them, may have made a tactical mistake. Public schools are government institutions paid for by taxpayers; with few alternatives, most parents are compelled to send their children there. It’s hard to argue that curricula should be kept secret. Some states, like Ohio, already have laws that allow parents to request instruction materials, reading lists, and curricula. To argue that schools can’t teach kids certain material unless it’s kept secret is to concede that the material wouldn’t withstand public scrutiny.
Transparency can help defend worldly, liberal instruction. In high school, a teacher of mine was accused by parents of proselytizing for Islam. If you knew the teacher, the allegation was comical—she was an avowed Christian. A perusal of her instructional materials could have quelled the controversy; she was teaching about Islam, not telling her students to join the local mosque.
The ACLU of old would never have argued for government secrecy, especially when it comes to public schools. America still needs the commitment to government transparency that the ACLU once exemplified. One might even say that we need it more than ever.
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