School funding lawsuits are long, frustrating, and crucial for fighting inequality

Ever since the mid-1980s, policymakers and researchers have debated the question of whether public school funding really matters. Yes, some school districts have more money per student, but is it money that helps improve student achievement or is it better teachers? Is it increased spending that boosts test scores or higher-quality curriculum and nicer facilities?

Both Republicans and Democrats have capitalized on the debate when it proved convenient, suggesting maybe schools were getting too much and needed to embrace their favored policy reforms instead.

If this all sounds rather silly to you, you’re not alone. Money pays for teachers, after all. For facilities. For textbooks and technology. Thankfully, decades of research has mounted to push the tiresome debate in a much more constructive direction. A raft of studies now show sustained increases in school funding lead to better outcomes for students, as measured by higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and even higher wages.

It’s still not entirely clear where said funding increases should go. More tutors? After school programming? Music programs or athletics? But spending too little overall, researchers feel confident in saying, will hurt kids’ chances.

Armed with this knowledge, advocates for public schools still face a problem. How do you get state legislators to spend more on education? While school funding is a mix of local, state, and federal dollars, the least amount comes from the federal government. Local communities can raise property taxes, but most cities can only tax their residents so much, and relying on local taxes alone is a surefire way to ensure schools in rich areas are better off than schools in poor ones. States, therefore, play an important role, but as any education activist can tell you, it can be awfully hard to get state lawmakers to act without pressure.

That’s where state school funding lawsuits come in. Since 1973, the Supreme Court has held there exists no federal right to an equal education, so lawyers and advocates have turned to arguments based on state constitutions instead. These cases, where students or parents or even school districts themselves sue for more funding, have emerged as a key way to get more money into low-income schools. “Very few major changes in school funding have ever taken place without judicial action,” said David Knight, a professor of education finance at the University of Washington College of Education.

But these cases take years to litigate, are hard to win, and even if a plaintiff does win, state lawmakers often drag their feet on remedies, leading to even more protracted court battles. As of 2019, as tallied in the book A Federal Right to Education, plaintiffs prevailed in school funding lawsuits in a state’s highest court in 23 states and lost in 20 states.

A new school funding lawsuit, first filed in 2014, will soon be decided in Pennsylvania. The outcome matters not only for families in Pennsylvania but for school advocates nationwide who are trying to decide if these cases still make sense for them to pursue. While the lawsuits tend to be highly state-specific, some legal experts say that judges have signaled something of a retreat in enthusiasm for intervening in public school finance over the last decade, though there are enough counter-examples (like in Kansas and New Mexico) that it can be hard to draw firm conclusions.

“Pennsylvania will be a real bellwether on future cases,” said William Koski, a Stanford professor who focuses on education law and policy. “It’s why it’s being so closely watched by folks around the country.”

Even the defense concedes more money would help Pennsylvania students

One of the key ways states can mitigate school inequity is by distributing more money — reducing reliance on local property taxes to drive dollars into classrooms. But Pennsylvania ranks 45th in the nation for its state share of funding for K-12 education, picking up 38 percent of the costs to educate kids compared to a national average of 47 percent. “Pennsylvania has long been one of the most inequitable states in the country,” said Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University professor specializing in education finance.

“Taxable wealth varies dramatically among school districts,” Katrina Robson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, explained in court. For example, she said, if the small rural Shenandoah Valley district, one of the plaintiffs, taxed at nearly double the average rate in the state, it could still only raise about $4,000 per student. New Hope-Solebury in Bucks County, by contrast, could tax at the average rate, and raise upwards of $21,000 per student.

Matthew Kelly, an education professor at Penn State University, testified that his analysis showed the wealthiest school districts in Pennsylvania spend $4,800 more per student than the state’s poorer districts, and school districts would need an additional $4.6 billion to meet a target for adequate funding set by the state.

In practical terms, funding disparities can lead to situations like some kindergartners only getting 15 minutes of recess per day because a school can’t afford more staffing. Nonwhite students from low-wealth districts are nearly twice as likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers.

Defendants argued that even if disparities exist across Pennsylvania, students still receive more on average than children in other states, as Pennsylvania ranks near the top nationally in per-pupil spending. “The narrative that Pennsylvania drastically underfunds education is simply not accurate,” said a lawyer for House Speaker Bryan Cutler in court.

The lawyer also pushed back on the idea that a judge should intervene in education policy decisions. “You cannot conflate things that are nice to have with what the Constitution requires,” he argued. “Not funding a weight room is not unconstitutional.” In other instances, the defendants criticized the way the petitioner school districts spent the funds they did have, like on iPads instead of on cheaper Chromebooks.

In one of the most staggering but revealing parts of the trial, lawyers for the defense questioned why a school district needed to provide high-quality course offerings to all of its students anyway. “What use would a carpenter have for biology?” a defense lawyer asked. “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?”

The plaintiffs feel the four-month trial, which ran between November and March, went well, with even the defense’s key expert witnesses conceding that increases in spending can help students.

Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, has long argued that increased spending does not necessarily lead to improved benefits for kids, though his claims have largely rested on decades-old studies with crude methodologies. Hanushek mostly dismisses the more empirically rigorous research that has emerged in the 21st century, so much so that Baker calls Hanushek “education’s merchant of doubt.”

“I believe that money can matter,” Hanushek said in the trial. “It probably, at times, matters. The problem is that we don’t know when it’s going to matter.” He acknowledged that if districts “use our resources well” they can successfully educate low-income students.

A decision in the trial could come later this fall.

These cases turn largely on local political conditions and individual judges

Education historians analyze the history of school funding lawsuits in three waves. The first wave of litigation was relatively short — from 1971 through 1973 — and hinged on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Lawyers successfully made this argument in two federal district courts and in California’s Supreme Court, but the US Supreme Court rejected it in its San Antonio Independent District v. Rodriguez decision.

So lawyers and advocates pivoted. In the second wave of lawsuits, from 1973 to 1989, they made arguments that school spending systems were unconstitutionally inequitable, and relied heavily on state education provisions to make their case. This wasn’t the most successful era, with plaintiffs winning in only seven out of 22 final decisions. Though of those states where plaintiffs did win, according to Koski, per-pupil spending did become more equal across school districts and more targeted to less-wealthy areas.

The third wave began with Kentucky’s Supreme Court decision in 1989 and continues through today. Rather than arguing for “equitable” or “equal” education, advocates have found success arguing that state constitutions guarantee all students an adequate level of education. Framing arguments around minimum levels of “adequacy,” lawyers have found, appeals to political values around ensuring opportunity and seems to offer more deference to those sympathetic to local control arguments. There’s no doubt that politics play a significant role in the success or failure of these trials.

“These cases are all political,” Koski said. “Politics matters more than constitutional language.”

It should be noted, though, that simply winning a case does not mean the actual remedy will be good or will not lead to new problems.

In Washington state, plaintiffs won their state school funding lawsuit in 2012, with the state Supreme Court ruling the legislature had failed to meet its constitutional duty for the state’s 1.1 million students. After initial resistance, this McCleary decision eventually prompted Washington lawmakers to increase funding for public schools by a whopping $7 billion in new dollars over the last decade. However, the McCleary decision also massively expanded funding gaps between wealthy and poor school districts in the state that didn’t exist before, driven by a flawed funding formula lawmakers used to distribute the new aid.

“Everyone did get more money, but the wealthiest districts got the most,” said Knight of the University of Washington. “One takeaway for Pennsylvania is you’ve got to take your time to get the remedy right, you can’t just rush that part.”

In Pennsylvania, advocates have been working to mobilize political pressure on their elected officials in anticipation of a final court ruling. Susan Spicka, executive director of the statewide advocacy group Education Voters of PA, said they’ve always viewed the lawsuit as “one piece of the toolkit” to fix public schools, and are clear that the path ultimately lies with the legislature in Harrisburg.

“The school funding lawsuit is just really helpful to get people to understand who is failing who, because a lot of people will blame their school board or think it’s all on the local level,” she said. “With the lawsuit we can say that in most cases your local school district, that’s already raising taxes, is doing the best it can, but the state is failing on its end.”

Looking ahead at future cases

The lawsuits can be slogs. New Mexico is a state where advocates found success in court but are still struggling with lawmakers to enforce their ruling. “The legislature did take some steps but three years later there’s still a lot to be done,” said Ernest Herrera, a Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Where we’re at is enforcing our judgment, doing discovery, conducting depositions to find how far the state has come and what is still left.” Herrera, who co-filed the case in 2014, acknowledged “it’s been a long battle.”

Even though they can be arduous, it’s hard to imagine the cases will disappear, given how widespread school inequity is nationwide and how strong the research is suggesting increased school funding helps kids.

2018 report released by the US Commission on Civil Rights detailed the persistent school funding inequities that remain between high-poverty and low-poverty districts. “Low-income students and students of color are often relegated to low-quality school facilities that lack equitable access to teachers, instructional materials, technology and technology support, critical facilities, and physical maintenance,” the federal report said. The cases are one of the only strategies that have proven, however imperfectly, to drive billions more in new funding to low-income students.

New state cases continue to be filed and litigated. In 2019, the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund went to court to reopen a landmark school funding case from 1994. Maryland tried to dismiss the plaintiffs but the Circuit Court for Baltimore City ruled in 2020 that the complaint could continue. In Washington state, education advocates filed a new school equity lawsuit last December, taking on inequitable school buildings, an angle that the earlier McCleary case didn’t focus on. While there have been a few attempts to file new federal school lawsuits in recent years, those cases haven’t proved successful so far, and advocates say the current composition of the US Supreme Court doesn’t bode well for any new revisitation of Rodriguez.

“The position I would focus on now is less about overturning Rodriguez and more about seeking the recognition of a federal right that would protect some form of an adequate education for all children, that would prepare students to be effective and engaged citizens and be college- and career-ready,” said Kimberly Robinson, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in education and public policy. “That said, while yes, I think this adequacy argument is the better one, I still don’t think this current Court with a 6-3 conservative majority would accept it.”

So bumpy state litigation will likely remain. Even if the plaintiffs win in Pennsylvania later this year, the case could be appealed to the state’s high court. Spicka, of Education Voters PA, said they’re prepared for the long fight, and cited the hundreds of people who turned out to rally in support during the four-month trial.

“State lawmakers always pit communities against each other, and this lawsuit was just soul-filling to see rural and urban communities come together to say: Harrisburg, we need you to fund our schools,” she said. “We had immigrants and communities of color standing side by side with rural whites, and there were just no school funding hunger games.”

Are active shooter drills worth it?

Originally published in Vox.com on May 28, 2022.
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When one Robb Elementary teacher heard gunfire explode down the hall, she shouted for her kids to get under the desks as she sprinted to lock the classroom door. “They’ve been practicing for this day for years,” the teacher told NBC. “They knew this wasn’t a drill. We knew we had to be quiet or else we were going to give ourselves away.”

Lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) have become standard fare in American public schools, used in more than 95 percent of schools and mandated in more than 40 states. But despite their ubiquity, there’s no federal guidance on exactly how these drills should run, creating significant variation — and controversy — across the country.

For-profit companies with big marketing budgets sell their own preparedness programs to schools, despite limited evidence for the effectiveness of these companies’ approach. Some students have reported feeling traumatized after the drills, though others say it gives them a relative sense of empowerment. In recent years, anecdotes have emerged of overzealous tactics, like shooting teachers with plastic pellets, simulating gunfire, and using fake blood.

While reporters continue to stitch together the specifics of what went down at Robb Elementary, it’s clear that the school went into lockdown — teachers locked classroom doors, turned out lights, and moved the class out of sight from the hallway and remained quiet.

In the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, all schools use the Standard Response Protocol for lockdowns, a set of clear instructions promoted by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, which parents launched in 2006 after their daughter was killed in a Colorado school shooting. The protocol instructs teachers to lock doors and ensure students stay out of sight and stay quiet.

A fourth grader who survived the shooting told the CBS affiliate KENS of San Antonio that when he heard the shooting, he urged his friend to hide under something. “I was hiding hard,” the child said. “And I was telling my friend to not talk because [the shooter] is going to hear us.”

These experiences suggest the lockdown drills really did help students and staff respond effectively. Evidence so far suggests children and educators in Uvalde followed their lockdown training well, and it was local police who failed to follow protocol. For now, most experts say if we’re stuck living in a society where school shootings are threats communities must deal with, then schools should plan for drills but be more conscious of how they’re executed, and take steps to mitigate needless harm.

The case for lockdown drills

More schools began practicing lockdown drills after the 1999 high school massacre in Columbine, Colorado, but the number ticked up quickly following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Even though youth homicides are far less likely to occur in schools than other locations, school leaders and politicians face immense pressure to proactively respond to these frightening incidents.

Research has suggested that lockdown drills are important tools, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, who studies school lockdown drills. One reason is that the more a school practices, the better students and staff get at remembering to execute all the steps.

“This is particularly important as [emergency] drills … are designed to build muscle memory, which allows a person to perform certain functions in chaotic situations, such as an active attacker, when their mind is still trying to process what is taking place,” she wrote in a 2020 paper. Other research has found disaster trainings help students develop skills, and the National Association of School Psychologists has also endorsed lockdown drills as a way to prepare for emergencies.

Schildkraut’s findings indicate that staff and students who participate in lockdown drills feel more prepared and more empowered for an emergency. The trade-off, she found, is that students also felt less safe in school — potentially as a result of having to think about the risk they might one day face.

Some critics have said it’s not necessary to subject young students to the drills when they could just listen to their teachers’ instructions in the event of an emergency. A common comparison is flying on an airplane; passengers are directed on where to turn for information if there is a crisis, but they are not required to practice the emergency protocols before their flight takes off.

Schildkraut said a difference is that teachers are often the first people to be killed in a school shooting. “You can’t remove the only people with the information and then expect anyone else to do it,” she told me. “Everyone has to have the tools to stay safe in the moment.”

Supporters of lockdown preparedness also point to the Parkland, Florida, shooting in 2018, where students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had received no active shooter training and the school had no established lockdown procedures.

This lack of training, experts say, was one reason teachers and students on the third floor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas had evacuated their classrooms when they heard a fire alarm. (The alarm had been set off by discharge coming from the shooter’s gun.) When the shooter reached the third floor, he murdered five students in the hallway and one teacher who was holding their classroom door open.

But little federal guidance exists on best practices for lockdown drills, despite repeated calls for such assistance. In 2013, federal agencies endorsed a controversial practice known as “Run, Hide, Fight,” encouraging school staff unable to hide or run in an active shooter incident to try to “incapacitate” the perpetrator with “aggressive force” or nearby items like fire extinguishers. The federal training did not clarify how and if educators should practice such tactics.

In the final report of the Federal Commission on School Safety established after Parkland, the authors recommended federal agencies develop guidelines for active shooter trainings, but to date those have not materialized. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security did not return request for comment; a spokesperson for the Department of Education provided links to guidance on active shooter and emergency events, but not to drills specifically.

A suite of companies and consultants have stepped into the breach, touting so-called “options-based” approaches they claim are superior to traditional drills. These include training staff in more tactics, like barricading doors or even actively confronting an armed shooter. The most recognized player in this space is Alice, the largest for-profit provider of active shooting training in the US. Armed with big marketing budgets, the company can travel across the country to promote its model, even with limited research available to support it.

“There’s no requirement on what model to use, and right now it’s everyone trying to figure it out,” Schildkraut said.

How lockdown drills can cause harm

Given the steady stream of anecdotal news stories about active shooter drills inspiring child fear and even employee injury lawsuits, advocates have urged more attention on whether lockdown drills provoke trauma or are even necessary. Psychologists say establishing drill standards is especially important for children, whose brains and coping strategies are still developing. Others urge more focus on preventive safety strategies, like improving mental health supports and developing anonymous tip lines for students.

Scant high-quality research exists on the mental health risks of lockdown drills, though in 2021, Georgia Tech researchers, in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety, published a study analyzing social media posts before and after the drills in 114 schools across 33 states.

The researchers found the drills associated with increases in depression, stress, anxiety, and physiological health problems for students, teachers, and parents, and suggested leaders rethink schools’ reliance on them. “We provide the first empirical evidence that school shooter drills — in their current, unregulated state — negatively impact the psychological well-being of entire school communities,” the authors wrote.

Other experts say the drills may even be counterproductive, given that most school shooters tend to be current or former students of those schools. The drills might spark “socially contagious” behavior, some critics warn, or deter school leaders from making other proactive safety investments.

Alice’s methods, which include alarming simulations, have drawn particular scrutiny. But in December 2021, when a shooter murdered four students at Oxford High School in Michigan, leaders noted they had prepared for such an attack using an Alice drill two months prior. The CEO of Alice claimed Oxford would have seen dozens more deaths without the training.

One study published in 2020, led by a criminal justice professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, found roughly one in 10 students reported experiencing a negative psychological outcome following an Alice training, but over 85 percent of students said they either had no change in feeling or felt more prepared, confident, or safe. The professor who led that research — Cheryl Lero Jonson — published a study in 2018 arguing that “options-based” approaches like Alice were “more effective civilian response[s]” to active shooter incidents than traditional school lockdown drills. Critics note Lero Jonson is a certified Alice instructor and say her findings were not sufficiently independent.

Schildkraut, who primarily studies the Standard Response Protocol method, told me she would not feel comfortable saying if one model is better or worse, but that she does feel advocates of Alice-like approaches mislead the public when they suggest traditional lockdown drills don’t involve choices.

“When we train students, we don’t say this is your only option. If you’re in an open area or by an exit door, your best option is to get out of the building,” she said. “The reason why there’s a heavier focus on the lockdown as an option [and the ‘L’ in Alice stands for lockdown] is because kids remember things in a very linear fashion, and the best thing a student can do is shut the door and get out of the way.”

How to mitigate drill harm

To reduce the risk of trauma, a growing number of experts and advocates have stepped up to issue recommendations for lockdown drills.

In August 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its opposition to high-intensity active shooter drills, issuing recommendations including to eliminate deception in the exercises, and to incorporate student input in their design. The AAP recommended making accommodations for students who may have had prior traumatic experiences or are otherwise at higher risk for negative reaction.

A month later, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Everytown for Gun Safety issued their own recommendations for school safety drills, including removing students from them altogether. If students do have to participate, the teachers unions and Everytown suggest giving parents notice, eliminating simulations that mimic an actual shooting, and using age-appropriate language developed in partnership with school-based mental health staff.

In May 2021, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers, and Safe and Sound Schools released their own new guidance on school lockdown drills, recommending, among other things, getting parental permission and training staff to recognize trauma signs.

And this year, partly motivated by the new Georgia Tech research, lawmakers in Washington state passed a bill prohibiting school lockdown drills from involving lifelike simulations or reenactments that are not “trauma-informed and age and developmentally appropriate.” The law takes effect in June.

Researchers say more high-quality studies are needed to understand the long-term impacts of lockdown drills and to develop more standardized approaches that could minimize risk. More leadership from the federal government would help.

Pandemic school reopenings were not just about politics

Originally published in Vox.com on May 23, 2022.
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Almost as soon as some schools reopened for in-person learning in the fall of 2020, research was suggesting a tidy, albeit dark, conclusion about why they did: politics. Early analyses indicated that Covid-19 health factors had virtually nothing to do with reopening decisions, and partisan politics could explain nearly all the variation.

There were early signs that this narrative didn’t explain the full story. If allegiance to former President Donald Trump (in schools that opened) or teacher unions (in those that stayed closed) were all that mattered, why did support for reopening schools also drop among Republican voters over the summer? And what about the conflicting recommendations coming from federal health and education departments at that time? Nevertheless, the idea that Covid-19 was not a real factor was repeated by some of the nation’s most influential journalists and media outlets, and framed as though the question was generally settled.

This is typical in policy research: Initial waves of data often attract lots of attention, and can quickly ossify into conventional wisdom. When subsequent, often deeper inquiry reveals alternative or more nuanced explanations, it tends to receive far less notice.

That’s what’s been happening with research into school closures. More recent studies have found that, far from being irrelevant, Covid-19 indicators were among central factors predicting whether schools would reopen.

Researchers say they also still haven’t fully understood how other factors — like school governance and parent preferences — influenced Covid-19 school decisions. A new study, published recently by two education researchers from George Mason University, replicates some earlier findings and explores new potential variables. All in all, it continues adding to a picture that’s more complex than the early analyses suggested.

This debate might seem moot: Schools have been back to in-person learning this school year, and parents largely report satisfaction with their child’s progress. But the consequences of these decisions continue to linger. Many educators say things have not yet returned to normalEmpirical research suggests some of the most negative academic effects were experienced disproportionately by low-income students and students of color. Moreover, future pandemics remain a threat, and district leaders may one day again be charged with navigating similar circumstances.

A new study reinforces that school opening decisions were complicated

The narrative that school reopening decisions were all about politics coalesced early. One of the first pieces of evidence came from a Brookings Institution blog post published in July 2020, where senior fellow Jon Valant found “no relationship” between school districts’ reopening plans and their per-capita Covid-19 cases, but a strong one between districts’ plans and county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election. The implication was that communities that take their cues from then-President Trump were more willing to resume in-person instruction.

Additional research emerged in the following months reiterating that health concerns were not a significant factor. “We find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making,” concluded political scientists Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger in an October 2020 analysis.

But as time passed, and more schools reopened, the picture grew more complicated. A July 2021 analysis compared fall 2020 reopening factors to those in spring 2021. Tulane economists Douglas Harris and Daniel Oliver found Covid-19 rates were one significant predictor of fall school reopening. Over time, the role of both politics and health factors declined, Harris and Oliver observed, while the demographics of a given community remained a strong predictor throughout the year. (This was knotty, they note, given the “close interplay between demographics, parental work situations, and COVID health risks.”)

The latest addition to the research literature was published this month by two George Mason professors, Matthew Steinberg and David Houston. Their working paper — which has not yet been peer-reviewed — affirmed some of the core findings of earlier studies: Higher rates of in-person instruction during fall 2020 occurred in areas with weaker unions and that leaned Republican, and rates of Covid-19 were correlated with reopening decisions.

The new paper looks at how factors predicting in-person schooling changed over the course of the 2021-21 academic year. Covid-19 case and death rates, political partisanship, and teacher union strength became “less potent predictors” over time. As the year stretched on, Steinberg and Houston also observed that communities with a history of higher standardized test scores grew significantly more likely to reopen school buildings than their lower-achieving counterparts.

“This pattern may help us understand the widening test score gaps that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic,” they write.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University who was involved in a study that found local school district decisions were heavily tied to political partisanship and union strength, called Houston and Steinberg’s study “great” — and noted the importance of replication in policy research.

While her own research found school reopening to be less tied to Covid-19 severity, she said there was still a relationship to Covid-19 rates observed in some aspects of their model.

Harris told Vox he agreed with the new working paper’s conclusions — that reopening was about more than just politics — which largely mirrored his prior research. He also praised the new study for tracking how factors that seemed to drive in-person instruction changed over time. “That was novel and interesting and important,” Harris said.

Steinberg and Houston’s study leveraged county-level data from a private firm, Burbio, which tracked in-person and virtual learning for nearly half of all public school students during the pandemic. Covid-19 case and death rates, and partisanship measured by presidential vote share, are also all reported at the county level. Most counties, however, contain multiple school districts, which is why other researchers have preferred a school district-level analysis.

“There are a lot of analytic choices that go into descriptive analyses of imperfect data, and we do not have a strong bone to pick with the other studies,” Steinberg told Vox, but emphasized that many of these minor choices can have “nontrivial implications” for interpreting results.

Brad Marianno, an education policy researcher at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told Vox he is skeptical of Burbio’s ability to accurately capture in-person instruction rates, and thought a school district-level analysis (like one he published earlier this year) would have been better than a county-level approach. Still, he praised the new paper, including for performing its analysis over time. “We need multiple efforts at the question, especially efforts that employ similar and different datasets and measures, to really triangulate a data-driven answer,” he said.

Sarah Cohodes, a Columbia University economist who has studied pandemic differences between charter schools and traditional public schools, said there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to measuring by county or school-district levels. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she told me, though she reiterated that it depends on the research question.

Local support for teachers may have made it easier to reopen schools

One of the most novel elements of Steinberg and Houston’s study is their suggestion of a previously unexplored factor predicting in-person instruction: local support for teachers. Using multiple surveys with different sampling strategies and question wordings, the George Mason professors found that pre-pandemic support for increases in educator pay was consistently associated with higher rates of in-person instruction during the pandemic. In other words, areas where the public was more supportive of raises for teachers were also more likely to have in-person learning.

Other education policy scholars told Vox they’d need more time to consider that connection. Reckhow called it “a really intriguing result” but one that left her with “many questions” about the underlying mechanisms that might explain the finding. “Without more information, it’s hard for me to develop a fully satisfactory explanation,” she said.

Steinberg stressed that what he sees as so “revelatory” about this finding, which was based on data from two different nationally representative surveys, is that it suggests to him there was something about communities that valued their teachers more highly that potentially made it easier for schools to open for in-person learning.

“Some of these little p-politics in communities matter, and whether or not there is preexisting trust could make the logistical complexity of reopening manageable for leaders or unmanageable,” he said.

As time marches on, it can be easy to forget just how acute the uncertainty was for school administrators during the 2020-21 school year, particularly before vaccines were available. Everything looks crisper in hindsight. But given the tremendous implications for students, schools, and families — and that administrators may one day again find themselves in similar positions — researchers will likely study those decisions for years to come.

Why Teachers Are Afraid to Teach History

Originally published in the April issue of the New Republic magazine, and online March 28.
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For a decade, Jonathan Greenberg, a social studies teacher at the Center School in Seattle, taught an advanced placement course for high schoolers called Citizenship and Social Justice. A broad-shouldered man with penetrating eyes and a warm manner, Greenberg brought in speakers to talk about their experiences of racism and invited his students to share, too. Sometimes, he separated them by race so they could consider questions more privately. In an exercise known as “affinity-based caucusing,” he might ask white students, “What’s the role of a white person in fighting racism at school?” Students of color, meanwhile, might share how they cope with discrimination they’ve faced.

Greenberg shaped his curriculum according to guidelines developed by Courageous Conversation, a group founded in 1992 to help teachers facilitate dialogues about race. The organization intends its discussions to be structured by four agreements: to stay engaged, to expect discomfort, to tell the truth, and to accept a lack of closure. Frank talk about encounters with racism, Greenberg believed, would help bring attention to the struggles of underrepresented populations at his majority-white public school, and help all his students link their present lives with the historical realities of race.

In December 2012, the parents of a white student in Greenberg’s class filed a complaint with the principal. Greenberg, they alleged, had not only created “an emotionally-charged classroom environment” and a “climate of fear,” he had fomented “racial hatred and prejudice.” The complaint made its way to the school district, and, within a month, Seattle Public Schools launched an HR investigation and told Greenberg that he could not teach the racism curriculum or a planned unit about gender before the investigation concluded. Besides the teen whose parents initiated the complaint, officials interviewed no students about their experience in the class. By mid-February, the superintendent wrote Greenberg that his lessons had created an “intimidating” atmosphere for the student and “disrupted the educational environment” for others. Students began circulating a petition demanding that the curriculum inspired by Courageous Conversation be reinstated; ultimately, they gathered more than 1,000 signatures. One day, as another teacher supervised Greenberg’s class, some students signed the petition. The parents who’d originally objected filed a second complaint, this time for harassment. Within months, the district transferred Greenberg to another school.

Nine years later, as states rush to pass laws banning “critical race theory,” a term that in popular usage on the right has come to mean nearly any curriculum that refers to systemic or structural racism, teachers around the country are wondering whether they’ll meet similar fates. By the end of January, more than 35 states had introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict classroom discussions of race and gender, and at least 14 had passed laws or directives. The content of the laws varies somewhat from place to place. In Tennessee, for example, legislators banned 11 “concepts” from public school instruction. Educators aren’t allowed to promote “division between, or resentment of, a race” or suggest that individuals should feel “discomfort,” “guilt,” or “anguish” because of their race. In Iowa, lawmakers prohibit describing the state or the country as “systemically racist or sexist.”

For teachers, one of the most concerning aspects of the bills is their vagueness. Oklahoma’s law, for example, bans teaching the concept that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, but lawmakers declined to clarify how educators can teach about individuals who subscribed to these supremacist views. Texas’s law says any controversial issue must be taught “in a manner free from political bias” but doesn’t define what counts as controversial. Violating the new rules can bring about steep consequences: Teachers may be fired or lose their licensure; schools’ funding may be cut. Doubtless because the bills offer scant clarity about how one might comply, teachers have already begun self-censoring their lessons out of fear.

Their anxieties are not unfounded. In New Hampshire, the state’s education department created an online form to assist parents and students in filing complaints. The conservative group Moms for Liberty even pledged to pay $500 to the first person who “successfully catches” a New Hampshire teacher breaking the state’s new statute. Incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin announced 10 days into his job that Virginia would offer a tip service for parents “to send us reports and observations” of teachers they believe are misbehaving. A group called Save Texas Kids—dedicated to “fighting CRT and any other form of woke politics”—emailed Dallas teachers asking for names of colleagues promoting critical race theory or “gender fluidity.” In December, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, proposed a bill that would allow parents to sue school districts that permit lessons allegedly rooted in critical race theory, and collect attorney fees for doing so.

For years, the school culture wars were waged over God and prayer, and how and whether to teach evolution and sex. But over the last decade, the fights have turned more toward how we frame our nation’s past, particularly how we characterize America’s histories of racism and colonization, and their relevance to today. In many ways, these debates are much harder to adjudicate; the law provides more clarity on the separation of church and state than on history curricula, and evolutionary theory offers more certainties than the vagaries of historical interpretation. For example, how should educators describe U.S. expansion of the West? Were the settlers bigoted imperialists or courageous pioneers? And is it possible for schools committed to anti-racism to embrace “color blindness,” or is that a contradiction in terms?

Public school theorists have long worried about the consequences of bringing heated matters into class. As far back as 1844, the famed educator Horace Mann warned against it. “If the day ever arrives when the school room shall become a cauldron for the fermentation of all the hot and virulent opinions, in politics and religion, that now agitate our community, that day the fate of our glorious public school system will be sealed, and speedy ruin will overwhelm it,” he wrote. Indeed, if there’s been one constant in the history of U.S. schooling, it’s the suspicion with which local communities respond when their teachers tackle controversial issues.

Parents’ fears notwithstanding, administrators stress that critical race theory is not taught in public schools; they are technically correct. As an academic field, CRT is a relatively obscure discipline that examines how laws and institutions harm or benefit people according to their race and relative power; its study is largely reserved to graduate programs. Yet parents who sense that change is afoot are also not wrong. Certain longstanding assumptions about identity and opportunity are being contested in K-12 classrooms around the nation—the same assumptions contested today in workplaces, in media organizations, and in the halls of Congress. The way these struggles shake out will have everything to do with how much control certain parents are able to exert in school districts and how well teachers can protect their autonomy.

Progressive groups and teacher unions have largely responded to critical race theory attacks with pleas that the public should trust educators to teach honest and accurate history. The appeal sounds reasonable enough, but what it means in practice is far from clear. Should teachers teach all perspectives on every issue? Is such a thing remotely possible within the constraints of a school year? What do young people need to know to thrive in a diverse, globalized, and democratic society? And who should get to decide?


On a Saturday morning in mid-November, just weeks after Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial election by campaigning on “parents’ rights” in education, an earnest and avuncular Colorado Springs high school history teacher named Anton Schulzki addressed a group of fellow teachers at the one hundred and first annual National Council for the Social Studies conference. Schulzki, the president of the council, acknowledged that the social studies curriculum has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, particularly since The New York Times Magazine’s publication of The 1619 Project, a compilation of articles and essays asserting the centrality of slavery to any accurate story of the nation’s founding. “Time and time again,” Schulzki said, “teachers, administrators, and school boards have been accused of somehow indoctrinating their students.”

He noted the irony of history curricula dominating public debate around K-12 schooling when the hours of class time actually afforded to it—particularly at the elementary and middle school levels—have decreased precipitously over the last two decades. The primary result of the new rules passed by states and school boards, Schulzki argued, has been that teachers avoid certain topics altogether. But, he implored, they should try very hard not to. It is a time “for us to stand together in solidarity for social studies,” he said, “to use our collective voices in solidarity against ignorance, injustice, and indifference.”

The pressures around critical race theory shaped many other panel discussions throughout the weeklong virtual conference. One presentation—“Decentering Whiteness: One School District’s Approach”—explored the changes the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota, is making to the history curriculum to reflect the needs of its changing population. Like many other suburban areas, Anoka-Hennepin, which serves a large geographic region just north of Minneapolis that includes liberal inner-ring suburbs, conservative exurbs, and rural countryside, has grown markedly more diverse over the last 15 years; nonwhite students now represent a third of its student body. Some pockets of the district voted for Trump in 2020, others leaned toward Biden. Both the leftist Ilhan Omar and the far-right Tom Emmer represent parents from this area in Congress.

Dan Bordwell, the thick-bearded teaching and learning specialist in his mid-thirties who led the “Decentering Whiteness” presentation, described the work educators have done in his district since 2017 to incorporate more diverse voices into their social studies lessons. When students learn about Brown v. Board of Education, Bordwell asked, do they also learn about Linda Brown, the student who inspired the case, and her family? When they learn about the antebellum period, do they hear perspectives from Black lesbians? With the help of Keith Mayes, a historian of African American studies at the University of Minnesota, Anoka-Hennepin teachers worked to identify where they could “infuse” new discussions of race and racism into their curriculum, while still following Minnesota’s social studies standards, last updated in 2013. Anoka-Hennepin also established an honors-level Black history elective and ramped up professional development aimed at helping teachers incorporate narratives from underrepresented populations. It’s about “telling a more complete picture,” Bordwell explained.

Helping students see themselves in the curriculum, leaders in a growing number of school districts say, will lead to higher academic achievement and deeper learning for all. In 2019, Anoka-Hennepin issued an Equity and Achievement Plan, lending more support to the work its social studies department was already doing to bring perspectives of underrepresented groups to the forefront.

But not all families saw these changes as developments in the right direction. And over the last two years, as parents began mobilizing against the specter of critical race theory, much has changed in the district. In the Anoka-Hennepin Better Together Facebook group, which has more than 550 members, parents fulminate against excessively “woke” teacher trainings and other aspects of student learning. Krissy Erickson, the founder of the Facebook group, told me she started it after the principal of her kindergarten-age son’s school signed a “Good Trouble” pledge with other school principals in the Twin Cities metro. The pledge committed to “de-centering Whiteness” and “dismantling practices that reinforce White academic superiority,” such as tracking students. Erickson, who had never been involved in parent activism before, joked that “the mama bear just recently came out.” At a school board meeting in late August, she announced that she and her fellow parents were “done being bullied into silence” and criticized the “CRT-related ideologies” that have been presented to staff and “directly trickle down into students’ assignments.” Erickson stood “in full support of teachers,” she said, but insisted that “the only real privilege we need to reflect on is the privilege we all have to live here in the United States of America.”

Thousands of other, mostly white, parents across Minnesota have similarly been protesting proposed state social studies standards that for the first time would include ethnic studies as a core component for all students. The standards—which would take effect in 2026—reflect “a relentless fixation with Native American history” and replace “objective historical knowledge … with a fixation on ‘dominant and non-dominant narratives’ and ‘absent voices,’” according to a petition led by the Center of the American Experiment, a local conservative think tank. This past November, Anoka-Hennepin residents elected a school board member, Matt Audette, who ran on a fiercely anti-CRT platform.

Bordwell, whose emails have been subject to FOIA requests by suspicious members of his community, has felt the increased pressure acutely. He submitted the idea for his “Decentering Whiteness” panel in February 2020; had he crafted the pitch a year later, he said, he would likely have proposed a different name for his presentation. “We have teachers who are walking on eggshells worried that they’re going to have a picture taken by a student or parent, that they are going to be unfairly targeted for the work that they’re doing.”

At my request, Erickson asked other parents in her Facebook group what they make of teachers’ fears about retaliation. Some teachers, she told me, are “obvious activists who will stop at nothing to promote their own OPINION.” But she believed that most parents would be satisfied so long as educators are “presenting facts and multiple viewpoints.” Members of her group, she explained, feel that issues of race, sex, and gender have “been thrown at our children from every angle”; they want “to simplify things and get back to education and academia.” As a compromise, Erickson proposed making certain subjects elective, or providing families with a heads-up about unit discussions and allowing them to opt out if they disapprove. In this, she echoed a call common among the anti-CRT cohort, who argue that teachers should alert parents of any plans to include controversial subjects in their curriculum, and even let them review teaching material ahead of time.


If the members of Erickson’s group—and similar parents—are to be taken at their word that they would support the inclusion of multiple viewpoints, they should be reassured by the work of some nonprofit education groups aiming to help teachers tackle controversial issues. One such group is Close Up. Founded in 1971 initially to bring high school students on trips to Washington, D.C., Close Up encourages “deliberation” on heated policy questions as a way of helping students build consensus. A study of its model, published this past summer by professors at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, found that high school students felt more respected in classroom political discussions designed as deliberation rather than debate.

A class using Close Up’s approach might ask, for instance, what policies, if any, are needed to reform police practices. Students would read about the disparities between Black Americans’ encounters with the police when compared to other groups, explore different policy proposals to address the issue—banning the use of neck restraints, for example—and review the arguments supporters and opponents make for each idea. At the end, students would be asked to write about which proposals they favor, which they would change, and which they would reject, and could suggest other proposals.

At least in theory, it’s possible to imagine such an approach satisfying people across the political spectrum. But on certain deeply polarizing issues, such as rights for undocumented immigrants or the place for transgender students in school sports, some on the left have argued that it’s harmful even to have those discussions; normalizing certain perspectives, the thinking goes, can be destructive to the vulnerable people they’re about. And on the right as well, many parents find certain points of view too dangerous to debate; talking about transgender athletes, for example, legitimizes the gender categories these parents patently reject and believe could corrupt their children. Sante Mastriana, a curriculum design manager for Close Up, said the group doesn’t support deliberating on everything; certain topics, like white supremacy or the efficacy of fascism, are off limits. “There are certain arguments which we are not going to entertain as valid,” he told me. Of course, if some subjects are out of bounds, it’s impossible to claim that ideology doesn’t, at some level, govern the choice of study; some administrator somewhere is choosing what to include and what not to. Mastriana said that Close Up’s solution is to rely on multipartisan resources and facts. “Unless it’s the sort of argument that just categorically makes a supposition about the nature of things without actually providing any grounding,” he said, “then it is something probably worth addressing.”

Chris McDuffie, an eighth-grade civics teacher at Heathwood Hall, a private school in South Carolina, uses Close Up materials in his classroom. He likes their “fact-based, middle of the road” format. “I tell kids to wait at least three days, check at least three sources, and to enter a conversation with three pieces of information or three questions before they form an opinion about a current event,” he told me. “No one knows where I fall politically, and I pride myself on that.” But McDuffie, who has been teaching for 21 years, including 12 in public schools, acknowledged that it’s easier to tackle political issues in a private school, where he’s afforded a great deal of autonomy over lessons. When he worked at a public school, some administrators, wary of backlash, didn’t even support teaching current events.

Like the nonprofits, some state school board associations have been encouraging local school districts to better support educators teaching contentious issues, a risky move given the intense politicization of the National School Boards Association in 2021. Last year, the national group compared parents protesting critical race theory at school board meetings to “domestic terrorism,” which led 21 mostly GOP-controlled states to withdraw membership, participation, or dues from the organization. Nevertheless, in late November, in Loudoun County, the northern Virginia region that became a national epicenter of parents’ protesting CRT, school administrators recommended that their school board adopt a policy called “Teaching About Controversial and Sensitive Issues,” based on a model promoted by the Virginia School Boards Association.

Examples of such controversial topics, said Ashley Ellis, Loudoun County’s deputy superintendent for instruction, are slavery, colonization, immigration, and the Holocaust. “Schools are under more scrutiny for what they’re teaching,” Loudoun Now, a local paper, quoted Ellis as saying. “Our teachers have asked for support in how to approach these topics with confidence.” A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the proposal.

Teacher unions, too, have been exploring ways to support educators who tackle controversial issues. The three million-plus–member National Education Association has been organizing to pass a model school board policy that affirms the value of Black and other ethnic studies courses and pledges to defend teachers who use materials “that incorporate diverse perspectives.” The unions have also been organizing to back candidates in school board elections. “We are preparing and training our educators to be involved in elections of those who have the power and authority to make the decisions,” Becky Pringle, the president of the NEA, told me.

But parents opposed to CRT have likewise stepped up their school board efforts. In 2021, the 1776 Project PAC, a national right-wing group, formed to elect school board members who are committed to “abolishing” critical race theory and The 1619 Project from public school curricula. The group backed 57 candidates across seven states, 41 of whom won. In 2022, its sights are set on 200 additional races.


Some of the current disputes over curricula can be traced to the beginning of the Obama period. The election of the nation’s first Black president led to new cultural and political backlash, including fights over how to teach about American identity in schools. As the education historian Jonathan Zimmerman has observed, critics began labeling ethnic studies courses as “divisive” and “un-American,” and by 2014, groups were lobbying against the College Board’s revised A.P. U.S. history course, which opponents alleged cast U.S. history in too harsh a light. For example, the revised guidelines described the idea of manifest destiny—the nineteenth-century doctrine that said the expansion of the United States throughout North America was both justified and inevitable—as “built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.” The Republican National Committee passed a resolution that year blasting the framework for its reduced focus on the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and U.S. military victories. The framework “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” the RNC said. (A year later, the College Board issued yet another revised framework, filled with edits that successfully quelled its conservative critics.)

Last spring, after state lawmakers began introducing bills banning critical race theory, the left-leaning Zinn Education Project sponsored a Teach the Truth pledge, garnering thousands of signatures from teachers. The National Education Association has its own Pledge to Support Honesty in Education. Both groups argue that CRT critics want teachers to avoid addressing topics like slavery and redlining, but conservatives insist that charge is a lie. Regardless, mainstream history textbooks do cover the nation’s disturbing history of racial violence better than they used to. A content analysis led by education historian Jeffrey Snyder found that leading contemporary texts depict in detail “everything from slave whippings and lynchings to race riots and church bombings.” According to Snyder, “it is not uncommon for textbooks to include even the most grisly of images, such as a photograph of the charred body of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916.”

Perhaps the fiercest debate is over whether to teach that the United States has overcome its dark legacy of racial discrimination, or whether, as The 1619 Project suggests, slavery’s harms continue to oppress Black Americans in the present. “White supremacy affects every element of the U.S. education system,” argues Learning for Justice, a national social justice nonprofit that provides free resources to educators and school districts, on the cover of its spring 2021 magazine. In a sponsored session at the National Council for the Social Studies conference—entitled “Teaching Honest History Through Critical Inquiry”—Learning for Justice facilitators asked participants, “How comfortable are you teaching about American enslavement, including the idea that it shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness?” They encouraged educators to avoid interpreting historical texts through a “white, Eurocentric” lens that would perpetuate stereotypes, and instead to teach students “resistant” readings, which in their definition lend themselves to anti-racist interpretation and challenge dominant cultural beliefs.

Part of what makes the fights over how to teach history and social studies so tricky is that, while virtually everyone says they oppose racism, enormous disagreement exists, within the broad left as well as between left and right, about what an ­anti-racist education should look like. Ibram X. Kendi, one of the most influential writers on anti-racism, argues against standardized tests, calling them “the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds.” Others see testing as a key tool for leveling the playing field for marginalized students, allowing them to access opportunity and compete on merit, and they view moves away as discriminatory against Asians, who tend to perform better on the exams. Still others see the very ideas of competition and meritocracy as by-products of white supremacy. Tema Okun, a popular consultant on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, describes “a sense of urgency,” “perfectionism,” and “individualism” as values inherent to white supremacist culture. In Learning for Justice’s spring issue, an educator describing anti-racist teaching voiced a similar opinion: She sees white supremacy wherever there’s a “sense of urgency to meet particular deadlines that don’t necessarily speak to actual student growth.”

The Seattle parents who complained about Courageous Conversation, the curriculum Jonathan Greenberg was punished for incorporating, were not the last family to object to the ideas it encouraged. And even people who broadly agree with including discussions of racism in the classroom might object to certain arguments of Courageous Conversation’s founder, Glenn Singleton. One New York Times Magazine article, for instance, quoted Singleton as saying that valuing writing over other forms of communication is “a hallmark of whiteness” that harms Black students. (Brooke Gregory, the president of Courageous Conversation, argued that most critics of the program haven’t participated and misunderstand its goals. The point, she said, “is not to demonize anyone, it is not to create good and bad or right and wrong, it is to say that all of these voices have a need to be heard and understood.”)

Most parents organizing against critical race theory have been white, but not exclusively. Last spring, Shawntel Cooper, a Black mother of two, testified at a Loudoun County school board meeting that was picked up by national news, and has since spoken out in the media about teacher training materials she finds offensive, like one obtained via FOIA that contrasted “White Individualism” with “Color Group Collectivism.” Cooper said she did not identify with the values ascribed to the “Color Group” side, which didn’t include things like private property and independence. The trainings also asserted that “culturally competent professionals” do not embrace color blindness, and they “accept responsibility” for their own racism and sexism. “I don’t understand how you would not want to ban anything that is this divisive and divides each other because of color,” Cooper said.

When I asked Jalaya Liles Dunn, the director of Learning for Justice, how her group is contending with the possibility that educators will face political backlash if they incorporate their more radical resources, she said her members have been talking with teachers about how to develop materials that won’t get them in trouble. “We’re being really practical about what teachers can and can’t say, and can and can’t do,” she said. “We don’t create a finished product and say ‘This is what teachers need’…. They know what they need, they’re on the front lines.”


The claims of parents in Erickson’s Facebook group notwithstanding, the idea that concerned communities might be satisfied by teachers presenting multiple viewpoints on thorny subjects is not borne out by history. Even before the wave of anti–critical race theory bills, most public schools throughout our nation’s past have shied away from teaching controversial issues. In The Case for Contention (2017), co-authors Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, a philosopher of education, note that, in general, communities have not wanted their schools to present “both sides” of an issue, much preferring teachers to reinforce local norms. Indeed, “the most significant restriction” on public school teachers tackling controversial issues, Zimmerman and Robertson conclude, has always been the public itself. Educators, who keenly feel this distrust, have generally chosen to stick to topics they believe will agitate no one.

The law offers K-12 teachers who do suffer backlash little protection. It’s been more than 50 years since the high point for teachers’ free speech. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision concluding that loyalty oaths, including anti-communist pledges, violated educators’ First Amendment rights. In 1968, the court ruled in favor of Marvin Pickering, a teacher who had written a letter to his local paper opposing a tax levy decision made by his school board and criticizing the board’s tendency to allocate funds to sports over academics. The board fired Pickering, but since his letter didn’t criticize the school employees with whom he worked on a daily basis and pertained to a matter of public concern, the court said his speech should be protected. And in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in its famous Tinker v. Des Moines decision that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Since then, however, the courts have largely retreated from protecting teacher free speech at the K-12 level, both inside and outside the classroom. In 2006, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that when public employees speak in the context of their jobs, they’re “not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes,” and thus should not be insulated from employer discipline. Less than a year later, the Seventh Circuit upheld the firing of an Indiana schoolteacher who told her class that she had honked in response to a HONK FOR PEACE sign protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and she believed in peaceful solutions to conflict. “The school system does not ‘regulate’ teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech,” the court ruled, asserting that she could not cover topics or advocate perspectives in class that depart from what the local school board approves.

There are nearly 14,000 K-12 public school districts across the United States, and almost all are governed by locally elected school boards. Turnout in these elections is notoriously low, often just 5 or 10 percent of eligible voters. Nonetheless, these representatives are legally empowered to set policy on virtually everything related to their schools, from budgets and bus schedules to curriculum and enrollment boundaries. The major limitation on their authority comes from state lawmakers, who can impose obligations on local districts to do with school vaccinations, standardized testing, or, of course, new rules curtailing discussions of race.

“The fact of the matter is we work with a captive audience,” said Steven Cullison, a high school economics teacher, in a National Council for the Social Studies presentation he led about free speech. “That is, the law requires students to come to school, and what’s more, we require the community to pay for it. That means that the community has a right to far greater say in what occurs in a public K-12 school than, say, in a college or in a private school.” Speaking this fall on a podcast, Alice O’Brien, the general counsel for the National Education Association, told educators that if they work in a state that passes a law against teaching that the United States is systemically racist, they must be particularly careful about how they craft curricula and answer student questions. “I wish I didn’t have to say that,” she said. “But the fact is we do have members who have gotten in trouble for appearing to promote a viewpoint in their classroom that is at odds with that prohibition.”

If educators cannot deny the stake lawmakers, parents, and other community members have in shaping school curriculum, political leaders certainly question parents’ interest at their peril, as Terry McAuliffe discovered this past fall in his failed Virginia gubernatorial bid. In a late September campaign debate, McAuliffe said a few words he would never live down. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” he announced. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In the closing weeks of the race, Youngkin’s campaign made those remarks a centerpiece, running ads and circulating petitions proclaiming that “Parents Matter.” Post-election public opinion research showed that McAuliffe’s comments were highly influential, including among Biden voters who cast their ballots for Youngkin.

Though the fact often gets lost in contemporary media coverage, it’s never been only conservative parents who have disputed what’s taught in schools. Throughout the twentieth century, Black parents, with the assistance of the National Urban League and the NAACP, challenged school boards and book publishers about racist passages that they found in textbooks. The advent of ethnic studies courses, too, was driven by families pressuring their local leaders for more equitable representation in the classroom.

Perhaps surprisingly, not just parents think parents should have a say in curricula. In November, in a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of district administrators and teachers, 63 percent of respondents said local parents should be involved in selecting the curriculum and materials, even though just 31 percent said parents are involved. And while it may be because they are so eager to avoid fights and criticism, more than 50 percent of educators said they supported letting parents opt their children out of classes, curricula, or units they disapprove of; 25 percent even said they “completely support” the idea.


In 2013, following the news that Greenberg would be transferred to another Seattle school, fellow teachers and former and current students rallied to his defense, shocked by how quickly administrators had caved to the grievances of a single family. More than 100 of his supporters showed up to a Seattle school board meeting decked out in green clothes, and at the school’s graduation ceremony that year, a senior delivered a speech demanding Greenberg’s reinstatement, after which his peers opened their gowns to reveal shirts with the letter “G” on chest plates. Although Greenberg was forced to spend the next year working at a middle school, an arbitrator eventually ruled that the school district had inappropriately used a transfer to punish him, and permitted him to return to his old job.

Greenberg, who still teaches high school civics in Seattle, has noticed changes in his two-plus decades in the classroom. “Students are so much more aware of systemic oppression than they used to be,” he remarked. When he used to ask his classes why people were poor, teens tended to invoke individual choice. “Now there’s a reluctancy to even mention individual choices,” he said. “I credit Black Lives Matter with so much of that. Back in the day, I might have just been happy to even discuss the concept of ‘white privilege’ with my class—now I feel like it’s not even a debate.”

Few teachers today, though, feel confident that they’d get their jobs back if they got on a parent’s bad side, and Greenberg himself suspects that his own race and gender played a role in the community’s defense of him. “I certainly feel like educators of color who get persecuted don’t get that showing of support,” he told me.

Keith Mayes, the University of Minnesota historian who helped Anoka-Hennepin social studies teachers include more Black history, sees community backlash to critical race theory as just a “foot in the door,” the first step in a project to eventually go after ethnic studies courses, racial equity initiatives, and broader discussions of racism. While he recognizes that the fear educators experience is real, Mayes thinks that what is most needed is backbone. “The real question will be how well-meaning white teachers and administrators stand up to this opposition,” he said. “That’s the fundamental question, and I’m always watching that.” Teachers, after all, are members of their communities, too; they can elect candidates for school board, testify at meetings, and advocate collectively for their interests.

In the end, as communities continue to spar, it will be students who pay the price for the laws, rules, and cultural pressures that deter educators from tackling so-called divisive subjects. A wealth of research, from both nationally representative samples of schools and individual schools, has shown that students who are encouraged to discuss controversial issues are more likely to develop civic tolerance, political interests, a sense of civic duty, and expectations of voting than their peers without similar classroom experiences. Teachers “cannot simply be mouthpieces for the state nor conduits for the majority beliefs in the local community,” Zimmerman and Robertson argue. But are we willing, on the left or the right, for teachers to be anything else?

Student Vaccine Mandates Are The Next Political Crisis

Originally published in The Intercept on February 6, 2022.
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IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to take this long to fully approve Covid-19 vaccines for the nearly 17 million U.S. adolescents ages 12-15 and the 28 million children ages 5-11.

Back in early August, Lee Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urging the agency to move faster and questioning its request for extra follow-up data before emergency authorization. “We urge the FDA to carefully consider the impact of this decision on the timeline for authorizing a vaccine,” Beers wrote. “There is no biological plausibility for serious adverse immunological or inflammatory events to occur more than two months after COVID-19 vaccine administration.”

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg put the situation more bluntly. “The problem is that the F.D.A. won’t be blamed for avoidable Covid cases the same way it would be blamed for unexpected vaccine side effects,” she wrote. “All of its institutional incentives therefore point toward excessive wariness.”

That excessive wariness has dragged on as summer bled into fall, fall into winter, and winter into a new Covid spike from the omicron variant, which infected school-aged children at a much higher rate. The FDA finally granted emergency authorization for Pfizer shots for those ages 5-11 in late October, but the vaccines are still not fully approved. Groups fighting vaccine mandates have taken advantage of the regulatory stall, preparing legal battles that heighten doubt not only in Covid-19 shots but also in public health and government more broadly.

The slow-walking by the FDA has also set the stage for student vaccinations to become the next major Covid-related crisis for the Biden administration. Schools have mandated pediatric vaccinations for hundreds of years, but states and school districts have been fearful of provoking yet another polarized debate around public schools, following pandemic battles over school closures and masks. While the FDA maintains the vaccines, including those under emergency authorization, are safe and effective for children, many parents now say they worry about the expedited process and question whether it’s worth it for kids not at high risk of severe disease. Republicans, looking ahead to the midterms, are taking note.

Most states have avoided calling for students to get vaccinated against Covid-19, and those that have, like California and Louisiana, have said rules won’t take effect until next school year, and then only if the vaccines receive full authorization by the FDA. Already 17 states, mostly GOP-controlled, have passed legislation banning student Covid vaccine mandates — and one piece of litigation challenging vaccine requirements in California is now a contender for Supreme Court consideration. The hope among vaccine proponents is that by September 2022, more youth vaccines will be fully approved and communities will have had more time to build buy-in from hesitant families.

Public health experts have watched this hesitancy with dread, worried about the opportunities vaccine skeptics have now to undermine other routine mandatory vaccinations, as opponents insist that inoculation should be about personal choice and autonomy. Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, supports student vaccine requirements and fears those opposed to vaccines — who have been heartily embraced by conservatives — are getting emboldened by the Supreme Court striking down President Joe Biden’s employer mandate. “Over the last two years we’ve seen a lot of movement with the anti-vaccine movement, and we’re going to see spillover to other vaccines,” he said. “I think we’re already seeing that with the HPV vaccine for teenagers.”

Biden, meanwhile, has avoided taking a clear position on student vaccine requirements and nonpartisan state health officials have largely stayed quiet, even as a patchwork of conflicting new local policies have emerged. This represents a departure from his support of school staff vaccination requirements; in September, he called on governors to mandate vaccines for all school staff, and he’s also endorsed vaccine mandates for workers across the country. But thus far, the Biden administration has demurred weighing in, endorsing instead voluntary strategies like encouraging schools to host their own vaccine clinics. In December, Biden announced new plans, including allowing parents to schedule family vaccination appointments at pharmacies, and establishing mobile family vaccine clinics through FEMA.

The White House’s efforts to avoid clarifying its position on student mandates have grown more conspicuous, accentuating a general void in leadership on Covid-19 response. The Intercept asked the White House if it would support schools requiring Covid-19 vaccines for students if the vaccines had received full FDA approval. Matt Hill, a Biden spokesperson, said the question should be directed to the FDA. An FDA spokesperson told The Intercept the question “about the Biden administration is best suited for the White House.” Hill did not respond to additional requests for comment. The Department of Education did not return requests for comment.

BECAUSE HARDLY ANY student Covid vaccine requirements have gone into effect, no one quite knows what will happen when they do. Policymakers feel understandably hesitant to impose any rules that could keep vulnerable students — particularly Black and Latino students — out of in-person learning for even longer than they’ve already endured.

Like school reopenings and mask requirements, many local policymakers have been waiting to see what neighboring jurisdictions do on student vaccines before taking action themselves. Recently New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced he would consider a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for K-12 students to take effect by the fall, a move that would affect the largest public school district in the nation and surely add pressure on states elsewhere. “In this country, we do vaccinate for smallpox, measles, and other things,” Adams said on CNN. “And so, we need to engage in a real conversation of how to educate, use the time before the fall to educate our parents to show the importance of it.”

Some individual school districts tried to impose vaccine mandates that would take effect this winter rather than next fall, but nearly all have pushed their deadlines back under pressure. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, was one of the earliest to issue a Covid-19 vaccine requirement for students, saying in September that students 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by January 10 or switch to online schooling.

Yet while 87 percent of eligible LA students had at least one dose of the vaccine by mid-December, the school board voted to delay its vaccine deadline to the fall, given that 30,000 eligible students were still unvaccinated. Shifting all of those young people to virtual learning at once, district officials reasoned, would have been too difficult to manage — not to mention the racial equity concerns. LAUSD Board President Kelly Gonez said their decision was “not about conceding to a vocal minority of anti-vaxxers.” Still, those who oppose mandatory Covid vaccines hailed the delay as a major victory for their movement.

Up north in Oakland, California, the school board passed a similar vaccine requirement in late September for eligible students — about 15,400 of the district’s total 34,000 students — with a deadline of January 1. But by early December, the school board announced it would delay its requirement to January 31 to give parents more time to comply. Officials began ramping up efforts to get shots in teens’ arms, yet by mid-January, more than 6,000 students remained unvaccinated. School board members have since pushed back the mandate a second time, to August.

In late December, Washington, D.C., councilmembers voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation requiring all eligible students to get vaccinated against Covid-19, one of the few such mandates on the East Coast. The bill sets a vaccination deadline for March 1, though enforcement is delayed until the start of the next school year, a concession to help keep students in school this spring uninterrupted. At the time, just over 40 percent of D.C. children ages 12-17 had received their two shots.

“For so long with Covid we’ve been playing catch up, trying to catch up to a virus that has wreaked havoc on communities and families,” said Councilmember Christina Henderson, the lead sponsor of the bill. “If we know vaccines can really be part of what keeps people out of the hospital, why wouldn’t we add this to the list of other things we do?”

Henderson acknowledged that passing new rules means there will have to be more counseling and conversations, particularly with vaccine-hesitant communities between now and next school year. “Passing mandates pushes responsibility on us and community leaders,” she said. “That means we have to step up to the plate.”

STUDENT VACCINE MANDATES that do take effect at the start of next school year will come head-to-head with Republicans looking to capitalize on parent frustration before the November midterms. Recent polling shows that by a 2-to-1 margin, parents oppose schools from requiring Covid-19 vaccines for eligible students, and conservatives may aim to campaign on that opposition, particularly targeting those suburban voters who have protested the continuation of pandemic-related restrictions in schools. Social scientists have found many parents — particularly, though not exclusively, white Republican and Independent mothers — now avoid reading news about risks Covid could have for children, satisfied with earlier information they consumed about low risks. Republican Glenn Youngkin recently won the governorship in Virginia campaigning hard on a message of “parents rights,” and GOP strategists nationwide have been crafting plans to replicate his victory in the midterms.

Roughly two weeks after D.C. approved its student vaccine requirement, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz announced his intent to overturn it, following up with a tweet blasting Covid mandates, “Schools have no right to FORCE you to get your 5-year old vaccinated.” A Cruz spokesperson declined The Intercept’s request to clarify the Texas senator’s position on mandated pediatric vaccines.

On the eve of the January 6 anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot, Donald Trump blasted Biden for “talk” that his administration might enforce a vaccine mandate for school children and urged “MAGA nation” to rise up against any such requirements. (Again, the Biden administration has not discussed any student vaccine requirements.)

A national conservative Catholic law firm with ties to Trump’s legal team and which filed multiple lawsuits challenging the results of the 2020 election is also now helping to lead an anti-vaccine fight that could reverberate for schools across the nation. A 16-year-old San Diego high school student and her family filed a lawsuit in October over the district’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate, which did not allow for exemptions over religious belief. The San Diego school board president said they didn’t provide an exemption for personal belief because families may abuse the option.

The student claimed her opposition to abortion means she can’t take the vaccine, because the vaccines approved for emergency use allegedly used materials from stem cell lines in aborted fetuses. Her case is being litigated by Paul Jonna, an attorney from the Thomas More Society.

In a 2-1 panel ruling in December, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district’s mandate, ruling that requiring the vaccine was a legitimate health measure that didn’t interfere with the student’s religious practice. The plaintiffs appealed for a review by all the 9th Circuit judges but failed to get majority approval from the 29 active judges. However, 10 judges and one jurist dissented, an unusually high number which could set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case. Jonna has already asked the high court for an emergency injunction, while California state lawmakers are now considering eliminating religious exemptions altogether.

Parent organizations have also taken up the anti-mandate cause, filing lawsuits with mixed success. In Los Angeles, a judge denied two parent groups’ request to block the school district’s vaccine requirement, but out in San Diego, Let Them Choose — a parent group fighting both mask and school vaccine mandates — won a recent court victory, as a San Diego Superior Court judge confirmed in January that San Diego public schools cannot proceed with its student Covid-19 vaccine requirement, even for sports and extracurriculars.

ENCOURAGINGLY, PUBLIC OPINION for the youth vaccines has ticked up over time. After several stagnant months, Kaiser Family Foundation found the share of parents who say their 12-to-17-year-old has gotten at least one Covid shot increased from 49 percent in November to 61 percent in January. A third of parents of 5-to-11-year-olds now also say their child is vaccinated, up from 16 percent in November. Far fewer people in both groups now report they need to “wait and see” before making a decision, and of those who haven’t vaccinated their children, some say they just haven’t been able to find the time. Black and Hispanic parents were about twice as likely as white parents in KFF’s research to say they worried about missing work to get their child a shot or deal with side effects.

More discouragingly, significant partisan splits have emerged, with about half of Republican parents saying in December they would not get their teen or child vaccinated. And even few Democratic politicians have so far been willing to go to bat for requiring the shots, aware that many of the liberal and moderate parents who elected them have been ambivalent themselves. The emotionally charged battles around masks, vaccines, and remote instruction partly reflect the more libertarian drift of public school politics.

Megan Bacigalupi, an Oakland parent who founded OpenSchoolsCA last winter to pressure elected officials to reopen California schools for in-person learning, told The Intercept her organization doesn’t have a clear position on student vaccine requirements and that for now her approach is to encourage parents to talk to their pediatricians. She understands school board members’ rationale for requiring student vaccines but believes comfort level among parents will go up over time and, given the low risk of severe illness among children, worries the consequences outweigh the immediate benefits.

“This is a really complicated issue, and I think you have to meet those vaccine-hesitant people with strategy rather than force,” she said. “While I think a lot of us parents got vaccinated really quickly and got our kids vaccinated quickly, and I fall into that boat, I think a mandate could potentially do more harm than good right now. I don’t think it’s right to kick those kids out of in-person school.”

Omicron cases have been spreading rapidly among young people: The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that of the 11.4 million child Covid-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic, 3.5 million child cases were reported in January alone. Yet some parents say they don’t feel pressure to get their kid vaccinated, since omicron cases tend to be less severe.

“People have different perceptions of risks, some people who look at the data say, ‘only 800 children have died,’ while others look at the same date and say ‘but 800 children have died,’” said Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University. Hotez, of Texas Children’s Hospital, also warned of “more subtle morbidities” and the fact that long-term risks to neurodevelopment are still not clear. He pointed to a large U.K. study released in September led by University College London and Public Health England, which found as many as 1 in 7 children may have symptoms linked to Covid-19 months after testing positive.

Let Them Choose — the parent group fighting both mask and school vaccine mandates — has been encouraging families to send letters to their school district leaders, saying, “I am not anti-vax, but I am pro-choice when it comes to this very new vaccine for a virus that our children are extremely resilient to.” The letter falsely claims “there is no reason” to vaccinate kids to protect more vulnerable populations and maintains that parents want to see more long-term studies before making any decisions.

The Biden administration, for its part, is just hoping everything all works out.

The Bogus Claim That School Closures Will Doom Democrats

Originally published in The New Republic on January 25, 2022.
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If you’ve read any national news stories over the past few months about the political implications of pandemic-induced school closures, you’ve likely come across Brian Stryker’s name. He’s become the go-to source for reporters and commentators—particularly those at The New York Times. The paper ran a Q&A with him in early December titled, “A Pollster’s Warning to Democrats: ‘We Have a Problem.’” His work has been cited in subsequent op-eds of The New York Times and was featured prominently in a recent Times piece built around the idea that more omicron-induced school closures urged by teachers’ unions could spell disaster for Democrats next fall. On the basis of a survey Stryker’s firm conducted of 500 Virginia voters, the Times stated unequivocally that “polling showed that school disruptions were an important issue for swing voters who broke Republican—particularly suburban white women.”

Stryker, a partner at the Democratic polling firm Anzalone Liszt Grove Research (which announced it’d be changing its name to Impact Research last week), gained this prominence following a widely circulated memo he and his colleague Oren Savir published in mid-November, which analyzed Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. The memo reported findings from an online focus group of 18 suburban Biden voters in Northern Virginia and the Richmond metro area, and states that while concerns over “critical race theory” were a problem for voters, school closures were a bigger factor. Perhaps most ominously, their memo quoted a Biden voter who cast her ballot for Youngkin as saying her vote “was against the party that closed the schools for so long last year.”

Democrats have plenty of reasons to fret about the upcoming midterm elections. While Joe Biden won by over seven million votes nationally in 2020, Democrats were devastated down the ballot. The party failed to flip any of the dozen state legislative chambers it had targeted and lost 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Election analysts attribute Biden’s victory in large part to suburban women who loathed Donald Trump, but Trump won’t be on the ballot in November, plus midterms have historically been bad for the party of first-term presidents. Voters are concerned about inflation, and Joe Biden’s approval rating hovers, roughly, at a troublingly low 40 percent.

Yet one much weaker midterm theory, curiously, has gained traction among the political elite, especially following the rise of the omicron variant. The slow pace of school reopenings in the 2020–21 school year, we’re told, still represents a significant political liability for Democrats, one that could grow even worse as some school districts close temporarily this month due to Covid-19. Blaming teachers’ unions and Democrats who ally with those unions is also part of this cautionary tale. Alexander Nazaryan, a Yahoo News reporter, went so far as to call Chicago’s teacher strike this month a “Reagan vs. air traffic controllers moment.” If Biden doesn’t “stand up to” teachers’ unions on school closures, Nazaryan warned, “he loses credibility at a critical time in his presidency.”

Perhaps because many of the people who lead these conversations are frustrated parents themselves, the idea that school closures will come to haunt Democrats is something that to many of them feels true or, at the very least, highly plausible. Life remains logistically and emotionally challenging for parents in countless ways, especially those with kids under 5, and so there’s a sense that surely something’s got to give.

Throughout the first six months of the pandemic, many of those same voices also warned that Democrats would pay a steep political cost. That didn’t bear out in the 2020 election. The loudest critics have insisted that Democrats will push for a full return to remote learning—despite the truth that most politicians and union leaders have suggested only temporary accommodations as the country weathers the quickly rising and quickly falling omicron wave of infections.

Instead of a practical debate, online discourse creates an artificial dichotomy, in which one can only belong to one of two camps: an adherence to complete lockdown until we achieve “Covid-zero” or a complete return to pre-pandemic normalcy. But outside Twitter and op-ed pages, many surveys and studies have shown that actual parents and voters hold much more nuanced views. They can hate the harms of distance learning while determining when the pandemic has altered how they want to live and school their children. They can express frustration with their circumstances but maintain that not all problems have immediate resolutions and clear villains.

The latest eruption of the school-closure debate has been defined by a bout of amnesia, one that has erased the bountiful evidence of public sentiment from the 2020–21 school year.

Throughout the pandemic, including during the first few months of 2021, poll after poll showed that most parents and most voters—including the majority of Democrats and independents—were not in favor of sending kids back to K-12 schools full-time, at least until teachers and seniors were vaccinated.

In mid-February last year, 74 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents told Politico/Morning Consult that states should wait to reopen until teachers had received the coronavirus vaccine. A separate Quinnipiac poll from the same time period found just 27 percent of adults thought schools were reopening too slowly, with 47 percent of adults saying they felt reopenings were taking place at the right pace, and 18 percent reporting schools were reopening too quickly. Another February 2021 poll from YouGov/HuffPost found just 27 percent of adults thought schools should be completely reopened, with 29 percent backing partial reopening and 30 percent supporting virtual learning.



The findings were consistent when pollsters talked to just K-12 parents. The University of Southern California asked a nationally representative sample of parents in late January 2021 how their child was learning—in person, remotely, or hybrid—and then asked what they would want for their child if they could choose any option. USC found that 75 percent of parents said their child was receiving the type of instruction they wanted. A separate poll, released by the National Parents Union, found that in mid-January, about two-thirds of public school parents were getting the kind of schooling they preferred for their kids, with about 20 percent wanting more in-person instruction and 10 percent wanting less. EdChoice, a national school choice group, polled U.S. parents monthly, beginning in May 2020, about their comfort level sending their child back to school. Parental comfort levels didn’t break 60 percent until April 2021.

This was all true despite millions of parents and voters expressing deep dissatisfaction with virtual learning, concerned about its toll on academic progress and children’s emotional and social well-being. Seventy-two percent of voters told RMG Research last February that they saw in-person learning as better than virtual instruction, and 57 percent of parents told Yahoo!/YouGov last January they thought their child had fallen behind academically. Sixty-four percent of parents whose children were learning remotely in October 2020 told Pew they were concerned about their child maintaining friendships and social connections, compared to just 49 percent of parents whose kids were attending school in person.

But it doesn’t require any great intellectual leap to bridge these two divides. One could easily favor in-person learning in the abstract, hold real worries about the implications of virtual school, and yet still determine that remote learning is the right call at that time given the risks of the pandemic. Individual families inevitably have different risk thresholds based on resources and other factors. Low-income, Black, and Latino families were more likely last year to prefer remote learning even as studies showed those children suffered greater learning losses in subjects like math and reading from virtual school compared to their white peers.

David Houston, an education policy professor at George Mason University and the survey director for the annual EdNext survey, told me that was indeed consistent with public opinion research. “We asked parents in spring 2020, fall 2020, and spring 2021, ‘Do you think your kid is learning more or less or about the same?’ Folks aren’t fools, they certainly don’t think their kids were doing as well as they would have under normal conditions,” he said. “But simultaneously we asked a question about satisfaction with the instruction and activities provided by their child’s school, and the rates were really pretty darn high.”

When kids returned from summer break in the fall of 2021, life looked quite different in most parts of the country. Things were far from the “normal” of what classrooms of 2019 looked like—delta was circulating, kids were often wearing masks, and individual classes would shut down for a period after a string of positive tests—but the vast majority of children were back learning in school buildings full-time.

Parental attitudes also lifted. Reputable polling has shown broad satisfaction among parents with having their kids back inside schools and no increase in negative views toward teachers’ unions. Surveys have also shown that voters—particularly Democrats and independents—are not holding Democrats responsible for last year’s school closures.

The University of Southern California’s Understanding America Survey surveyed parents four times during the pandemic: October 2020, when 29 percent had fully in-person school; April-May 2021, when 50 percent were in person; June 2021, when 79 percent were on summer break; and October 2021, when 93 percent were in person. The researchers found that parents’ concerns about their child’s learning had gone down significantly last fall. When asked about their school’s efforts to meet their children’s needs—including academically, socially, and mentally—82 percent to 91 percent of parents were satisfied in each area. “This level of positivity was consistent across subgroups,” they reported, “including by race/ethnicity, household income, parental education level, region of the country, urbanicity, partisanship, and grade levels.”

Likewise, in a nationwide poll conducted in early December by Global Strategy Group and GBAO, researchers found just 13 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents described Democrats closing schools as a “very concerning” school-related issue to them, compared to 60 percent of Republicans. More Democrats and independents—17 and 39 percent, respectively—said they were very concerned that Democrats were promoting critical race theory in schools.

In a national survey of public school parents registered to vote conducted last month by Hart Research Associates and Lake Research Partners, pollsters found 78 percent of parents expressed satisfaction with their school’s overall handling of the pandemic, and 83 percent reported satisfaction with their school’s efforts to keep students and staff safe. Moreover, just 22 percent of parents said they felt their school waited too long to resume in-person instruction, while three-fourths felt their school struck a good balance between safety and learning (48 percent) or actually moved too quickly to reopen (26 percent).

Although repeated efforts to pit parents against teachers were never successful, the national conversation shifted back to the artificial construct once journalists and talking heads began analyzing how Republicans retook Virginia’s governorship and gave New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Phil Murphy a much more competitive reelection than anyone anticipated. 
The ALG survey and focus group provide useful insights. Focus groups, like the best journalism, can be particularly valuable for drawing out further hypotheses to test. But treating that research as dispositive is a mistake, particularly when other high-quality surveys have found evidence that conflicts with or complicates ALG’s findings.

Geoff Garin, a longtime Democratic pollster and president of Hart Research Associates, did some polling for Terry McAuliffe during the election, followed by an in-depth postelection survey of more than 2,400 Virginia voters after the election on behalf of the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s very clear that education was a dominant factor in driving the outcome of the race, but there’s really no evidence that the question of school closures was an important part of that,” he told me. Garin’s research found that 9 percent of Biden voters switched to Glenn Youngkin in 2021 and that education was indeed a top-cited issue for this pivotal subset.

But rather than school closures, Garin said, these people talked exclusively about Terry McAuliffe’s comments surrounding parent involvement in school. In a late-September gubernatorial debate, McAuliffe declared, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” adding, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin’s campaign made those deeply unpopular remarks a centerpiece of his campaign in the closing weeks of the race, running ads and circulating petitions and fliers stressing that “Parents Matter.” Under the umbrella of parental involvement, Youngkin’s campaign also leaned on other issues agitating parents like mask and vaccine mandates, transgender rights, and racial equity initiatives.

In the ALG memo, Stryker and Savir argue that, yes, McAuliffe’s gaffe resonated, but it really hit home because it played into existing frustrations parents had over school closures and feeling “that Democrats didn’t listen to parents when they kept the schools closed past any point of reason.”

Garin says his research showed no such thing. “It was completely clear in the surveys from the last few weeks of the election and postelection that voters were reacting to McAuliffe’s comments,” Garin told me. “Youngkin put that quotation front and center with an enormous amount of advertising; he and his campaign never related it to school closures.” Among the Biden-Youngkin voters, Garin’s research found 54 percent said McAuliffe’s position on the role of parents in schools influenced their vote, and 41 percent said his position on the teaching of critical race theory influenced their vote.

These aren’t entirely separate matters. As opposition to CRT becomes heavily associated with Republicans, liberals and moderates who also feel racial and social justice causes have “gone too far” are more likely to glom onto another slogan that allows them to express the same idea without feeling it’s so conservative. Christopher Rufo, the Manhattan Institute activist who got Trump to take notice of CRT in the fall of 2020, has embraced calling their legislative crusade against diversity, equity, and inclusion a “parent’s movement” and describes their efforts as a push for “parental transparency” on curriculum.

Mario Brossard, a senior research vice president at the Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group, who conducted polling in October on CRT, told me, “It is clear that the discussion or the talking points around having parents have more input into the curriculum” is being used as a euphemism for CRT. “The folks who are anti-CRT are fairly well entrenched, and they hold those sentiments quite strongly,” he said.  “What Christopher Rufo is trying to do is make it more palatable to a broader cross section of voters, parents, and Americans generally by talking about parental input into the curriculum.”

In the ALG focus group memo being widely cited as evidence that CRT is just not as big an issue, the researchers did say that participants, even as they conceded critical race theory wasn’t formally taught in schools, talked about feeling “like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things” and “worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula.”

Fox News Voter Analysis survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, which polled over 2,500 Virginia voters after the election, found a stunning 72 percent of respondents said the debate over teaching CRT in schools was “an important” factor to them, with a quarter calling it “the single most important” factor.

This doesn’t fully discount the school-closure explanation. The Fox survey also found 27 percent of voters ranked “the debate over handling Covid-19 in schools” as their single-most important issue. But of that cohort, two-thirds cast their ballot for Terry McAuliffe. Given that the aforementioned Covid-19 debate could encompass masks, vaccine requirements, and virtual schooling, it’s hard to parse out exactly what’s going on. But the fact that voters who said it was the most salient for them broke heavily for McAuliffe goes against the conventional narrative.

Michael Hartney, a political scientist at Boston College, did a postelection analysis for Chalkbeat, where he found Youngkin made slightly larger gains in regions where schools took longer to fully reopen, controlling for the share of Trump voters and white voters in a given area.

He also found that Youngkin did no better in places that had a school district staff member dedicated to diversity, or that mentioned equity in its mission, proxies he designed for CRT. 

“The analysis was by no means perfect, but I do think it showed that there is little systematic evidence that Youngkin ran up vote share (relative to Trump) in districts which have more heavily emphasized diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives,” Hartney told me via email, stressing he was doing “merely an exploratory analysis.” Hartney added that he’s waiting on getting some postelection micro-survey data to analyze and tease out some of these patterns more carefully.

Brian Stryker, the ALG pollster, told me he doesn’t know why school closures didn’t come up in Geoff Garin’s postelection survey but maintained they were a big deal in his research. He stressed the importance of candidates and elected officials showing more empathy for the hardship families have faced and continue to face around schools.

“Going to remote learning is deeply unpopular, it just feels like that’s in the ether, it’s the thing that you hear from parents all the time,” he said. (Stryker lives in Chicago, where schools closed earlier this month.) “That’s not a very scientific thing to say,” he added, “but the focus groups and surveys are backed up by every parent that I talk to in my life, and they’re all furious about the closing and all worried their school is going to be next.”

On Twitter earlier this month, Stryker shared a Suffolk/USA Today poll showing 66 percent of the country and 52 percent of Democrats oppose shifting schools to remote learning to contain the spread of omicron. “Hard data to back up what we’re all feeling—closing schools, on top of being an educational disaster, is a political disaster for Democrats too,” Stryker tweeted.

But when I brought up that polls showed most voters, including parents, were not in favor of fully reopening schools before vaccines came out, he agreed that “minds changed around the vaccine, once teachers were getting vaccinated, once grandparents were getting vaccinated.”

Has he found any evidence that leads him to conclude voters will hold Democrats responsible in November for schools that close during the omicron wave?

“I think 10 months is a long time, and I think parents are pretty understanding of the fact that people are very sick right now; nobody wants teachers to go to school with the coronavirus,” he said. “Should there be another wave that looks like omicron, we may have to reassess, but in 10 months, if this isn’t still happening, I don’t think it will be a huge voting issue.” 

As States Build Barriers to Racial Justice Teaching, Educators Fight Back

Originally published in Rethinking Schools on January 3, 2022.
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Heather Smith is a middle school technology teacher in Youngstown, Ohio. In late May she watched in horror as Republicans introduced House Bill 322, legislation that would restrict how educators like her could teach about racism.

“No teacher or school administrator . . . shall approve for use, make use of, or carry out standards, curricula, lesson plans, textbooks [or] instructional materials” that suggest “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States,” the bill read.

Backed by national conservative organizations, more than 25 other states have introduced similar bills that would require educators to pare down or even eliminate their lessons around systemic racism. As of December, nine of those states — Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Arizona, and South Carolina — had enacted their bills into law. In other states, including Florida, Georgia, and Utah, state education boards have introduced guidelines and resolutions to restrict teaching about racism in schools.

The advent of legislation and rumblings of more to come have created an intimidating environment for educators, who already felt embattled after a year of pandemic teaching. Threats of legal retribution abound. In New Hampshire, the conservative group Moms for Liberty pledged in November to pay $500 to the first person who could catch a public school educator “breaking” their new state law. In December, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced a bill to allow parents to sue school districts that teach lessons about race they object to.

In response to the new rules and guidelines, district administrators have started pulling books from school libraries and reconsidering what educators can permissibly say in their classrooms. In October, one Florida school district ordered the removal of a 5th-grade reading text that depicted a child and father attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta in 2020. The school district required it be replaced with a narrative that was similarly constructed but that took place in 1963 instead, during a Civil Rights Movement march. The contemporary anecdote “contained content that may be controversial and in conflict with [Florida Department of Education] requirements,” the school district wrote in a letter to parents. The problem with the text, in other words, was the suggestion that racism is not confined to the past.

Recognizing the danger this sort of censorship poses to students and society, teachers nationwide have been standing up to register their resistance and solidarity, organizing rallies, supporting school board candidates who reject these bills, and doubling down on their own efforts to learn and teach about race.

Pledging to “Teach Truth” Across the Country
When Smith heard about the national day of action educators were organizing on June 12 in response to these types of bills, she felt relief, and looked to find something local she could attend. But when she realized that no one was planning anything in Youngstown, she thought, “Well, why don’t I just try to do it myself?”

She reached out to Penny Wells, the director of the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, which takes high school students on immersion trips to southern Civil Rights Movement landmarks. The Zinn Education Project (coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change) had called for the day of action, and was encouraging organizers to hold events at the kinds of historic sites that teachers would have to lie about or omit entirely from their curriculum if the oppressive bills became law. So in Youngstown, Smith and Wells invited activists to gather at a local swimming pool that was segregated throughout the 1940s. At the rally, they explored the history of segregated pools and an Ohio State Board of Education member, despite what the state legislature was doing, read the board’s official resolution against racism and hate.

Smith is not alone in feeling the pull of action and responsibility. In Providence, Rhode Island, 3rd-grade teacher Lindsay Paiva felt worried as Republicans introduced House Bill 6070 in her state legislature — to ban teaching so-called “divisive topics” in public schools. Although the bill ultimately died in committee, conservative groups have continued to organize for its reintroduction. So when Paiva saw the call to action for educators in June, she too felt compelled to organize. They held their local rally at the DeWolf Tavern in Bristol, which formerly held enslaved people between auctions. Michael Rebne, a teacher in Kansas City, Kansas, heeded the call too, and with his chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice helped organize a roughly three-mile march of educators from a historically Black high school to the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Missouri. “We wanted our rally to be a message to push back against all the white parents and community members in the suburbs who have been protesting CRT [critical race theory] at school board meetings,” he explained.

Rebecca Coven and Ari Abraham, two Chicago educators, teamed up to plan a local rally in late August with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union. Their city has a strong community of anti-racist activists, and Illinois is doing far better than most states in encouraging inclusive curriculum. This past July, Democratic Gov. J. B. Pritzker signed the first law in the nation requiring public schools to teach Asian American history, and a month later he signed another bill to ensure that contributions of LGBTQ+ people are represented in classrooms. Still, Coven said, there is not always enough time and resources for educators looking to teach about systemic racism.

“In Chicago, what we wanted to do was stand in solidarity with fellow educators who live in states that are fighting bans on teaching truth, and we also wanted to create a community of educators here who are committed publicly to teaching truth and empowering our students,” Coven explained. They gathered together at the 1919 Chicago Race Riot marker, near where Eugene Williams, a Black teenager, was stoned to death by a white man while he was swimming in Lake Michigan. Coven herself made a pledge that day to not only teach the difficult parts of U.S. history, but also to teach more about joy and resistance among Black people, Indigenous communities, and other individuals of color. “Education can be a tool for liberation by centering our shared humanity,” she said. “But our schools don’t spend as much time as they should uplifting our students and the contributions of people who look like them.”

Like Coven and Abraham in Chicago, Lena Amick, a high school teacher in Maryland, also felt it was necessary to help organize an event in a blue state. “Not because there’s a huge threat of those anti-CRT laws happening in Maryland but because the rhetoric behind those laws is what’s dangerous in this area,” Amick said. “The rhetoric is just one more tool used to undermine public education and undercut teacher autonomy.” About 70 people attended her local Teach Truth rally, where they gathered near the historic East Towson neighborhood, a community founded by formerly enslaved peoples in the 1850s.

Fighting Back Against a History of Classroom Censorship
The contemporary wave of bills attacking teaching about systemic racism and so-called “divisive topics” is not, by any means, the first time that educators committed to social justice have had to battle efforts to censor content in the classroom.

Back in the 1930s, conservative groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution ginned up opposition to leading school textbooks that encouraged exploration of American racism, exploitation, and inequality. (Anti-capitalist critiques had grown more prevalent and pronounced following the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression.) In the 1950s, conservative groups like the American Legion and National Council for American Education targeted so-called “unpatriotic” textbooks and teachers, accusing educators throughout the McCarthy era of teaching students disloyalty. Fights around textbooks and appropriate curriculum grew even more contentious in the years following desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

But educators don’t have to look back decades to find antecedents to the most recent backlash. More recently has been the wars around ethnic studies, which sparked major resistance beginning in 2010, when conservative Arizona lawmakers banned the Mexican American ethnic studies program in Tucson public schools. (The Rethinking Schools publication Rethinking Columbus was one of the banned books.) The lawmakers claimed the program had “radicalized” and “indoctrinated” students. In fact, the objections to ethnic studies then sounded almost identical to critiques leveled at “critical race theory” today: that the curriculum makes white students feel bad about themselves, that the lessons are too focused on race, that the material should be taught only at the college level.

The Tucson ethnic studies program launched in 1998, and efforts to shut it down ended up galvanizing new efforts to promote similar programs across the country. In 2020, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1010, which will require every public school student in California to take an ethnic studies course before graduating.

Momentum to diversify teaching, pursue equity initiatives, and push ethnic studies further accelerated during the Trump era, when immigrants faced heightened threats of deportation and the movement to end police brutality against Black Americans picked up steam.

Many teachers point to September 2020 as a turning point, when Trump attacked the New York Times’ 1619 Project, calling it a “crusade against American history” that “will destroy our country.” He kept up his public criticisms, and shortly before he left office in January 2021, he established a commission to counter the idea that “the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”

Following his lead, state lawmakers began introducing their bills targeting educators last spring. More than 7,500 educators responded in turn by signing the Zinn Education Project’s Pledge to Teach the Truth. The pledge endorses Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Pledge signers also promise to “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events.”

Signing that pledge carried consequences for some teachers. The Daily Wire, a conservative news outlet, reported on the pledge and call for action, and numerous educators who signed publicly said they were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and physical threats. Other teachers and administrators have resigned or been threatened with firing over the last year due to their classroom lessons and public advocacy.

Jennifer Lee, a high school educator in Killeen, Texas, worked to support teachers in her state who faced threats from The Daily Wire’s attention. Lee spoke with educators facing retribution and encouraged them to contact the Texas State Teachers Association, her teacher organization and the state affiliate of the National Education Association. “One Texas teacher got a letter from her superintendent saying that they did not appreciate her signing the Teach Truth pledge, and so we talked through the process to join TSTA,” Lee said. The organization, as well as its parent union and the American Federation of Teachers, have all promised to defend educators who face punishment for doing their fundamental jobs.

Lee herself has also been organizing local rallies in defense of teaching un-sanitized history. She describes her community as “very Republican” and “passionate about certain kinds of history” — namely Confederate history. In her town of Killeen, there have been multiple protests dedicated to keeping Confederate statutes up.

Given this local context, Lee and her colleagues decided to organize a Teach Truth rally in front of their county courthouse, where a Confederate monument still stands on the lawn. Lee acknowledged that those in favor of Confederate memorabilia also use the “teach truth” language in their advocacy. “They would say they also want history to be taught but correctly,” she said. “Correctly to them means that you don’t bash slave owners.”

As summer break transitioned into the fall, some activist teachers acknowledged that the new school year brought about barriers to organizing against attacks on anti-racist teaching, especially as educators contended with new staff shortages and shoddy COVID-19 safety protocols.

“When our governor put a mask mandate ban in place — even as COVID cases were skyrocketing — our organizing energy shifted to that,” said Lee. Still, the group of Texas activists who came together over the summer to organize their rally has not dissolved. “We now have a Facebook page, we have Zoom meetings, a group text, and we can pivot again [after COVID-19] to other things,” Lee said.

Paiva, in Rhode Island, also said educators have had to slow their work down since the new school year started. “There’s a lot of school-based organizing that pops back up and union organizing also resumes,” she said. Amick in Maryland highlighted the additional barrier of burnout. “Our staffing shortage has forced us all into enormous stress this year,” she said. “When you literally do not have enough adults to put into the classrooms with the students, you start to lose valuable time and energy.”

Study Groups and School Boards
Yet another avenue educators have embraced to register their resistance has been through study groups. Teachers are joining new study groups and attending online classes and professional development focused on deepening their commitments to racial justice.

Rebne from Kansas is involved with one of the Zinn Education Project’s Teaching for Black Lives study groups, which explore anti-racist perspectives to teaching. His cohort is using the associated readings to plan the first Black Lives Matter Week of Action at their high school, organized in collaboration with student groups and the student council.

Rebne says his own learning has made him a more conscious educator during periods like Thanksgiving. “Even in physics class, we spend some time dispelling these myths and featuring Indigenous mathematicians and scientists,” he said, adding there’s also now a greater focus on connections between racism and the underrepresentation of people of color in STEM fields.

Amelia Haynes Wheeler, a former public school teacher who is now a graduate student in the Social Studies Education program at the University of Georgia, helped plan a new series of professional development modules this year for teachers called “Teach the Truth Thursdays.” The sessions consisted of eight weekly workshops hosted by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, a civil rights nonprofit, and Haynes Wheeler helped design the curriculum. Their goal, she said, is to support classroom teachers “in whatever place they are in their journey to become anti-racist educators.” A similar series is being planned for the spring.

School board elections are another ripe domain for organizing. Earlier this year the 1776 Project PAC, a right-wing national group, formed to elect school board members who oppose critical race theory, racial justice teaching, and lessons that could make white students feel uncomfortable. Any endorsee from this group must agree to restore “honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country.” Rebne and his colleagues have been working to support school board challengers who reject these ideas, though it’s been something of an uphill climb. In November, seven of the 10 Kansas candidates the 1776 Project PAC backed won their elections.

In New York, Vanessa Spiegel has also been keeping her pulse on upcoming school board elections. Like many educators, Spiegel reflected during the pandemic about what role she could play in the movement for racial justice. “As a teacher in a New York City Title I school, it was easy to think I was doing enough just by showing up at work,” she said. “But I realized that I needed to be more affirming and purposeful in my efforts to fight racism.”

In her home community of Westchester, Spiegel began organizing other parents to counter the rhetoric coming from Save Our Schools for Westchester Children — a parent group formed to fight lessons about systemic racism. Spiegel is a founding member of Teach the Truth – Westchester, which helps mobilize parents to support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in local schools. “In Westchester it really runs the gamut of very liberal and very conservative school districts, and I think I was living in a bubble before that these attacks [on anti-racist teaching] couldn’t happen here,” she said.

Pushing Forward for Students
Anthony Downer, a teacher in Atlanta, is optimistic about the future of educator and student organizing for racial justice, but acknowledged the consequences for teachers doing so right now are real. Downer, who emerged as a leader in his former school district in Gwinnett County, Georgia, advocating for initiatives like more culturally responsive courses, anti-racist professional development, and restorative justice training, was not invited back to teach this year. He’s happy now in Atlanta Public Schools but was discouraged by what he felt was the message the Gwinnett leadership sent.

“I’ve been hesitant to share my story because I don’t want educators to be scared off, and my story is the ultimate fear,” he said. “This is why teachers worry about getting involved. We need more assurances that we won’t lose our jobs.” Downer says he remains hopeful nonetheless, because “so many teachers are saying ‘I’m going to organize anyway, come hell or high water.’” Activists in Georgia are now looking to push local school boards to pass more job protections for educators like Downer, and they have their eyes long term on the state level to push new requirements around multicultural curriculum.

Georgia so far has not passed a law restricting the teaching of racism and other “divisive” topics, but Republican Gov. Brian Kemp urged the Georgia Department of Education to get involved. In response, in June 2021 the state board passed a non-binding resolution declaring that the United States and Georgia are not racist. The resolution also says students should not be taught that racism or slavery are anything but exceptions to the country’s “authentic founding principles” — language echoed in other statutes, including Ohio’s House Bill 322.

Haynes Wheeler said the Georgia resolution has had a chilling effect on her friends teaching in predominantly white, affluent school districts. “Though the resolution is not law, the discourse they’re hearing from administrators is very much emphasizing that so-called ‘neutrality’ is the gold standard for teaching,” she said. “Parents have a tremendous amount of influence and teachers are told no one should know their own political beliefs. All it would take is for one kid to go home and say a teacher made them feel uncomfortable and it then blow up and the teacher receive very little support.”

In other Georgia school districts though, Haynes Wheeler says there’s been “a doubling down” of teaching about racism in the face of the state resolution. Dawn Bolton, a middle school teacher in Decatur, is one such Georgia educator doubling down. She says even with the state board resolution, she’s not afraid to lead real conversations about racism in her classroom. “I feel fortunate that in the city schools of Decatur, we are given a certain amount of autonomy to teach the truth,” she said. “I know that’s a rarity, for teachers in other districts.”

A critical role Bolton sees for herself in this moment is helping young people learn how to effectively fight for their rights and for change. “It’s important to me to teach students how to identify issues and have the courage to address them in an intelligent and informed way,” she said. “Because this orbit of discrimination and inequity and racial bias is just picking up velocity — it’s just spiraling — and I think as adults we even sometimes forget that.”

Ultimately these efforts of resistance and solidarity by teachers are in the service of students, who see the daily battles around racism and history reflected in their own lives. Bolton and Downer both say they’ve noticed new energy in their classrooms, with students asking new kinds of urgent questions about race and equity. “Students are standing up independently of us educators,” said Downer.

Bolton’s goal, she stressed, is to let students know that adults are here to support them as they navigate an unjust world. “The thing is, we adults need them as well,” she said. “But students need to know they don’t have to stand alone.”

Some Teachers Are Being Required To Come To School — To Teach Virtually

Originally published in The Intercept on August 28, 2020.
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KATHY ROKAKIS, a 62-year-old high school French teacher in Michigan, is dreading her return to school next week.

Students in her Wayne County school district — Plymouth-Canton Community Schools — were originally going to be given the option to return to in-person classes or do remote learning, but earlier this month her school board voted to start the school year 100 percent virtual. “A lot of teachers were really relieved for so many reasons,” said Rokakis.

But two days after the school board decided the district would go fully remote, Superintendent Monica Merritt announced that teachers would still be coming into school to teach children virtually. “There wasn’t anything that had been discussed, we were just told that’s how it would happen,” recalled Rokakis. “We were basically blindsided.”

In a letter sent last Friday to educators, Merritt defended her decision by saying, “We anticipate how hard it will be for many students to continue learning in a remote space when they miss their school community so much. It is with this lens, focused on what is best for our students, that has resulted in our expectation that our staff will teach remotely from their classrooms.” Merritt did not return requests for comment.

Teachers have continued to press administration for reasons the benefits of this arrangement outweigh the public health risks of coming into school during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The reasons have been ridiculous. One is so that students will be able to see their classrooms, so that when they come back face-to-face they’ll feel more comfortable,” said Rokakis. “Another is they say so we’ll have anything that we need accessible to us, and they keep using the scenario of if we have to do a science experiment. But I don’t teach science, and the things I need are very accessible to me here at home. And now I’m expected to teach French in a mask?”

In light of all this, some teachers in Plymouth-Canton have applied for family and medical leave to avoid going back, and others are retiring early, according to Rokakis. “If I could, I would, but I can’t because I carry the health insurance for my family,” she said. “I’m feeling very uncomfortable. To me, there needs to be more grace. This is not a normal time and people are trying their hardest.”

Across the country, as schools in some states have already reopened and others are planning to do so in the coming weeks, school districts and board members are grappling with and continually revising their back-to-school procedures. While many schools have opted to begin the year fully virtual given the risks presented by Covid-19, educators in some of those districts are still being required to teach from their classrooms. Even with requirements to wear masks, many teachers feel coming into school buildings is an unnecessary risk during the pandemic, for reasons including poor ventilation, slow coronavirus testing, and unreliable levels of personal protective equipment.

LATE LAST WEEK, Jeffrey Riley, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, released guidance saying it’s the state’s “expectation” that all teachers and critical support staff will report to schools to teach each day if their district is doing remote learning. Reasons Riley listed included “provid[ing] more consistency” for students, more reliable internet access and faster IT support, making it easier to collaborate with colleagues, and making it easier for administrators “to monitor the level and amount of instruction students receive.”

The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Merrie Najimy, released a blistering statement in response to the state’s recommendation, accusing Riley of having a “fundamental lack of trust” in teachers to do their jobs without being supervised.

“It is paternalistic and punitive and has no bearing on the quality of education that the real experts — the educators — provide so masterfully,” Najimy wrote, urging for districts to reject the state’s guidance. “Educators across the Commonwealth are focused on fully redesigning remote instruction to make it more effective, while pushing school districts and the state to make the changes needed to gradually return to in-person instruction. Commissioner Riley should be advocating for the resources that educators and districts need to achieve these goals rather than putting the thumbscrews to teachers to get them to return to school buildings before it is safe to do so.”

Scott McLennan, a spokesperson for the union, told The Intercept that districts and unions are still negotiating reopening plans, so they’re still “waiting to see how it plays out.” At least a few large school districts in the state, like Springfield and Worcester, have said they will not require teachers to come to school for remote instruction.

Joanna Plotz, an elementary ESL teacher in Chelsea, a city with among the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in the state, is hoping her union succeeds in blocking the recommendation. “In an ideal world I’d obviously love to be in a classroom, but it just doesn’t feel worth it,” said Plotz.

If teachers at Plotz’s school are required to return to school, Plotz would be sharing a classroom with another educator, who has a 3-year-old daughter. Many teachers would like the option to go in. “I might want to go in sometimes. I live in a 500-square-foot-apartment, and Sundays it might be good to go in and prepare things, but I’d only want to do it if the other teacher and her daughter wouldn’t be there,” said Plotz. “And I do have some coworkers who are going crazy at home. But the way [the state] is doing it just says, ‘We don’t trust teachers.’”

Reached for comment, Colleen Quinn, a spokesperson for Commissioner Riley, defended the guidance. “In remote scenarios, instruction from the classroom is the most effective educational environment,” she said.

IN OTHER PARTS of the country, some teachers are already back at school providing remote instruction to students at home.

Erin Taylor, a middle school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said she still has not received a real explanation from her district as to why educators have to be teaching remotely from their school buildings.

“As teachers we always have to have an answer when our students ask us, ‘Why do we have to learn this?’ and I have not heard any answer from the district,” said Taylor. “It feels like a lack of trust, a surveillance thing, and I would totally be open and love to hear how they arrived at this decision, even if I disagreed with it. But we haven’t even gotten that.”

Devra Ashby, a spokesperson for the school district told The Intercept that it is their goal “to provide a standard professional instructional delivery setting and enhanced teacher classroom performance” and that teachers “have the most resources at their fingertips when they are in their classrooms.” Ashby added that one-third of their students will be coming into the building for hybrid learning and that their standards for education have not changed. “We must deliver industry-standard instructions in a professional academic setting, which promotes student academic potential and achievement,” she said.

Taylor said there has been mixed messaging around masks. Colorado has a statewide mandate that says individuals must wear masks when inside public places, and she says her school district has also advised educators to wear masks at all times, but that policy is not being enforced at every school.

“I’ve been back at school for over two weeks now and I just see a lot of people not wearing masks even though that’s supposed to be the official policy,” she said. “I’ve walked past people where there are meetings going on and a bunch of people sitting around the table not wearing masks.”

Taylor, who spoke to The Intercept on the second day of the school year, said she’s trying to be empathetic but is worried about how unsafe she already feels.

“We always talk as teachers about how the beginning of the year is the time to reinforce routine and rules and make sure you’re being clear, because with kids, if you don’t enforce a rule at the beginning, it becomes really hard to get that [compliance] later on,” she said. “It just feels like, well, if we’re not all wearing masks on Day 2, then I don’t have much hope for the year.”

Shawntel Shirkey, a paraeducator in Wichita, Kansas, also has to come into her high school for remote instruction. Earlier this month, the Wichita school board approved in-person learning for elementary schools and remote learning for middle and high school students.

Shirkey thinks given the conservative political climate in Kansas, her school board “made the best decision I could hope for.” At least one teacher at her school has tested positive for Covid-19 so far, but she praised her school for at least giving all staff members cloth masks, ample amounts of sanitizer and disinfectant, and the option to get face shields. “The district itself is not being very forthcoming but I’m lucky that my principal is being transparent about if someone has tested positive,” Shirkey said. Like in Taylor’s school, masks mandates don’t always mean staff actually wears them.

Shirkey thinks it’s been “pretty split” among teachers about who wants to be providing remote instruction from school. “Some educators definitely see the irony of requiring teachers to come into buildings that the district has deemed unsafe for students,” she said. “But others just think the pandemic is ridiculous and as soon as the election is over, coronavirus is going to go away.”

Senate Bill Proposes Smaller Class Sizes for High-Poverty School Districts

Originally published in Next City on March 14, 2019.
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Following a year of teacher strikes where educators in West Virginia, Los Angeles, Denver and beyond called for wage increases and reduced class sizes, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has introduced a new bill to incentivize smaller class sizes in kindergarten and first, second and third grades. The legislation, which would allocate $2 billion for competitive grant funding, primarily to high-poverty school districts in the United States, is co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris (CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Cory Booker (NJ) and Michael Bennet (CO). The bill is also endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, and First Focus Campaign for Children.

Merkley says his bill is not a direct response to the teacher uprisings, but rather a reaction after discovering his son’s surprisingly large first-grade class. “My memory of my first-grade class was there was about 20 kids in it,” he says. “When I saw my son’s class I thought, how is the teacher ever going to be able to do this with 34 5- and 6-year-olds? We are the wealthiest nation on earth and can afford to do better.”

Class size reduction has long been a popular policy among parents and educators, but in state and federal government, interest in the issue has waxed and waned over the last two decades.

To fund smaller class sizes, states and school districts have been able to use Title II-A money, which is an annual pot of federal funds available for teacher quality initiatives. In the early 2000s, 57 percent of all Title II-A funds indeed went for this purpose. But by 2015, just 25 percent of those dollars were going to class size reduction, with far more dollars now spent on things like professional development.

One reason cities and states began to turn away from class size reduction was basic purse-string tightening. Nineteen states began eliminating or loosening their class size limits following the 2008 recession to save money. But class size reduction also began to fall out of favor with policymakers and education wonks, as interest in alternative reform policies, like evaluating teachers based on student standardized test scores, ticked up.

Advocates for class size reduction as an evidenced-based reform point to studies showing a link between higher academic achievement and fewer students per class. The most reputable study, known as Project STAR, is from the mid-1980s, when researchers randomly assigned students and teachers in Tennessee elementary schools to classes with an average of 15 students or 23 students. The study found students in the smaller classes tested better, with the improvements particularly significant among disadvantaged children. Later research found that the smaller class sizes also increased the probability of attending college, with the effects more than twice as large among black students.

Other influential research has suggested that setting the class size cap below 20 students will yield the greatest benefits, and Merkley’s bill caps class size at 18.

Some experts object to class size reduction — arguing it’s a cover for district bloat, and less effective than other reforms for similar or even lesser costs. Prominent critics include journalist Malcolm Gladwell and former Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Others point to implementation challenges: In California, when the state legislature passed a $1.6 billion measure in 1996 to incentivize reduced class sizes in grades K-3, it was universally adopted very quickly. Researchers later found that the rapid statewide reduction in class size led to an influx of new, inexperienced teachers, and many teachers working in poorer schools in Los Angeles and Oakland left to fill the new vacancies in wealthier districts. While the researchers found that smaller classes boosted student achievement when all else was held equal, the rollout of the policy was tumultuous, and appeared to negatively impact some students and schools it was aimed to help.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit that advocates for smaller classes, says Merkley’s bill is “very important” and targets a major problem in public education. “As the teacher strikes reveal, and data shows, class sizes have increased across the country since the recession, and even though we’re a decade past that point, school budgets and class sizes still haven’t recovered,” she says. “Increases in class size have severely damaged the quality of education for all children in affected schools, but especially disadvantaged students and students of color, who see twice the benefit from smaller classes than the average student.”

Haimson praises Merkley’s bill for its requirement that districts report how smaller class size affects teacher retention and turnover rates, as well as student discipline and chronic absenteeism. Haimson says the bill could be improved by more explicitly defining how grant recipients should report the number of new teachers hired, how many new classes are added and by how much class sizes went down. “In the past, state and city audits have shown that at least half of the districtwide class size reduction that the New York City Department of Education claimed was a result of a state grant class size reduction program was due instead to falling enrollment,” she explains.

Regarding policy criticisms around class size reduction, Merkley says he agrees “other things need to be done” to improve schools, but he emphasizes his conversations with child experts lead him to believe that investments in smaller class size for the early grades can “make such a profound difference for everything that goes forward.”

Would he want smaller class sizes for middle and high school, too? While most studies have focused on K-3, conceivably fewer students per class would have an impact in more advanced courses as well.

“The studies we’ve looked at say K-3 is where it matters the most, but if we start here, we can evaluate the impact and decide,” he says. “If we do this right, evaluate it, and find out it doesn’t have an impact, then that will be information worth having and can change how we allocate our resources.”

New Bill Would Subject Charters to Same Transparency Rules as D.C. Public Schools

Originally published in Washington City Paper on March 13, 2019.
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On Wednesday morning, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen led a press conference for a bill he will introduce next week, the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. This bill would bring D.C. charter schools under the same transparency requirements as traditional public schools, and comes on the heels of the DC Public Charter School Board proposing its own transparency reforms for the charter school sector. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman have joined Allen in co-sponsoring the legislation.

Allen’s new bill would subject all D.C. charter schools and their boards of trustees to public records requests and open meetings laws, and require that the DC Public Charter School Board help individual charters comply with these new rules. The charter sector currently receives more than $800 million in taxpayer dollars annually.

“This is not exactly a cutting-edge idea,” said Allen on the front steps of the Wilson Building. “Thirty-nine states already include both our traditional and public charter schools under their open government laws. D.C. is frankly playing catchup with the rest of the country.”

He pointed to California, where just earlier this month, the state’s new governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would subject all of California’s 1,300 charter schools to open meetings laws and public records requests. Allen also pointed to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, which both endorse charters complying with these rules. Last month a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the Washington Post that D.C’s charter sector was unusual on this front compared to the rest of the country.

Allen said one of the most common arguments he hears from charter schools is that complying with FOIA would be a significant administrative burden. In light of this, he wrote into his bill that the DC Public Charter School Board would serve as a resource to help individual schools handle requests, and the legislation would also require the PSCB to report to the Council how many FOIA requests were received by individual charter schools, and how much it cost them to comply. Allen emphasized the bill could be adjusted in future years if schools do in fact encounter major challenges. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re respecting that concern and understanding that,” he said.

As it stands now, the DC Public Charter School Board is not being flooded with FOIA requests. Between October 1, 2017, and September 30, 2018, according to the city’s annual FOIA report, the DC Public Charter School Board received 74 requests for information, with 59 processed within 15 days, eight processed in 16 to 25 days, and two processed in over 26 days. The total cost for the agency to comply with FOIA requests last year was $22,600.

Other items in Allen’s bill include requirements that a charter school’s annual report include the amount of money donated by anyone who contributes more than $500, that schools publish all employees’ names and salaries, that each charter school include two teachers on its board of trustees, and that a student representative serve on the board of a charter high school or adult learning charter. Lastly, the bill would require a charter’s annual report to list all contracts awarded by the school, regardless of amount, as is required for D.C. Public Schools.

The bill was developed in close consultation with EmpowerED, a D.C. teacher activist group, which has been leading, over the last nine months, a campaign on public school transparency and increasing teacher, parent, and student voice in school decision-making. In January, EmpowerEd launched an online petition to bring charters under the same transparency requirements as D.C. Public Schools, which as of Wednesday had garnered 545 signatures. Scott Goldstein, the executive director of EmpowerED, says the majority of those signatures have come from D.C. charter school teachers and charter school parents.

“Nothing in this bill should be controversial,” says Goldstein. “Far from being a burden, community engagement is what makes schools stronger and more sustainable.”

Allen’s bill is likely to face opposition from some leaders in the charter school sector.

Last month, Irene Holtzman, the executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a local charter advocacy group, testified before the Council against the kind of measures proposed in Allen’s bill, and defended the level of transparency currently existing in the charter school sector.

Josh Henderson, the executive director of the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, tells City Paper that Allen’s bill “prioritizes paperwork over performance” and notes that D.C.’s charter sector is “already one of the most tightly regulated, and importantly, highest-performing in the country.” He says he hopes the Council will focus on issues like mental health supports and suitable facilities, “rather than adding additional layers of bureaucracy.”

DFER DC, Henderson adds, would support new measures like the Council requiring charters to hold at least two open meetings per year, “including the meeting at which they set their budgets and any meeting that would close, shrink or otherwise reconfigure a school’s campuses.” He also says his group would support requiring charters to report data about teacher tenure and attrition, which is currently only reported on a voluntary basis.

Education Committee Chairman David Grosso was not at the press conference and his spokesperson says Grosso does not have any comment on the bill at this time.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who announced in late December that he would be joining Grosso in leading oversight on the Education Committee, tells City Paper that he understands charter schools are not in support, and that he plans to “look at the bill carefully and understand why we have always treated the charter schools differently.” He says he does worry that FOIA can be a burden on agencies, noting that the amount of money the Council had to spend on answering FOIA requests jumped significantly last year.

In 2015, some local advocates tried to push for greater charter school transparency measures, but charter leaders successfully blocked their efforts, and the Public Charter School Fiscal Transparency Amendment Act included only modest reforms. Allen said at Wednesday’s press conference that he’s hopeful the Council will have a hearing and pass this bill, and he hopes even more co-sponsors will join them in the next few days.

The DC Public Charter School Board, meanwhile, has been deliberating on some of its own transparency policy changes. The PCSB first opened its transparency rules to public comment in December, and extended the comment period for another month given the high volume of feedback it received. In February during the extended public comment period, this reporter submitted a comment in favor of bringing charters under FOIA and open meetings laws, and publishing board meeting minutes online.

On March 18, board members will be voting on the DC Public Charter School Board’s proposed transparency changes, which would require individual schools to publish, among other things, which meetings are open to the public, board meeting minutes, the salaries of the five highest-compensated individuals, employee handbooks, and funding plans for at-risk students. Some of the information that the DC Public Charter School Board is proposing schools publish on their own websites is already available on the DC Public Charter School Board’s so-called Transparency Hub, which launched last April.

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, calls Allen’s legislation “misguided” and says it “fails to take into account the extraordinary transparency measures already taken by the Public Charter School Board.” Pearson criticized the bill for not addressing issues like closing the achieving gap, reducing the number of students living in poverty, or reducing truancy.  “We support a smart, reasonable approach that provides the transparency parents need, but does not divert school efforts, attention, and funds away from educating students,” he says. “We urge the D.C. Council to include parents, local board members, students, and school leaders in this process.”