The news media are reporting a recent increase in confrontations, sometimes violent, between local school boards and parents questioning their decisions, especially those concerning the teaching of race relations in America. There are right ways and wrong ways for each side to make its case.
More money is spent on public education than on any other single policy area by America’s local governments. State governments also spend more money on public education than on most other policies. It’s only natural that taxpayers, whether or not they have children in the public schools, should be concerned with how their tax dollars are being spent and what their children are taught.
Historically, the public has been especially concerned with public school curricula—what’s taught, and how. A few months ago, in “2+2=??,”I discussed controversies in the teaching of science, history, English literature, and mathematics. To this list could be added race relations in America and, no doubt, other subjects as well. No matter what the subject, controversy, whether based on race, religion, politics, or some combination thereof, can be developed.
But challenges are growing more frequent and more tense, especially over whether and how race relations in America should be taught. Frequently the news media carry film of angry parents shutting down school board members and even hounding them out of office. Sometimes angry brawls among parents, or between parents and police at school board meetings, are shown. What must each side do to turn potentially destructive confrontations into more constructive interactions?
First, it must be recognized that parents have the right to confront education policymakers over any issue they choose. This is by no means a universally recognized principle. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” So said Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic Governor of Virginia, now campaigning to reclaim his old office in his state’s upcoming election. He was responding to the growing frequency of confrontations—many bitter, some violent—between parents and educators over the teaching of race relations in Virginia’s public schools.
But not only was McCauliffe’s stupid statement better left unsaid, it was factually wrong as well. No less an authority than the Supreme Court itself has ruled, in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, that of course parents have the right to challenge school policy. At issue was an Oregon law which required all parents to have their children educated in public—or government—schools only. The Supreme Court unanimously asserted that “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments of this Union rest excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” As independent conservative columnist George Will put it, the law struck down by the Supreme Court “was ‘an unreasonable interference’ with parents’ liberty ‘to direct the upbringing of the children.’
Second, in debating whether or how to teach a particular subject, each side should be aware of different approaches to its presentation, some of which may be better than others. For example, the subject inciting the most controversy these days is the issue of race relations in America. What is taught, and how, should determine whether and how it should be included in school curricula.
It’s indisputable that slavery is America’s original sin, leading to the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and Black Codes, horrific acts of violence against Blacks, and a long and ongoing battle to achieve racial equality and harmony. These issues must be taught in America’s public schools as honestly and candidly as possible, with “the bark off” and no sugarcoating. A few years ago proposed history text described slaves as “laborers” brought over from Africa. Unacceptable.
On the other hand, we do not need our children, or anyone else, to be exposed to woke multicultural intersectional drivel, some of which holds that Whites and America are irredeemably racist and that Blacks and other people of color can never be racist (Tarleton once had an administrator, fortunately long gone, who loved to make these points and brand anyone who questioned her as racist for doing so). Such assertions may well inflame, but will certainly not enlighten.
Third, it must be recognized that sometimes there is but one way to handle a subject. Recently a school administrator in the metroplex told teachers that if they have, in their classroom libraries, books describing the Holocaust, they must also have books denying the Holocaust as well. She cited a state law requiring the presentation of several different points of view on a given subject. But concerning the Holocaust, there cannot possibly be more than one point of view—it happened, and it was evil. No credible argument can possibly be made that it either didn’t happen, or that it was justified. School officials as well as the lawmaker responsible for this idiocy are trying to argue that the law doesn’t apply to books on the Holocaust. One could also argue that other evils—slavery, lynchings, etc.—are also issues for which the assertion that there are always two sides to every issue is simply not true. By the way, the single most charitable thing one can say about the official asserting the need for a balance of Holocaust description literature and Holocaust denial literature is that she is deeply, profoundly, stupid. But that would be an insult to stupid people. At any rate, if ever there was a case justifying parental intervention in school policy, this is it.
Finally, it must be accepted by both sides that incivility by either side is counterproductive, and violence utterly unacceptable. Protesters who engage in threats, name calling, whatever, are at best undermining their own cases by repelling otherwise potentially sympathetic allies. And while school boards have the right to have police and security forces to protect them from violence or the threat of violence, the forces of law and order should use no more force than necessary lest they hurt or make martyrs out of protesters. And under no circumstances should public education officials deny the public the right to protest, or refer to the protesters as deplorables or with an equivalent phrase.
Controversies such as public school curricula will in all probability never be completely resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. But progress can be made with civility and at least an attempt at empathy on both sides. But threats and violence by either side will only intensify and prolong an already bitter debate.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.