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The purposes of the new education "transparency" bills
An off-shoot of the anti-CRT movement takes center stage
If you are a teacher in America the last couple of years have been rough. The pandemic imposed new demands and risks, but still left the public (understandably) unhappy with the accompanying disruptions. You have become a pinball in the culture wars. Depending on where you live, you might face book bans or educational gag orders that prohibit discussion about aspects of American history or present day race relations. The same people who pushed such censorship have a new agenda: it is—wait for it—transparency.
This initiative is picking up steam, pursued in a dozen legislatures, with more to come. While the bills vary quite a bit, the essence of the movement is to compel teachers to provide more detailed documentation of their work than before.
The strategy is based on weaponizing an unobjectionable public value: transparency. Chris Rufo, the moral panic entrepreneur who always explains the plot because he desperately wants to claim credit for it, lays out the plan.
This year’s model
Rufo is a master at policy branding. He persuaded the conservative media, and then pretty much everyone else, to engage in a debate about whether schools were teaching Critical Race Theory. Even if you disagreed, once the terms of the debate were set, there was no way to win. A few unrepresentative anecdotes are sufficient to suggest that diversity, equity and inclusion training is, in fact, an effort to shame white kids. And the moral panic was enough to spur legislation in many states.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the passage of anti-CRT bills may be the most tangible policy change related to the George Floyd murder. As Victor Ray and Hakeem Jefferson argue, backlash is a different form of racial reckoning than we might have expected, but that makes it no less potent of a policy response.
The anti-CRT brand has lost some of its luster. It spurred not just legislation, but brazenly illiberal actions, such as book bans that targeted authors of color or LGBTQ authors, firings of school officials based on little other than unsupported accusations that they had been trafficking in CRT witchcraft, and a general sense that it operated as a means to censor criticism of racial privilege. As the anti-CRT movement became more illiberal, and rebranded as “educational gag orders”, conservatives who didn’t like to think of themselves as siding with the book banners took pause.
So, we get this year’s more palatable model: “transparency.”
A diversion of public resources away from performance
Transparency bills vary, but the central theme is demanding an unprecedented level of reporting on the part of teachers. It is not just books in the classroom or curriculum, which are already widely available. It is “the posting of lesson plans, handouts, web-based material, and advocacy exercises.” Videos clips played in the classroom may have to be documented, and guest speakers tracked.
The result is to impose a new burden on teachers. It redirects their time away from their primary job of teaching kids and towards reporting mandates. Such increased regulation undermines school performance.
Indeed, the very same day that Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin boasted that he was going to make government work more like a business…
…he signed an executive order that imposed new reporting burdens on public schools, requiring “that parents are empowered with open access to information on primary instructional materials utilized in any school and that fair and open policies are in place to address any concerns or complaints in a timely and respectful manner.”
Of course, private institutions are exempted from such regulations. So much for making government work like a business!
Solving a problem that doesn’t exist
If these bills are going to make public schools less focused on their primary goal, then surely they are solving some other important problem, right? Well, not so much.
The premise of this movement is that teachers are unaccountable to parents, and thus need to be subject to more intense scrutiny. But teachers are perhaps the most accountable public officials we encounter. They are subject not just to federal, state and local government oversight; we also elect officials whose only job is to monitor schools and teachers. Moreover, scrutiny of elected officials has vastly increased, for better or worse. The growing emphasis on test-scores and innovations like value-added modeling make teachers highly subject to individualized forms of accountability.
If you are a parent, you have multiple opportunities to engage with teachers and learn what they are doing in the classroom. You can call, email, go to curriculum nights or parent-teacher conferences, or, hey, talk to your kids. As Anne Lutz Fernandez points out, the use of digital resources has created unprecedented transparency around materials and grade books: “state websites publish standards along with resources for teaching them. Districts publish skills and content curriculum for every level and subject.”
Whatever else, teachers are not evading transparency.
So what is the real problem the “transparency” solution is intended to address? Below, I outline four purposes that it serves.
Purpose 1: A partisan gotcha exercise
The conventional wisdom about the 2020 Virginia gubernatorial election was the Republicans won by making education an issue, and Democrats lost because they looked like they were not supporting parents, exemplified by Terry McAuliffe’s statement: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The day after the election, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) declared that “Virginia spoke loud and clear last night that parental rights is an issue that we can run on and we can win on, when it comes to education.”
And so, “transparency” serves two immediate partisan purposes:
to maintain the political salience of culture war-themed education fights going into the midterm elections, and,
to put Democrats on the wrong side of this issue.
As the National Review put it: “Democrats who vote against curriculum transparency, as they did with depressing regularity in 2021, will effectively be repeating — on record — McAuliffe’s gaffe.” In other words, anyone who raises concerns about the new bills can be attacked as anti-transparency. And, as Rufo noted, this allows the question “what are they trying to hide?”
Purpose 2: A means of enforcing educational gag orders
While “transparency” model legislation preceded the anti-CRT push, it has gained momentum only with the anti-CRT wave. This is not a coincidence. Anti-CRT bills censored topics from educational training and curriculum. Transparency bills provide the means to ensure teachers don’t raise these topics themselves.
The National Review is again upfront about this “Republicans ought to be making K–12 curriculum transparency into an issue on the scale of CRT. They should do this, first, because anti-CRT laws require transparency if they’re to be effective.” In Missouri and Virginia, for example, anti-CRT and transparency bills are packaged together. This connection helps us to understand the apparent contradiction that the purpose of “transparency” is to restrict speech.
Purpose 3: A fishing expedition for new scandals
Rufo has parlayed cherry-picked leaks from disgruntled DEI training participants into a career of reshaping public schools. There is no pretense of representativeness, context or fact-checking. But the strategy depends on a steady stream of examples. Transparency bills would provide the raw material.
This raises the question of who actually wants this flood of new information. As a parent of two kids, I have more information about their teacher’s activities than I really need. Instead, the “transparency” agenda serves those who are not on the parental email list, or who are not invited to the parent-teacher meetings.
The key audience for this information is not the typical parent, but activists or interest groups. While the anti-CRT movement was presented as an organic parent-driven movement, many of the most prominent figures are professional political activists, some who did not have kids in the schools they are attacking. They are looking for scandals that can serve a pre-existing political agenda. The model legislation does not compel teachers to provide materials that are all that useful to parents—teachers have to list materials, but not provide the actual content. Instead, it is only groups with the time and resources to investigate each book, or watch each video, or do a background check on each guest speaker, who will have the capacity to use this material.
Because the purpose of these bills is to arm interest groups, the outcome will not be higher trust or greater consensus among parents, but greater polarization and distrust. Such bills are consistent with laws that encourage college students to record faculty at universities in the hope of catching a comment they can use to sue the university and get the professor punished. It is hard to imagine a setting less conducive to learning.
Purpose 4: Hooking the bait for something worse
A final danger with “transparency” bills is that they serve as a seemingly innocuous bait for a nasty hook. The kicker come in the form of unworkable conditions, unreasonable punishment and penalties, or a defunding of public schools.
A transparency bill in Indiana allows parents to opt out of parts of the curriculum they do not like, and to receive a different, bespoke lesson plan for their child. Lets assume five parents in a class regularly made this request for teachers. This level of disruption would make teaching impossible, again diverting teacher effort from their core curricular goals. A classroom where every parent has a veto on every aspect of the curriculum will soon come to a grinding halt. (The bill passed out of committee, but lost support when a Senator insisted it would also mean that teachers would also be compelled to not unfairly criticize Nazis).
Another element of these bills is that they can impose extreme punishments. For example, a Virginia bill (which was widely mocked for confusing Stephen Douglas with Frederick Douglass) allows for firing teachers, suspending their license, or subjecting them to legal punishment if they are judged to fail to comply with the reporting requirements. Furthermore, a parent can collect a school voucher if their teacher is found guilty of such accusations. This puts a bounty on teachers, and a real risk when school board officials support dismantling traditional public schools. Again, the policy is out in the open. Rufo has argued that: “The public schools are waging war against American children and American families,” and so families should have “a fundamental right to exit.” Thus, “transparency” becomes a means of forcing public funding of private schools.
Forget the label, look under the hood
Ultimately, the “transparency” agenda reflects the flexibility of the language of good government. If you label a policy change as an unobjectionable value such as “performance” or “reform” or “integrity” people feel uncomfortable opposing it. They rarely look under the hood, even if the policy actually damages government capacity and performance. The media can reinforce the framing with their coverage, and even critics end up using a label they disagree with.
All the more reason to strip away the misleading labels, and focus, instead, on the concrete content of policy changes and their likely effects. As Jeffery Sachs notes, some of these transparency bills are merely an enumeration of existing practices, while others are much more extreme. Will media, policymakers and the public be able to distinguish between the two, or will they allow themselves to be taken in by the framing as they were with the anti-CRT agenda?
At least this time, we can’t say we weren’t warned.